What Is The Sabbath?
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Exodus 20:8
Welcome, Young Believer!
In the United States today whether you grew up in the church or not you're probably familiar with the general idea that Christians gather on Sundays. In fact, the American workweek is firmly based on this fundamental arrangement of the calendar. You may have even heard someone from your parents' or grandparents' generation speak with frustration about how some calendars now begin with Monday as the first day of the week instead of Sunday. Then you look in the Bible and find that the important day is actually Saturday, not Sunday and the whole thing seems very confusing.
What is the difference between Sabbath and the Lord's Day?
The Sabbath was established by God in the Law as a gift to His people and a memorial of His Creation rest. Over time the religious Jews added to the laws applicable to the Sabbath and Jesus on more than one occasion gave correction in this area. The Sabbath also applies to more than just a day of the week, but more on that later.
Sunday or the Lord's Day is a memorial tradition established by the Christian church in recognition of Christ's resurrection as well as the day of Pentecost when the church received the Holy Spirit. There are indicators in the New Testament that the early Gentile church habitually met on Sundays.
On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. Acts 20:7
Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. 1 Corinthians 16:1-2
In my humble opinion, these ties are tenuous at best but by the mid-fourth century, it was codified that the church's main gathering day was Sunday. However, this did not change the day that is actually the Sabbath as established by God Himself. It simply set up a church tradition that has now been followed for over 1500 years.
What is the Sabbath and do Christians Need to Keep It?
After God delivered His people out of Egypt they came to Mount Sinai where God gave Moses the Law to hand down to His people. The most famous portion of this Law is the ten commandments. The fourth commandment has to do with the Sabbath...
“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
This is very interesting, God's explanation for this Law. Firstly, because He only gives an explanation for a few of His laws which means we ought to pay attention when He does. Secondly, this is many generations after creation. The Sabbath was not given to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or any of his twelve original sons. This is the first time that God's people are commanded to keep this day of rest. Yet God explains that the Sabbath day is blessed because of God's work and rest at the end of Creation.
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 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. 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. Genesis 2:1-3
God also extended the practice of the Sabbath to a Sabbath Year and a Year of Jubilee that was also to be celebrated by His people.
The Sabbath Year
The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the Lord. For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap what grows of itself in your harvest, or gather the grapes of your undressed vine. It shall be a year of solemn rest for the land. The Sabbath of the land shall provide food for you, for yourself and for your male and female slaves and for your hired worker and the sojourner who lives with you, and for your cattle and for the wild animals that are in your land: all its yield shall be for food. Leviticus 25:1-7
For an agricultural community, especially in those days, to take a full year off from planting and harvesting would have taken incredible surrender and faith in the provision of God. The fascinating thing is that today's scientists actually agree that land needs rest. They recommend rotating fields or allowing a field to sit for a period of time before planting again. This came after the consequences we saw of overplanting and harvesting that occurred during the great American Dust Bowl.
The Year of Jubilee
“You shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall give you forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month. On the Day of Atonement you shall sound the trumpet throughout all your land. And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan. Leviticus 25:8-10
Similar to the Sabbath year they were neither to sow nor reap a harvest. They would eat of the last year's harvest until the harvest of the year after the Jubilee or Sabbath Year. They were to return to the lands allotted to them by God based upon the tribe and clan of their heritage. God also lays out the worth of the land should it be sold, it would be according to the length of time passed since the last Jubilee and the time to the next Jubilee. They were not allowed to own property in the same way that we think of property now. Instead, the sale of a property would last until the Jubilee then the land was to be redeemed based upon the harvest that the owner could receive from that land in the years leading up to the Jubilee. In other words, if there were eight years/harvests left until the Jubilee then that is how you paid for the land.
This wasn't just a time of redemption for the land, it was also a time of redemption for people. Slaves were to be freed (they were only allowed to serve six years unless they made an arrangement with their master to be in servitude for life and were marked with this agreement via tattoo or piercing) and debt was to be forgiven. The land and the people together were to be given a fresh slate.
Sadly Israel did not faithfully obey God's Law in this area and it is one of the sins listed in why He sent them into exile in Babylon.
He took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons until the establishment of the kingdom of Persia, 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 Chronicles 36:20-21
After their return from Babylon, they partially kept the practice of the Sabbatical year and the Year of Jubilee, but certainly never recorded to the extent that they were commanded in the Law of Moses. However, in Jesus' day, the religious leaders had become very restrictive as to what could be done on the Sabbath day, even counting their own steps up to an arbitrary number after which apparently walking was considered work. In our study of Matthew, I can think of two specific situations when the religious leaders were angry with Jesus and His followers because of their apparent breaking of the Sabbath rules.
The first is in Matthew 12 when Jesus' disciples are observed plucking the heads off of grain in the field as they walk through it on the Sabbath and are eating them.
I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” Matthew 12:6-8
Here is Mark's account of this confrontation.
One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” Mark 2:23-28
On another occasion, later in Matthew 12, Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath making the religious leaders so angry that they began plotting His execution.
He went on from there and entered their synagogue. And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him. Matthew 12:9-14
After all of this we come to the question, should Christians keep the Sabbath and if we are to keep it then what does that look like? Jesus very clearly doesn't abolish the Sabbath in His ministry, He practices the observance of the Sabbath as it was established by God in His Law. Jesus declared Himself the Lord of the Sabbath and corrected the religious leaders who had been corrupting it with their man-made traditions.
We also find that the disciples observed the Sabbath after Jesus' resurrection and ascension. In Acts on multiple occasions, we find them going to the Synagogue or another place of prayer on the Sabbath to reason with the people they find there and tell them the Gospel. Which is also interesting because sharing the Gospel is the great work assigned to us by Christ in His Great Commission.
For those of us confused about whether or not we should observe this day, we're in good company! As the church moved further from Judaism and more Gentiles were saved, this question along with other questions about the Jewish ceremonial law became very contentious among the believers.
Paul writes in response to these issues to the Church at Colossae:
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. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. Colossians 2:16-23
Paul makes it clear that the issues of ceremonial law and regulations are not requirements for the salvation or even the practice of new believers. They are not to allow anyone to judge them on the basis of these things because Jesus has delivered us from the judgment of the Law by His grace. However, even to Paul, this was not a prohibition on observing the ceremonial commandments of the Law of Moses. He writes again on this issue to the Church in Rome:
One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. Romans 14:5-9
In this context, we see that Christians whether they observe the ceremonial laws of Israel including the Sabbath or not, it is not a salvation issue. But each person must be fully convinced in their own mind that they are acting in obedience to what God requires of them. If you believe that you should set aside Saturday to rest and contemplate God's goodness and provision in your life... do that! If you believe Christ's establishment of a new covenant with His Church has freed us from the ceremonial laws including the Sabbath... then enjoy the day. In whatever you decide, honor God!
Yet there is one more facet of this Sabbath gift that we should take into account...
Entering the Final Sabbath
As we discussed before, God created the heavens and the earth in six days, and on the seventh, He rested. He blessed that day and made it holy because on that day He rested from all the work that He had done. We are to understand that this rest is not relaxation but a completion of the work.
When God promised the land of Canaan to Israel, He promised them an inheritance with set borders that were already theirs, they just had to claim it. Along with that promise is this promise of rest from their enemies.
for you have not as yet come to the rest and to the inheritance that the Lord your God is giving you. Deuteronomy 12:9
Unfortunately, the Israelites disobeyed God and demonstrated time and again that they would not put their faith in Him. We know from history that at no point did Israel occupy the fullness of the inheritance or rest that God had promised them.
And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief. Hebrews 3:18-19
The author of Hebrews here is referring to David's Song for the Sabbath which he quotes earlier in the chapter.
Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work. For forty years I loathed that generation and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways.” Therefore I swore in my wrath, “They shall not enter my rest.” Psalm 95:7c-11
Therefore, we see that while Moses led them from slavery he could not lead them into the promised land, and while Joshua could lead them into the promised land he could not lead them into God's rest, the completion of the work laid out for them. It is only through Jesus that we enter this rest making Him indeed the lord and fulfillment of our Sabbath.
Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who have believed enter that rest, Hebrews 4:1-3a
Yet there are still those who have not yet been saved, who have not entered into the rest that Jesus offers to them.
Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” Hebrews 4:6-7
You don't have to wait for Saturday to enter into God's rest. You don't have to wait for tomorrow or when you think you're good enough. No! Today, if you hear Jesus calling to you to turn and repent from your sin to believe in Him, don't harden your heart! Listen to Him calling to you!
Yet these are still a shadow of the fullness of the rest that we have to come when Christ returns and establishes His Kingdom here on the new Earth. Then our work will be completed just as God's work is complete. We will be complete in Him.
For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. 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. Hebrews 4:8-10
To make a very long answer short, therefore, we understand that as Christians our salvation is the means by which we enter God's Sabbath rest. We don't need to relax on Saturdays in order to receive or keep this rest, however, we're not forbidden from honoring God by doing so. In whatever we do with that seventh day, we are to honor God.
If you have more questions about the Sabbath please place those in the comments. I also highly recommend, as always, that you find a mentor in the faith that will help to walk you through these issues as you grow in your faith. This is one journey you were never meant to take alone!