The command to practice Sabbath has been one of much misunderstanding throughout human history. Two ways this has shown to be the case is people outright deny or ignore the command of God to faithfully keep and practice Sabbath, or others embrace a Sabbath idea but load it with extra-biblical and unbiblical, burdensome requirements.
What the Sabbath is not:
1. Sabbath is not simply about a day off from responsibilities for us to act like the lord of our own lives with no regard for God’s design for Sabbath. Sabbath is a blessing to you, but it is not about you. If we treat it like another holiday or day off, we are not honoring Sabbath as God has commanded. (Anything that we make only about us or the horizontal and not ultimately for God and His glory is idolatry and sin and selfishness at work. So, the goal is to honor God with our lives and to be sure our Sabbath is ultimately about honoring and worshiping Him.)
2. Sabbath is not a day of unpleasant burdens from God. Sabbath is commanded to us, but it is not a bad thing. If we truly love Jesus, then Sabbath, as He has designed it, is an awesome and blessed thing.
What is Sabbath? Perhaps Sabbath can be summarized this way:
The purpose of the moral law of Sabbath is to provide us a special day of worship to God, physical and mental rest and refreshment, and fellowship with other believers.
We need Sabbath. God designed man to rest in Him. Sabbath rest in God is a beautiful reality that God has given. And for the saints, it will be experienced for all eternity.
Additionally, because of the fall of mankind, our sinful tendency is to produce--to earn--our identity, to prove ourselves, and to make something of ourselves. But Sabbath a way given to us by God to rest in who God is and His promises.
The practice of Sabbath is one way God ordains we make war with our (work, prove, earn) sinful struggle.
We rest in Christ from our labor, and it helps us cut ties with our sinful self-sufficiency. Since we are united to Christ as Christians, we grow in our understanding of God. Through the Scriptures, He shows us Himself, His ways, His accomplishments, His purposes, and His glory. This is good for our souls.
Sabbath is a part of the moral law, and it is communicated in the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments are a summary and expression of the Universal Moral Law. And that’s why we can look back now--in our day-- to the moral elements of the Ten Commandments and see God’s revealed will for us, even as we now live in the New Covenant. While the ceremonial and civil law was finished and fulfilled in Christ, the Moral law remains on all people.
God does not add things into the Moral Law or take away things. The Moral Law is what it is because it is based on an unchanging God, so the Universal Moral Law always exists, with the same moral requirements.
Exodus 20:8-11 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
In this passage, the moral requirement of Sabbath is given.
In creation, God instituted and modeled the Sabbath ordinance for mankind.
In this point, we need to first establish something--an important related bit of theology that you need to know for various reasons. In the creation, there were specific things that God instituted for mankind.
These things are often called “Creation Ordinances” and/or “Creation Mandates.”
There are several creation ordinances, but to name a few, some of these include:
Marriage – Marriage is instituted at creation as the unique covenantal bond between one man and one woman. This does not mean that marriage is for all people, but those who are not gifted with singleness are to be married in the way that God instituted in creation.
Work – In creation, God instituted and instructed the necessity and goodness of God-honoring labor. This includes the task of having dominion over the rest of creation.
Sabbath – In creation, God instituted and modeled the Sabbath ordinance for mankind. As we have seen, Sabbath is grounded in the Universal Moral Law; therefore, it is eternal and unchanging law over mankind, but we see that in creation God instituted and modeled the Sabbath ordinance.
The important thing you understand is that:
Creation ordinances are commanded to be rightly honored by all men and women.
Creation ordinances continue in force into this present day.
The Sabbath ordinance for mankind has three key texts that show us this.
First, Genesis 2:1-3 says, “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2 And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.”
Why did God create creation over 6 days? Have you ever wondered that? God is omnipotent. The all-powerful God could have created everything in one moment, so why six days? Well, it wasn’t for no reason. He did it this way not so much for Himself; He did it for us. It should be obvious that He did it for a deliberate purpose, as is true of all things that He does.
Our text says that He rested on the seventh day. Surely He didn’t need rest; He was not tired or weary, and this rest wasn’t sleep or a timeout from His sovereign sustaining of all things. So what does that mean? Well, by resting, God was declaring that His work of creation was completed.
Then the text says that God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, or some translations say He “sanctified” it. What does this mean? Making it holy means that He set it apart; He designated it for something particular. And what does “blessed” mean? God’s blessing affects a thing; it is effectual. When God blesses something, He makes it receive good or be the source of good for others. So, in blessing one day in seven, He is making it a source of good, a source of blessing. For whom? Obviously not for Himself, as He doesn’t receive anything from creation He didn’t create Himself. Rather, in the blessing of one day in seven and making it holy, God is instituting Sabbath in this creation for mankind and in this way, one day in seven days. God is setting the example that the moral law of Sabbath is to be honored in this way in this creation.
Exodus 20:8-11 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.”
Here we have the 4th commandment being laid out in the Old Covenant. We saw the Sabbath reality already in the creation account, and now we see it again in the Ten Commandments. Sabbath is a moral law issue, affirmed by the fact that it is part of the Ten Commandments as we see here. Notice also here in the Ten Commandments we see the one in seven pattern reinforced that God set forth in the creation ordinance.
Mark 2:27 And [Jesus] said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
- Jesus is referring back to the creation account. It was instituted for man (for mankind), and it is a creation ordinance.
Sabbath was upheld and clarified by Jesus.
In some of our reading this week, you saw some of the arguments that the Pharisees had with Jesus about the Sabbath when He was walking this earth before the Cross. And sometimes people misunderstand what was happening in those encounters. So let’s look at this for clarity and to see our point here that Sabbath was upheld and clarified by Jesus.
As you know, the Pharisees were out to get Jesus; they were desiring to catch Him in some act or teaching that put Him in disobedience to God’s law, their law, or the law of the land. So, more than once, they tried to claim that Jesus was wrong in regards to the Sabbath. We see this for example in:
Mark 2:23-27 & Mark 3:1-6
The Pharisees accuse Jesus of breaking the Sabbath. In these accounts, we see His disciples picking grain to eat as they walked through a field, and we see Jesus heal someone in need.
What we must understand is that neither Jesus nor His disciples were violating the moral command of the Sabbath in these things. Jesus was not excusing violations to the true Sabbath law. He’s asserting that He and His disciples have not violated it.
The problem for the Pharisees lay with the extra-biblical and unbiblical additional traditions that prevented someone from picking and eating grain as they walked through a field or the healing someone in need. So, Jesus uses this Pharisee challenge to teach what true Sabbath observance looks like. In this, Jesus wasn’t changing moral Sabbath requirements; He was teaching what true Sabbath observance looked like, and He condemned their false add-on requirements. Some wrongly think that Jesus was loosening or changing Sabbath laws, but that is not correct. Remember His words in verses 27 and 28: “Jesus said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.’” In this, Jesus is declaring His divinity and His Lordship as He upholds the moral Sabbath command and helps inform how it was to be honored, correcting those who were adding extra requirements to it.
In fact, in the gospel books, we see Jesus teach several important clarities that benefit us to know well about Sabbath honoring. For example, in calling back to David eating the bread of the Presence in the house of God, Jesus is teaching that acts of necessity are permitted on the Sabbath.
This means that a stay-at-home mom, for example, may do the work of cooking a meal on the Sabbath if it’s reasonable in the time and effort it requires, because this is an act of necessity.
Another example of one of these points of clarity is in Matthew 12. There Jesus uses the example of the Old Covenant priests, and His point in is that religious devotion, religious work, and worship is permitted on Sabbath.
So, godly pastors and other church staff are not in sin for “working” on the Sabbath, because these are permissible acts of piety.
Another example of one of these points of clarity is that acts of mercy are prohibited on the Sabbath. Contrary to the Pharisee’s argument, it is glorifying to God to do acts of mercy to others on the Sabbath. We see this in Jesus healing others on the Sabbath.
Therefore, if you have a friend in real need and a solid opportunity to do good to them on the Sabbath, do not decline that opportunity based on it being your Sabbath day; rather, where wise and helpful, do acts of mercy.
These points of clarity may seem like common sense to us, and it surely is easy to see that the Pharisees had evil intentions in challenging these things, but with all the confusion around this topic throughout history, these are actually very helpful points for us to see and know.
So, there is much to be gathered from Jesus’ teachings on Sabbath. I hope you see Him upholding and clarifying the Moral Law of Sabbath.
There is an already, not yet reality to Sabbath.
We have seen that in this first creation, mankind gets the command and blessing of Sabbath. And, as believers in the New Covenant, we get the “already” aspect of this; namely, we get to enjoy and worship God because of the finished work of Christ. Look at:
2 Corinthians 1:20 (NIV1984) For no matter how many promises God has made, they are "Yes" in Christ. And so through him the "Amen" is spoken by us to the glory of God.
We “already” get to experience fellowship with God, and we “already” get to enjoy union with Jesus by grace through faith, not on the basis of our works.
But there is a “not yet” reality Scripture speaks to as well. As we all know, we are still in this broken creation. We are “not yet” on the new earth; we are “not yet” in the final rest God has planned for the elect. So, we get to look forward to this even better rest awaiting us. The Sabbath we will enjoy in the new creation will be the final and best Sabbath experience we can have. In Hebrews 4, we are told that “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God (v.9),” and we are called to “strive to enter that rest (v.11).” As God’s people--God’s elect--we get to look forward to that “not yet” Sabbath experience with eagerness, and we trust in the finished work of Christ as our basis for being given that rest.
In all of this, we have, once again, another way of seeing that Sabbath is a part of the unchanging, eternal, Universal Moral Law. Sabbath wasn’t abolished after the Old Covenant, and it doesn’t get abolished by the new creation. No, Sabbath is an eternal reality, and we will be empowered by God to keep and enjoy Sabbath perfectly in the new creation. What a great blessing and clarity.
The key is keeping the weekly practice of Sabbath.
Old Covenant positive law (aspects of the law that are for a certain people in a certain time) is not required in the New Covenant. Therefore, the day is not required to be the last day of the week any longer. This explains one reason why New Covenant Christian churches know they are not required to gather for corporate worship service on Saturday. But this doesn’t mean the Sabbath is done away with; it just means the day is not important any longer but the weekly practice is.
Based on the testimony of Scripture, there is not a specific day of the week chosen for New Covenant Sabbath observation. Because the church gathers for corporate worship on Sunday, many make that the day they prioritize their Sabbath practice.
The only priority we take away from the moral law obligation and creation ordinance pattern is you must Sabbath one day in seven to be obeying this command.
A day off to focus up
The Sabbath day is to have a special focus by us on God. We know that all of life is to be lived for the glory and worship of God, but Sabbath is designed to give us a break from the normal pace of life to be even more focused on worshiping and enjoying God.
How does this look? This can include spending additional time in the Bible, spending additional time in prayer, spending additional time in study of sound doctrine from trusted Bible teachers, spending additional time singing songs of praise, spending additional time in fellowship with other Christians, and spending additional time in service to others as ministries of mercy to them.
Because of this, it is often most wise to Sabbath on Sunday because of the scheduled gathering of Christians for what we often call “church.” This Sunday gathering includes these things, so it’s plain to see why Sabbathing on Sunday is recommended.
The day is given for this purpose. Spend your day enjoying God, focused on Him in a particular way that is set above how you do that on other days of the week. He deserves our worship and has called us to this Sabbath day to get to do it in a unique way.
God has particularly appointed that this one day in seven be a Sabbath to be rested upon by each person for the benefit of them.
We have the blessing of slowing down from work and the other demands of life to enjoy a day of rest. This is a great gift from God to us! God is specifically calling each of us to stop the work labor we do on other days and rest from it. Depending on your work, this may be the day you need to rest your body from the normal demand your work puts on it, and it also may be the day you need to rest your mind from the normal demand your work puts on it. It is both these things for everyone, but when your job stresses a particular part of you, Sabbath gets to give you the rest you need, especially there.
In closing, Like all other spiritual disciplines, we must fight to make this happen.
For some of us, new habits need to be formed. For others, major changes need to be implemented. We can’t let our worldly desire for big houses, nice cars, big bank accounts, and other STUFF keep us from honoring the Sabbath. We must make efforts to have jobs or get jobs that don’t put God’s command for Sabbath in the back seat for the pursuit of something temporary. This will be a real struggle for many people. So, we do this together. If your work prevents you from honoring Sabbath rightly, then talk with spiritually mature people; ask them for guidance in things like: helping you rework finances, helping you be equipped to talk to your employer, or helping you consider other job opportunities that don’t get in the way of obeying God on Sabbath.
Sabbath is not to be looked upon as a terrible duty but as a sacred privilege. It affords us a special opportunity for profitable and joyous exercises. It displays God’s glory, and it blesses us.