THE RELEVANCE OF THE SABBATH FOR TODAY
God’s Word tells us that from the beginning He established a “week” and set aside one day out of this seven day cycle to be for rest and reflection – the Sabbath. On that day the people were to respect and honour God by resting from regular activity (such as work activities) and participating in public worship. This was done as a cultural observance up until the time of Moses when it then became part of the Mosaic Law, in particular, The Ten Commandments. Since The Ten Commandments are generally accepted as the summary of the Natural (Moral) Law, what relevance does one of the most important aspects of the Old Covenant have for us under the New Covenant? While the laws of Moses pertaining to sacrifices, ceremonies, civility, and diet have been abolished in the same way that shadows are abolished at high noon (Hebrews 10:1; Colossians 2:14, 16), does this apply to the Law of the Sabbath if it was given as a Moral Law not a Ceremonial Law? I will present a brief overview of the history and purpose of the Sabbath as revealed in Scripture, then challenge and apply the idea that we should keep the Sabbath today. I hope to show why the “spirit of the Sabbath” gives life, but the letter of the law of the Sabbath brings death and condemnation.
The Sabbath was also meant to be a public demonstration of Israel’s devotion to God that served as a vital witness of their trust in Yahweh. As such, many of the prophets saw Israel’s spiritual decline and diminished prosperity as directly relative to how they were honouring the Sabbath. For example, Ezekiel accused Israel of abusing the Sabbath by doing their own pleasures and thereby bringing a curse on themselves (Ezk. 20:12, 13, 16, 20, 24; 22:8, 26; 23:38). Knowing that the Sabbath was integrated into the Moral Laws of the Mosaic Covenant and just how seriously the prophets regarded it has led many New Covenant believers to wonder whether they should be similarly observing the Sabbath today.
“Because they despised My judgments and did not walk in My statutes, but profaned My Sabbaths ; for their hearts went after their idols (vain pleasures).”
A TIME OF REST
The Sabbath was to be a special time of rest for God’s people. It was a sign of the relationship between God and His people. Just as in any relationship there needs to be time set exclusively aside for the other person, so it is with God. The word “Sabbath” actually means: to cease from work. The Sabbath Law was something that God commanded His people to observe. This meant being prepared to make sacrifices in income. However, God promised to bless those who did honour the Sabbath with more than they would have if they didn’t observe the Sabbath. In Exodus 16:5, Israel was told to gather twice as much manna on the day before the Sabbath, so they could rest on the Sabbath from gathering food. Regardless of how much they gathered the day before, they would have exactly what they needed for the Sabbath day. But the people were very reluctant to love God in this way-
“On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather food, but they couldn’t find any. Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘How long will you people refuse to obey my commands and teachings? Look, the LORD has made the Sabbath a day of rest for you. So on the sixth day he will give you enough food for two days, but on the seventh day each of you must stay where you are. Do not go anywhere.’ So the people rested on the seventh day…”
Exodus 16:27-30 (New Century Version)
Therefore, God had the interests of His people in mind when establishing the Sabbath. It was to be a time of rest, for them, their families, their livestock, and their land. It seems that mankind is not created to work ceaselessly.
OLD TESTAMENT PRINCIPLES
The Sabbath seems to have been established as a principle at Creation. Genesis 2:2-3 says-
“By the seventh day God finished the work he had been doing, so he rested from all his work. God blessed the seventh day and made it a holy day, because on that day he rested from all the work he had done in creating the world.”
The Sabbath was dedicated as a holy day for all people from the very beginning of time. By remembering the Sabbath, people would be acknowledging that everything exists because it was created. Thus, the Creator would be honoured. This seems to be a major principle of the Sabbath: honor God as the Creator. This was later reinforced to Israel even after they had received the Ten Commandments-
The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he abstained from work and rested.
Exodus 31:16, 17 (NIV)
The Sabbath was a time for corporate (community) worship. Today some might argue that you don’t have to go to church to worship God, but no Israelite could argue that way in the Old Testament. In fact, on the Sabbath, the daily offerings and sacrifices made were doubled, and penalties for breaking it were severe. In other words, the Sabbath was a special time for everybody to get together and worship God. Here is another principle of the Sabbath: come together and worship God.
¶“On the Sabbath day, two male lambs a year old without blemish, and two tenths of an ephah of fine flour for a grain offering, mixed with oil, and its drink offering: this is the burnt offering of every Sabbath, besides the regular burnt offering and its drink offering.”
By corporately observing the Sabbath, the Israelites were declaring their trust in God for all surrounding nations, and peoples to witness. It became a sign between God and His people. It marked out God’s people as being distinct from others.
“I am the LORD your God. Live by my rules, obey my laws, and follow them. Keep my Sabbaths holy, and they will be a sign between me and you. Then you will know that I am the LORD you God.”
The Sabbath therefore formed the principle of: a sign between God and His people. Interestingly, when Israel abandoned Sabbath observance it was a symptom of their heart corruption away from God. They were to be a witness to the nations of God and His love. Yet when they broke and abandoned the covenant they were exiled. They had failed to keep their God given commission to witness to the nations. When they were exiled (between 600-500 BC), there appears to have been a spiritual vacuum in the world. If the people God had trusted to bear His revelation had disappointed Him, there appears to have been no other people used to replace Israel at this point. So, during this period of history, five major religions commenced: Zoroasterianism, Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Perhaps if Israel had kept its terms of the covenant, these religions may never had started (?). Israel’s decline away from the covenant was symptomatic of their treatment of the Sabbath.
It was given to Israel within the Ten Commandments as the Fourth Command. Even if God had not given any explanations of His commands (which doesn’t appear to be the way He operates), the simple fact that God commanded it is enough. In the same way perhaps as the sacramental Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil served as a test of obedience to Adam and Eve, the Sabbath at least serves as a test of obedience. There is a Sabbath principle of: God has commanded it as a part of the Old Covenant.
THE PENALTIES FOR BREAKING THE SABBATH
The Sabbath was a complete rest from work. The penalties for breaking the Sabbath were severe-
For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death.
Exodus 31:15 (NIV)
This was no idle threat from our Lord. In Numbers 15:32 we read of a man who was found gathering sticks on the Sabbath to light a fire. The people were confused about what to do with him. After seeking the LORD they were told to stone him to death. It became clear that absolutely no work was to be done on the Sabbath. Readers of the Old Covenant soon realise that the Law demanded a lot of work. This included rigid priestly rituals and ceremonies, animal sacrifices, compulsory annual feasts, and respect for the Tabernacle (its materials and installation). The amount of works required under the Older Covenant has led some less skilled would-be Bible scholars to assume that it was the works themselves that wrought salvation for the devotee. The writer of the Book of Hebrews goes to great lengths to prove that it wasn’t the works that saved anyone under the Older Covenant. He describes them as mere shadows pointing to the real thing. Strangely within the Older Covenant the Sabbath stands as God’s command against any work being done. The Sabbath pictured salvation as rest from works (Heb. 4:1). Therefore the Sabbath was also a shadow (Col. 2:17) of the salvation to come in Jesus. It was: a shadow of the rest to come. It pointed to the time when God would make an end of the Older Covenant, which required obedience in works, where the works would be accomplished by One Man: Jesus. By His efforts, works and deeds, all those who put their faith and trust in Him receive rest for their souls (Matthew 11:28). Thus in Hebrews chapter four, the Sabbath was pictured as a shadow of the rest now realised in Jesus. Paul describes this salvation by saying-
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is a gift of God, not of works lest anyone should boast”
Under the Older Covenant Sabbath, anyone found breaking it, was actually therefore violating a “type” of the salvation that was to be revealed in Jesus. By working on the Sabbath they were in essence saying to God “Your salvation is not enough, I must add my works to it to make it sufficient.” In this light it becomes easier to see why God took such a dramatically stern attitude to those who broke the Sabbath.
THE FIVE BASIC PRINCIPLES OF THE SABBATH
1. Honour God as the Creator.
2. Come together and worship God.
3. A sign between God and His people.
4. God has commanded it as a part of the Old Covenant.
5. It was a shadow of a rest to come.
THE NEW TESTAMENT PRINCIPLE OF THE SABBATH
Now that the Older Covenant has been done away with (Col. 2:14), does the Sabbath have any place today? Some might argue that the Law within the Older Covenant has also be abolished, and therefore the Sabbath is immediately done away with. Yet Jesus said that He came to uphold the Law and not do away with it-
“Don’t think that I have come to destroy the law of Moses or the teaching of the prophets. I have not come to destroy them but to bring about what they said. I tell you the truth, nothing will disappear from the law until heaven and earth are gone. Not even the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will be lost until everything has happened.”
Matthew 5:17-18 (NCV)
The Older Covenant and the Ten Commandments were not synonymous. The Ten Commandments were articulated at the forming of the Older Covenant, as the rules and terms of agreement between the covenant parties (God and Israel). Yet, along with these Moral Laws, other groups of Laws were included: Food Laws, Civil Laws, and Ceremonial Laws. We find the purpose of these Laws explained in the New Covenant.
The purpose of the Moral Law was to reveal sin as sin-
“What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, ‘You shall not covet.’ “
Romans 7:7 (NKJV)
Paul makes the case in the Book of Romans, that the Law served the purpose of revealing sin, not saving people from their sin. Of interest to this topic, is the fact that of all the Ten Commandments, nine are explicitly restated within the New Covenant. The only command of the Ten not prescribed for the New Covenant is the fourth- the observance of the Sabbath. The reason for has been discussed under the section a shadow of the rest to come. Therefore, the Moral Law does have a place within the New Covenant. It is a fallacy to ignore the Sabbath today on the assumption that it was only a part of the Mosaic Law (the Law given through Moses) which was done away with at the Cross.
HONOUR GOD AS THE CREATOR
The first Old Testament principle of the Sabbath discussed here is the principle of honouring God as Creator. The New Testament emphatically declares the exclusive creative activity of Yaweh. That is, God is the sole Creator-
“By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible”
Hebrews 11:3 (NKJV)
“For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him.
Colossians 1:16 (NKJV)
Would this principle of honoring God one day out of seven be relevant for today? Of worthy consideration at this point would be a casual appreciation of recent history. As evolution has gained more ground as the accepted theory of origins, so the regard for honoring God and respecting this Sabbath principle has declined proportionally. Just as God, the Creator of the universe, rested on the seventh day, God has established this principle for His creation: that they too rest on the Sabbath to remember Him as Creator.
COME TOGETHER AND WORSHIP GOD
God has designed a week for His people where they can set aside a day to come together and worship Him. This was the Old Testament principle. It was compulsory and part of the Law. Thus, Jesus was often recorded as being in the synagogue on the Sabbath. His is our ultimate example. The first church maintained the practise of coming together to worship God and appealing to Hebrew readers, their epistle endorses and reaffirms the principle of the regular weekly corporate worship time-
“And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Hebrews 10:24-25 (NKJV)
If we were looking for reasons to justify neglect of the Sabbath within the New Covenant, we fail at even this point. If anything, the New Covenant saints should delight themselves even more in seeking to worship freely on a day set aside exclusively for such. Under the Old Covenant it was compulsory and Law, but under the New it is an expression of worship to God and an opportunity to encourage other believers.
A SIGN BETWEEN GOD AND HIS PEOPLE
After the Old Covenant had legally come to an end, at the time of the exile into Babylon, the returning remnant of faithful Jews sought to make themselves distinct from the existing inhabitants of Jerusalem. Nehemiah chose the following Biblical method:
In those days I saw men in Judah treading winepresses on the Sabbath and bringing in grain and loading it on donkeys, together with wine, grapes, figs and all other kinds of loads. And they were bringing all this into Jerusalem on the Sabbath. Therefore I warned them against selling food on that day. Men from Tyre who lived in Jerusalem were bringing in fish and all kinds of merchandise and selling them in Jerusalem on the Sabbath to the people of Judah. I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this wicked thing you are doing– desecrating the Sabbath day? Didn’t your forefathers do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity upon us and upon this city? Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath.” When evening shadows fell on the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I ordered the doors to be shut and not opened until the Sabbath was over. I stationed some of my own men at the gates so that no load could be brought in on the Sabbath day. Once or twice the merchants and sellers of all kinds of goods spent the night outside Jerusalem. But I warned them and said, “Why do you spend the night by the wall? If you do this again, I will lay hands on you.” From that time on they no longer came on the Sabbath. Then I commanded the Levites to purify themselves and go and guard the gates in order to keep the Sabbath day holy. Remember me for this also, O my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love.
Nehemiah 13:15-22 (NIV)
He refused to have the people buy or sell on the Sabbath. As the worldly system tries to overthrow the Church of the Living and Risen Lord Jesus, it seeks to make the distinction between themselves and the pure people of God less and less. With regard to Sabbath, this worldly principle is ever so clear. The Bible student would do well to consider the principles of this form of attack when considering the “mark of the beast” (the worldly system) which will ultimately try to force saints into a situation where they have lost their distinctiveness and can not by or sell unless they dance to the world’s tune, so to speak.
For the Church today there is a desperate need for distinctiveness from the world and other religions. If every believer today was to take seriously this principle of the Sabbath, there would be dramatic impact on our society, which would accelerate the success of world evangelisation.
GOD HAS COMMANDED IT AS A PART OF THE OLD COVENANT
The principle of Sabbath obedience under the Old Covenant was possibly the most prominent signs of obedience to God’s Law. As previously stated, while showing that the Moral Law and the Old Covenant were not synonymous, the New Covenant reiterates nine of the Ten Commandments, while omitting the Sabbath command. Therefore, based on this principle alone, the Sabbath is not a New Testament Command. Kevin Conner says-
The Sabbath day, as circumcision, was given as a sign between the Lord and the nation of Israel. It was given for a perpetual Covenant to the nation (Exodus 31:12-18). It was included in the Ten Commandments written on tables of stone (Exodus 20:1-21; Deuteronomy 5:1-21). These were written with the finger of God.
The Jews themselves say that it was never intended for the Gentile but was the heritage of Israel. Sabbath observances presuppose a Temple, a Priesthood and a sacrifice for on this day there to be extra burnt offerings offered, besides the daily sacrifice (Numbers 28:9-10) … The Sabbath to be kept properly had to have the Sabbath sacrifices, the body and blood of two lambs. By this the Lord was teaching Israel that true rest can only be upon the basis of the atoning blood. And of course this necessitated an officiating Priesthood to offer the sacrifices. But the Jew today is devoid of these things, not having their Temple. Hence there can be no true Sabbath without blood atonement. . . When Jesus came, He was born under the Old Covenant to fulfil it and abolish it at the Cross, as to its ceremonial laws. Just before his death He established the New Covenant in His own body and blood (Matthew 26:26-28)
“The Feasts of Israel”, by Kevin Conner, Bible Temple-Conner Publications, Portland Oregon, 1980
On this basis the principle of the Sabbath being a command of God within the New Covenant is without foundation. Yet, for the believer living by the spirit of the law, not its letter, its offers them an opportunity to show to God their loyalty.
IT WAS A SHADOW OF A REST TO COME
The Old Covenant saints looked forward to the promise of God, that they would be saved and receive their inheritance: heaven (Heb. 11:10). That promise of a rest from works, and everlasting contentment in heaven, was not to be made possible without Jesus doing all the work necessary for redemption. Thus the Old Covenant saints were not perfected without us who are of the Newer Covenant (Heb. 11:40).
The New Covenant incorporates God’s eternal, and only, plan of salvation. This salvation is received by meeting the Testamental conditions of faith and obedience (Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17; Heb. 5:9) which applied and apply in both the Older Covenant and the New. While the faith required under the terms of the Older Covenant was anticipatory, under the New it is commemorative. Yet the obedience under the Older Covenant required adherence to highly transitory rituals and ceremonies (“works”). These works were like a passing shadow which disappears as the sun reveals its maximum light upon an object. The object of these shadows was the work of Christ, or more accurately, Christ Himself. Each of the Older Covenant’s works finds its fulfilment and completion in Jesus. We now live in a fuller revelation of God’s light, and while there still remains many New Covenant shadows which point to our ultimate inheritance (such as Holy Communion, Water Baptism, Marriage, etc.), the Sabbath stands as one of the greatest shadows of what the New Covenant means: that Jesus Christ is our Sabbath.
In Christ we find true rest (Matt. 11:28). This rest that Jesus spoke with so much enviable familiarity is found in knowing God. As one studies ancient religions of the Far East, there appears to be an ache of the human spirit that comes out in the sacred writings of so many of these religions. That ache is their quest for knowing the True God while settling for a religion of man-made guesses and philosophy. Nearly each of these religions originated with the assumption that if they could know the Supreme Being they would find “rest”. Many of these religions call it being “absorbed” into God. Thank God that there is way to know the True God that He Himself has revealed. In this revelation He also declares, while graciously confirming the ache of every human spirit, that true rest can only come from knowing God (Matt. 11:27-28). So the Sabbath stood as a constant reminder to the people under the Older Covenant that there was rest that they were yet to have. Not until the Jesus came did God’s ultimate revelation of Himself appear to mankind. His life, work, and death have provided the rest that every human soul aches for.
The New Covenant revelation of the Sabbath is only partly fulfilled here and now. There still remains an ultimate rest to be entered into. This rest from our bodies of sin will be realised when we receive our resurrected bodies at the coming of our Lord, and enter into eternal bliss with Him (Rom. 6:4-9; 8:22-25). By celebrating the New Covenant Sabbath, we sacramentally celebrate our awaiting rest. The Sabbath then stands as a shadow in the Older Covenant, and also in the New, though fulfilling the Older Covenantal hopes.
SUNDAY AS THE NEW TESTAMENT SABBATH?
At this point the issue needs clarification as to the practical celebration of the Sabbath. Seventh Day Adventists see that the Sabbath is still Saturday, the seventh day. Traditional Christianity has long viewed Sunday, the first day of the week, as the time to celebrate the Sabbath. Perhaps alluding to some contention over this issue during the first century AD, Paul says-
“One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it…”
Paul’s solution to each believer was to be fully persuaded that what they were doing was honoring to God. The danger of identifying the “Lord’s Day” with Saturday is the temptation to lapse back into a works mentality of the Older Covenant. For this Paul says to the Galatians with disgust-
“But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain.”
It was the design of God to transfer the celebration of the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday based on the following reasons-
- That was the Day that Christ rose from the dead.
- Sunday marked the beginning of the New Covenant.
- The First day of the week represents new beginnings (we are made new in Christ).
- It follows the day set aside to commemorate the Older Covenant, just the New Covenant follows the Old.
- The Holy Spirit was conferred on the First Church on a Sunday, thus sealing God’s recognition of this day as the Day to celebrate the New Covenant and remember the principles of the Sabbath.
The First Church immediately recognised Sunday as the Lord’s Day, their Sabbath (Acts 20:7; 1Cor. 16:2). Throughout Acts Paul was often recorded going to the local synagogue on the Sabbath for evangelistic reasons. This stands in contrast with his meeting with the local church on the first day of the week to worship, preach and break bread.
The invitation to celebrate our love for, and relationship with, the LORD is made available to every believer worldwide every Sunday. It is not a work, but a response of the heart. Thus, many of the prophets foresaw a day when God would have a people who would love Him not because of an external Law, but because the Law would be written on their hearts (Jer. 31:31-34). This involved honoring God one day out of seven as a special mark of His last days people-
“…They shall keep My laws and My statutes in all
My appointed meetings, and they shall hallow My Sabbaths”
Ezekiel 44:24 (refer to 46:1, 3 also)
PRACTICAL SUGGESTIONS FOR EMPLOYING THE PRINCIPLES OF THE SABBATH FOR TODAY
I conclude this survey with some practical suggestions for how we might employ the principles of the Sabbath for today. And I offer a challenge to those Christians who claim that we should continue to observe the Mosaic Sabbath. For those who advocate carrying over the Old Covenant Sabbath into the New Covenant, they must logically embrace all of the associated penalties as well. This includes stoning if found lighting a fire, for example. But if we regard the Sabbath laws and their penalties as revealing our dire spiritual and moral condition (that we are unable to even fully rest from our own efforts to be made right from God) we soon see how the Sabbath pointed to the rest in Christ. Afterall, for those who advocate a carried-over Sabbath for today they must recognise that doing anything on which ever day they decide to observe as as the New Testament Sabbath is going to be almost impossible. In today’s world, motor vehicles create firein their engines which enable them to work, light switches create a small fire-spark which enables electric current and even using an electronic appliances would be a violation of this prohibition. Added to this that most of us use utilities (water, gas, electricity, municipal rates) which is considered trading on the Sabbath! We should soon realise that simply cannot keep the Sabbath in the strictest sense. We must therefore look to embrace the spirit (rather than the letter) of the Sabbath for today. This should look like-
1. Celebrating the “Lord’s day” on Sunday not Saturday for the reasons given above.
2. Using this day as a day of rest (from usual activities) and worshipful reflection.
3. Gathering together with the Body of Christ with whom we are in community for the purpose of congregational worship (which builds our faith in and devotion to Christ), the reception of the explained Word of God (which captivates our hearts and renews our minds) and provides a witness to the world of the saving grace of Christ.
4. The appropriate setting for the proclamation of the Gospel with the object being the conversion of sinners to Christ.
John Stott, in the book- Contemporary Issues Facing Christians Today, answers the question about how we should regulate work and activity on Sundays with the acronym- R E S T –
E mergency services
S ervices (Utilities)
But Stott similarly stresses the importance of honouring Sundays in the spirit of the Sabbath (rest and worshipful reflection). Believers should make honouring Christ in a congregational community a priority for their Sundays. And if possible, they should worship congregationally near the beginning of the day and near its close.
THE GREATEST EXPRESSION OF THE SABBATH
The greatest expression of what the Sabbath meant is found in Jesus. He is our Rest. He is our basis of relationship with God. He is our sacrifice. He is our Temple, and everything else typified for the believer under the Older Covenant. The first church recognised that His resurrection was the new beginning and the fulfilment of everything the Sabbath stood for, thus they celebrated the Sabbath on Sunday (the first day of the week). By doing this they were showing their love for God while keeping His Law (Ten Commandments). This is when God has appointed for His people today to meet and worship Him. Not in legalism, but in Spirit and in Truth.
© Andrew Corbett, 1998 – 2017