Beginning of the Sabbath

Because God Rested

According to the Genesis account, God took six days to create the universe, everything that exists. When God was finished, God pronounced God’s work “very good,” and then the Lord rested.

“Thus the heavens and the earth were finished and all their multitude. On the sixth 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.

Genesis 2:1-3 (NRSVUE, emphasis added)

When God gave the Law to Moses, the Lord referred back to this law, the oldest law in human history, saying,

“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. 

  • Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 
  • But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God;
  • you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 
  • For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day;

“therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.

Genesis 2:1-3 (NRSVUE)
James Tissot (Nantes, France, 1836–1902, Chenecey-Buillon, France). The Man with the Withered Hand (L’homme à la main desséchée), 1886-1896. | Brooklyn Museum, Public Domain

In Commemoration of Being Freed From Bondage

Later, God explained to God’s people that the Lord had brought them out of bondage from Egypt. Therefore, they were to keep the Sabbath because, when they were a people enslaved in captivity, they had to work seven days of the week. By setting aside one day to rest, they commemorate God’s deliverance every week.

God also gave some restrictions for the Sabbath:

  1. No fire was to be kindled (Exodus 35:3).                                                  
  2. No food was to be cooked (Exodus 16:23-25).
  3. No one was to travel (Exodus 16:29).

Since the Sabbath day actually originated in creation, it would be reasonable to think that all the primitive nations of the world would have observed it in some form and at some time. They all did have some version of an account of the Flood and some version of an account of creation, which reveals there was one reliable source for these. But the interesting thing is that this very important matter of the Sabbath day is not found to have been observed by the other nations.

It seems God actually marked the Sabbath day as a special and unique sign between God and only the people of Israel (Exodus 31:14). For this reason, the penalty for violating the Sabbath was death by stoning, it was that sacred, and that serious (Exodus 15:35-36).

Nevertheless, the people Isaiah’s prophecy was directed to were ignoring God’s Sabbath laws. We know from the accounts found in the books of Kings and Chronicles that the people were doing commerce on the Sabbath with the surrounding non-Jewish people groups. They were carrying loads into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day in preparation for their work on the next day. They never gave their land, their workers, or their animals the rest God had commanded (Nehemiah 10:31).

James Tissot (Nantes, France, 1836–1902, Chenecey-Buillon, France). Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue (Jésus dans la synagogue déroule le livre), 1886-1894. | Brooklyn Museum, Public Domain

Blessing of the Sabbath

So, at the end of this chapter, Isaiah spoke in the voice of God, saying,

IF you refrain from trampling the Sabbath,
    from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
IF you call the Sabbath a delight
    and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
IF you honor it, not going your own ways,
    serving your own interests or pursuing your own affairs;
THEN you shall take delight in the Lord,
    and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Keeping the Sabbath had undergone a huge overhaul since the days Isaiah had written those words. After the Jewish people returned to Jerusalem, they fell into their old habits almost right away. So, Nehemiah appointed the priest Ezra, and the Levites who worked with him, to teach the people all of God’s law on a regular basis and to help the people keep all God’s law.

Their legacy, four hundred years later, were the scribes and teachers of the law in Jesus’ day.

Burden of the Sabbath

Over the course of those centuries, thirty-nine exhaustive, complicated chapters had been added to what would later become the Mishnah on how to keep the Sabbath.

Here is one example. If a person were to spit on the ground and the spittle hit the dirt, that would be work. Why? Because a furrow would surely form, therefore it would be a form of plowing. But if the spittle hit a rock, then no furrow would form, so that would be safe to do. Notably, the Pharisees (whose work would later become rabbinical tradition) had made the Sabbath a burden for the people.

Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath as He called Himself, both modeled and taught that it is pleasing to God to do good on the Sabbath. Jesus regularly healed people, traveled to new towns, and taught, all on the Sabbath. At one point, Jesus remonstrated with the Pharisees, declaring,

“The Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath”

Mark 2:27 (NRSVUE)

God intended the Sabbath to benefit people and the earth, not to put people under the onus of even further law that minutely delineated what was and was not permitted on this sacred day. Jesus was honoring the Sabbath according to the heart of God, and in so doing, Jesus was also deliberately challenging legalism.

Jesus heals the crippled woman | By James TissotPublic Domain

The Bequest to Christians of the Sabbath

There are many interpretations and theological arguments today, among Christians, about what constitutes the Sabbath, what day it is, how it should be observed, and what the Sabbath is for. In and amongst all that has been written and taught about this holy day, there is a core principle you and I can learn from this passage

God calls God’s people to regular times of worship and rest

People are designed to need the worship and holiness of a day set aside for God. God’s precept, established at the beginning of time, is still valid for today, and has been part of Christianity since the earliest church.

You and I are designed to delight in God, to honor the Lord and arrange our lives to please God. Many believers consider Jesus our Sabbath rest, that every day is worth living for God, to surrender our ways to God’s in the power of God’s Spirit. Seen in that way, every day does become the Lord’s Day.

Ignoring this regular time of worship and rest can feel like freeing ourselves from a religious imposition. But in fact, we end up losing the benefits of that time, that physical and mental rest, and most of all, the deepening of our intimacy with God.

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