Observe the Sabbath

"Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. 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 ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day" (Deuteronomy 5:12-15).

The Uniqueness of the Sabbath Command

The first mention of the Sabbath day is found as Israel is exiting the land of Egypt. "Then the LORD said to Moses, "Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you. And the people shall go out and gather a certain quota every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in My law or not. And it shall be on the sixth day that they shall prepare what they bring in, and it shall be twice as much as they gather daily." ... And so it was, on the sixth day, that they gathered twice as much bread, two omers for each one. And all the rulers of the congregation came and told Moses. Then he said to them, "This is what the LORD has said: 'Tomorrow is a Sabbath rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD. Bake what you will bake today, and boil what you will boil; and lay up for yourselves all that remains, to be kept until morning.'" So they laid it up till morning, as Moses commanded; and it did not stink, nor were there any worms in it. Then Moses said, "Eat that today, for today is a Sabbath to the LORD; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is the Sabbath, there will be none." Now it happened that some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather, but they found none. And the LORD said to Moses, "How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My laws? See! For the LORD has given you the Sabbath; therefore He gives you on the sixth day bread for two days. Let every man remain in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day." So the people rested on the seventh day" (Exodus 16:4-5, 22-30).

Notice how Moses explained in detail exactly what was meant by a day of rest to the people and that even with this explanation some of the people still violated the first observance of the Sabbath. It should be clear that the people of Israel had not encountered this rule before. It was something new to them. The book of Genesis records over 2,000 years of history and yet it makes no mention of any observance by man of a day of rest.

Therefore, when God gave the law to Moses on Mount Sinai, He emphasized to the people that they need to continue keeping the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11). Not because they had been doing it all their lives, but because it was something recently given to them that they needed to retain. Moses clearly stated that these laws were new to the people. "The LORD did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, those who are here today, all of us who are alive" (Deuteronomy 5:3).

The command to keep the Sabbath was unique to Israel. "Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed" (Exodus 31:16-17). Only Israel received these laws. "Say to them, 'Thus says the Lord GOD: "On the day when I chose Israel and raised My hand in an oath to the descendants of the house of Jacob, and made Myself known to them in the land of Egypt, I raised My hand in an oath to them, saying, 'I am the LORD your God.' ... Therefore I made them go out of the land of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness. And I gave them My statutes and showed them My judgments, 'which, if a man does, he shall live by them.' Moreover I also gave them My Sabbaths, to be a sign between them and Me, that they might know that I am the LORD who sanctifies them" (Ezekiel 20:5, 10-12). No other nation received laws like those given to Israel. "For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the LORD our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him? And what great nation is there that has such statutes and righteous judgments as are in all this law which I set before you this day?" (Deuteronomy 4:7-8).

The uniqueness of the Sabbath law can be seen in its purpose. The Sabbath law was to recall that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. "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" (Exodus 20:8-11). It is interesting that most of the world retained a seven day week. There is nothing in nature which relates to seven days. We have a day as the period of the earth's rotation, a month as the period of the moon's orbit around the earth, and a year as the earth's orbit around the sun, but there is nothing comparable to a week. Israel's Sabbath law not only recalls the origin of the week but memorializes the creation by having man rest on the last day. Yet this is just one purpose given for the Sabbath.

The Sabbath was also a memorial to Israel's freedom from slavery. "And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day" (Deuteronomy 5:15). In Egypt the Israelite slaves had to work but to recall and celebrate their freedom, God gave them a day when they must not work. Such a memorial does not apply to any other nation or group.

How the Sabbath was Kept

The Sabbath was dedicated to serving God. "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" (Isaiah 58:13-14). It was a day to bring worship to the Most High (Psalm 92).

The Sabbath was a day to rest from labors (Exodus 31:14-15; 35:2). It may seem normal to us because we are so used to a five day work week, but in ancient times people worked seven days a week. To actually dedicate a day each week to not work would seem very strange to the Gentile nations. Everyone had the day off, even servants and animals (Exodus 23:12). No cooking was to be done on the Sabbath (Exodus 16:23); the cooking fire could not even be kindled on this day (Exodus 35:3). Plowing and harvesting had to wait (Exodus 34:21). Burdens could not be carried (Jeremiah 17:20-22), so all trade would come to a halt on the Sabbath day.

It was a serious matter to keep the Sabbath. A person violating the day of rest by working was stoned to death (Numbers 15:32-36). Yet people tried to work anyway. Nehemiah fought hard with the people, trying to keep them from breaking the Sabbath (Nehemiah 13:15-22).

Oddly, by Jesus' day, people went to the other extreme, making the Sabbath day regulations more restrictive than the original law. They used the Sabbath day as an excuse to break other commands of God. The Pharisees of Jesus' day were upset when the disciples helped themselves to a snack on the Sabbath day (Matthew 12:1-2), something the law specifically allowed (Deuteronomy 23:25). Jesus hints that a physician would be forbidden to heal on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:10). A farmer was forbidden from rescuing his animal (Matthew 12:11; Exodus 23:4; Deuteronomy 22:4). These pittings of one law of God against another caused continual battles between Jesus and the Jews (Matthew 12:1-14; Mark 2:23-28; 3:1-6; Luke 6:1-11; 13:10-17; 14:1-6; John 5:1-18).

The Promised End of the Sabbath

In the days before the captivity, God issued a promise through the prophet Jeremiah: "Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah -- not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD" (Jeremiah 31:31-32). God promised to replace the covenant given at Mount Sinai, which would include the command to keep the Sabbath, with a different covenant. It was necessary to replace the covenant because Israel failed to keep the current covenant. Such is commented on to a large extent by the Hebrew writer in chapters 7 to 10.

In regards to the failure of Israel to keep God's covenant, the writer said, "For on the one hand there is an annulling of the former commandment because of its weakness and unprofitableness, for the law made nothing perfect; on the other hand, there is the bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God" (Hebrews 7:18-19). This is not saying that God gave a bad set of laws. It is an acknowledgment that there was a weak link in the chain of the covenant -- man. "For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second" (Hebrews 8:7). The writer then quotes Jeremiah where God charges Israel with breaking the covenant.

This failure of man required the entrance of a new covenant that did not depend on man's perfect keeping of the law to gain salvation. "But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises" (Hebrews 8:6). The better foundation was not the sacrifice of animals by the sacrifice of God's own Son. "For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance" (Hebrews 9:13-15).

In order for a new covenant to come into being, the old covenant had to end. "In that He says, "A new covenant," He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away" (Hebrews 8:13). Paul makes the same point by comparing it to a marriage. "Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another--to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God. For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death. But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter. What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, "You shall not covet"" (Romans 7:4-7). Did the law that ended include the Ten Commandments? Most certainly. Paul's example of the law -- the law that came to an end -- was the tenth commandment: "You shall not covet." Does this mean that Christians are now allowed to covet? Of course not! Such a question ignores the new covenant that replaced the old. Coveting is condemned in the new covenant.

However, all of the provisions of the old Law were not carried over into the new Law. We no longer have animal sacrifices because Jesus Christ's single perfect sacrifice takes care of the need for sacrifices (Hebrews 10:1-10). The provision of animal sacrifice was but a shadow of the reality of Jesus' sacrifice. "For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things ..." (Hebrews 10:1). Other parts of the law were shadows that were replaced with realities. "In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it. 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" (Colossians 2:11-17). The shadow of circumcision in the old law was replaced with the reality of baptism in the new law. But notice the other shadows that are listed: food and drink regulations, festivals, new moon festivals, and Sabbaths. These are not the realities in the new Law, they are the shadows in the old Law. Like sacrifices and circumcision, they were replaced.

The Christian's Sabbath

In the denominational world, it is common to hear people speak of Sunday as the Christian's Sabbath. Yet nowhere in the New Testament can you read of the Lord's day being referred to as a Sabbath. Actually, it would not make sense as the word "Sabbath" means the seventh day. Referring to the first day of the week as the seventh day of the week would be odd at best. Besides, the seventh day was selected for Israel's day of rest because the Lord rested on the seventh day of creation, not the first day. Nor can you find mention of Christians following the Sabbath custom of not working on the Lord's day. No, Sunday is not the Christian's Sabbath.

The Hebrew writer does discuss what replaced Sabbath observances under the new covenant. "For who, having heard, rebelled? Indeed, was it not all who came out of Egypt, led by Moses? Now with whom was He angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief. Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it. For we who have believed do enter that rest, as He has said: "So I swore in My wrath, 'They shall not enter My rest,'" although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. For He has spoken in a certain place of the seventh day in this way: "And God rested on the seventh day from all His works"; and again in this place: "They shall not enter My rest." Since therefore it remains that some must enter it, and those to whom it was first preached did not enter because of disobedience, again He designates a certain day, saying in David, "Today," after such a long time, as it has been said: "Today, if you will hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts." For if Joshua had given them rest, then He would not afterward have spoken of another day. There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His. Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience" (Hebrews 4:1-11).

The writer of Hebrews tells us that there is a promised rest for the people of God. It is not the weekly rest of the Israelites, but a complete and final rest obtained after a life of obedient work for God. The true Sabbath rest for the Christian is our home in heaven which is waiting for us.


  1. When did the covenants change? List verses to prove your point.
  2. One common objection to the Sabbath ending is to point out that Jesus kept the Sabbath. How would you answer this objection?
  3. Some point to passages, such as Matthew 24:20, and claim that people were keeping the Sabbath after the covenants changed. How would you answer this objection?
  4. The Sabbath Day memorialized the creation and Israel's freedom from slavery. What does the first day of week signify to the Christian?
  5. Read Galations 3:10-29; 4:21-26, 31. Can we justify a practice because it was done under the old law? Why?
  6. Look through Deuteronomy 4. Some content that there is a difference between the covenant, the law, and the Ten Commandments. Is this true? Why?
  7. Read James 2:10-12 and Galatians 3:10. Some claim that Jesus took away only portions of the old law. Could this be true? Why?
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