The Biblical theology of the Sabbath

The Sabbath in the Pentateuch

The first appearance of the Sabbath in the Old Testament is an implicit reference in Genesis 1:14b, where the word translated "seasons" is used as a technical term throughout the Pentateuch in the context of the Israelite cultus, often for "festivals". The Sabbath is mentioned more explicitly in Genesis 2:2-3, where God rests on the seventh day from all the work of creating that he had done. We may say that one of Moses' aims in his construction of Genesis 1 is to teach us about a proper view of the Sabbath and of work. Work is not the ultimate goal of creation, rest is!

In the Law, the Israelites are given specific instruction on how to approach the Sabbath. Within the Decalogue, the fourth commandment is to "remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" (Ex. 20:8, ESV). Further instructions follow at the beginning of Exodus 23 and at the end of Exodus 31, all of which emphasise the importance of keeping the Sabbath as a holy day and a day of rest. The Israelites learn, practically, how to observe the Sabbath in Exodus 16, where God provides manna for his people for six days. On the sixth day, he provides a double portion which, unlike previous portions, remains fresh overnight; on the seventh day, God rests from providing the manna and the people rest from collecting it; other instances include the stoning of a man found gathering sticks outside the camp on the Sabbath (Num. 15).

God also commanded that Israelite worship move to the weekly rhythm of six days of labour and one of rest. The high priest would arrange an offering of bread and incense; the priests would eat the bread and the incense would be offered to the LORD ( Lev. 20:8). In addition to the daily burnt and drink offerings, a Sabbath offering of two lambs was commanded (Num. 28:9).

In the Pentateuch, then, we find that God's goal for creation is not work, but rest. The Sabbath plays a role in reminding God's people of this truth, for God's people rest on the Sabbath day. While they are commanded to make offerings daily, they are commanded to make further offerings on the Sabbath (as well, of course, as at other special feasts).

The Sabbath in the rest of the Old Testament

In the remainder of the Old Testament, the Sabbath is tied very closely to the concept of rest. In Joshua, the land and the people of God are given rest from war (Josh. 14:15, 21:44). The judges Othniel, Deborah, Ehud and Gideon are each recorded as having brought rest to the land (Judges 3:11, 3:30, 5:31 and 8:28), and yet, each time, the people disobey God, forget his commands and turn away to false gods. It is plain that the people of God cannot remain in God's rest by their own strength. We may suppose that it is considerations such as these which caused the psalmist, in Psalm 95 to say that God declared that the disobedient generation would "never enter [his] rest".

A small number of the psalms approach the topic of the Sabbath. It is evident from Psalm 92 that the Sabbath was used as a day for personal worship and reflection: the psalmist here contemplates the Lord's provision for him, personally.

Much of the interaction of the people of God with his Sabbath occurs in the context of its neglect. The prophet Jeremiah took a warning to the people of Judah, that they should keep the Sabbath, or face the desolation of Jerusalem (Jer. 17). The Chronicler records that Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem and took its people into exile, "to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years." (2 Chr. 36:21)

However, God declares that "from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before [him]" (Isaiah 66:23, NIV), promising that, in spite of Israel's history of Sabbath-breaking and in spite of the exile now in place, one day, the whole earth — all mankind — will worship God in truth, on his Sabbath.

The Old Testament moves from a universal rest proclaimed by God in Genesis, to a day of rest for the people of God, which recalls and signifies that rest. Those people repeatedly break his rest, leave his rest and abuse his rest, and yet, God in mercy promises that all mankind will, one day, experience his rest as he intended it to be experienced.

Jesus and the Sabbath

The most well-known interactions of the Lord Jesus with the Sabbath laws are his Sabbath healings, which inevitably caused controversy with the party of the Pharisees. His famous question, "which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?" (Mark 3:4) is occasioned by a handicapped man who presents himself to Jesus, in the synagogue, for healing; while the example of teachers who would lift an ox or a donkey out of a pit on a Sabbath was brought about by an indignant synagogue ruler who castigated the Lord for freeing a crippled woman from her infirmity (Luke 13:10–17).

To a group of Pharisees, earlier in the passage from Mark, Jesus declared that "the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath." In his teaching on the Sabbath, at no point did Jesus deny the validity of the law, although he did frequently attack its abuses.

However, we must also look to the development of Sabbatical themes within the Gospels as we look to Jesus' interaction with this topic of the Sabbath. One of these themes, perhaps the most striking, is that of rest. In Matt. 11:25–30, Jesus tells all who are weary and burdened to come to him, and he will give them rest. The rest promised in the Pentateuch, pointed to by the Sabbath of the Old Covenant, is the rest which is found in Jesus, and in him only.

In Judges, we saw that God's leaders were to bring rest to the land and its people; we also saw that these leaders could only bring a limited rest for a limited time. However, this points forward to the need of God's true Judge, appointed to judge the world in justice; and, therefore, to the rest of God not simply as soteriology but as eschatology, for the rest which we taste now will be given to us in full when the Lord returns.

The Sabbath and the Christian church

The two forms of the ten commandments give different, but related reasons for remembering the Sabbath. In Exodus, the command is enjoined with an echo of Genesis 2:3, "For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy." (Exodus 20:11) But, in Deuteronomy it is explained that this commandment was given to Israel as a memorial of their deliverance from Egypt, "You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day" (Deuteronomy 5:15).

In the case of the Exodus form of the command, the "rest" of God is given as the exemplar of the Sabbath ordained for man. God made the seventh day holy, because on it he had ceased from the work of creation. This is not done for his own sake, but for those who would live and work within the finished creation: that is, for man. Thus, Jesus says, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). However, in the case of Deuteronomy's form of the command, the work of God in delivering Israel out of Egypt is given as the reason for observing the sabbath. This additional, special reason, had already been intimated in Exodus 31:13-17, "... Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you ...", so that their deliverance out of Egypt is shown to be analogous to the creation of the world, when God sanctified the seventh day.

From this two-fold reason for keeping the Sabbath, Christian theologians since ancient times have perceived that the command has a dual character: partly an ordinance of blessing and holiness enacted by God over the whole finished work of creation, and partly an ordinance of the redemptive covenant made with Israel, enacted by God through his deliverance of them out of the land of Egypt to call them unto holiness. As an ordinance over creation, the Sabbath sets a seal upon the light, the sky, the dry land and life, the heavenly host and all living creatures, for as long as creation endures; it is a blessing ordained for mankind, confirming his dominion over the earth, conferring a blessing on marriage and children, as long as the creation endures. As an ordinance of redemption from slavery, it was a command tied to the covenant made with Israel, which in keeping it signified to them that God who began a good work in them would complete it, to sanctify them, to be their Redeemer.

In this way, it is shown that the ethical aspect of the command, concerning the holiness intended by God from the beginning, is fulfilled only in freedom to live unto God through God's work of redemption. The special, covenantal aspects of the ordinance were new and tied to the elect people, Israel, with a view to leading them toward this rest. However, the command based on the deliverance out of Egypt did not give to them the rest in holiness implied in it, and anticipated a fuller freedom. These "weak and beggarly elements" of the command are superseded when a fuller redemption comes, in Christ, setting Man free from that which enslaves and subjects to futility both Man and the creation subject to him, which is sin and death.

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.

{{#if:Colossians 2:16-17| —Colossians 2:16-17{{#if:|{{{3}}}}} }}

Colossians 2:16-17 is central to debate among Christians, concerning how the New Testament sees the development in the person of Christ, of the theme of the Sabbath together with its sub-themes of rest and worship. All agree that the rest which the Sabbath promised is found in Jesus and his finished work, and that the worship and service of God which the Sabbath enjoined is offered through Christ. But, some Christians interpret Paul as declaring that to keep a set time for resting from work for the sake of worship and works of mercy, as is indicated by the Jewish Law, is no longer applicable because the reality to which the law pointed has arrived.

The historical fact given as Israel's basis for keeping the sabbath has been superseded by another historical fact, that Christ rose from the dead on the first day (Mt. 28:1; Mk. 16:2, 9; Lk. 24:1; Jn. 20:1). As the Sabbath did not originate in a command but in God's finished work of creating, so the keeping of the first day of the week originates not in a command but in God's finished work. The Lord himself made the day holy, when he finished his work of redemption. Rising from the dead he showed himself to us then and for weeks afterward, on that day. He promised us the Holy Spirit and sent the Spirit to us on that day. Visiting us in miracles and holy judgment when we gathered in hope of the Day of our resurrection, He also confirmed our hope by returning Eutychus from the dead before our eyes, on that day. It has been on this day that the people have come together to hear the gospel and to collect offerings for mercy, from the beginning.

Perhaps we can say that, it is less that we keep a day than that the Lord keeps us, and makes known to us on the day that we are assembled together each week that He is the one who sanctifies us as one people. We gather to Him as the first fruits of that redemption, on the day hallowed by Christ's finished work and by our communion in it through the Holy Spirit who raised him from the dead, which we remember by sharing the bread of a new creation, and the cup of blessing, on the Lord's day. For these reasons, although acknowledging the blessed difference between the Lord's day and the Jewish day of rest, Reformed confessions often refer to the first day as the "Christian Sabbath" in order to testify to the continuity of God's redemptive purpose, and to make known that the freedom of holiness spoken of by God for the sake of the whole world has been fulfilled in Christ. Instead of rest symbolized by cessation of work for a day, what typifies the Christian Sabbath keeping is coming to Christ, and points to his return and eternal life: "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28). But this Life in Christ is not a private affair: “ ... let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24,25). Therefore, there is left for the people of God, a Sabbath keeping.

Relevant passages

  • Exodus 20:8
  • Exodus 23:12
  • Exodus 31:15
  • Deuteronomy 5:12
  • Leviticus 26:2
  • Matthew 12:8
  • Mark 2:27
  • Romans 14:5
  • Colossians 2:16