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The Hebrew people have been rescued by God from Egyptian slavery and brought to Mount Sinai to meet God. God is declaring to his people the Ten Commandments so that they can know the character of God. God is revealing the laws by which they can stay in relationship with their Lord who has rescued them. The fourth commandment is the longest of all the commandments given.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 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. 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. (Exodus 20:8–11 ESV)

Understanding this commandment is very important, not only because it is God’s law and we must understand its meaning and fulfillment in Christ (cf. Matthew 5:17), but this was the law that Jesus frequently came under condemnation by the Pharisees in the first century. All of the gospel accounts record Jesus doing activities on the Sabbath, like plucking heads of grain and healing people. This activity on the Sabbath was the catalyst for the Jewish leaders’ hatred of Jesus.

And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. (John 5:16–18 ESV)

So we need to understand the Sabbath command if we are to understand what Jesus was doing as well as understand what this command means for us today.

The Sabbath Command

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. “Remember” does not mean to have a passing thought about the seventh day. Remembering your anniversary means doing far more than mentally acknowledging the day. To remember means to do something about it and this is exactly what God says. Remembering the Sabbath day means to keep it holy. In fact, in Deuteronomy 5 where the Ten Commandments are restated for the next generation, the command was to “observe the Sabbath day.” How was a person to remember and observe the Sabbath day? The rest of the paragraph explains.

“Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.” First, you will notice that God gives the command for people to work. Six days are given to you do your work. This is a great reminder that we are not under God’s rule on only one day during the week but every day of the week. God governs our work. Thus the New Testament taught for people to work. “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10 ESV).

But then God commands for one’s regular work to cease. It is important to note that the command prohibits the usual labors of the six other days that can possibly be stopped without actually causing someone or something harm. Consider that the priests did not stop working when the Sabbath day came but still were in the sanctuary working for the Lord (cf. Matthew 12:5). Circumcisions were still performed even if the eighth day was a Sabbath day (cf. John 7:22). The preparing of food for the family (cf. Luke 6:1), the feeding of animals (cf. Luke 13:15), or anything else necessary to get through the day in an agrarian culture was not prohibited (cf. Matthew 12:11). The point to recognize is that exertion was not prohibited. The Sabbath did not mean to do nothing because that is not possible. But one can easily consider that a person’s work that he did for six days was not to be done on the seventh day. It was not a day where activity is absent but is focused on God.

Further, those work duties could not be delegated to another. Verse 10 makes the point that you could not have your children, your servants, your animals, or have foreigners do your work for you. Whatever your work was, that work was to stop on the seventh day and no other person or animal could do the work for you.

The Function and Purpose of the Sabbath

The reasoning behind the Sabbath is given in Exodus 20:11. The Lord made heaven and earth in six days and rested on the seventh day. This is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. The reason God chose the seventh day as the day of rest over the other days is because it is the day that God rested. Why did God rest? Did God need to take a break? Did God need a rest so as to recuperate? No, God rested because the work he was doing was finished.

You will notice that there is nothing given in the Sabbath command to portray the Sabbath as a day of recuperation. So often the Sabbath is taught as needed because people cannot work seven days a week. This is simply not true for the ancients for thousands of years worked seven days a week. God does not give this law as if the human body has only six days in it, and like a battery, must be recharged on the seventh day. Notice the reason for the Sabbath was that the people would focus on God. The purpose was to refocus on their God and enjoy the blessings God had given them. It was a day to draw closer to God and gain spiritual strength. This is more clearly declared in Deuteronomy when the law was given again.

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 ESV)

To love God is not to have a lazy day one day a week. Rather this day was given to focus on doing God’s will — to worship, learn, study, care, and strengthen our spirit by focusing on God. Israel understood this to be the point. Josephus said that every week men should desert their occupations and assemble to listen to the Law. The book of Acts confirms that this was happening since the days of Moses.

For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues. (Acts 15:21 ESV)

In fact, the law actually taught for the people to do this very thing. There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a sabbath to the Lord. (Leviticus 23:3 NIV)

To remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy meant giving the day over to God, setting it apart for him. Stop work and devote yourself to worship. It was a day that was not to be treated like all the other days. Unfortunately, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law created 39 classifications for work, turning the Sabbath from being a blessing to a burden. Think about what a blessing the Sabbath was supposed to be! Do not do your normal work but focus your time on how God saved you from Egypt, listening the Law of Moses in your sacred assembly. But the teachers had ruined this command which is what Jesus was fighting against when he was teaching. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27 ESV) The Sabbath was not to be a pain to God’s people but a blessing and a joy.

A Sign of the Covenant

Many ancient covenants had a sign. It was something visible that would remind the people of the covenant made. Remember in Genesis 9:13,17 that God gave the rainbow as a sign of the covenant made with Noah. God gave circumcision as the sign of the covenant made with Abraham in Genesis 17:11. While not directly stated here, it appears from the scriptures that the Sabbath day was a sign of the covenant made with Moses.

Moreover, I gave them my Sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them. But the house of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness. They did not walk in my statutes but rejected my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live; and my Sabbaths they greatly profaned. “Then I said I would pour out my wrath upon them in the wilderness, to make a full end of them.” (Ezekiel 20:12–13 ESV)

Notice that Ezekiel describes the Sabbaths as the sign between God and his people under the Mosaic covenant. Keep the Sabbath was the equivalent of keeping God’s covenant (cf. Isaiah 56:2-6; 58:13). This is why the prophets spoke of the new covenant people keeping the Sabbath when Christ comes and sets up his reign (cf. Ezekiel 44:24; Isaiah 66:23; 56:6). The Sabbath was a sign of the covenant made at Sinai with Israel.

Keeping the Sabbath Today?

Some today teach that the Sabbath is still binding today. We should quickly see the error of this since the Sabbath was a sign of the Mosaic covenant which was set aside when Jesus came and established the new covenant. Further, Deuteronomy 5:2-5 makes it clear that this Mosaic covenant was only given to Israel and not the whole world. Even more, the Sabbath command was so they would remember how they were slaves in Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:15). This command cannot, therefore, we for all people, but only for Israel because only they were slaves in Egypt. The New Testament makes it clear that the Sabbath was not to continue under the new covenant of Christ.

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. (Colossians 2:16–17 ESV) These commands were looking forward to Christ, to be fulfilled in him and were not to be maintained under the new covenant.

We must further declare that Sunday is not the Christian Sabbath. We can certainly see the parallels to the Sabbath day since we on the Lord’s Day come together to remember our deliverance from slavery to sin because of Jesus and assemble together to worship. But there is where the similarities end. We are not told to not work on Sunday. Further, Sunday is never described as the new Sabbath nor is Sunday ever connected to any Sabbath teaching in the scriptures. If we are looking for a sign of the new covenant of Christ to remember what God has done, we see in the scriptures that the Lord’s Supper is that sign, the memorial given to us to remember what God has done (1 Corinthians 11:23-25). Sunday as the day is never described as a covenantal sign.

Since the apostle Paul says that the Sabbath along with the other feast days were shadows of things to come but the substance is Christ (Colossians 2:16-17), what was the Sabbath foreshadowing in Christ? The Sabbath rest was looking forward to something glorious which the writer of Hebrews clarifies in Hebrews 4:1-13. The context of Hebrews 3-4 is about how the Israelites hardened their hearts and perished in the wilderness because of unbelief. Chapter 4 opens by saying that the promise of entering God’s rest still stands. As you read through Hebrews 4 you think that the author is only speaking about entering the land of Canaan as the rest. However, notice verses 3-4.

For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest,'” although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” (Hebrews 4:3–4 ESV)

The author ties together the entering into the promised land of rest with God resting on seventh day from all his works. The point is that the rest was not given when Joshua brought the people into the land of Canaan (Hebrews 4:8). This brings us to verse 9.

So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. (Hebrews 4:9–11 ESV)

The command to keep the Sabbath was a shadow of the real rest that will be given. We enter that rest when we have rested from our works just as God did from his. Therefore, we live, not for resting, but working for the Lord knowing that our rest will be given to us when our time in this life ends. Our hope is not in a Saturday or a Sunday, only to continue to work again the following week. Our hope is in the day when we rest and our work is complete. Christ is the substance of the Sabbath as we long to be with him and thus strive to enter that rest promised for the people of God. Let us receive the good news of God’s rest and not fail to enter because of disobedience and lack of faith.