Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work; but the seventh day is a sabbath unto Jehovah thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy man-servant, nor thy maid-servant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it (Exodus 20:9-11).
The weekly Sabbath observance is one of the hallmarks of Jewish religion and identity. The Jews were known for their Sabbath observance; foreign generals would exploit the opportunity to gain advantage against them. When Jesus healed on the Sabbath, such was sufficient for many of the religious authorities to declare that He was a sinner, for He did not keep the Sabbath as they expected (cf. John 9:16). The Sabbath was quite important to the Jews.
To this day many people make much out of the Sabbath. Some believe that the Sabbath should still be observed every Friday evening through Saturday evening. For many others, the “Christian Sabbath” is now Sunday, and for hundreds of years, governments forbade work to be done on Sunday because it was reckoned as the Sabbath. The situation is not improved by continued emphasis on the Ten Commandments even in the new covenant.
At first, the logic that we should still keep the Sabbath as the Jews did might seem compelling. After all, Moses grounds the Sabbath not in Israelite custom but in the creation itself– God worked six days and rested on the seventh, and therefore Israel should also (Genesis 2:1-3, Exodus 20:8-10). Since we believe that many of the principles based in the creation are still in force– God’s intentions for marriage and relationships between man and wife (Genesis 1:26-27, 2:24, 3:10-16; Matthew 19:3-9, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, 14:34-35, 1 Timothy 2:10-15), man’s sinfulness going back to Adam (Genesis 3, Romans 5:12-18), and the like. Therefore, if the Sabbath is rooted in the creation too, should we not observe the Sabbath?
Paul and the Hebrew author do not share this same logic. In Colossians 2:14-17, Paul explains that Christians are not to be judged on matters like the Sabbath, for they are the shadow of which Jesus is the substance. What precisely Paul means by this is made more evident by the Hebrew author in Hebrews 4:1-11.
The Hebrew author compares Genesis 2:1-3 with God’s later declaration in Psalm 95:11 that the Israelites in the wilderness would not enter His rest (Hebrews 4:1-5). The Hebrew author then considers Psalm 95:7, where God through David exhorts the people “today” not to harden their hearts since the generations before did and therefore did not enter God’s rest (Hebrews 4:6-7).
This may seem puzzling, but consider how the Hebrew author puts it all together: if the Sabbath enjoined upon Israel in the Ten Commandments was the full and complete rest promised by God, how could David later say that the first generation of Israelites did not enter into God’s rest, and that there remains a day– today– upon which we should heed God so as to enter His rest? Joshua, therefore, when bringing the people into the land and establishing the Law of Moses, did not give Israel the true rest (Hebrews 4:8). The Hebrew author makes the final conclusion:
There remaineth therefore a sabbath rest for the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest hath himself also rested from his works, as God did from his. Let us therefore give diligence to enter into that rest, that no man fall after the same example of disobedience (Hebrews 4:9-11).
Even if one observed the weekly Sabbath of Israel, there still remains a sabbath rest for the people of God. The Sabbath is only a shadow of God’s rest, for on the eighth day– the first day of the week– Israelites are to return to work. It is not a complete and final rest. When God rested from the work of creation on the seventh day, He did not start up creating again on the eighth day– the work of creation was completely, thoroughly, and utterly finished (Genesis 2:1-3).
This is why there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God– we have not entered God’s rest, for we still have work to do. We must therefore “give diligence,” as the Hebrew author tells us in Hebrews 4:11, to enter that rest. One cannot “give diligence” to enter into the seventh day observance of the Jews; it comes whether one expends much effort or quite little. The true Sabbath which the Hebrew author describes is quite different.
For Christians in the new covenant, therefore, the Sabbath is not a weekly observance from Friday evening until Saturday evening. The Sabbath is also not Sunday; nowhere in Scripture is the first day of the week so described, and we have no indication that early Christians considered it as such. Instead, the Sabbath of Christians is the final rest that comes with death and the resurrection of life (Hebrews 4:1-11, Revelation 21:1-22:6).
God wanted Israel to enter into His rest, but their disobedience hindered them from doing so– that is what David is saying in Psalm 95, and that is the warning the Hebrew author wants to apply to Christians in the new covenant. Israel had a secondary rest and never achieved the true rest. If we follow the same pattern of disobedience we will reach the same end. That is why it is critical for us to exhort one another while today still exists to advance God’s purposes and follow Him (Hebrews 3:12-4:11). As long as we have breath in our body we must find ways to serve God; there is no “retirement” from Christianity while we walk the earth.
Focusing on the weekly Sabbath observance is to miss the point: God wants us to enter His true Sabbath rest. We can only do that by standing firm until the end; let us do so, live, and receive the ultimate rest!
Ethan R. Longhenry