The Intent of the Sabbath
In the Old Testament, a view of the Sabbath was expressed at the creation of the world in Genesis 2:1-3. The text reads that God rested after completing creation, and He made the 7th day holy. When God gave Moses the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, He included a commandment to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. He clarified within that commandment that His people should complete their work in 6 days, but give the 7th day to God, using the example of rest that God took after creation. The author of Exodus and Leviticus repeatedly called for the people of God to remember the Sabbath. In Leviticus 25 God specified a Sabbath year as well, where the land was supposed to be given a rest after every six years. Not only does scripture mandate the Sabbath, though, Leviticus 24:8, Numbers 28:9-10 and Ezekiel 46:4 include certain offerings that are to be given on the Sabbath as well. Throughout the Old Testament, there are constant reminders to the people of God about the importance of the Sabbath and the penalties of not keeping it, as God had commanded. The Old Testament not only includes the institution of the Sabbath and its observances, but it also records examples of people breaking it, and of God’s reaction and their punishment. Numbers 15:32 records a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath, and God’s ordered punishment was death by stoning by the people of Israel. In Jeremiah 17:21-27, the author records God warning His people to not “bear a burden” on the Sabbath, and if that command was ignored, God would destroy the palaces of Jerusalem. Certainly, among Old Testament authors recording the very word of God, the divine mandate was to keep the Sabbath holy for God.
By the time the events of the New Testament occurred, several more restrictions for the Sabbath had been enacted during the intertestamental period; restrictions such as the number of steps one could walk, and what constituted a dwelling from which to carry things between them. It was from this that Paul wrote in Galatians 5:1 that the law was actually a yoke of slavery that Christ has set us free from. In much of the New Testament writing, there seems to be, while not overtly written, a delineation between ceremonial laws such as circumcision or Sabbath observation, and moral laws such as murder or adultery. Paul argued in Galatians 3:2-3 that Gentile Christians had been saved outside of the performances of the Law, so the observances of the law were not required. One could also infer from Paul’s writings that the Sabbath was given to the Jew but not the Gentile
A 21st century Christian examining the topic of the Sabbath is faced with an undeniable truth that the Sabbath is important to God. It is of such extreme importance that He included it in His word over 172 times. First, the placement of the Sabbath on Saturday or Sunday is more of a semantic issue. While Jewish and a few religions observe the Sabbath on Saturday, historically Christians set aside Sunday as their day of rest. Paul wrote in Romans 14:5, one person considers one day more sacred than another. Christians should see that Paul was leading Christians to understand that legalism (strict adherence to the Law) had been replaced by a relationship with Jesus. Jesus fulfilled the law, so this particular topic is approached by the author’s intent. Jesus affirmed in Mark 2:27 that “the Sabbath was made for man”. Matthew 5:17 records Jesus words that He was the fulfillment of the law, not its abolishment. The 21st century Christian can see that Jesus was conveying that God set the example of rest on the 7th day. God did not need to rest, He is God, but He was setting the example for Christians to follow. Because He is the creator, he knows infinitely more about the makeup of His creation than is known by the created. God set this example of rest, to show people that they need to rest from their work, and in that rest, focus their attention on Him, the creator. All have a void in their hearts that can only be filled with God. With the creator setting the example, God’s love and care is evidenced. There are some who argue that Genesis 2:3 states that God blesses the seventh day, so the seventh day is the only day appropriate to be treated as the Sabbath. The argument is that He did not state that He blessed one of the seven days, just the seventh. This argument, however, seems to be turned on its ear when reading Jesus’ words in Mark 2:28 in which He states that He is Lord of the Sabbath. In his response to the people who were questioning his picking heads of grain and eating them, Jesus explained that He had the authority to do so, given that He was the Lord of the Sabbath. Basically, He wrote the rules, and He had the right to do so because he knew the intent of the Sabbath.
While being a semantic issue, the Sabbath could also be seen as a Semitic issue. Because God set the example of rest in Genesis 2:3, Jews were to observe the Sabbath as a day of rest as instituted and commanded by God. However, Christians are to hold to keeping a Sabbath and keeping it holy to God as well, because Christians have been “grafted in” per Romans 11:24. Even with Gentile Christians being now part of God’s people, Jesus himself, who was Jewish, gave repeated examples that showed that doing the work of God on the Sabbath was not a breaking of the Sabbath. From healing on the Sabbath to eating, Jesus’ work on the Sabbath was the example that Christians should not use a legalistic excuse to not expand God’s kingdom. Even in John 5, Jesus told the Jewish leaders that His father was always at work, no matter which day of the week. Jesus also said in Matthew 12 and in Luke 14 that if something precious fell into a well or ditch, would not they lift it out, no matter the day of the week. God continues to work every day because He loves His people, and they should love others in the same way. In this way also the Priests certainly were doing work each Sabbath but were innocent of breaking it, per Matthew 12:5. The intent of the Sabbath law was not to restrict enjoyment, nor was it to be a reason for an arbitrary number of steps to be taken; it was for God’s people to rest from their work, and to give a day to focus on God and His will, which is the ultimate giver of perfect rest. What is shown is that the Christian has a relationship with God through Jesus. Christians desire to know Jesus more, to know Him better, and to keep His perfect example. John wrote in 1 John 5:3 that Christians show they love God by keeping His commandments and His commandments are not burdensome. The issue is not that Christians must keep a Sabbath rest, the issue is that Christians get to. God’s people are allowed by God one day to rest from their work, and focus praise and worship on Him, endeavoring to know Him better.