Sabbath

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

Rest

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy (Exodus 20:8).

Rest: the concept seems as controversial now as it did 3500 years ago.

One of the hallmarks of the Mosaic legislation involved the establishment of the Sabbath– a day of rest, not just for people, but also servants and animals (Exodus 20:8, 10). As far as we can tell, at this time, few if any other cultures legislated such an event. The idea that one would dedicate an entire day to rest– especially no matter the weather or any other circumstance– was foreign to most at the time. Far later, when the Greek Seleucids were fighting the Jews, they would often lead an attack on the Sabbath since the Jews were supposed to be at rest!

There were always temptations to not rest: money could be made, fields could be sown or reaped, other activities could be accomplished. There are examples of Sabbath violations from the beginning (Numbers 15:32-36) to near the end of the Old Testament period (Nehemiah 13:15-21). It seems that the people perpetually violated the Sabbath for the field– they did not let the land lay fallow every seven years (Leviticus 25:4, 2 Chronicles 36:21). There were too many economic interests at stake, and not enough confidence that God would provide even if the land lay fallow.

We understand that human beings, even though they are to work, must have periods of rest (Genesis 2:15). Try to work constantly without sleep– your body will refuse to let you continue after awhile. If you somehow found a way to persist in working, you would soon die of exhaustion!

Sleep, on its own, is insufficient. We often find that there are times we must rest– if our stress levels stay too elevated for too long, our bodies will give out. We are not to “burn the midnight oil” all the time. God intends for us to rest at times.

Notice how absolute the rest is that God enjoins upon Israel– they are to do no work (Exodus 20:10). No fire was to be kindled (Exodus 35:3); the work of food preparation was to be done the day before (cf. Exodus 16:29). There were some necessities that needed to be addressed, like watering animals (Luke 13:15), and handling emergencies (Matthew 12:11), but on the whole, the Israelite was to do no work at all. Why would God command such a thing?

God made us, and therefore He understands our weaknesses. One significant weakness we all share is that we easily become functionally fixated on various projects or overall mundane things. It is easy for one day to flow into the next without any real thought being put into life. If people are not working on work projects, they easily find other projects to complete. Consider, if you will, modern man. He may work all day at an office, come home, entertain himself with various forms of entertainment, and find other distractions to occupy him. Perhaps he gets a day off from work. He does not really rest; he is either sleeping, and therefore is unconscious, or he is working on his own projects– home improvement, cleaning, hobbies, and the like. While it may be true that there is less stress in some of those “non-work” projects, it is hardly “rest.” Plenty of activity is still going on!

Instead, the Sabbath was designed to be a complete rest so that each Israelite could again re-center his or her life around God. It was the habit of Jews in the days of Jesus to assemble at the synagogue on the Sabbath (Luke 4:16, Acts 13:14). While it might be easy for an Israelite to focus entirely on the mundane tasks of living for six days, by having that seventh day of rest from all work, he has the opportunity to reflect upon his life, his God, and what is really important in life.

Even though the weekly Sabbath observance is not enjoined upon Christians (Colossians 2:14-17), we can learn the lesson God intended Israel to learn. Rarely do we truly rest– even if we are not working, there is always some person with which we want to connect on Facebook, some book or article to read, some show or movie to watch, some project or another to accomplish. One could easily go years without thinking much about who they are, why they are here, who God is, and what is really important in life. Sadly, many probably do go years without thinking of such things, and life rarely forces people to stop to think about them. Why, then, should we be surprised when we constantly feel stressed, overworked, and unable to relax? We rarely give ourselves the time to truly relax, even though it would be better for us.

We would all do well to take periods of rest. Rarely will there be a crisis if the Internet messages are forced to wait a bit. Life will go on even if that show does not get watched. Instead, find some natural setting, walk around, and ponder life and God’s wonderful creation. Find a quiet place and give thought to God, His greatness, and His plan for you. Take that time to remove all distractions and re-center your life around God. Let us not allow all the mundane activities of this world distract us from remembering who we are, who God is, and what is really important in life– let us take out time in our lives to truly rest and re-center our lives around God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Man and the Sabbath

And [Jesus] said unto them, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: so that the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28).

Perhaps one of the greatest points of contention between Jesus and the Pharisees and other religious authorities involved the Sabbath. In the Law of Moses, God commanded the Israelites to sanctify the seventh day as a day of rest– the Sabbath day (Exodus 20:8-11). Israelites, their servants, their animals, and sojourners in their midst were to do no labor on that day.

For many years the people profaned the Sabbath and considered it to be just another day of the week (cf. Nehemiah 13:15-22, Amos 8:5). For the most part after the exile, however, the Jews religiously observed the Sabbath day. They would go no more than three-quarters of a mile to go to a synagogue to read from the Law and pray (any further than three-quarters of a mile would be considered “work”).

It would not take long before all kinds of traditions grew up around the Sabbath. The intentions of the traditions were good: they would be a “hedge” around the Sabbath to completely make sure that no one violated it. One could not do anything that remotely looked like it involved labor or effort. Even spitting on the ground was forbidden– the spittle would likely disturb the earth, thus “plowing” it, thus representing an expenditure of effort!

As is evident, the traditions, despite the intentions behind them, became utterly burdensome. One could easily live in fear on the Sabbath day, worried that in some way, somehow, he has violated the Sabbath. By building up that hedge around the Sabbath, the religious authorities drained the life out of the command!

Jesus did not come to break the Law (cf. Matthew 5:17-18, Luke 16:17). Therefore, Jesus does not intend to break the Sabbath, and as far as we can tell from what has been revealed, He never really breaks the Sabbath. He does, however, break the traditions of the Pharisees and other religious authorities regarding the Sabbath, and for that He was condemned by them as a sinner (cf. John 9:16). In the eyes of the Pharisees and the other religious authorities, Jesus did not keep the Sabbath– He healed on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6), and He even allowed His disciples to pluck heads of grain and to eat them on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-26)!

The latter example was quite difficult for the Pharisees: after all, plucking grain heads and crushing them with your hand to get the grain out is certainly “work.” In response, Jesus reminds the Pharisees of how David and his men are the bread of the Presence even though they were not priests (Mark 2:25-26; cf. 1 Samuel 21:1-7). In so doing, Jesus demonstrates that necessity can, in times of distress, lead to a little “wiggle room” in the Law. That “wiggle room” is not there on account of a disobedient or rebellious spirit but on the basis of what Jesus indicates in verse 27: the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). The Son of Man, that is, Jesus, is Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28). The disciples, therefore, are not doing wrong. The Pharisees and their traditions may be offended, but God is not!

This circumstance is quite instructive for us as believers in God today. The parallel to the Jewish Sabbath in the new covenant would be the assemblies of the saints (although it must be stressed that the assemblies of Christians are never explicitly identified with the Sabbath and that the Bible gives us no impression that Sunday is the “new Sabbath”). As God commanded Israel to observe the Sabbath, so God commands Christians to assemble with one another (Hebrews 10:25). God has specified the types of activities that take place in those assemblies: the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26), a collection for the work of the church (1 Corinthians 16:1-3, 2 Corinthians 8-9), praying (1 Corinthians 14:14-17), singing (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16), Bible study (Acts 2:42), and preaching (Acts 20:7, 2 Timothy 4:1-2).

These things are well and good, but it is also very easy for traditions to be created around these commands. If man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man, then man was not made for the assembly, but the assembly for man. The assembly is designed to lead to the encouragement and edification of the believers (1 Corinthians 14:23, Hebrews 10:24). Yes, this encouragement and edification must be accomplished according to what is written in the Scriptures (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17), but it also means that we must take care so that we do not drain the life out of the assembly like the Pharisees and religious authorities drained the life out of the Sabbath. God established these things for men for their benefit!

The line between truth and tradition is easily blurred. We must never defend tradition as if it is truth. We must never be as casual with truth as we can be with tradition. In the end, we must keep a proper perspective on these matters. Let us assemble with fellow believers to encourage and edify them, and not allow traditions regarding those assemblies to drain the life out of them!

Ethan R. Longhenry