Two weeks ago we started looking at the question of the Sabbath as part of our larger theme, Kingdom Living. We’ve recognized that life in the kingdom of God is very different from life in the kingdom of this world, and the idea of a Sabbath – that is, stopping all work for one full day each week to rest and focus on God – that idea is very different from the go-go-go 24/7 mentality of the world in which we live in today.
Today we are always on – always connected – always busy doing something. Between work and school and church and all the other activities of life, we are always on the go. Even while we’re on vacation, we tend to fill our vacation days with endless activity! So the idea of a Sabbath – a whole day to completely stop our regular day-to-day activities to focus on God – that’s a very different idea.
But yet, that’s exactly what God commanded the Israelites to do. In fact, observing the Sabbath was a key part of what it meant to be an Israelite. But does the Sabbath have significance for us today? This is a question that Christians have struggled to answer since the time of Christ. Even within evangelical Christian circles, there is a wide variety of how we understand the Sabbath and it’s significance to us.
Probably the main question we wrestle with is this: Is #4 of the ten commandments still a commandment for us today, or was that only for the ancient Jews? Is it, for us, more of a suggestion – a principle to follow, or perhaps, is it completely a non-issue for us? If it is relevant to us today, how? And practically speaking, what would that look like?
And so far, we haven’t really answered those questions. For the past two weeks we’ve been exploring the Old Testament on this topic – looking at it’s origins as a commandment to the Israelites as well as noting it’s significance in the process of Creation when God rested on the Seventh Day and declared it holy.
And as we looked at those things, there seemed to be two main principles that stood out.
#1. God established a pattern of resting from our work for one day in seven. That seventh day was a day of rest intended to bring refreshment and renewal. It was a day to cease from the regular day-to-day activities of life and focus on building and enjoying one’s relationship with God and with others.
And that leads into our second principle, and that is…
#2. The Sabbath Day was dedicated to God. It was set apart as holy. It wasn’t just a day to do whatever you want. This was God’s day – a day to find satisfaction and rest and refreshment in Him. We noted the this is really our purpose in life – to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. This was a whole day each week set apart to do exactly that. If the Sabbath did not include glorifying and enjoying God – then it really wasn’t a Sabbath. You’ve missed the point entirely.
So that brings us now to probably this, the big question about the Sabbath – is the command to observe the Sabbath still applicable to us today? It was obviously a very important commandment for the Israelites, (the penalty for breaking the Sabbath was death) but it’s a little less clear if and how it applies to us.
So to start us off, I want to go back to that verse we read in Exodus 31 last week. We read verse 17, but let’s back it up just a little and we’ll start at verse 12 today. I think this will help bring clarity, first of all, to how the Sabbath was significant for the Israelites.
12 The Lord then gave these instructions to Moses: 13 “Tell the people of Israel: ‘Be careful to keep my Sabbath day, for the Sabbath is a sign of the covenant between me and you from generation to generation. It is given so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy. 14 You must keep the Sabbath day, for it is a holy day for you. Anyone who desecrates it must be put to death; anyone who works on that day will be cut off from the community. 15 You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day must be a Sabbath day of complete rest, a holy day dedicated to the Lord. Anyone who works on the Sabbath must be put to death. 16 The people of Israel must keep the Sabbath day by observing it from generation to generation. This is a covenant obligation for all time. 17 It is a permanent sign of my covenant with the people of Israel. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day he stopped working and was refreshed.’” Exodus 31:12-17
Now there are a few things that we could note in that passage, but the thing that I first noted was that three times in that passage, we read that the Sabbath was a sign of God’s covenant with Israel. God had made this agreement – this covenant – with the Israelites that He would be their God and they would be His people. He had chosen them and brought them out of slavery in Egypt – so now the agreement was that if they were to follow all His commands and regulations, then He would bless them and take care of them. That was kinda the terms of the covenant and the Sabbath was sign of that covenant.
It was kinda like a wedding ring. Your wedding ring is a sign of the covenant you made with your spouse. You both agreed to love, honor, and cherish each other so long as you both shall live – and that wedding ring you gave each other is a reminder of that. And it not only reminds you, but it also serves as a visual demonstration to everyone else that you have entered in this covenant and you are set apart for each other.
So in a very similar way, the Sabbath was the sign of the covenant that God made with the Israelites. When the entire nation completely stopped working for a whole day every week, that was a constant reminder for them and a visible demonstration to the surrounding nations that the Israelites were God’s holy people – a people set apart for God.
It was actually much like another sign of another covenant that God made with Abraham. If you go back to Genesis chapter 17, we read about that covenant and the sign that went with it. In Genesis 17 – verse 7 God says to Abraham:
7 “I will confirm my covenant with you and your descendants after you, from generation to generation. This is the everlasting covenant: I will always be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8 And I will give the entire land of Canaan, where you now live as a foreigner, to you and your descendants. It will be their possession forever, and I will be their God.”
9 Then God said to Abraham, “Your responsibility is to obey the terms of the covenant. You and all your descendants have this continual responsibility. 10 This is the covenant that you and your descendants must keep: Each male among you must be circumcised. 11 You must cut off the flesh of your foreskin as a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 From generation to generation, every male child must be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. This applies not only to members of your family but also to the servants born in your household and the foreign-born servants whom you have purchased. 13 All must be circumcised. Your bodies will bear the mark of my everlasting covenant. 14 Any male who fails to be circumcised will be cut off from the covenant family for breaking the covenant.” Genesis 17:7-14
So when you compare these two passages about these two different covenants and their different signs, we you can see that there is a lot of similarities. Both the Sabbath and circumcision were signs of the covenant between Abraham’s descendants (that is the Israelites) and God. Both signs were to be strictly enforced – anyone who refused would be cut off from the community. And both signs were to be continued generation after generation.
So there is a lot of similarities here. And it’s these two signs of these covenants that became questions of great debate in the early church. For the Jewish Christians – circumcision and Sabbaths were two very important practices. It was part of their identity as God’s chosen people. But for the non-Jewish Christians, these practices didn’t really seem to apply. After all, they weren’t descendants of Abraham. They were not Israelites – and so they weren’t part of God’s covenant with the Israelites and so it would be rather odd to for them to practice these signs of the covenant. It would be like some of you guys wearing a wedding ring because Heather & I were married. That doesn’t really make senses.
So this became a hot-button topic among the new Christians after the time of Christ. Acts 15 gives us a great example of this:
While Paul and Barnabas were at Antioch of Syria, some men from Judea arrived and began to teach the believers: “Unless you are circumcised as required by the law of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 Paul and Barnabas disagreed with them, arguing vehemently. Acts 15:1-2a
And basically as you read through the rest of Acts chapter 15, it details how the church discussed and determined that circumcision was not a requirement to be saved. Circumcision was a sign of the old Abrahamic covenant and these non-Jewish believers were not part of that covenant. They were part of a new covenant that God established through the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.
Take a look at Matthew 26:26.
26 As they were eating, Jesus took some bread and blessed it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “Take this and eat it, for this is my body.”
27 And he took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. He gave it to them and said, “Each of you drink from it, 28 for this is my blood, which confirms the covenant between God and his people. It is poured out as a sacrifice to forgive the sins of many.”
Here Jesus tells us about a new covenant. Under the old covenants, the Israelites were required to follow all of God’s commands and regulations – which they failed to do miserably! If you read through the Old Testament, it is just failure after failure.
And so God made a new covenant – one that would apply to both the Israelites and to everyone else. God’s new covenant with us is not based on our ability to follow all of God’s commands. Because we can’t. Israel didn’t perfectly keep all of God’s commands and we certainly can’t either. And so God made a new covenant with us – one that is based solely on what Jesus did. Jesus perfectly kept all of the commandments and his perfect life became the substitute for ours. Jesus would die on a cross and take the punishment for our sin, and we would receive in exchange the reward for his sinless life. That’s what Jesus would do for us. Our responsibility in this deal is to simply believe and trust in Jesus – in his life, death, and resurrection. And Jesus said that His blood – which we regularly remember when we celebrate communion – would be the confirmation of this new covenant.
And so that’s why Paul & Barnabas and the rest of the early church agreed that these new Christians did not need to observe the signs of the old covenants – because they lived under a new covenant.
In Colossians Paul explains a little further. He says in Colossians 2:11…
11 When you came to Christ, you were “circumcised,” but not by a physical procedure. Christ performed a spiritual circumcision—the cutting away of your sinful nature. 12 For you were buried with Christ when you were baptized. And with him you were raised to new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead. Colossians 2:11-12
Then jump down to verse 16. Paul continues…
16 So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. 17 For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality.
In other words, the practices of circumcision & the Sabbath were really pointing forward to the work and the person of Jesus. Both were outward, physical actions that looked ahead to a future spiritual reality. And Christ is that reality.
In verse 11, it tells us that circumcision was a shadow or a kind of illustration of how Christ would cut away our sinful nature – that’s obviously much more significant than the physical act of circumcision.
In the same way, the Sabbath was a shadow or a kind of illustration of how Christ would provide us that true rest and refreshment that we talked about last week – the rest & refreshment that’s found only in intimacy with God. Jesus would be the only way for us to have and enjoy a right relationship with God. It is only through Christ that we can have that deep satisfaction that comes from being with and knowing God.
And so the Israelite’s weekly day of rest was actually a way of looking forward to what Jesus would do for them in the future. Hebrews 4 & Hebrews 10 are great passages that talk more about this and I’d encourage you to read through those whole chapters later, but for our purposes today, let me just share Hebrews 10:1 which says:
The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. Hebrews 10:1a
You see, Jesus is the reality of all those shadows of the Old Testament law. All the regulations about the temple and the priests and sacrifices and offerings and circumcision and Sabbaths and clean & unclean foods – all those things hinted at what Jesus would do for us in the future – and so now that Jesus has done those things, all the shadows and hints are unnecessary. If you skip down to Hebrews 10:9 it continues:
He cancels the first covenant in order to put the second into effect. 10 For God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time.
11 Under the old covenant, the priest stands and ministers before the altar day after day, offering the same sacrifices again and again, which can never take away sins. 12 But our High Priest offered himself to God as a single sacrifice for sins, good for all time. Then he sat down in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Hebrews 10:9b-12
So it seems pretty clear that the first covenant that God made with the Israelites is no longer in effect. The rules and regulations given to the Israelites no longer apply because they have been fulfilled in Jesus.
I think most of us would agree that we no longer need to offer sacrifices at the temple. We no longer need to practice circumcision. We no longer need to avoid eating bacon. (And I’m thankful for all of those things!) But what about the Sabbath?
Well, I think because God included it in those ‘ten commandments’ that he gave to Moses, it can come across to us as being a little different than the laws of circumcision and sacrifices and unclean foods and all of that stuff – whether it actually is or not is up for debate.
And this is where the Christian understanding of the Sabbath begins to become a little more diverse. So at this point I’m going to give a little disclaimer because I’m going to share with you my understanding of the Sabbath and how it relates to us today. I recognize that there are other solid Christian folks who may disagree with me on how I understand the Sabbath – and that’s fine. I don’t mind that at all. I think we each have the responsibility to study the Scriptures and come to our own conclusions.
It seems that even Paul recognized that there may be a diverse understanding of the Sabbath because he writes in Romans 14, first of all about how some believers will eat anything while others believe they should only eat vegetables, and neither one is to condemn the other for their beliefs. And then he says… in verse 5 of Romans 14…
5 In the same way, some think one day is more holy than another day, while others think every day is alike. You should each be fully convinced that whichever day you choose is acceptable. 6 Those who worship the Lord on a special day do it to honor him. Those who eat any kind of food do so to honor the Lord, since they give thanks to God before eating. And those who refuse to eat certain foods also want to please the Lord and give thanks to God. Romans 14:5-6
So Paul is recognizing that there’s going to be diversity in our understanding of these things – but we are not to let them divide us or cause disharmony in the church. He actually goes on a few verses later saying…
14 I know and am convinced on the authority of the Lord Jesus that no food, in and of itself, is wrong to eat. But if someone believes it is wrong, then for that person it is wrong. 15 And if another believer is distressed by what you eat, you are not acting in love if you eat it. Don’t let your eating ruin someone for whom Christ died. 16 Then you will not be criticized for doing something you believe is good. 17 For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of what we eat or drink, but of living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 If you serve Christ with this attitude, you will please God, and others will approve of you, too. 19 So then, let us aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up. Romans 14:14-18
And that’s what the attitude we need to have as we consider the Sabbath as well. So with that disclaimer, here’s my understanding of the Sabbath today.
First of all, I would affirm that the regulations regarding the Sabbath no longer apply to us. No where in the New Testament do we receive any instructions as believers to observe the Sabbath. That’s not part of our covenant – not part of our salvation.
However, based on the pattern that God established from Creation and the principles that are found in the Sabbath, I believe it is good and wise to practice those patterns and principles. It is not a requirement and there are not regulations that we must follow, but I believe it is to our own benefit to practice the pattern and the principles of the Sabbath.
In one of Jesus’ discussions about the Sabbath, he pointed out that the Sabbath was for our benefit. In Mark 2:27, we read:
27 Then Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath.” Mark 2:27
God has given us the Sabbath to meet our needs. I’ve mentioned before that I think the Sabbath is a tremendous gift. There is great benefit for us in practicing the principles of the Sabbath and we’ve noted many of those already in our previous discussions.
First of all, we need rest. We need it daily in the form of sleep and there is good evidence to show that we also need it weekly in the form of a day where we cease our regular activities. When we experience the ‘daily grind’ every day without a break, we quickly become worn out. We need that pause to refresh both our body and soul.
Secondly, it’s also very helpful for us to to pause and remember our purpose in life as we mentioned last week – which is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. Certainly we can do that for moments in each day in our personal times with God, but I think there is something very significant when we dedicate an entire day each week to glorifying and enjoying God together.
And that togetherness is also another good reason to practice the Sabbath. Hebrews 10:24-25 says…
24 Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. 25 And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near. Hebrews 10:24-25
Without some sort of regular pause in our week, it would be very difficult to find the time to gather together and meet as the body of Christ to encourage one another, to worship together, to pray together, to share communion together. Practicing the principles and the patterns of the Sabbath give us a regular time to do that.
And then, finally, the last thing I’ll mention today, is that, like the wedding ring illustration, the Sabbath is a great reminder to us (and a visible demonstration to the rest of the world) that we are a holy people. God has set us apart for a particular purpose. Even though we are not Israelites, God has declared that as believers, we too, are a choose people whom God has made holy. 1 Peter 2:9 says…
“For you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.” 1 Peter 2:9
We have been made holy to show others the goodness of God. That’s been a repeating theme as we’ve been looking at life in the Kingdom of God. Kingdom Living is very different – but it showcases the goodness of our God. I think the practice of the Sabbath is fantastic illustration to the world that we serve the God who created the weekend – the God of rest! We don’t serve a God who piles on the burdens – Our God gives us rest. He refreshes us. He restores us!
It’s like we’re echoing what Jesus says in Matthew 11:28…
28 Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28
We live in a world that is indeed weary and so many of the people around us carry heavy burdens. I think the practice of the Sabbath is a vivid illustration that Jesus offers us rest. To the weary people around us, I think a church that offers rest would be very appealing and attractive. We want them to see that life in the Kingdom of God is very different from life in the kingdom of this world – and different is good.
We serve an awesome, good God – the God of the weekend – the God of rest. A God who loves us so much that he was willing to die to give us that rest.