This was originally posted on my church’s blog. You can see the original post here.
Sabbath is a concept that, in many ways, we view as an obsolete Jewish tradition and thus naturally isn’t practiced to the fullest. Well, let’s dig into that because I want you to open your eyes and see it for what it really is: a valuable resource and practice for Christians today to utilize to deepen their relationship with God.
In this post, I’m going to focus mainly on the biblical teaching of Sabbath and in future posts, I will break down more what Sabbath can look like practically for us today as 21st-century Christians.
Since Sabbath is viewed as a Jewish tradition, you might think we’ll start in the Old Testament, but we will actually start in Hebrews 3 and 4. Hebrews, addressed to an audience of Jewish Christians, is a great place to start, because it’s instructing the Jews who converted on how to live their lives and warning them of their common pitfalls.
In Hebrews 3, there is a warning for those who don’t believe, which points back to the Old Testament story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. For this generation that didn’t believe, they were not able to enter the Promised Land as a punishment for their unbelief. The author quotes Psalm 95:7-11 saying “Do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the wilderness … So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.‘”
The Promised Land is being referred to as “my rest” and that the rest was denied because of the Israelites’ hardened hearts. With this picture in mind, these Jewish Christians were called to hold each other accountable so that they don’t suffer the same fate as their ancestors.
But it gets really interesting at the start of Hebrews 4:1: “Since the promise of entering his rest still stands,” reiterating that the promise of entering His rest was not a stagnant, one-time promise, but an eternal promise of rest and an eternal home. God’s rest is two-fold: accepting His message and our ultimate eternal life in heaven.
This promise of rest (eternal life and Sabbath rest) is available to us “today” (verse 7), with today being the day that our unbelief is revealed. Once we’ve accepted God’s offer of eternal rest (or life) by acknowledging our unbelief, we’re accepting an invitation of weekly rest, or Sabbath. For Hebrews 4:9-10 tells us of this Sabbath rest that is available to us, with verse 10 stating “anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his.” Wow, what a gift! Eternal rest and weekly rest on the seventh day! For these Jews, they’d be flashing back to all the Old Testament teachings on Sabbath.
They would remember that in Genesis 2:2, God made the heavens, earth, and seas, finishing it all, then resting. And that this work was good, blessing the seventh day and declaring it holy. And the blessing and holiness of this day was not because of the work, but because of the rest from the work.
They would remember the story of God providing food (Exodus 16), making the Israelites wholly dependent on Him, and providing them double on the sixth day so that on the seventh day (the Sabbath), there would be no work. Yet, still not believing, the people went to gather on the Sabbath and were admonished by God.
They would remember in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11) that they were commanded to labor for six days and rest on the seventh day. That if God could make the heavens, earth, and sea in six days, they could do their work in the six as well.
(Just an aside, the verses on Sabbath, along with the command to make no other images or gods, take up the majority of the Ten Commandments. In my opinion, I think there might be something behind the extra instruction required on these. It could be God knew that these would be areas we struggled with.)
Finally, they would remember in Deuteronomy 5 that the Ten Commandments were repeated and they were told to observe the Sabbath again. There is an interesting contrast from Exodus to Deuteronomy. In Exodus, they’re told to remember the Sabbath. In Deuteronomy, they’re told to observe the Sabbath. This difference comes from a contrast in their circumstances.
In Exodus, they’d just come from Egypt where they weren’t allowed the Sabbath. They had to remember because this pleasure had not been afforded them. In Deuteronomy, Moses restates it, telling them to observe, because they’re at a place where they could observe this command but also tells them to remember the days of Egypt.
There are many more examples, but these four are the core ones and where all other Old Testament examples point to. As it says in Deuteronomy 12:9, “we have not reached our place of rest and inheritance.” We’ve not reached the land we were promised or the eternal life we’ve been promised. While the inheritance speaks of our eternal life, it’s also an inheritance we’ve been gifted today. An inheritance we get to enjoy while still here on this earth. I don’t know that we understand how radical and life-changing this is intended to be. The Jewish tradition of Sabbath is something that has been looked upon by the world as weird. But if we’re not accepting this gift and command of rest and Sabbath, Hebrews 4 makes it clear we’re not truly accepting the ultimate rest or gift of eternal life. It’s our duty to accept this gift of rest and Sabbath.
Now, don’t confuse this command and duty with the legalism we see from the Pharisees. We are not required to keep the Sabbath (Colossians 2:16-17), as the Jews of the Old Testament were. The Sabbath was meant as a reflection on the things to come, which have now passed. But, leaving it at that and moving on is missing the richness of this tradition.
Our faith is absolutely in Christ, and not the traditions or rituals of old, but the richness of the promise of rest in Hebrews 4 is something that draws me in. The Sabbath is no longer an obligation but an invitation into a great inheritance. So as Hebrews 4:11 says, “Let us make every effort” so that we will not perish because of our disobedience.