The Jewish Sabbath was instituted as a reminder that God had delivered Israel from their slavery in Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:15). As such, the day was marked by joy. It was not a dour or dull affair. It was a day of feasting and celebration.
Jesus, as Lord of the Sabbath, came into the world to give rest rather than take rest for Himself. In this way, His actions set forth the true purpose of the 4th Commandment and how it is to be enjoyed by those He loves today.
The Hebrew Sabbath
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.
On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.
For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)
The 4th commandment differs from the other commandments in a number of ways. First, along with the 5th commandment, it was positive. Rather than, “do not”, this was a “do” commandment. Secondly, like circumcision, it was a sign of the Covenant God made with Moses and the people of Israel (Ezekiel 20:12).
From the beginning, the weekly Sabbath was a reflection of God’s pattern of work and rest in creation. As His image-bearers, Israel was to imitate this pattern.
Sabbath rest, in its various forms, was something that all of creation was to enjoy. Man, woman, child, beast and land (Leviticus 25:2). It was marked by feasting and fellowship (Leviticus 32:1-3).
It was an opportunity to cease from our own efforts for increase and acknowledge that all increase comes from God.
Only Victors Rest
It’s important to remember that the 10 Commandments were not given to a people in slavery but to a people who had already been redeemed and set free. These commandments, like all of God’s law, are designed to maintain that freedom.
Moreover, it is only the victorious who rest and feast (Hebrews 3:10-11). And so, the Sabbath is an opportunity to reflect on God’s victory in our redemption and give thanks. It is a gift.
By contrast, the unbelieving world sees wealth as the key to rest and are therefore consigned to endless hard labour. (Ecclesiastes 5:10)
Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath
As a sign (Ezekiel 20:12), the Sabbath was a shadow that pointed to Christ as the one who would fulfil God’s Sabbath commandment and bring rest and redemption to those enslaved by sin and death.
Being a sign which is now fulfilled, Paul teaches us to not judge one another about Sabbath keeping,
Therefore let no one judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a festival, a New Moon, or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17)
Never-the-less, the principles behind the Sabbath remain.
The story of Ruth adds to our understanding of what God had in mind when it came to rest. In Ruth 3:1, Naomi describes Ruth’s betrothal to Boaz as entering a rest. For Ruth, it would be a relationship that meant an end to the hard labour of gleaning wheat and barley. It would mean shelter, protection and rest as some of the many benefits of marriage.
Likewise, our deliverance from the fruitless toil that ends in death is found only in our nearness to Jesus (Matthew 11:28).
Watching the Sabbath Unfold
A pattern of weekly rest is in harmony with the way God created the world and the way God made us. It makes good sense. But it’s the substance we should seek to lay hold of, not the legislation.
What might the Sabbath look like then for Christians? What Sabbath principles should we be seeking to lay hold of?
First, rest is not something we take. It is something we give. In the Gospel, Jesus brings rest to the weary, the lame and the heavy-laden – and He deliberately pulls these stunts on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-17).
Engaging in the joy of the Sabbath means bringing rest to others (Isaiah 58:13-14) – not demanding that they give it to us. This is something that should mark every day of our lives.
The proclamation of the Gospel is also the proclamation of Sabbath rest. It is the proclamation of the victory of Christ, His offer of redemption and deliverance from slavery.
Again, that’s something that should mark every day of our lives.
We are to proclaim that Gospel in the way we rest – whenever or however we do it. We can also proclaim Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath by ensuring that we bring that offer of rest to others – both materially and spiritually.