In the Law of Moses, the Sabbath is consistently described as a day wherein the faithful will do no work at all: they will not carry any burden; they must not go out even to gather food; they were not to allow any one in their households, even their animals, to do any work; they were not so much as to light a fire on the Sabbath day.
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it” (Exod 20:8-11).1
Of all the commandments, this one stands out as the one most directly marking Israel as the people of God. It is stated in these terms: this is what I did on the seventh day, so this is what you, my people, must do. In the direct commandments found within the books of Moses, all the emphasis is on what the faithful Israelite must NOT do: any kind of work. It is not at all clear what they were expected to do on that day.
Now, I personally have no problem taking a day off work every week. In fact, I’ll gladly take two! But while the Sabbath is described as a day of rest, it is clearly not the kind of day we are used to having on weekends. This was to be a holy day: this was not a day of amusements or luxuries or home projects. So what were they supposed to do?
The prophets give some insight into God’s thinking about the Sabbath. In Isaiah God explains what he is looking for:
“If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, From doing your pleasure on My holy day, And call the Sabbath a delight, The holy day of the Lord honorable, And shall honor Him, not doing your own ways, Nor finding your own pleasure, Nor speaking your own words, Then you shall delight yourself in the Lord; And I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth, And feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father. The mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isa 58:13-14).
Again the emphasis is on what the people should NOT do: their own ways, their own pleasure, their own words.
This is if anything more restrictive than the original requirement: no work. But in addition there are these positive requirements: call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day honorable, delight yourself in the Lord. The day is not just a day of no work: it is a day of delighting in the Lord, and therefore of considering his ways, his work and his words. In the Psalms we have further indication of this same approach.
(A Psalm. A Song for the Sabbath day.) “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, And to sing praises to Your name, O Most High; To declare Your lovingkindness in the morning, And Your faithfulness every night, On an instrument of ten strings, On the lute, And on the harp, With harmonious sound. For You, Lord, have made me glad through Your work; I will triumph in the works of Your hands” (Psa 92:1-4).
So, in this Sabbath-day psalm, the singer exults in the works of God, rather than in his own works. This seems to be the spirit of the day: leave off from your own works; think about and delight in God’s works.
Challenge: why don’t you keep the Sabbath?
Most of us will have had some interaction with a friend or acquaintance who belongs to some group that meets on Saturdays or otherwise holds that the Sabbath must be honored today. Many of us will have faced the question: why do Christadelphians not keep the Sabbath?
It is probably worth asking what this question means: does it just mean why don’t we hold our assemblies on Saturday? Or, does it mean we should keep the Sabbath in its Old Testament purity? Because, if it’s to be the latter, we would not be able to assemble on the Sabbath day: if even lighting a fire is prohibited on the Sabbath, surely operating heavy equipment — driving a car — would be considered work!
The standard line among Catholics is that the Sabbath has been moved from Saturday to Sunday. The evidence for this is weak: it is apparent that the saints’ assemblies met on the first day of the week, but there is nothing to suggest they considered the first day to be a Sabbath. But even if we were to adopt that approach, we don’t actually keep Sunday as the Sabbath either.
But this is not an obscure commandment: it is one of the ten, written in stone by the finger of God; it is mentioned frequently in the Old Testament and in the New. And we don’t do it. The question is reasonable: why don’t we keep the Sabbath? It’s not enough to say that there is no Sabbath commandment under Christ. The way Jesus worked is, he transformed commandments; he did not abolish commandments. Look through everything Jesus said: at no point does he tell his disciples “I don’t want you to keep this or that old commandment.”
So we need to be thinking not about the Sabbath abolished in Christ, but the Sabbath transformed. In any case we have pretty clear indication from the New Testament that the Sabbath, observed as a day without work of any kind, is not required of Christians. Paul comments on the relationship of the baptized believer to the old law:
“So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Col 2:16 -17).
And again in Romans Paul makes it clear that the Sabbath observance is to be considered a matter of personal conscience. So how is possible that, as Paul says, “to the Lord he does not observe it?” It is pretty clear that in the Old Testament, honoring the Lord meant observing the Sabbath day in the way he commanded. But how can you honor the Lord by NOT keeping the Sabbath? Here’s a clue: in the passage we read in Rom 14:5 it says, “another esteems every day.” This would seem to be the challenge, then: can you spend every day not following your own ways, not seeking your own pleasure, not speaking your own words?
What Jesus had to say about Sabbath
The Lord Jesus faced a lot of opposition because of the work he did on the Sabbath day. In John 5 we read of the incident at the pool Bethesda. Jesus there healed a man on the Sabbath day and incurred the fury of the religious leaders.
“And therefore the Jews persecuted Jesus and sought to kill Him, because He had done these things on the sabbath day. But Jesus answered them, My Father works until now, and I work” (John 5:16-17).
This is a marvelous defense: Jesus simply restates the premise of the Sabbath law; but in so doing he upends the ages-old reasoning! Remember the way that law was explained:
“For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it” (Exod 20:11).
So Israel was commanded to rest on the Sabbath because that’s what God did; Jesus explained that he did God’s work on the Sabbath because that’s what God does. In effect Jesus’ defense transforms the Sabbath from a day of contemplating and appreciating God’s work to a day of participating in that work. It is no longer to be seen as a day of complete inaction; instead, he makes it a day of godly action.
And that godly action can take a surprising breadth. In Matt 12 we read about Jesus’ disciples laboring to feed themselves. The Pharisees charge them with violating the Sabbath law, and Jesus defends them with a very bold assertion. What we must not miss here is the Lord’s assertion that his disciples are in a position greater than the priests in the temple. And, he says, this has good precedent in the life of David: when David ran from the murderous presence of Saul, those who came with him were allowed on the Sabbath day to participate in the priestly meal of the showbread. If the companions of David were accorded an honor reserved for priests, how much more worthy are the disciples of Messiah, David’s heir and Lord?
Having claimed a priestly status for is disciples, he points out that the priests are required under the law to do the same kind of work on the Sabbath day as they do any other day, and more of it.
Moreover, he, the Messiah, is greater than the temple: so their service to him is more holy than the priests’ service that is exempted from the Sabbath law. It is an astonishingly bold defense, all hanging on the identity of Jesus himself, which of course the Pharisees did not recognize.
And to top it all off, he asserts that he has the unique right to define the Sabbath law because he himself is Lord of the Sabbath. This is a very bold assertion, pointing to God’s day of rest, not as a thing of the past, but as the kingdom age in which he will reign as Lord and King.
We see the same line of reasoning in Heb 4:1-10. The reference to resting time is not that spoken of in Gen 2 but in the Psalms, where God himself speaks of his rest as a future time, saying: “I swore in my wrath, they shall not enter my rest” (Psa 95:11). And this is a different kind of rest, as shows up in the choice of words. In Genesis the word for rest is Shabbat, the rest that comes when you stop working.
In Psa 95 the word for rest is menucha, the rest of being at peace in your own home. The law of the Sabbath as implemented under Moses explicitly looked back to the Shabbat rest in Gen 2; under Christ it looks forward to the menucha rest in the resurrection.
The character of our service to Christ
So let us now briefly consider the character of our service to Christ. If our work in his service is greater than the labor of the priests in the temple, what must be our attitude towards that work?
There are examples in the Old Testament that inform us what God wants from his priests. He wants reverent and clear-headed service, in contrast to that of Nadab and Abihu. He wants cheerful and enthusiastic service, in contrast to the weariness of heart Malachi describes. And he wants this reverent and cheerful service every day: we are meant to take rest every day from our own works, in order to participate properly in the holy work of God. This is a challenge, then: who can rest from his own works continually?
Practicality: what of the slave?
“Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eye service, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God. And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ” (Col 3:22-24).
In the first century the community of the saints included not a few slaves, some even slaves of unbelievers. Consider, then, the position of a disciple who is a slave to a pagan master. Will that master allow his slave to rest on the Sabbath?
What then: would the slave, laboring on the Sabbath in obedience to his master, be guilty of violating God’s law? But he is justified by Christ, if he like the Lord is busy with God’s work. Therefore Paul commands, “whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord”. Your obedience to even a pagan master is transformed by your cheerful and careful approach to the job, and your awareness of Christ’s presence.
It is God who set you in your position, so do your work for him. By this command, even the slave in a pagan household is raised to the level of the priests in the temple; even the most menial and humble work is supervised by the great Master, who rewards his servants richly.
This is the practical outworking of Jesus’ new law of the Sabbath; and I personally find it a very difficult law to keep — especially when my boss comes around with that one more thing he wants done by the end of the day! But the law of God is not a collection of unconnected rules, rather a statement of God’s will for us: this is the kind of people he will make us to be, conformed to the image of his own son Jesus. And as the Sabbath did for the Jews, this law will clearly mark us out as Christ’s people: we do the works of God on every day, because that’s what he does.
So we come to our remembrance of the Lord. As we observed earlier, our understanding of the Sabbath law is absolutely dependent on the identity of Jesus our Lord as Messiah. And in this we remember him who gave his life, working in reverence and devotion for our salvation.
“He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” And to this day he labors together with our Father on our behalf, to bring us with him into his rest.
Jim Seagoe (San Francisco Peninsula, CA)
1. All references are from the NKJV.