A Meditation on the Sabbath and its Fulfilment in Christ


The concept of Sabbath pervades the Bible from beginning to end.  In the first book of the Bible, on the seventh day of creation God rested from his work (Gen 2:2).  In the last book of the Bible comes the final rest of humanity as the people of God rest from their labours (Rev 14:13).  On the pages in between Sabbath rest is a vitally significant concept throughout.  Sabbath is much more than simply taking one day a week away from work.  It is impossible to discuss the Sabbath in a short piece because the concepts are too diverse.  Hence my exploration of the Sabbath has become more of a book than an essay.

Although it is true that Sabbath rest is a very important theme in the Bible, it is not of course the central theme.  The centre of the biblical revelation is the person of Christ.  The goal in this book is to go beyond the (many) literal commands to observe the Sabbath, and to explore how Jesus has fulfilled the Sabbath.  Since Jesus is the one who came to fulfil the Law and the Prophets (Matt 5:17) and who is the substance, of which the Law is but the shadow (Col 2:17), we would expect that the Sabbath would be fulfilled in him.  This has been my assumption throughout.

Therefore, for every aspect of the Sabbath, and there are many, I intend to explore the way in which this relates to Jesus Christ.  When the Sabbath is understood through Christ it is possible to live out the Sabbath principle as God intended from the beginning.  We will find that the Sabbath is not an irrelevant and outdated part of the Law, but is intrinsically tied up with the goal of human life and wellbeing.  Human beings are destined to share in God’s own rest.  That rest can only be found in Christ.

Sabbath as Physical Rest

Sabbath means many things, but the first way of understanding Sabbath must be as physical rest.  The Old Testament contains many commands to do no work on the Sabbath day.  The most well known example is found in the Ten Commandments.

Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you.  Six days you shall labour and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work– you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.  Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day (Deut 5:12-15).[1]

This command is repeated in Exodus 20:8-11 with the variation that the reason for keeping the Sabbath is different.  There are also other places where the command to do no work is repeated.  “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and the resident alien may be refreshed” (Exodus 23:12).  “You shall kindle no fire in all your dwellings on the Sabbath day” (Exodus 35:3).  “Six days shall work be done; but the seventh day is a Sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation; you shall do no work: it is a Sabbath to the LORD throughout your settlements” (Leviticus 23:3).

The reason which is given in Deuteronomy for observing the Sabbath is “you were a slave in Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”  When the Hebrew people lived in Egypt they grew in numbers until there were so many of them that the Egyptian Pharaoh felt threatened by them.  Then he decided to keep Israel in check by oppressing the people with forced labour (Exodus 1:8-11).  The LORD heard the cries of his people because of their suffering under slave drivers and he decided to rescue them (Exod 3:7-8).  The Exodus story is one of miraculous deliverance from the oppression and slavery in Egypt.  The command to observe the Sabbath is therefore in contrast to the forced labour which was the lot of the people in Egypt.  It is a command which is provided so that the people do not need to work like slaves.  Slaves do not have the privilege of stopping work when they want to, but the freed people of Israel did have this privilege, and indeed they had this responsibility.

The command to rest on the Sabbath is not outmoded by Jesus Christ.  As part of the Ten Commandments it cannot be done away with.  Christians would not claim that it is now appropriate to commit adultery or to steal because the Law has been fulfilled in Christ.  The Sabbath is on the same level as these other commands.  Jesus did not negate the Sabbath, but spoke against the extreme rules which had been instigated by the scribes and Pharisees regarding the Sabbath (e.g. Luke 6:1-5).

What the person of Jesus Christ tells us about the physical rest on the Sabbath is not found so much in something which Jesus said, but in the fact of the incarnation.  To understand the significance of the incarnation for the Sabbath we must go back to the story of creation and fall.  Human beings are creatures.  Being a creature, in contrast to the Creator, is to be a finite being.  Only the eternal God can be infinite in being.  When Adam and Eve were tempted in the Garden of Eden, they were enticed by the promise of the serpent that if they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they would become like God.  The temptation was for the first humans trying to bypass the God-given condition of being people in the image and likeness of God by disobeying God’s Word.  The result of their disobedience is that human beings now see themselves in the place of God, but without the image and likeness of God which comes from obedience.  Fallen humanity desires to be godlike without being obedient to the Creator God.  One consequence of human beings wanting to be godlike is that we do not want to accept our finitude.  Humanity is not happy with human limitations but desires to be without limits.

This is why the incarnation is important to our understanding of Sabbath as physical rest.  The Son of God, who is eternally at the Father’s side (John 1:18) and who is infinite in being, humbled himself and became a human being.  He emptied himself and became a servant.  As this were not enough, he went as far as to die and that on a cross (Phil 2:6-8).  Jesus became a finite human being.  He accepted the real limits of being a creature.  Jesus needed to sleep (Matt 8:24; Mark 4:38; Luke 8:23), he grew tired (John 4:6) and needed to eat (Matt 21:18; Mark 11:12; Luke 4:2, 15:2) (He even ate after his resurrection).  Jesus needed to rest.  In accepting finitude Jesus has affirmed the Sabbath as a day of physical rest.

Therefore, when we practise physical rest on the Sabbath we are doing so as an act of acceptance that we are finite creatures.  This is a deliberate submission to the one who created us and a deliberate admission that what God has done in creating humanity as finite is good.  When Jesus took on human form with its limitations he declared just that.  God is good and his creation is good.  Being a created being with limitations is good.  So there is no reason to make the claim that Christians are not obligated to observe the Sabbath as physical rest.  This is because one of the ways in which Jesus fulfilled the Sabbath is by assuming human finitude and the need for physical rest.

The Sabbath as Trust in God’s Provision

The Sabbath involves physical rest and the acknowledgement that human limitations are part of God’s good plan in creation.  Observing the Sabbath also involves the exercise of faith.  This is well illustrated by the story in Exodus chapter 16.  After Israel had come out of Egypt they complained about lack of food and God gave them manna and quail to eat.  Specific instructions were given about gathering this food.  Each day the food was to be gathered and none kept overnight.  But on the sixth day the people were to gather and prepare twice as much as other days.  This was because no food was to be gathered or prepared on the Sabbath.

And Moses said to them, “Let no one leave any of it over until morning.”  But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul. And Moses was angry with them.  Morning by morning they gathered it, as much as each needed; but when the sun grew hot, it melted.  On the sixth day they gathered twice as much food, two omers apiece. When all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, he said to them, “This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD; bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning.’”  So they put it aside until morning, as Moses commanded them; and it did not become foul, and there were no worms in it.  Moses said, “Eat it 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 a Sabbath, there will be none.”  On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, and they found none.  The LORD said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and instructions?  See! The LORD has given you the Sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you food for two days; each of you stay where you are; do not leave your place on the seventh day.”  So the people rested on the seventh day (Exod 16:19-30).

The instructions about gathering and not gathering were given as a test to see if the people would be obedient (verse 4).  The rest on the Sabbath day was a rest which involved not dealing with the necessities of finding and preparing food for the day.  This is necessary every other day of the week, but on the Sabbath it must not be done.  Rest, then, necessitates trust that God will provide as much as is needed for the day when no food can be gathered.  There were some who did not trust and did not obey.  When it was the Sabbath they went out to gather food and found none.  But those who did exercise faith discovered the faithfulness of God.

Jesus, who is author and finisher of faith (Heb12:2), fulfilled this aspect of the Sabbath by trusting completely in the provision of God.

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.  The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”  Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone’” (Luke 4:1-4).

In this story Jesus is fulfilling the Law’s requirement for trust in the Father.  Some of the people in the Exodus story did not trust in the provision of the Father, but went out trying to find extra on the Sabbath.  But Jesus trusted fully in the provision of the Father.  In obedience he fasted for forty days.  In obedience he did not take it upon himself to step outside the will of the Father in order to make provision for his physical needs.  The statement, ‘One does not live by bread alone’ is a quotation from Deuteronomy 8.

Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.  He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD (Deut 8:2-3).

Unlike the sons of Israel who disobeyed the commands of Yahweh in the wilderness, Jesus was completely obedient.  He passed the test (Exod 16:4; Deut 8:2) because his heart was fully set on obedience over all else.  In this way Jesus fulfilled the command to not gather on the Sabbath.  His obedience included not gathering until the Father gave his word.  Therefore he would not turn the stones into bread.  Because the heart of Jesus desired nothing but obedience to the commands of his Father, he has been made the one through whom all of our needs are now met.  This is why he can say:

“Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.  For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”  They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”  Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty (John 6:32-35).

Since Jesus is the true bread from heaven, feeding on him is the way to Sabbath rest.

The Sabbath as a stand against greed and idolatry

Observing the Sabbath rest to show that we trust in the provision of the Father is an exercise of faith in the one who rewards those who seek him (Heb 12:6).  The people of Israel were expected to exercise faith by observing the Sabbath even at the busiest times of the year.  “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even in ploughing time and in harvest time you shall rest” (Exod 34:21).  It is in obeying the command to keep the Sabbath that we guard against greed and idolatry.  In a society in which economic gain and advancement is held up as one of the highest goods we must again remember the Sabbath, because the Sabbath rest stands against this idolising of wealth and economic gain.  The book of Nehemiah is illustrative of the way in which greed stands opposed to the Sabbath.  Nehemiah had to institute some strict measures to keep some of the people from breaking the Sabbath because of their greed.

In those days I saw in Judah people treading wine presses on the Sabbath, and bringing in heaps of grain and loading them on donkeys; and also wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day; and I warned them at that time against selling food.  Tyrians also, who lived in the city, brought in fish and all kinds of merchandise and sold them on the Sabbath to the people of Judah, and in Jerusalem.  Then I remonstrated with the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing that you are doing, profaning the Sabbath day?  Did not your ancestors act in this way, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Yet you bring more wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath.”  When it began to be dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and gave orders that they should not be opened until after the Sabbath.  And I set some of my servants over the gates, to prevent any burden from being brought in on the Sabbath day.  Then the merchants and sellers of all kinds of merchandise spent the night outside Jerusalem once or twice.  But I warned them and said to them, “Why do you spend the night in front of the wall? If you do so again, I will lay hands on you.” From that time on they did not come on the Sabbath.  And I commanded the Levites that they should purify themselves and come and guard the gates, to keep the Sabbath day holy.  Remember this also in my favour, O my God, and spare me according to the greatness of your steadfast love (Neh 13:15-22).

The book of Nehemiah is written about the people of Judah who had come back from the exile in Babylon.  One of the reasons that they were sent into exile was for failing to keep the Sabbath (verse 18, see also Jer 17:27).  Yet the greed of the people was such that they could not keep from desecrating the Sabbath by trying to conduct business and make money on the Sabbath.  It was not enough to make money six days of the week, but they wanted to make even more money by trading on the seventh day.  (This is a scenario which is all too familiar in Australia today.)  Even when these people were prevented from trading on the Sabbath they hung around waiting for the sun to come up so they could conduct business again.  This demonstrates a heart attitude of resentment toward the Sabbath command and correspondingly a heart attitude toward the one who gave the command.  This attitude of outward observation and inward agitation and wishing for the Sabbath to be over exhibits the underlying idolatry.

The New Testament makes this connection between greed and idolatry explicit.  “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)” (Col 3:5).  It is in putting aside every other god than the one true God (Matt 4:10) that Jesus overcame human idolatry and in this way fulfils the Sabbath.

As the eternal Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ possessed all things, but he gave these up in becoming an infant in the womb of Mary.  As Paul writes: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).  Jesus did not come as one who lived like a king, but like one who lived as a slave (Phil 2:7).  He did not live in a palace, but had no place to lay his head (Matt 8:20).  Nothing which Jesus did was for the sake of his own gain.  His life was wholly committed to living out the Father’s will.

Jesus opposed those for whom economic gain was the driving force in opposition to the commands of God.  He cleared the money changers and animal sellers out of the temple (John 2:13-16).  Their hearts were like those in the book of Nehemiah.  Instead of honouring the Father in their buying and selling, they were abusing the temple, and hence abusing the Father, through their economic actions.  The apostle John remarks about this event: “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’” (John 2:17).  This is a reference to Psalm 69:9.  The one referred to in the psalm, that is, Jesus, endures shame, insult and disgrace for the sake of Yahweh.  He has given up all for his dedication to God.  It is not economic gain which motivated the person of Jesus, but only giving honour and glory to his Father.

In putting the commands of the Father above economic gain Jesus fulfilled the Sabbath command not to conduct business on the Sabbath.  In having no other gods but the one God, Jesus fulfilled the Sabbath command by not entering into the idolatry of greed.

The Sabbath as holy

The Sabbath is a day of physical rest, a day in which we are to trust in the provision of the Father by ceasing our economic activity and it is a day which is holy, that is, a day which is set apart from other days.  The Sabbath is designated a holy day on many occasions in the Old Testament (Exod 16:23; Exod 20:8-11; Exod 31:13-15; Exod 35:2; Lev 23:3; Deut 5:12; Neh 9:14; Neh 10:32; Isa 58:13; Jer 17:22-27; Ezek 20:20; and Ezek 44:24).  The holiness of the Sabbath therefore cannot be ignored.  Six days in the week are given over to mundane pursuits such as providing food and clothing, conducting business and education, cleaning and cooking, attending to the ordinary affairs of life.  But one day in seven is given over to something else.  The explanation for the holiness of the Sabbath day is the creation account in Genesis chapter 2.  “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed [made holy] it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation” (Genesis 2:3).  When God had finished his work of creation, he rested and set apart the seventh day.  The day is set apart because it is the day on which God himself rested from work.

It is something strange that Almighty God should have need for rest from his work.  Surely he was not tired.  “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4).  “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable” (Isaiah 40:28).  The testimony of scripture is quite clear that our God does not have need of rest and yet he rested on the seventh day.  This is not simply an anthropomorphism to provide justification for human rest on the seventh day.  There is a genuine reason for the rest of God on the Sabbath.  To understand this we must turn to the New Testament, in particular its statements about the role of Jesus Christ in the creation of the world.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers– all things have been created through him and for him.  He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Col 1:15-17).

The Father created all things in Christ, his beloved Son, so that all things would be beloved by him.  The Son is set apart (holy) for the Father (Luke 1:35; 2:23; 3:22; John 6:69) before the day is set apart.  He is eternally the Father’s precious Son and has always been at his side (John 1:1-3, 18).  Since the Son is holy, that is, set apart for the Father, and the one through whom the Father made the world, the Father sees the creation through the lens of the holiness of the Son.  The Father takes joy in his Son forever, and therefore he takes joy in the creation made in the Son.  This is why the creation is good, why it is blessed by God, and why God was refreshed when he had finished making the creation.  The joy which the Father received from creating in Christ, his beloved Son, is celebrated in the Sabbath day.  It is set apart for God in order that he might take time to joy in the creation which reflects for him the wonders of his Son.

For this reason, if for no other, the Sabbath will never become irrelevant to Christians as long as we live in this created world.  If the Father set apart the day to enjoy the creation he made through his beloved Son, then Christians also must set aside time to enjoy the works of the Father in the Son.  The Sabbath is just as much for Christians as it was for Israel.  We have even more to enjoy because we have the fuller revelation to contemplate on the day of rest.  It is in the Son, Jesus, that we are refreshed.  The holiness of the Son is refreshing for the Father and the Father contemplates and enjoys that which he has done through the Son.  We too will be refreshed as we set apart the day for contemplation of what God our Father has done in his Son.  This is the first purpose of the Sabbath.

Sabbath as refreshment

God has set apart the Sabbath for himself because he rested was refreshed on the seventh day of creation.  “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and the resident alien may be refreshed” (Exod 23:12).  “It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.” (Exod 31:17).

The word refreshed in Hebrew contains the same consonants as the world for soul – npš.  The basic idea of this word as a noun is ‘breath’.  As the verb ‘refresh’ the idea is that of catching the breath during a rest.  It appears only three times in this form in the Old Testament.  (see also 2 Sam 16:14).

The command to rest on the Sabbath is explained in two ways.  The command to rest is given so that every person in the household will be refreshed.  Those who are mentioned as needing refreshment are the ones with no status at all.  First the animals, who would have had no status in human society, but whom God cares about.  The animals did heavy work – carrying loads and ploughing fields.  Rest and refreshing is not only for human beings.  It is also for the land, which I will discuss later.  Observation of the Sabbath extends even to the animals in the household because they are also finite creatures and need to be refreshed.  There are two kinds of people mentioned in the command – homeborn slaves and resident aliens.  Slaves were not to be treated like machines, but as human beings who are dignified and in need of refreshing like those who are not slaves.  Resident aliens would have add very low status because they were Gentiles.  But these people too are to be treated well and given rest.

The Sabbath is something which pervades the Bible.  Creation must rest; whether it is people, animals or the land, everything must rest.  Everything and everyone must take time to catch their breath and be revitalised.  The Sabbath is a time for being renewed and for regaining perspective on life.  The Sabbath command is a good command, a command which reflects the mercy of God.  Life is not meant to be one continuous race to see how much can be accomplished.  Even though the lot of humanity after the fall is grim compared to the ease which existed in Eden, there is still intended to be rest and refreshing.  After the Sabbath humans and animals can return to their work with renewed energy.  After the Sabbath refreshing it is possible to continue on with life with joy because we have ‘caught our breath’ for a day.

The second verse in Exodus gives the reason why the Sabbath day has been instituted. God himself rested and was refreshed on the seventh day of creation.  Why and how can God ‘catch his breath’?  God is refreshed by contemplating his works on the seventh day.  Once he had finished creating the world and human beings, God was refreshed by enjoying his creation.  As he created through the Son this refreshing is something which comes through the contemplation of the Son.  If God chooses to relax and enjoy that which he has done, then it is fitting for human beings to move beyond merely doing to contemplation of what has been done.  We contemplate God’s works on the Sabbath, but we also gain perspective on our own work on the Sabbath.  We cannot work continuously without time spent in thinking about the meaning and purpose of what we do.  Work must have an end goal.

Jesus also has finished his work.  The Gospel of John records the last words of Jesus on the cross as “It is finished” (John 19:30).  Jesus has no more to do in order to secure salvation for his people.  “So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Heb 9:28).  Since the work of Jesus is done he has sat down at the right hand of the Father (Heb 10:12).  As the one who has been raised from the dead Jesus is now resting from his work and he is refreshed.  Now the Father can contemplate his Son through the Spirit for all eternity, because all the work has been finished.  God is continually refreshed by the contemplation of his Son.  Jesus is continually refreshed by the Spirit, because he has finished the work the Father gave him to do.  As the people of God we can share in the refreshing which is both given by the Father in the Son through the Spirit.

The Sabbath as worship

The Sabbath has its basis in the day that God rested from his works of creation.  On that day he enjoyed the creation that he had made through his beloved Son.  It is therefore appropriate that the Sabbath is observed by humans as a day in which to remember and to contemplate the wonderful works of God.  This is another way of saying that the Sabbath is a day for worship.  Psalm 92 is the Psalm which best gives voice to the Sabbath as worship.

<A Psalm. A Song for the Sabbath Day.> It is good to give thanks to the LORD, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night, to the music of the lute and the harp, to the melody of the lyre.  For you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy.  How great are your works, O LORD! Your thoughts are very deep!  The dullard cannot know, the stupid cannot understand this: though the wicked sprout like grass and all evildoers flourish, they are doomed to destruction forever, but you, O LORD, are on high forever. For your enemies, O LORD, for your enemies shall perish; all evildoers shall be scattered.  But you have exalted my horn like that of the wild ox; you have poured over me fresh oil.  My eyes have seen the downfall of my enemies; my ears have heard the doom of my evil assailants.  The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.  They are planted in the house of the LORD; they flourish in the courts of our God.  In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap, showing that the LORD is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him (Psalm 92).

This psalm celebrates several things: the love of God, that is, his ḥesed and his faithfulness; his mighty works; the defeat of enemies by Yahweh; the blessing of the righteous; and the righteousness of Yahweh.  All these things and other aspects of the salvation of our God are worthy matters to meditate on for the day of worship.  These are not merely matters for contemplation on the Sabbath, but on the Sabbath day the distractions of everyday existence are put aside so that the people of God can spend uninterrupted time in expressing praise for the wonderful things which God has done towards his people.

The final paragraph of the book of Isaiah speaks of the new heavens and new earth.  When these have arrived everyone on every Sabbath will worship the LORD (Isa 66:23).  This is an indication that worship of God is part of the ultimate destiny and purpose of the people of God.  We are made for the worship of God.  Luther was sure that, even though human beings are sinners after the fall, God still commands us to keep the Sabbath so that we will worship the creator.[2]  The Sabbath is given to us so that we can focus on the worship of God.

Jesus is the one who most perfectly worshipped the Father.  There are set ways of worship prescribed in the Old Testament.  The law sets out sacrifices and offerings for people to bring to God.  Yet the epistle to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus has brought that system of worship to an end.

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.  Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me)” (Heb 10:5-7).

In becoming a human being the Son of God brought to the Father the perfect sacrifice and offering, namely his obedient life.  In everything which Jesus did, he did the will of the Father.  This he did, not grudgingly, but with joy.  Jesus’ whole desire was to honour his Father in everything (John 8:4).  This is the essence of worship.

It is clear that Jesus refused to offer worship to any other than the one true God.  In the wilderness the devil tempted him, offering him all the kingdoms of the earth in exchange for offering worship to Satan.  “Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”” (Matt 4:10).  For Jesus there could be no deviation from the worship of God in his life.  Even in his most vulnerable moments Jesus continued to trust in the steadfast love of the LORD and in his faithfulness (cf. Psalm 92:1-2).  On the eve of the crucifixion, after they had celebrated the last supper, both Matthew and Mark record: “When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Matt 26:30; Mark 14:26).  Praise was on the lips of Jesus just before his death.  Just after this, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus submitted to the will of the Father (Matt 26:42).  This submission to the Father’s will was an act of pure worship.  In refusing to rescue himself from the cross (Matt 27:41-44) Jesus continued to offer worship in his submission even unto death.

Therefore it is always through Jesus that we come to worship.  “Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name” (Heb 13:15).  “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:5).  Our Sabbath worship, and indeed the worship of every day, is offered through Jesus Christ, the one who has fulfilled the Sabbath in every aspect.

Sabbath and atonement

Related to the idea that Sabbath is for worship are two ideas: atonement and reverence for the sanctuary.  I will discuss these in order.

In the OT Law the Sabbath is strongly connected to the sacrificial system.  There were special offerings for the Sabbath in addition to the normal daily sacrifices.  These included the bread of the presence (Lev 24:5-8) and the Sabbath sacrifices of lambs, flour and grain offerings, and drink offerings (Num 28:9-10).  But the most significant example of Sabbath and sacrifice is the Day of Atonement.  “For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the LORD.  It is a Sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall deny yourselves; it is a statute forever” (Leviticus 16:30-31).

The Day of Atonement is an extremely important day in the year for Israel.  On that day, and no other, the High Priest entered into the Holy of Holies, behind the veil, to where the Ark of the Covenant resided (Lev 16:2).  The Ark of the Covenant was topped by the ‘mercy seat’ (Exod 25:21).  The High Priest, after making sacrifice for his own sin and bathing with water (Lev 16:3-6), would offer sacrifice beyond the veil for the sins of the people (Lev 16:15-16).  While the High Priest was in the Holy of Holies he burnt incense over the mercy seat to conceal it so that he will not die (Lev 16:13).  No one else was permitted in the sanctuary while this is going on (Lev 16:17).

After the High Priest has offered the sacrifice of atonement inside the sanctuary something else took place outside the camp.  Two goats were chosen, one to be a sacrifice and one to be a scapegoat, which is sent outside the camp into the wilderness.  The scapegoat was also for making atonement for the people (Lev 16:5-10).  The scapegoat was put in front of the sanctuary where the High Priest put his hands on its head and confessed over it all the sins of the people.  Then a man would take the scapegoat out into the wilderness and release it there and it would take the sins of the people to an uninhabited place (Lev 16:20-22).

Modern Jews cannot offer the sacrifices as laid down in Leviticus, because there is no Jewish temple in Jerusalem now.  However, the Day of Atonement is still important.  On that Day Jews join in a 25 hour fast (no food or water) and spend most of the day in the synagogue, praying and repenting of sin.  No work can be done on that day.[3]  Quite possibly the day of rest is intended to allow this time for prayer and confession of sin.  It is a day which should not be taken lightly.  The significance of the day is too great to ignore it by participating in ordinary daily activities.

The significance of Christ for the Day of Atonement is central in the New Testament.  Jesus came as the Lamb of God who was the fulfilment of both the sacrifice in the sanctuary and the scapegoat.  His sacrifice for sin upon the cross is without question.  By shedding his own blood on the cross he made atonement for the whole world (1 John 2:2).  In this way he opened up the heavenly sanctuary.  Hebrews explains it like this:

But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.  For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God! (Heb 9:11-14).

Jesus is also our scapegoat.  This concept is one which is spoken of rarely and the New Testamant does not use the term scapegoat at all.  However, the idea of Jesus as scapegoat is present in the Gospels, particularly in Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism.  After his baptism Jesus went into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  Mark describes this using the word ekballō, which means caste out.  “And the Spirit immediately drove (ekballō) him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12).  This statement is reminiscent of the description of the scapegoat in Leviticus 16:21 where the scapegoat is sent away into the wilderness.  Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance describes Jesus’ work as scapegoat like this:

We recall that at the River Jordan Jesus was vicariously baptised into repentance and consecrated as the Lamb of God to bear and bear away the sin of the world, and that immediately afterwards he was driven by the Spirit like a scapegoat into a waste land where under the burden of our sin he became the prey of the forces of darkness which sought to wrench him away from his mission as the Servant of the Lord.  And so throughout his ministry Jesus was held of no account and treated as someone to be avoided, despised and rejected of men.[4]

The result of the sacrifice of Christ is that Jesus is our new and permanent High Priest.  His sacrifice means that the Holy of Holies is no longer only accessible once a year and only to the Aaronic High Priest.  Now every person who is in Christ through faith may enter into the Holy of Holies and approach the throne of grace with boldness (Heb 4:14-16).  Our rest because of the atonement effected by Jesus is now a permanent rest.  We are freed from the weight of sin which held us captive and kept us from approaching God in his awesome holiness.  Everyday activities, all the things which Christians do in their lives, are now lived before the throne of God in heaven.  In this sense Sabbath is an everyday event, because our rest from sin does not end.

Sabbath and reverence for the sanctuary

In the Old Testament there is a clear connection between Sabbath observance and reverence for the sanctuary – either tabernacle or temple.  The nation of Israel is commanded: “You shall keep my Sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 26:2).  Solomon declared: “I am now about to build a house for the name of the LORD my God and dedicate it to him for offering fragrant incense before him, and for the regular offering of the rows of bread, and for burnt offerings morning and evening, on the Sabbaths and the new moons and the appointed festivals of the LORD our God, as ordained forever for Israel” (2 Chronicles 2:4).  The temple had several functions and at least one of those included offering sacrifices on the Sabbath.

There is a transformation in the New Testament of the understanding of temple.  We might expect the way in which temple and Sabbath are connected would also be transformed.  Malachi prophesied: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.  The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight– indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts” (Mal 3:1).  This prophecy was fulfilled in the coming of Jesus, because in the person of Christ the Lord came to his temple.

The attitude of Jesus to the temple is clearly one of reverence.  Jesus entered the temple for the first time as an infant brought by his parents (Luke 2:22-24).  The second time Luke records Jesus being in the temple is when Jesus was twelve years old (Luke 2:41-50).  In this story the temple is for Jesus a place of learning (2:46-47) and a place where he could commune with his heavenly Father (2:49).  This communion with his Father was to Jesus more important than going home with his family.  Jesus spent much of his time in Jerusalem in the temple courts.  Most significant in terms of his reverence for the temple is the story, told in every Gospel, of Jesus turning out the money changers and the sellers of livestock from the temple precincts (Matt 21:12-13).  In John’s Gospel this incident is attached to the teaching of Jesus about himself as the temple (John 2:18-22).  It is obvious that the people did not understand what he meant because this is brought up as a false accusation at his trial before the Sanhedrin (Matt 26:1).

The death of Christ brought about a fundamental change in the architecture of the temple.  When he died the temple curtain was torn in two (Matt 27:50-51).  Hebrews tells us that this curtain was his own body (Heb 10:20).  An even greater physical change to the temple came about when it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.  So, although the early church worshipped in the physical temple, this situation could not last.  When we come to the teaching of the epistles about the temple, it is not just Jesus who is the temple but the body of Christ.  The church is the temple of the Spirit (1 Cor 3:16; 6:19; Eph 2:18-22).  Jesus promises his faithful followers that they will be forever in the temple of God (Rev 3:12).

Therefore in the New Testament if there is a connection between observation of the Sabbath and reverence for the sanctuary then we must look for this connection in terms of the people of God.  God’s people are his inheritance (Eph 1:18) and he will not tolerate those who try to destroy his temple, that is, his church (1 Cor 3:17).  So I believe that part of New Testament Sabbath observance involves building up the body of Christ.  1 Corinthians has much to say about building up the body of Christ.  Paul exhorts the Corinthians to be united (1:10), to build the church on the foundation of Christ alone (3:11), to imitate those who are servant leaders rather than those who are boastful (Ch 4), and to work towards the purity of the church (5:11).  The decisions of believers must be based on love, because “love build up” (8:1), and seeking the glory of God (10:31).  This behaviour is for every day of the week, but there are also instructions for the day on which the church gathers together.

Chapters 11-14 proved instructions on how the church is to conduct itself when it meets together.  Possibly this was on the first day of the week (1 Cor 16:2; Acts 20:7).  Positively the Corinthians are exhorted to dress in a way which honours one another and Christ (11:2-16), carefully observe the traditions handed down to them by Paul (11:23), and to use their spiritual gifts for the common good (12:7) in order to edify one another (14:4).  All these things are to be done in love (Ch 13).  Negatively, it was unfortunately true that the Corinthian church was not respecting the poor (11:20-22) and they considered themselves spiritual because they spoke in tongues a lot (chapter 14).

My conclusion is that Sabbath observance in the New Testament is still connected with reverence for the sanctuary, but the way in which we understand that connection has changed.  Now that the temple of God is not a place but a people, when we observe the Sabbath by coming together to worship as the temple of God, we must love one another and build up one another, so that we reverence God’s temple.  In the New Testament reverencing God’s temple involves loving, respecting, honouring and valuing God’s people.  Without this whatever physical rest we have is not genuine Sabbath observance.

Sabbath as justice, righteousness and repentance

The New Testament understanding of reverence for the sanctuary demonstrates that Sabbath observance is more than abstaining from work on one day a week.  Sabbath observance also includes valuing of people.  A number of passages in the Old Testament demonstrate that observance of Sabbath is intended to encompass justice and mercy as well as physical rest.

Bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.  New moon and Sabbath and calling of convocation– I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.  Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.  When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.  Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.  Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool (Isaiah 1:13-18).

Observing Sabbath rest is not a selfish, self-centred matter of making sure that we have enough personal rest or recreation.  It is a matter of seeing that justice is done.  Only when justice is done for the orphan and the widow can the marginalised and the poor also join in the rest which they need.  When the widow and orphan are ignored or exploited they will not be able to rest.  It is difficult to find rest and peace while your stomach is empty or while you are forced to work seven days a week due to slavery, oppression or exploitation.  Justice is therefore necessary to make Sabbath observance possible for the poor as well as the rich.

Thus says the LORD: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.  Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil.  Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.”  For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.  And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant– these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.  Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered (Isa 56:1-8).

Sabbath observance is also associated with inclusion of those who are excluded from the community and worship of Israel.  The eunuch was excluded from the priesthood of Israel (Lev 21:20) and the assembly of the LORD (Deut 23:1).  Foreigners had a similar problem because they did not belong to Israel.  Yet the promise here is that those who keep the Sabbath, regardless of any restrictions that might otherwise apply, will be blessed by God and included by him amongst him people.  For God desires that all people would come to him, pray to him and participate in his Sabbath rest.  He wants to give rest to those who are outcastes.  When the people of God make possible Sabbath rest for those who are marginalised and excluded then God is pleased.  See also Isaiah 58:1-14 and Amos 8:5.

Sabbath observance counts for nothing at all if it is accompanied by contempt for the righteousness of God.  “For they have committed adultery, and blood is on their hands; with their idols they have committed adultery; and they have even offered up to them for food the children whom they had borne to me.  Moreover this they have done to me: they have defiled my sanctuary on the same day and profaned my Sabbaths” (Ezekiel 23:37-38).  Instead of Sabbath observance being something which pleases God, it becomes something abominable when it is done while worshipping idols and giving to idols the children which are meant to be offered to God.  There is no real rest for those who behave in this way.

The ministry of Jesus, which often took place on the Sabbath, resulted in mercy and justice to the poor and needy.  This mercy and justice to the poor is prophesied by Mary, Luke 1.

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.  He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Luke 1:46-55).

And it is the mission which Jesus proclaimed to be his when he read the scroll in the synagogue.

And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.  He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”  And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:17-21).

On the cross this inclusion is made complete, because there Jesus united Jew and Gentile.

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”– a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands– remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.  He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.  So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.  So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.  In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God (Eph 2:11-22).

While exclusion from God’s people allowed no real peace and hence no genuine rest for those who were excluded and marginalised, the death of Jesus means inclusion for all.  In Christ no one can be on the outer because in Christ all people are one.  Sabbath rest for those who were on the outer is now possible because of the cross.  In Christ there is rest for the needy, justice for the oppressed, and a transformation of God’s people so that we might be people who provide rest and peace to the weak and the lost.  This is the genuine fulfilment of God’s purposes for the Sabbath.

Sabbath as sign

A further function of the Sabbath is as a sign.

The LORD said to Moses: You yourself are to speak to the Israelites: “You shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, given in order that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you.  You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people.  Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death.  Therefore the Israelites shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant.  It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.”(Exod 31:12-17).

Moreover I gave them my Sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, so that they might know that I the LORD sanctify them.  But the house of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness; they did not observe my statutes but rejected my ordinances, by whose observance everyone shall live; and my Sabbaths they greatly profaned.  Then I thought I would pour out my wrath upon them in the wilderness, to make an end of them.  But I acted for the sake of my name, so that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, in whose sight I had brought them out.  Moreover I swore to them in the wilderness that I would not bring them into the land that I had given them, a land flowing with milk and honey, the most glorious of all lands,  because they rejected my ordinances and did not observe my statutes, and profaned my Sabbaths; for their heart went after their idols.  Nevertheless my eye spared them, and I did not destroy them or make an end of them in the wilderness.  I said to their children in the wilderness, Do not follow the statutes of your parents, nor observe their ordinances, nor defile yourselves with their idols.  I the LORD am your God; follow my statutes, and be careful to observe my ordinances, and hallow my Sabbaths that they may be a sign between me and you, so that you may know that I the LORD am your God (Ezek 20:12-20).

The Sabbath is a sign that the God of Israel has set the nation apart for himself.  When Israel was commanded to keep the Sabbath they were required to do so in order to demonstrate to the nations around that they were the people of the living God.  Keeping the Sabbath is a way of being continually reminded that the world was made in six days.  God made the world in six day and then rested and was refreshed.  The Sabbath is a reminder for Israel that the LORD, the God of Israel would bring the nation refreshing when they were obedient to him.

No doubt this has application to the people of God in the present.  As we keep the Sabbath we will demonstrate that we are the people who are set apart to the God who is creator of the world.  The world is frenetic in its pursuit of financial gain and economic growth.  The people of God can trust in the provision of God.  The kingdom of God is brought about, not by our striving, but by the God who is powerful enough to create the universe in six days.  He has no need of frenetic activity, but can rest and enjoy what he has made.  When we observe the Sabbath we can know that our God is the LORD.  This is the promise which comes with the commandment.  The Sabbath is a sign, a continual reminder, of who our God is.

But I believe that there is more to this statement about the Sabbath as sign.  In the New Testament there are many passages which speak of a sign.  The Scribes and Pharisees wanted Jesus to give them a sign.

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.”  But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.  For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth (Matt 12:38-40).

The sign which Jesus offered was that of his resurrection from the dead.  It is interesting that Jesus rose from the dead on the day after the Sabbath (Matt 28:1; Mark 16:1).  This means that on the Sabbath Jesus was in the grave.  In a sense, then, Jesus observed the Sabbath in the grave.  He did not work to raise himself to life, although we know that he was able to do so.  Instead of working to raise himself he rested on the Sabbath day in the grave, trusting in the Father to bring him back to life.

In Peter’s Pentecost sermon, he quotes Psalm 16, applying it to Jesus.

For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope.  For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption.  You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence’ (Acts 2:25-28).

It is clear that in the grave Jesus was confident that he would be raised from the dead.  He knew that he was the one set apart for the Father; he is God’s “Holy One”.  He was confident of the God who brings refreshing to his servants who obey him and he anticipated that refreshing when he would be raised to life.  He knew that his Father is God.  In all this Jesus could therefore rest in the grave, knowing that he would not be abandoned in his rest.  In this way the Sabbath as sign as become the Sabbath as the sign of Jonah.  Now when Christians keep the Sabbath they do not do so on the last day of the week, but on the first, because Jesus has risen from the dead.  When Jesus trustingly kept the Sabbath rest in the grave he transformed the Sabbath day into the Day of celebration of his resurrection.

Sabbath as sharing in God’s rest

Sabbath as sharing God’s rest

Sabbath is a sign and one of the things which Sabbath points to is that God rested on the seventh day and was refreshed.  “It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed”(Exod 31:12-17).  The Sabbath is for refreshing because in observing the Sabbath we share in God’s rest.  This was God’s intention from the beginning.  Human beings are intended to share in God’s life and part of this sharing involves rest.  This idea is repeated several times in the Old Testament.

Early in Genesis God is said to rest.  “And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.  So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation” (Gen 2:2).  God promises Israel many times that he will give them rest.  “Remember the word that Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you, saying, ‘The LORD your God is providing you a place of rest, and will give you this land’” (Joshua 1:13).  “I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel.  I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD” (Ezek 34:14-15).

This promised rest is part of Israel’s inheritance.  The nation was intended to fellowship with God and to be his people.  Being the people of God means sharing in God’s goodness, love, joy, peace and his rest.  It seems that those who were entrusted with teaching the Law did not understand the Sabbath as the blessing of sharing in God’s rest.  Instead, by the time of Jesus there were a lot of laws which had grown up around the Sabbath command.  These rules and regulations obscured the mercy of God in giving the Sabbath and overshadowed the joy which was intended to be part of the observation of the day of rest.  Jesus did many things on the Sabbath which did not meet with the requirements of these human rules.  Rather than ratify the human rules which turned the Sabbath into a ritual, Jesus demonstrated clearly that the Sabbath was given because of God’s mercy and grace.

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat.  When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.”  He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry?  He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests.  Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and yet are guiltless?  I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.  But 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.”  He left that place and entered their synagogue; 0 a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, “Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath?” so that they might accuse him.  He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out?  How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep!  So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”  Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other.  But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him (Matt 12:1-14).

As Jesus went along his actions on the Sabbath demonstrated that God wants to restore the Sabbath to a day of sharing his rest.  It is not wrong to fulfil human needs on the Sabbath, to fill the stomach when hungry or to restore someone to health.  These things are good and are part of sharing in God’s rest.  God desires wholeness for people.  The Sabbath is part of God’s provision for human wholeness.  Ritual observation of the Sabbath is not the intention of the command.

Mark’s version of the story is slightly different.

One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain.  The Pharisees said 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 and his companions were hungry and in need of food?  He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.”  Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:23-28).

The Sabbath is made for human beings not human beings for the Sabbath.  The Sabbath is part of God’s blessing on humanity.  Human beings have been given the Sabbath so that they can rest and be restored to wholeness.  Jesus is himself Lord of the Sabbath, because he is the one who restores us to what we are meant to be.  He gives us rest.  There are no rules which can give the rest of God, only the Son of God who is Lord of the Sabbath.

Jesus promised: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt 11:28-30).  In Matthew the burden of Jesus is contrasted with the burden which the Pharisees and Scribes put on people.

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  So you must obey them and do everything they tell you.  But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.  They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them (Matt 23:1-4).

The burden which the Pharisees gave the people to carry was one which involved many rules and laws to follow.  Jesus removes that load, because his burden is light.  Since he alone knows the Father, he is able to reveal the Father to whom he pleases (10:27).  The rules and laws of the Pharisees did not reveal the Father, but they had the appearance of getting people to God.  These human works and human effort did not gain relationship with the Father but were heavy burdens instead.  Jesus offers us something light because he is able to reveal the Father when we come to him and learn from him.  This is our Sabbath rest.  We can rest from all our efforts to please God with our works.  We can rest in the one who gives us rest.

Those who break the Sabbath are put to death

God takes observance of the Sabbath very seriously.  Sabbath is such an important matter that those who broke the Sabbath under the Old Covenant were put to death.  “You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people” (Exod 31:14).  “Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a holy Sabbath of solemn rest to the LORD; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death” (Exod 35:2).  In the book of Numbers there is an example of someone being put to death for breaking the Sabbath.

When the Israelites were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day.  Those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses, Aaron, and to the whole congregation.  They put him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him.  Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him outside the camp.”  The whole congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death, just as the LORD had commanded Moses (Num 15:32-36).

There are a number of other commands which result in people being put to death for breaking them.  The first disobedience to a command which resulted in death was eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17; Gen 3).  Other commands with the death penalty attached include the command to not touch the mountain while God is present on it (Exod 19:12); don’t kill (Exod 21:12, 14; Lev 24:17); don’t strike or curse father or mother (Exod 21:15, 17; Lev 20:9); don’t kidnap a person (Exod 21:16); don’t allow an animal to live who perpetually gores people (Exod 21:19); don’t have sex with an animal (Exod 22:19); priests should not drink wine (Lev 10:9); don’t sacrifice a child to Molech (Lev 20:2); don’t commit adultery (Lev 20:10); various sexual offences (Lev 20:11-16); don’t practise as a medium or a spiritist (Lev 20:27); don’t blaspheme (Lev 24:16).  In addition to these, death is required for those who entice others away to worship other gods (Deut 13:6-11).

Disobedience to God’s commands will always eventually lead to death.  This is the inevitable outcome of sin.  But why is it that profaning the Sabbath or working on the Sabbath has such an immediate and strong penalty?  I expect that the reason for the death penalty for breaking the Sabbath is connected with much that I have explored earlier.  Firstly, observance of the Sabbath is in keeping with the finite nature of humanity.  To break the Sabbath is to deny that we are creatures with finite bodies, who need to rest.  Denying our creaturehood is denying that God is the Creator and we are not.  When work is done on the Sabbath this is an expression of a lack of faith in the provision of God.  Without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6).  Breach of the Sabbath is also connected with idolatry, which our God abhors because he is a jealous God (Deut 4:24).  Profaning the Sabbath goes against the holiness of the day, which is a day given over to the LORD as his day.  On that day worship is correctly given to the Creator.  If worship is not given to the true God then it is by default given to another god.  Since the Sabbath is a sign to the world that Yahweh is Israel’s God, when the Sabbath was breached the sign was neglected and the nation failed to be a witness of the glory of God to the nations.  Lastly, since Sabbath rest is a sharing in God’s own rest, breaking the Sabbath is tantamount to putting yourself outside the place of fellowship with God.

In the New Testament it is clear that the Pharisees and Scribes were intent on catching Jesus out as a Sabbath breaker.  On several occasions they were observing to see if Jesus would break the Sabbath.  When Jesus did what the religious leaders considered a breach of the Sabbath they conspired to kill him.

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand.  They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him.  And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.”  Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent.   He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.   The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him (Mark 3:1-6).

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.  And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.  She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.  When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”  When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.  But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.”  But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?  And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”  When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing (Luke 13:10-17).

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely.  Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy.  And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?”  But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away.  Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?”  And they could not reply to this (Luke 14:1-6).

Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”  At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.  Now that day was a Sabbath.  So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, “It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.”  But he answered them, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’”  They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take it up and walk’?”  Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there.  Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.”  The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.  Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the Sabbath.  But Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.”  For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the Sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God (John 5:8-18).

Thus Jesus was considered a Sabbath-breaker by the religious establishment.  This supposed breaking of the Sabbath was a catalyst for the religious leaders to begin a plot to get rid of Jesus.  Many times Jesus was confronted with the accusation of Sabbath breaking but his answers left the religious leaders speechless.  This must have had some impact on their thinking, because despite their attempts to show Jesus up as a Sabbath-breaker this is not one of the things which they brought against him in his trial before the High Priest.

Nonetheless Jesus was put to death and he was killed outside the camp (Heb 13:13) just as a Sabbath breaker should be killed (see Num 15:36; compare the stoning of the blasphemer Lev 24:14, 23).  In this way Jesus has borne the punishment of the Sabbath breaker and the one who profanes the Holy Day.  In his death, then, Jesus took all the consequences of breaking the Sabbath and healed all that humans need to be healed of in regard to the Sabbath.  He embraced the frailty of human existence; he trusted in the Father despite his hunger and thirst on the cross (John 19:28); he refused to worship another than the true God even if this meant his own painful death; he gave himself fully to the Father as an expression of utter holiness; and his death opened the doors to the nations entering into the covenant with Israel’s God (Eph 2:11-22).  Finally the death of Christ brought about peace with God and opened the way for human beings to enter into the rest of God.  It was in bearing the penalty of a Sabbath breaker that Jesus has made it possible for humanity to be true observers of the Sabbath.

In Christ we are people who can truly keep the Sabbath holy and honour the Father in the rest of the Sabbath day.  In Christ the penalty for Sabbath breaking is undone and is replaced by the possibility of true Sabbath observance.

Sabbath observance and the blessing of the Holy City

God is not indifferent to Sabbath observance.  As discussed above the penalty for breaking the Sabbath is death.  Sabbath observance is also a requirement for the blessing of the Holy City of Jerusalem.  The city will be blessed if the people honour the Sabbath and it will be destroyed if the people fail to honour the Sabbath day.

Thus said the LORD to me: Go and stand in the People’s Gate, by which the kings of Judah enter and by which they go out, and in all the gates of Jerusalem, and say to them: Hear the word of the LORD, you kings of Judah, and all Judah, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, who enter by these gates.  Thus says the LORD: For the sake of your lives, take care that you do not bear a burden on the Sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem.  And do not carry a burden out of your houses on the Sabbath or do any work, but keep the Sabbath day holy, as I commanded your ancestors.  Yet they did not listen or incline their ear; they stiffened their necks and would not hear or receive instruction.  But if you listen to me, says the LORD, and bring in no burden by the gates of this city on the Sabbath day, but keep the Sabbath day holy and do no work on it, then there shall enter by the gates of this city kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they and their officials, the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and this city shall be inhabited forever.  And people shall come from the towns of Judah and the places around Jerusalem, from the land of Benjamin, from the Shephelah, from the hill country, and from the Negeb, bringing burnt offerings and sacrifices, grain offerings and frankincense, and bringing thank offerings to the house of the LORD.  But if you do not listen to me, to keep the Sabbath day holy, and to carry in no burden through the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates; it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem and shall not be quenched (Jer 17:19-27).

God promised that if the people brought no burden into the city on the Sabbath then Jerusalem would be ruled by a king on the throne of David and it would be inhabited forever.  If they failed to honour the Sabbath and keep it holy then the gates of Jerusalem would be burnt down.  History has demonstrated what Israel did do.  “They did not listen” (v 23) and were carried away into exile in Babylon.  But God is faithful when Israel was unfaithful.  The promise of God will yet come to pass.

The book of Revelation describes the city, the New Jerusalem.

And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.  It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal.  It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates.  And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.  The angel who talked to me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls.  The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width; and he measured the city with his rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal.  He also measured its wall, one hundred forty-four cubits by human measurement, which the angel was using.  The wall is built of jasper, while the city is pure gold, clear as glass.  The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst.  And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass.  I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.  And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.  The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.  Its gates will never be shut by day– and there will be no night there.  People will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations.  But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev 21:10-27).

The city is glorious and people come from everywhere to enter into it.  It is the city whose foundations are eternal.  It will always be inhabited.  In it the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.  All worship will take place there.  The one who sits on David’s throne, that is, the lion of the tribe of Judah, is the king of the city.  Thus in the New Jerusalem the promise of God is fulfilled.

Like the physical city of Jerusalem, it is not acceptable to carry a burden into the New Jerusalem on the Sabbath.  “Nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood.”  Since Jesus has released us from the burdens of sin and our bondage to Satan and to death, we cannot carry those things into the New Jerusalem.  The unclean and the untrue cannot rest there and therefore cannot be there.  The New Jerusalem is the city of rest for the saints.  In this city it is perpetually Sabbath.  Only those whose rest is found in Jesus can be in that city.  In the New Jerusalem, the truly Holy City, there is only ever rest from all of life’s burdens.

Rest as blessing and lack of rest as curse

Just as the blessing of the Holy City is connected to Sabbath observance, so too blessing is connected to rest.  The opposite is also true; lack of rest is considered a curse.  That rest is a blessing from God is evident in a prayer found in the book of Nehemiah.  The Israelites who have come back from exile in Babylon gathered together to read the Law and to confess their sins.  The Levites prayed a prayer of praise and confession, including the following:

You came down also upon Mount Sinai, and spoke with them from heaven, and gave them right ordinances and true laws, good statutes and commandments, and you made known your holy Sabbath to them and gave them commandments and statutes and a law through your servant Moses.  For their hunger you gave them bread from heaven, and for their thirst you brought water for them out of the rock, and you told them to go in to possess the land that you swore to give them (Neh 9:13-15).

This prayer puts the Sabbath regulations within the context of God’s gracious provision for Israel, among the good and true laws and the satisfying of hunger and thirst in the desert.  The Sabbath is not some kind of burden which is put upon Israel and which they must bear.  No.  It is given as a gracious provision of God for their benefit.  Sabbath is a blessing.  Paul extols the receipt of the Law by Israel in Rom 9:4.  “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.”  Those who are given the command to observe the Sabbath are blessed by it.

On the other hand lack of rest is a curse.  Part of the curses pronounced over Israel if they disobeyed Yahweh and broke the covenant is a curse about lack of rest.  If Israel were disobedient then she would be sent into exile from the land.  “Among those nations you shall find no ease, no resting place for the sole of your foot.  There the LORD will give you a trembling heart, failing eyes, and a languishing spirit” (Deut 28:65).  When Israel had displeased Yahweh and been sent into exile and the Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem, Jeremiah wrote in Lamentations: “He has broken down his booth like a garden, he has destroyed his tabernacle; the LORD has abolished in Zion festival and Sabbath, and in his fierce indignation has spurned king and priest” (Lam 2:6).  “With a yoke on our necks we are hard driven; we are weary, we are given no rest” (Lam 5:5).  In exile Israel lost the Sabbath rest.  They were cursed by their lack of rest.

The wicked cannot find peace (Isa 48:22; 57:21), nor can they rest (Isa 57:20).  Job, the innocent sufferer, experienced a lack of peace like the wicked.  “I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest, but trouble comes” (Job 3:26).  But it is Jesus who has taken upon himself all that is entailed by the curse of lack of rest.  This happened, of course, in the cross.  Rest is destroyed by uncleanness (Mic 2:10).  As the one who became sin (2 Cor 5:21) in order to bear the sins of humanity, Jesus was utterly unclean upon the cross and he could not find any rest there.  Like Job, who is a type of Christ, that which he feared came upon him (Job 3:25).  In the final hour of the cross Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34).  This echoes Psalm 22:1.  The first eight verses of the Psalm are encompassed by this cry of dereliction.

<To the leader: according to The Deer of the Dawn. A Psalm of David.> My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?  O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.  Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.  In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.  To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.  But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.  All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;  “Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver– let him rescue the one in whom he delights!” (Psalm 22:1-8).

Being so far from God’s intimate presence and peace, Jesus could find no rest.  He felt forsaken by the only one who he has trusted to save him.  Others do nothing but mock him.  He had become a worm and not a human being.  The lack of rest which is the lot of the wicked became the lot of the Son of God.

Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.  On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.  Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.  Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.  I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.  For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me.  My hands and feet have shrivelled; I can count all my bones.  They stare and gloat over me; they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots (Psalm 22:9-18).

Despite Jesus’ trust in his Father, even in the experience of abandonment, there is no letting up of the tormenting of his persecutors.  Nothing but a relentless pursuit of evildoers dogged him until his whole being was overwhelmed by evil.  All that accompanies the blessing of God is removed from Jesus during that time.  Instead of the blessing of life, shalom, health, and freedom from enemies, there are signs of being cursed by God.  This is indeed the way the cross is described by the apostle Paul in Galatians 3:13 where he writes, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’.”

Yet the Psalm ends with a note of deliverance.

But you, O LORD, do not be far away!  O my help, come quickly to my aid!  Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog!  Save me from the mouth of the lion!  From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.  I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: You who fear the LORD, praise him!  All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!  For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.  From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him.  The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD.  May your hearts live forever!  All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.  For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.  To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.  Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it (Psalm 22:19-31).

The end of Psalm 22 is fulfilled in the life of Jesus and its consequences are evident for all who follow him.  With the psalmist Jesus prayed for deliverance (vv 19-21) and he was delivered from the enemies which surrounded him and was vindicated by his resurrection from the dead.  At the end of the psalm the writer praises God and all of Israel is exhorted to praise him.  The poor and those who seek Yahweh will praise him.  Indeed all the nations shall praise him for all generations (vv 22-31).  This is the fulfilment of the command to keep the Sabbath holy.  The day of worship which the Sabbath is has become a day of worship for the whole earth.  Sabbath blessing has come to all the nations because the Messiah has experienced the curse of no rest.  He has taken into himself all the consequences of wickedness, including the restlessness which is the result of being unclean in the sight of God.  In this way the cross has transformed the Sabbath, by making it a universal possibility for all people.  Because of the cross we may participate in God’s eternal rest.  In taking the curse of “no rest” Jesus has made a way for human beings to experience the blessing of Sabbath rest in himself.

Sabbath as rest from enemies

Sabbath as rest from enemies

Sabbath rest has many elements to it, all of which are won for us by Jesus.  One of these is rest from enemies.  Rest from enemies is a fulfilment of the rest from physical enemies which Israel was promised in the Old Testament.  A number of places in the Old Testament speak about rest from enemies.  “For you have not yet come into the rest and the possession that the LORD your God is giving you.  When you cross over the Jordan and live in the land that the LORD your God is allotting to you, and when he gives you rest from your enemies all around so that you live in safety” (Deut 12:9-10).  “Therefore when the LORD your God has given you rest from all your enemies on every hand, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; do not forget” (Deut 25:19).  The idea of the land (of Israel) resting from war with enemies is present in several places (Josh 11:23; 21:44; Judges 3:30; 5:31; 8:28) and the kings also rested from fighting with enemies (1 Kings 5:4; 8:56; 1 Chron 2:18; 23:25).

The New Testament does not contain the concept of killing physical enemies as does the Old Testament.  But rather it is explicit that human beings are not the enemy which we must fight against (Eph 6:12).  Although there are human enemies mentioned in the New Testament (Matt 5:43; 10:36; Rom 12:20) these are to be treated with love and respect because God is one who loves his enemies (Matt 5:45).  The real enemy which we must fight against is the devil and his angels (1 Tim 5:14-15; 1 Pet 5:8) because Satan deliberately wars against the people of God (Rev 12:17).  Some people live as enemies of the cross of Christ (Phil 3:18) and they are held captive by the devil (2 Tim 2:26).  He makes people his tools in his battle against the gospel (Acts 13:10).  Although the devil will continue to fight against God’s people while he is able, his time is short (Rev 12:12; 20:3).  He has been defeated by the work of the cross (Col 2:14-15).  The devil and his angels will be cast into the Lake of Fire (Rev 20:10) where he can no more persecute the saints nor deceive the nations.

Our other enemy is death (1 Cor 15:26).  This is conquered by the work of Jesus who died and rose again from the dead.  However, for now death still comes to every person, whether Christian or not.  But our final rest will come when dead is no more (Rev 21:4).

It is significant that Jesus did much of his ministry of healing and deliverance from demons on the Sabbath.  Examples include Matt 12:9-13; Luke 13:10-17; Luke 14:1-6; John 5:8-9; and John 9:14.  His work of delivering people from their enemies, that is, delivering them from demonic oppression and diseases, disabilities and death, was often done of the Sabbath.  This was a foretaste of the eschatological rest, which involves rest from these enemies.

To some extent we have victory over our enemies in the present because Jesus said, “See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you” (Luke 10:19).  But the time has not yet come when we have rest from our enemies completely.  Although, Jesus is now exalted to the right hand of God, he still waits for the time when his enemies will become a footstool for his feet (Acts 2:35; Heb 1:13; 10:13).

Sabbath, then, is a foretaste of the ultimate eschatological rest which includes a rest from the enemies of both Satan and death.  When Jesus returns to bring his people to glory there will be no more struggle against principalities and powers nor will it be inevitable that we must succumb to (physical or spiritual) death.  The Sabbath to come will involve a complete rest from our enemies, and that rest from enemies will be far better than the rest from enemies which foreshadowed it in the Old Testament.

Sabbath as new creation

Our rest from enemies will be complete when the new creation is fully present.  Sabbath is also connected with the new creation, which began with the ministry of Jesus.  The ministry of Jesus was an extension of the creating work of God in the first creation.  The first creation account in Genesis ends with God resting on the seventh day.  “And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done” (Gen 2:2).  According to Herman Hendrickx the Jews of Jesus’ day believed that God had never stopped creating.  He creates each new day of history.[5]  Jesus makes a statement which makes clear that God has not stopped working.  “My Father is still working, and I also am working” (John 5:17).  Jesus made this statement on a Sabbath.

Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”  At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.  Now that day was a Sabbath.  So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, “It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.“  But he answered them, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’”  They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take it up and walk’?”  Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there.  Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you have been made well!  Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.”  The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.  Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the SabbathBut Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.”  For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the Sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God (John 5:8-18).

Jesus’ statement about working on the Sabbath is interesting because it suggests that, although the Sabbath is a day when work must cease, there is a kind of work which still takes place on the Sabbath.  Hendrickx suggests that this work is the work of new creation.  He observes that a great many of the healings of Jesus take place on the Sabbath.  This was not merely an act designed to antagonise the religious establishment, although it certainly had this effect.  Rather, Jesus healed on the Sabbath because in doing so he was bringing about the new creation.[6]  When Jesus healed on the Sabbath, the Sabbath became a day of new creation.

Another example of this new creation on the Sabbath is the case of the man born blind.

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.  His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.  We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”  When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent).  Then he went and washed and came back able to see (John 9:1-7).

The man could not see and the work of Jesus created the capacity for the man to see.  The spit and the mud are likely allusions to the creation of the first man out of the ground (Gen 2:7).  This new creation occurred on a Sabbath (9:14).

Just as the Sabbath is connected to the first Creation, because the Sabbath is the culmination of the Creation, so too the new creation is connected to the Sabbath.  The work of Jesus on many Sabbaths involved the new creation.  As God has not stopped working in the world to bring it to the new creation, when sin and death will be undone, the Sabbath is connected to this work.  The people of God have become part of the new creation, which is first and foremost ushered in by Jesus (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15).  Resting in our re-creation by the Spirit of God is good.

There is rest in the new creation, just as there was at the end of the first creation.  Human beings did not have any part in their own creation, or in the sustaining and preserving of their own created being.  Human beings do not have a part in their new creation, or in the sustaining and perfecting of that new creation.  New creation is the result of the work of Christ applied by the Holy Spirit to those who do the work of believing in the one whom God has sent (John 6:29).  In this respect the work of the new creation is Sabbath rest.  We rest in the fact of the work of God within us, bringing us to wholeness in Christ.

Sabbath rest for all creation

Sabbath rest for Creation

It is not only God who rests or people who must rest, but the creation itself is intended to rest.  Every part of creation is to be given rest.  Even the command to keep the Sabbath in the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) demonstrates that the animals must be given rest.  “But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work– you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you” (Deut 5:14).  The land itself was intended to have rest.

The LORD spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a Sabbath for the LORD.  Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for the LORD: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.  You shall not reap the after-growth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.  You may eat what the land yields during its Sabbath — you, your male and female slaves, your hired and your bound labourers who live with you; for your livestock also, and for the wild animals in your land all its yield shall be for food (Lev 25:1-7).

The land was to be given rest from the planting of crops every seven years.  This is its Sabbath.  Also at the end of seven lots of seven years, that is, on the fiftieth year the land along with slaves and people who had borrowed money, was to be given rest (Lev 25:8-28).  The Sabbath applies to land, to animals, to fruit trees, that is, to all of creation.  The need for rest is built into the entire fabric of creation.

This principle is so very important that violation of the Sabbath for creation would lead to dire consequences for Israel.  Among the curses for disobedience to the covenant listed in Leviticus are the following:

And you I will scatter among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword against you; your land shall be a desolation, and your cities a waste.  Then the land shall enjoy its Sabbath years as long as it lies desolate, while you are in the land of your enemies; then the land shall rest, and enjoy its Sabbath years.  As long as it lies desolate, it shall have the rest it did not have on your Sabbaths when you were living on it (Leviticus 26:33-35).  (See also v 43).

Israel must have denied the land rest for a long time because the northern kingdom was exiled without being returned and Judah was exiled for seventy years to Babylon.  The book of Chronicles explains that this seventy years was so that the land could have its Sabbaths which had been denied it.  “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 fulfil the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had made up for its Sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept Sabbath, to fulfil seventy years” (2 Chron 36:20-21).

God takes Sabbath so seriously that he intervenes to make sure that the land is able to have its rest even though the nation of Israel failed to honour his commands to let the land rest.  The importance of Sabbath is so wired into God’s creation that creation cannot do without its rest.  Human beings are so rebellious against their creator that they happily deprive the created order of the rest which God has ordained.  Humanity can often deny that human finitude requires that we rest and we bear the consequences of that denial in our own bodies.  But God will not allow us to continue denying that the creation also needs rest.

Just as the Sabbath for human beings is the result of the work of Christ, so too is the Sabbath for Creation.

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies (Rom 8:18-23).

The creation has not been at rest, but rather it has been groaning in anticipation of the redemption which will eschatologically come fully to the sons of God.  In other words the rest which the creation longs for is inextricably linked with the rest which the people of God long for.  Creation waits for the revealing of the children of God.  The children of God will be revealed when Jesus himself is revealed (Col 3:3).  They will receive the freedom of the children of God, a freedom which the children of God receive because they have been set free by Christ (Gal 5:1).  Creation awaits the adoption of the children of God, that is, the redemption of their bodies.  Adoption is also a product of the work of Jesus (Gal 4:4-5).  Also the redemption of bodies is another way of speaking of the resurrection of the dead.  Just as Christ was raised from the dead those who follow him will be raised (1 Cor 15:20-23).  What should be clear is that the eschatological rest which awaits the whole of creation is found only in Christ in the same way that the eschatological rest which humans are destined for is found only in Christ.  The difference is, although creation must await the final day for its rest, the whole of creation will be at rest.  There is no ultimate judgement of the creation, because it is has been subjected to futility because of the sin of humanity and not as a result of any sin of its own.

Sabbath as eschatological rest

Sabbath rest as I have described so far consists in many things: in physical rest from work; in trust in the Father’s provision; in eschewing idolatry and greed; observance of a holy day; worship of God; reverence for God’s sanctuary; living out true righteousness and justice; a sign that Yahweh is our God; sharing in God’s rest; rest from enemies; a blessing from God; participation in the new creation; and rest for the whole of creation.  All these culminate in the eschatological Sabbath when the fullness of Sabbath will be manifest in the lives of believers.

A number of passages in the Old Testament, especially in the prophetic books, point towards a future in which rest will be a permanent feature of the life of the nation of Israel.  “But as for you, have no fear, my servant Jacob, says the LORD, and do not be dismayed, O Israel; for I am going to save you from far away, and your offspring from the land of their captivity. Jacob shall return and have quiet and ease, and no one shall make him afraid” (Jer 30:10).  (See also 46:27).  “[B]ut they shall all sit [= rest in the LXX] under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken” (Micah 4:4).  Ezekiel prophesies about a new temple in chapters 40-48.  There is a promise that the people will keep the Sabbath days (Ezek 44:24) and the duties of the prince regarding the Sabbath are spelled out in chapters 45 and 46.  Yet this temple has never been built.  Isaiah prophesies of a time when the whole earth will be at rest and quiet (Isa 14:7).  Although these passages speak as if this rest will result when the nation returns from exile in Babylon, it is apparent that this was not an immediate happening in the life of those who returned.  This suggests that the Sabbath rest prophesied is something eschatological.  We must wait until the final day for this rest.

That there is an eschatological dimension to Sabbath should not be a surprise by this point in my study of the Sabbath.  The concept of Sabbath rest pervades the Bible from beginning to end.  Someone has observed that in the story of Creation in Genesis 1 the description of the creation for each day ends with “evening and morning and that was the X day”.  However in the account of the seventh day (Gen 2:1-3) there is no “evening and morning and that was the seventh day”.  This implies that the seventh day does not end.  Therefore, Sabbath is not something which is found only in the Old Testament law.  Sabbath is an eternal principle.  The people of God look forward to an eschatological Sabbath which will never end, an eternal rest.

In the New Testament there are three significant passages which speak of this eternal Sabbath rest.  The first is in Acts.  “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, 20 so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus,” (Acts 3:19).  The word “refreshing” (noun) is only used once in the New Testament.  According to The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Vol IX p 664) “times of refreshing” refers to the “definitive age of salvation”.  It is a promise of eschatological salvation to repentant Israel.  I notice that it is interesting that the cognate (connected) verb “refresh” is used in the LXX to express the idea of being refreshed on the Sabbath (Ex 23:12).  The Hebrew word used for refresh in Exod 23:12 is naphash.  This is the word used of God being refreshed on the seventh day (Exod 31:17).  This refreshing promised in Acts 3:19-20 is a participation in the refreshing which God himself experienced on the seventh day of creation.  It is something which human beings were always made to share in and it is made possible by the coming of the Messiah into the world and the coming again of the Messiah at the end of the age to consummate the whole of salvation.  Sabbath rest is part of the eschatological goal of salvation.

The second passage in the New Testament which speaks of Sabbath as an eschatological rest is Hebrews 3:11-4:11

As in my anger I swore, ‘They will not enter my rest.’”  Take care, brothers and sisters, that none of you may have an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.  But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.  For we have become partners of Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end.  As it is said, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”  Now who were they who heard and yet were rebellious? Was it not all those who left Egypt under the leadership of Moses?  But with whom was he angry forty years?  Was it not those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness?  And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, if not to those who were disobedient?  So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.  Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest is still open, let us take care that none of you should seem to have failed to reach it.  For indeed the 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, just as God has said, “As in my anger I swore, ‘They shall not enter my rest,’” though his works were finished at the foundation of the world.  For in one place it speaks about the seventh day as follows, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.”  And again in this place it says, “They shall not enter my rest.”  Since therefore it remains open for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he sets a certain day– “today”– saying through David much later, in the words already quoted, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”  For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later about another day.  So then, a Sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labours as God did from his.  Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs.

This passage also seems to refer to the eschaton.  It emphasises the need for faith, that is, obedience to the gospel in order to enter into the Sabbath rest of God.  Those who are disobedient, that is those without faith, will not enter into God’s rest.  The writer to the Hebrews urges the readers to take hold of the opportunity which “Today” presents.  The rest which is denied to the people of Israel by God as expressed in Psalm 95 seems to refer to the Promised Land.  The writer to the Hebrews speaks of the Sabbath rest for the people of God as something more than merely entering the land.  It is a far better rest which can only come through Christ (compare 3:1-6).  To enter into the Sabbath rest of God is to enter into the rest which Jesus which gives.

Both the passage in Acts and the passage in Hebrews clearly imply that entering the eschatological Sabbath rest of God is something which comes only through faith in the Messiah, Jesus.  God’s eternal Sabbath rest is not merely a day of resting from the week’s labours but a rest from all the weariness which is caused by the world under sin and death.  The final book of the Bible gives some further insight into the idea of Sabbath as eschatological rest.

In Revelation we see the saints waiting for the final consummation of all things which has been promised when Jesus returns.  The martyrs before the throne of God are told to rest a while longer, waiting for the complete number of martyrs to be killed for the name of Jesus (Rev 6:9-11).  The saints in heaven await the final rest, which will come at the resurrection of the dead.  Jesus has completed the work of redemption and he will finally conquer death when every one of the saints is raised from the dead on the final day.  Then the work of Jesus will be done and he will hand the kingdom, which he has worked to establish, over to the Father, giving all glory to the Father (1 Cor 15:20-28).  Revelation chapter 14 contrasts the lack of rest of those who follow the beast (v 11) and the rest of those who die in the Lord (v 13).  But the final rest will come on the last day when the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven.  The gates of the city will never be shut, because it never grows dark there and none who are unclean or practise wickedness will enter into it.  The only people in the city will be those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev 21:25-27).

This picture contrasts with the situation described in Neh 13:19 “When it began to be dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and gave orders that they should not be opened until after the Sabbath. And I set some of my servants over the gates, to prevent any burden from being brought in on the Sabbath day.”  In the New Jerusalem there will be no need to guard against those who would break the Sabbath.  None who enter the city will break the Sabbath.  On the contrary they will be eternally at rest because they will be given a share in the rest of God which can only come through being washed in the blood of Christ and given life through him.


The goal of this exploration of the Sabbath was twofold: I wanted to understand the significance of the Sabbath and to see how Jesus fulfilled the Sabbath.  When I first set out on this study I had no idea how large a study on Sabbath could become.  I also was not sure how Jesus has fulfilled the Sabbath, but my conviction was that since the whole Bible finds its centre in Jesus the Sabbath must ultimately be about Christ.  I think that I have achieved both of my goals.

The concepts of Sabbath and rest are so pervasive throughout the Bible that we cannot dismiss Sabbath as merely something irrelevant to Christians.  It cannot be ignored as our final destiny involves rest.  On the other hand, Old Testament understanding of Sabbath can no longer dominate Christian thinking about Sabbath.  Because of the incarnation everything has changed, including how we understand Sabbath.  In every aspect of the Sabbath rest, Jesus is the fulfilment of Sabbath.  We find our true rest in him.


[1] All scripture references are given in the New Revised Standard Translation © 1989.

[2] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works Volume 1: Lectures on Genesis Chapters 1-5, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, Luther’s Works, vol. 1 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1958), 80.

[3] http://www.jewfaq.org/holiday4.htm

[4] Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ (Exeter: Paternoster, 1983), 46.

[5] Herman Hendrickx, The Miracle Stories of the Synoptic Gospels (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1987), 13.

[6] Ibid.

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