The Sabbath was practiced by God when He ceased working on the seventh day (Gen 2:2-4). The word ‘rest’ in the Greek is `shawbath’ and actually means ‘to cease’ or ‘desist’. God finished his work on the 6th day and stopped working on the 7th day – God did not ‘rest’ as we usually understand the word. God is omnipotent – He has no need to rest. Indeed, God ceased His work, but He made the day holy – He set it apart. He sanctified it. So we see that originally that God ceased work on the Sabbath – the seventh day of the universe.
The importance of the Sabbath can be seen in Exodus 20 where God made it the fourth commandment that He gave the Israelites – His chosen people. Here, in verse 11 of chapter 20 in Exodus, we see that Israel was commanded to observe it because God created the universe in 6 days and ceased work on the 7th (the word in Exodus 20:11 for ‘rest’ (noo-akh) can also be translated as ‘cease’). The teaching of the Sabbath is repeated numerous times – especially in the Pentateuch (Ex. 20:11; 31:13–16; 34:21; 35:2-3.; Lv. 19:3, 30; 23; Nu 15:32-36; Dt. 5:12-15).
We see it first began in Genesis 2:2-4 as a day God ceased working. Then we see in Ex 20:11 that Israel was commanded to observe it because of what God had done in creating the universe. Then in Exodus 31:12-18, we see that God is now commanding Israel to honor the Sabbath, not because He created the universe, but as a sign between God and His chosen people so they may know that it is God who sanctifies them. Then in Deuteronomy 5:12-15, we see God saying the Sabbath was to be observed of what God had done for the Israelites personally – He had removed His people from slavery. So we see a slight transition in the reason God tells His people to honor it. First, God ceased work on that day. Then the Israelites were told to observe the Sabbath because God of what God has done in the creation of the universe. Then they were told to observe it as a sign between God and the Israelites because God had created the universe and ceased work on the 7th day, as well as to remind them that it is He who set them apart and made them a holy people. Finally we see that God wants people to honor it because of what He had done for them personally.
God’s people, the Israelites, were to keep the Sabbath. It originally was the on the seventh day, but other Sabbaths were added by God. These Sabbaths were other special days, months and years set aside for God (Leviticus 23:1-8). We also see that the people were to come together on the Sabbath and celebrate God and what He had done for them. The Sabbaths were so important that God even gave us an example of what was to occur if/when it was violated By Israel – death (Nu. 15:32–36).
Not only did God say that whomever the Sabbath violated was to be put to death, but God also said that if you turn from your own ways on the Sabbath and honor His Sabbath, you will delight in Him (Is. 58:13-14). If you observe His Sabbath, He will bless you. Observing the Sabbath is intended as a sign of the faith, honor, and love you have for God.
But though the Israelites were told to honor the Sabbath and that honoring it would bring blessing, the Pharisees took observing the Sabbath to such an extreme that they did not even allow the dragging of a chair across the floor or healing someone. This was not what God had intended. Jesus identified Himself as the Lord of the Sabbath (Mk. 2:28) and pointed out to the Jews their complete misunderstanding of the OT commands (Mt. 12:1–14; Mk. 2:23–28; Lk. 6:1–11). They had sought to make the observance of the Sabbath more rigorous than God had commanded. It was not wrong to eat on the Sabbath, even if the food must be obtained by plucking corn from the ears. Nor was it wrong to do good on the Sabbath day. To heal was a work of mercy, and the Lord of the Sabbath is merciful (cf. also Jn. 5:1–18; Lk. 13:10–17; 14:1–6). In Mk 2:27, we see the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. [i]
The Pharisees had the problem of making the observance of the Sabbath too hard, but the Christians in Rome had a different problem. They were disagreeing about whether to observe the Sabbath. Paul wrote in Romans 14:5-6a, “One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord,” (cf. Col. 2:16). ‘Which position a person held meant nothing to the apostle. His concern was that each one should be fully convinced in his own mind (cf. Rom. 14:14, 22), examining his heart to be sure he is doing what he feels the Lord would have him do. And he should hold his opinion to the Lord.’ [ii]
The Galatians had a different problem concerning the Sabbath. In Galatians 4:8-11, Paul warned that they should avoid legalism and that they would not gain extra merit before God by observing them. We are saved by faith (Eph 2:8), and nothing can be added to faith as grounds for justification (Rom 3:20) or sanctification (Acts 26:18).[iii]
The Colossians had still another problem with the Sabbath – people were wanting to judge them concerning the Sabbath (Colossians 2:8-17) – we are not told if it was because they were or were not observing it or whether they were observing it on the seventh day or the first, or anything about why they were being judged. But Paul reminded them that they were born again through faith, because of the work that God had done through Christ. God “canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees.” As such, they should allow no one to judge them concerning festivals or Sabbaths (esp. Col. 2:16-17), because these are mere shadows of what is to come – the time when we celebrate and honor and worship God in person in heaven. Some people think Paul is speaking of the Sabbaths that are not the seventh day of the week. But it can be translated either way, and there is no way to tell what the author originally intended. What we do know is that Paul was not legalistic about the Sabbath. We also know that it really should not matter, as the Sabbath was intended to be something to remind us of what God has done for each of us and so we could show our faith, honor, and love of Him.
Recall that Paul went to the church leaders in Jerusalem about what he was teaching. While there, believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees said that Gentile believers should be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses – which would include the Sabbath. The Apostles’ response was to only require of new believers to “abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication” (Acts 15:4-29). These new believers were told to not do things that they might have done in their former lives – they were now part of God’s chosen people and had to leave some things of the old way of life and life more holy lives. Paul tells the Roman Christians to agree on the essentials of faith but to consider differences regarding eating of meat and Sabbath observance (literal obedience to Old Testament legal ceremonies) as matters of individual conscience and therefore unessential to salvation [iv] (Romans 14:1-15:3). He said that people should be convinced in their own mind concerning observing the Sabbath, that it was not a way to gain merit, nor was it not something about which we should be divisive, nor was it something about which we should judge others (Galatians 4:7-10; Colossians 2:16-17).
While Paul dealt with multiple issues concerning the Sabbath, the one thing he did not directly deal with was what day the Sabbath was to be observed. The day the Sabbath was honored changed from the seventh day to the first day because Christ was resurrected on the first day of the week (Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1). He also first appeared to His disciples on the first day of the week (Mk 16:9-10; Matt. 28:9; Luke 24:34, 18–33; John 20:19–23). We also see that the new Covenant believers met on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7-8). Further evidence that Christians met on the first day of the week is found in 1 Corinthians 16:2, where they are told to set aside money the first day of the week.
Some might mention that Hebrews 4:1-11 says that if you have faith you will enter into God’s rest. The rest spoken of here is the same rest spoken of in Psalms 95 – a future rest, the heavenly rest of being with God in heaven. And the Sabbath rest spoken of here is that Sabbath God enjoys in heaven – the ceasing of work on the seventh day that God did.
While the fourth commandment states we are to observe the Sabbath, The Bible Knowledge Commentary notes that this is the only commandment not repeated in the New Testament. Even so, no commandment is explicitly repealed in the New Testament.[v]
God said that if you observe His Sabbath, you will delight in Him (Is. 58:13). Observing the Sabbath is intended as a sign of the faith and love you have for God. We should observe the Sabbath, but we should not use it as a means of saying how spiritual we are or as a means of achieving righteousness – the only righteousness we have is that of Christ’s.
Thus, the Sabbath was originally given to man as a way to remind people of what He had done for them, and it is intended as a way show love and honor to God. It was so strongly desired by God that He made it a commandment – breaking it was punishable by death. No commandment was ever explicitly negated by anything in the New Testament. However, the day it was honored changed from the seventh day to the first day of the week when Christ was resurrected. Honoring the Sabbath will do nothing to gain us merit with God, but it will show we love and honor him and it will allow us to rest. As such, we should honor it.
[i]Wood, D. R. W., & Marshall, I. H. 1996. New Bible dictionary (3rd ed. /) . InterVarsity Press: Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill.
cf. confer, compare
[ii]Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary. 1983-c1985. The Bible knowledge commentary : An exposition of the scriptures . Victor Books: Wheaton, IL
[iii]Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary. 1983-c1985. The Bible knowledge commentary : An exposition of the scriptures . Victor Books: Wheaton, IL
[iv]Elwell, W. A. (. 1989. Evangelical Commentary on the Bible. (Ro 14:1). Baker Book House Company: Grand Rapids, MI
[v]Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary. 1983-c1985. The Bible knowledge commentary : An exposition of the scriptures . Victor Books: Wheaton, IL