Remember the Sabbath
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 11 October 2007; Revised 25 December 2014
Sources: Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (Updated Edition 1995). Bibliographic data for sources cited may be found at the end of the article.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Hebraic nature of the entire Bible I use the terms Yeshua (Jesus), Messiah (Christ), Tanakh (Old Testament), and Besekh (New Testament).
From the Beginning
“By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.” Genesis 2:2-3
With the rise of the Christian sabbatarian movement in the mid-nineteenth century in America beginning with the Seventh Day Baptists, followed by the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and then the formation of smaller sabbatarian churches in the twentieth century, there has been considerable interest and not a little debate concerning the biblical teaching on the Sabbath. The emergence of Messianic Judaism in the latter twentieth century has particularly been a magnet for Christians, causing a reevaluation of beliefs and attitudes regarding Sabbath-keeping. To gain biblical perspective let’s begin at the beginning.
When God finished the six days (not years, millennia, or eons) of creation He rested on the seventh day and sanctified or set apart the day for human beings to rest and to remember His mighty work of creation. Thousands of years later God would remind Israel that the seventh day is “My holy day” (Isa 58:13). The importance of the creation of the seventh day as a day of rest means that observance is above any dispute about the laws given to Moses for Israel. The first instruction on the seventh day was given to Adam who represented all mankind. Another important aspect of creation is that the day began and ended at evening at sundown. This daily clock governs all time references in Scripture and Jews still follow this manner of timekeeping. While man may have changed his calendar and his clock, there is no biblical evidence that God changed His.
A Cardinal Commandment
“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the 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 term “Sabbath” (Heb. shabbath, from the verb shabath, cease, desist or rest, BDB 991) is the name given to the seventh day of the week, occurring first in Exodus 16:26. The mention of shabbath a week after crossing the Red Sea serves as a reminder that the divine calendar was in place long before the Ten Commandments were given. The Fourth Commandment given at Mt. Sinai directly connects to Genesis 2:2-3 as the basis for observing the seventh day as a special day. God intended that people follow His example. Work six days and rest on the seventh day. Since “sabbath” is a day of rest, the phrase “Sabbath of the LORD your God” could be rendered the “rest of the LORD your God.” In other words when we keep the Sabbath we are participating in the Lord’s rest (cf. Heb 4:10).
In the commandments given at Sinai and Moab (Deut 5:12-15) the instruction to rest is set in contrast to the work that provides one's livelihood. In ancient culture cessation of occupational activities one day a week was unheard of. People worked seven days a week to survive. That rest on the seventh day Sabbath was the opposite of paid work is illustrated in God's instruction to Jeremiah's generation who had ceased to honor the Sabbath with commerce on that day:
"Take heed for yourselves, and do not carry any load on the sabbath day or bring anything in through the gates of Jerusalem. You shall not bring a load out of your houses on the sabbath day nor do any work, but keep the sabbath day holy, as I commanded your forefathers." (Jer 17:21-22)
Unfortunately, the same condition repeated itself after Israel returned from exile and Nehemiah had to stop the work of business and commerce on the Sabbath (Neh 13:15-22). This interpretation of prohibited work implies that the man executed for gathering wood on the Sabbath during the wilderness years had a motive other than personal need (Num 15:32-36).
In addition, God purposed that observance of the seventh day as a holy day would continue forever (Lev 16:31). The Sabbath was so important that God decreed death to anyone that dishonored the seventh day (Ex 31:14; 35:2; Num 15:32-36). It is not an insignificant commandment. The idea that God would change the Sabbath after executing someone for disobeying the commandment nullifies the very concept of God as immutable and unchangeable.
In Christianity religious observances are associated with a church building and corporate worship, but in biblical instruction and practice the primary place for Sabbath observance was the home. People remained in or around their family tents or homes for physical rest (Ex 16:29; Lev 23:3). Two particular restrictions may be noted for Sabbath observance in the Torah. There was to be no gathering and preparation of food on the Sabbath (Ex 16:23-30). However, the gathering had to do with manna which disappeared after Israel entered Canaan (Josh 5:12). The second restriction was kindling a fire in dwellings (Ex 35:3). This restriction is set in the context of instructions for furnishing the Tabernacle and was probably intended to prohibit conducting sacrificial offerings in private dwellings. Nevertheless, Judaism adopted these two restrictions as part of its Sabbath observance.
An important part of the commandment, often ignored in modern discussions, is the mandate to work six days. The agricultural nature of ancient economy required daily work, so the requirement for six days of work was no surprise. The commandment derives from the fact that God created the heavens and the earth and all they contain in six days, strong evidence that the days of Genesis 1 should be taken literally as time periods of 24 hours. In addition, God's purpose for mankind is stated before Adam was even created. He was to "cultivate" (Heb. abad), lit. "to work or serve" (Gen 2:5, 15). Work is not part of God's curse on the world. This fourth commandment reminded Israel of God’s expectation of work and in Scripture the lazy and slothful person receives much censure. Implied in God's purpose is that mankind should serve Him in an active sense for the six days, not separate the "secular" from the "sacred" and only serve Him one day a week.
The application of the commandment is universal for all levels of society. The expectation of "rest" was not limited to the rich, the powerful, the property owners or the employers. The Israelites were told to rest their servants (employees) and animals. Like all the other holy days of the Hebrew calendar, God expected that Gentiles dwelling in the land of Israel would keep the Sabbath (Ex 12:49; 23:12). Of particular note is God’s declaration, “There shall be one standard for you; it shall be for the stranger as well as the native, for I am the LORD your God (Lev 24:22). Indeed, God promises particular blessings to the Gentiles that join themselves to the God of Israel and keep the Sabbath (Isa 56:3-8).
Purpose of the Sabbath
Sabbath was made for man.” Mark 2:27
God’s purpose for establishing the Sabbath was to bring glory to Himself, bless mankind and serve human need. Whenever Sabbath-keeping turns into a legalistic exercise then the blessing is lost, as occurred when rabbinic tradition multiplied rules without end and denied people the true benefits of the Sabbath.
The meaning of Shabbat (rest) explains the major purpose of this special day. God intended the Sabbath for restoration, not simply a "day off" for hedonistic pleasures (Isa 58:13). God knew that His children needed a day to recharge themselves physically, emotionally and spiritually. It was a day for husbands and wives to give attention to each other’s needs. (See Ex 23:12; 31:15; Lev 23:3, 32; 25:4; Heb 4:9). The Sabbath is a day to relieve the stresses of life by putting away all thoughts of one’s job and focus on the priority of family relationships (cf. Isa 58:6-7, 10).
God intended the Sabbath for remembrance and celebration. Israelites were to remember that they had once been slaves, but God brought deliverance by mighty acts (Deut 5:15). The day of rest is to be a day of recalling what we were before knowing the Lord and praising the Lord for the blessings He was brought to our lives.
God intended the Sabbath to celebrate creation (Gen 2:2f). Since God called His creation “good,” and set apart the seventh day, then the Sabbath is an invitation to rejoice in God’s creation and recognize God’s sovereignty over our time. Yeshua called His disciples to look at the birds and the flowers (Matt 6:26-28). Spending time in gardens and parks can be a restful activity for the Sabbath and provide a renewed appreciation for God’s creative work.
God intended the Sabbath to promote just treatment of workers by giving them time off from their labors that they may refresh themselves (Ex 20:10; 23:13; Lev 25:6; Deut 5:14f; Matt 12:10-12; Col 4:1). The Sabbath is not only for the good of one’s family, but also one’s employees. As Yeshua demonstrated the Sabbath was a day to do good to the bodies and souls of all people as one might have opportunity (Matt 12:11).
God particularly intended the Sabbath to be an eternal covenantal sign between God and Israel (Ex 31:13, 16f; Lev 24:8; Ezek 20:12, 20). Israel would demonstrate their obedience to God’s covenant by faithfully observing the Sabbath. As a reward for honoring the Sabbath God promised Israel, “I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isa 58:14).
New Covenant Sabbath
"For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath." Matthew 12:8
For Jews the seventh day has always been the most important day of the week. The Sabbath is the most frequently mentioned day of the week in the apostolic writings, occurring 60 times, only two of which are outside the apostolic narratives. Throughout His life on earth Yeshua faithfully kept the Sabbath (Luke 4:16). Yeshua attended synagogue services on the Sabbath, visited the Temple on the Sabbath, rested on the Sabbath, taught on the Sabbath and healed on the Sabbath. Yeshua shocked His adversaries by informing them that the "son of man" is lord of the Sabbath. People generally assume that Yeshua was speaking of himself, but "son of man" was a common idiom for "human being." Thus, Yeshua meant that the individual disciple is given authority by God to determine how to keep the Sabbath (cf. Matt 9:8; Col 2:16).
The most striking thing to note is that Yeshua made no pronouncement canceling or changing the day of week for observing the Sabbath. Therefore, no man has the authority to rescind or change the commandment. Accordingly, the apostles faithfully kept the Sabbath (Acts 13:14, 44; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4). And, when they had the chance to make a change at the Jerusalem Council, the Sabbath was not even under discussion. However, Yeshua flatly rejected legalistic interpretation of Sabbath-keeping and the apostle Paul employs this principle when he exhorted that "no one is to act as your judge” in respect to the Sabbath (or any other God-ordained holy day, Col 2:16). Paul's instruction assured New Covenant believers that they were free of Pharisaic rules for the Sabbath as later written down in the Mishnah (Shabbat 7:2).
Paul amplifies this theme in Hebrews 4 in which he mentions the word "rest" eight times. He lamented that while Israel entered the promised land, they did not enter the promised "rest" and affirmed most strongly that “there remains a Shabbat-keeping for God’s people” (Heb 4:9 CJB). In that verse Paul uses the Greek word sabbatismos ("sabbath observance," BAG 746), which occurs only twice in all ancient Greek literature: in Hebrews 4:9 and in the essay "Of the Tranquility of the Mind" (Moralia Vol. 1, p. 120) by Plutarch the Greek historian. Plutarch uses sabbatismos to criticize Jews for "sitting on their tails" (p. 125). Paul used the term before Plutarch and perhaps coined the noun. Sabbatismos is no doubt derived from the LXX verb sabbatizō ("keep the Sabbath," BAG 746), which occurs three times in the LXX (Ex 16:30; Lev 26:35; 2 Chron 36:21), but not in the apostolic writings. Paul employs sabbatismos not to speak of resting on a particular day but to characterize the spiritual life in Messiah.
Christians generally treat the Fourth Commandment as a binding spiritual guideline, and intentionally set aside one day each week for rest and worship. One might reasonably argue that the Sabbath commandment does not mention any names for the days of the week and therefore it doesn’t matter what day a believer rests. After all, the commandment only says to work six days and then rest the seventh day and there is no astronomical basis for determining which day of the week is the first or the seventh. Yet, inherent in the Fourth Commandment would be the tacit understanding that the weekly calendar then in use would continue and with only a few exceptions the days of the week have been observed in the same manner ever since. In the end the question still remains – seventh day or first day?
The Lord’s Day
“I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day.” Revelation 1:10
While Daniel Berg posits a common Christian belief that Yeshua created the Lord's Day for his Church as a resurrection celebration (35), no apostolic writing supports this view and the actual origin of the Lord's Day is uncertain. Christian scholars assume that Paul relegated the seventh-day Sabbath to insignificance in Colossians 2:17, rather than realizing that Paul interprets the spiritual significance of the biblical calendar as a foreshadowing of the age to come (cf. Isa 66:22-23; Ezek 46:1-4; Zeph 3:18; Zech 14:16). However, in the present age the "substance," or the reality is the Messiah, that is, observance of all the holy days is centered in Yeshua. (It's inexplicable that God would cancel the calendar He instituted and intended to govern the age to come and yet failed to tell anyone.)
The mention of the first day of the week in Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:2 and Revelation 1:10 is not evidence that the apostles moved Sabbath-keeping from the seventh day to the first day. Such an assertion raises semantic problems, because in Scripture the term Sabbath is not restricted to the seventh day. All the appointed times on the Hebrew calendar, including the first and last days of week-long festivals, were called sabbaths, because they were days of rest (Lev 19:3; 23:3). The only "first day of the week" that qualified as a "sabbath" was when a feast day coincided with it.
In the Bible the designation of “Lord’s Day” only occurs in Revelation 1:10. The Greek text has kuriakē hēmerą. Kuriakē is the dative case of kuriakos, which means “belonging to the Lord.” In Roman inscriptions and papyri after A.D. 68 the term meant imperial, such as imperial treasury, service, etc (BAG 459). The only other usage of kuriakos occurs in 1 Corinthians 11:20, “Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord's Supper.” Hēmera, “day,” in combination with kuriakos, originally referred to Emperor’s Day, which was the first day of the month on which official money payments were made from the imperial treasury (Robertson).
John’s mention of the “Lord’s day” has led to considerable difference of opinion regarding his intention. A Seventh Day Adventist scholar believes that “Lord’s day” referred to the seventh-day Sabbath, since the only day Yeshua said He was Lord of was the Sabbath (Bacchiocchi). Support for this view might be drawn from Isaiah 58:13 where God refers to the Sabbath as “My holy day.” However, the specific label “Lord’s day” was never a Jewish euphemism for the Sabbath and nowhere in the apostolic writings is the Sabbath called “the Lord’s day.” Indeed, there would be no need for John to employ such a circumlocution if he really meant Sabbath.
The Messianic Jewish scholar Yechiel Lichtenstein (1824-1908) suggested that John was referring to Pesach or the first day of the feast of Passover, which occurs on 15 Nisan (Stern 791). As a Messianic Jew John would have maintained the worship and festival calendar prescribed in the Torah. This interpretation would appear to have the benefit of textual support in that the only other usage of kuriakē occurs in 1 Corinthians 11:20 as a reference to the Lord’s Supper or Seder. Yeshua had enjoined His disciples to observe the New Covenant Passover “in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24f), thus making Pesach His day. Yeshua could have introduced His revelation to John on any day of the year, but what better day to give the revelation of His future deliverance of the earth than on Passover, the day that commemorates both the deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage and deliverance from sin accomplished on Calvary.
Most Christian scholars believe the expression “Lord’s day” refers to the first day of the week or Sunday, although why John doesn’t use the familiar weekday numerical designation is puzzling. (Names for the days of the week were not assigned until the fourth century A.D.) When worshipping on the first day of the week began for early believers is unknown. It could have started shortly after the Ascension, not only in celebration of the resurrection but also in memory of Yeshua’ appearance to the disciples on the first day of the week (John 20:19).
The resurrection remembrance service probably followed at the conclusion of Sabbath observance at or after sundown, as in Acts 20:7 where Paul’s teaching until midnight is spoken of as taking place on the first day of the week. Paul also gives instruction to the Corinthian congregation to collect an offering for the saints on the first day of the week (1 Cor 16:2) and only a gathering for worship would explain such specific directions. David Stern points out that Jewish believers would not have called the first day of the week Shabbat, because Judaism forbids handling money on the Sabbath and, therefore, Paul would not have directed the congregation to take up a collection on a day deemed to be the Sabbath (491).
At the beginning of the second century Ignatius (d. 107 A.D.) references the dual observance of the Sabbath and the first day of the week by Christians when he said, “But let every one of you keep the Sabbath after a spiritual manner…. And after the observance of the Sabbath, let every friend of Christ keep the Lord’s Day as a festival, the resurrection-day, the queen and chief of all the days. Looking forward to this, the prophet declared, ‘To the end, for the eighth day,’ on which our life both sprang up again, and the victory over death was obtained in Christ” (Epistle to the Magnesians, IX). Worship on the “Lord’s day” as a reference to Sunday also occurs in the early Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, 14:1. In summary, the use of “Lord’s Day” for the first day of the week by Ignatius and later patristic writers strongly suggests that John coined the term for a practice that had been in existence for decades.
The shift away from observing the seventh-day Sabbath by Christians occurred later in the second century and may have been furthered by Roman edicts against the Jews. In the aftermath of putting down the Bar Kokhba revolt (A.D. 132-136) Emperor Hadrian outlawed the practice of the Jewish religion, particularly the observance of the Sabbath. The action of the church of Rome to eliminate Sabbath observance and only worship on Sunday may have been an effort to sever all ties to Judaism and avoid the discrimination of the government being meted out to the Jews (Bacchiocchi). The change didn’t save the Christians from persecution, but the Lord’s Day has been regarded as the Sabbath for Christianity ever since.
It is unfortunate that honoring and keeping the Sabbath has become the victim of legalistic debate down through history. People need to rest from their labors and God provided a simple remedy. Moreover, observing the Sabbath is a sign of the covenant people, a sign to the world that we belong to God and live by his guidelines. Whether you keep Saturday or Sunday or some other day of the week is not as important a decision as whether to obey God's commandments and to abide by the principle of giving one day a week to God.
Saturday and Sunday are the preferred days for sabbath-keeping because of their biblical basis and they afford the best opportunity for worship and fellowship with God’s people. Indeed, I see no reason why Christians cannot follow apostolic example and honor the Sabbath and Lord’s Day together. I would recommend that the following options be considered for the great benefit of all believers.
1. Refrain from calling the Lord’s Day the Sabbath. We don’t call Christmas Easter, so we should endeavor to be correct in our terminology of calendar divisions. In this way we also show respect for Judaism and a common terminology aids communication.
2. Pray for Jews on the Sabbath that they will accept their Messiah’s atoning sacrifice and turn to him for redemption. Pray that as they attend synagogue service, recite the historic prayers and listen to the Torah their eyes will be opened to the knowledge of God in Yeshua as the fulfillment of Torah promises.
3. Celebrate the Sabbath by shifting the big meal of Sunday to Friday evening. For modern Jews the wife usually decorates the dinner table with an attractive table cloth, brings out the best dinnerware and prepares the best meal of the week for Friday evening to emphasize the special quality of the Sabbath. Dinner may be followed by family fellowship and singing spiritual songs. There are Messianic Jewish rituals that can make this meal very meaningful for the whole family. (See Barney Kasdan, God’s Appointed Times, Chap. 1.)
4. Spend time with the Lord on the Sabbath. Read Scripture. Pray. Sing praises. Emulate the example of early disciples by attending Sabbath services at a Messianic Jewish synagogue as you’re able and then honoring the Lord’s Day at your church. Dual observance would foster greater unity and cooperation between Messianic Jews and Christians.
5. Fellowship with other believers over lunch on Saturday and relax in the afternoon. Take a nap. Enjoy nature. Enjoy your family. Do good to others. Remember God’s promise for those that delight to keep the Sabbath.
“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord's holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob. The mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 58:13-14 NIV
Copyright © 2007-2014 by Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.