Sabbath – a day of the week? or the rest of a lifetime!


The Bible Sabbath

– a day of the week? – or the rest of a lifetime!

 

Preface to Web Edition (2006)

This booklet, by Pastor Mervyn Sunderland, was originally published in 1983 and is presented here unchanged. It outlines for us clearly the true rest into which we are called to enter.

 

CONTENTS

The Bible Sabbath

Creation and the Sabbath
God’s Provision and the Sabbath
Establishing the Sabbath
Sabbath and the Levitical Priesthood
The Sabbath in the New Testament
The Sabbath in the Gospels
The Sabbath in the Book of Acts
The Sabbath in the Epistles
Should the Old Testament pattern of the Sabbath continue forever?
What about the rest promised in Hebrews?
How do we find this rest?
Is the Sabbath now a Saturday or a Sunday?
Is it right to observe Sunday as a day of worship?
Our Rest in the Lord

 

The Bible Sabbath

The Bible concept of a Sabbath day has been a source of contention ever since it was initiated.

In Old Testament times, God’s people Israel were frequently rebuked for their failure to observe the Sabbath day of rest.

In New Testament times, controversy continued. Jesus was criticised by the religious practitioners of His day for His insistence on doing good things for others on the Sabbath. Paul was critical of some Christians for their practices relating to Sabbath day observance.

Today, there is still misunderstanding about the meaning of the Sabbath in the Church Age.

However, God is not the author of confusion, and His word effectively resolves this issue.

Creation and the Sabbath

The concept of a day of rest was initiated in the story of Creation. The Genesis account closes with God resting (Hebrew; shabath, [verb] to cease or rest) from all His work, and blessing and sanctifying the seventh day:
"And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made." (Genesis 2:2-3).

The themes here are rest and sanctification, and these themes remain the key to an understanding of the whole plan of the Sabbath.

There is no mention of Sabbath as such in the book of Genesis. A seven-day period occurs in connection with the flood (Genesis 7:4‑10; 8:10‑12) and Jacob’s time at Haran (Genesis 29:27,28) but no allusion to a sabbath is intended on these occasions.

Did Adam and Eve observe a sabbath? They had to dress and keep the garden of Eden, but their duties were minimal, and their life appears to have been a continual rest until they were put out of Eden for disobedience. Adam then had to work ‘in the sweat of his face’ to overcome the curse, but there is no mention of a special seventh-day rest.

Did Abraham observe a sabbath? Scripture does not indicate whether he did or not. Scripture does indicate that he observed tithing (Genesis 14:20), circumcision (Genesis 17:10), sacrifice (Genesis 22:13), but Abraham’s justification before God came through his faithful believing and not by his keeping of any law (Romans 4:3‑13).

God’s Provision and the Sabbath

The next reference to the Sabbath is in Exodus 16, when God sends the manna to feed the Children of Israel and ordains one day’s portion to be collected each day, but a double portion to be collected on the sixth day (Exodus 16:4-5). Moses explained (verses 23,26) that this was because:

"Tomorrow is the rest of the Holy Sabbath unto the Lord…. six days you shall gather it; but on the seventh day which is the Sabbath, in it there shall be none."

These arrangements were to be a test for Israel, as to whether they would walk in God’s law or not (verse 4).

When the people gathered the double portion on the sixth day, Moses reminded them of God’s instruction that the next day was to be the rest (Hebrew: shabbathon, cessation) of the Holy (Hebrew: qodesh, set apart, separated) Sabbath unto the Lord. When some of the people went out on the seventh day, God protested to Moses: "How long refuse ye to keep My commandments and My laws? See, for that the Lord has given you the Sabbath. … So the people rested (Hebrew: shabbath) on the seventh day." (verses 28-30).

The key word and thought here is rest, as a point of strict obedience to God’s instructions.

Establishing the Sabbath

The formal introduction of the Sabbath occurred at Mt. Sinai, when Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. The fourth commandment was an instruction to observe each seventh day as a Sabbath of the Lord.

"Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour and do all thy work; but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God. In it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:" (Exodus 20:8-11).

God again stressed this particular commandment during Moses forty days and nights on Mt. Sinai, and added further detail:

" …Verily my Sabbaths ye shall keep; for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, so that ye may know that I am the Lord that doth sanctify you… whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, that soul shall be cut off. Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. …. it is a sign between Me and the Children of Israel forever, for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed." (Exodus 31:13-17).

God established the Sabbath as a perpetual (Hebrew: olam, an age, an indefinite time) covenant between Himself and the Children of Israel. Other nations and peoples were expected to observe these laws while they were within the gates of Israel, but the covenant was specifically with Israel.

Throughout the Sinai accounts of the Sabbath institution, Israel was reminded of the creative work of God, and of His resting on the seventh day. Israel, in their turn, were to rest as a reminder of their creating, sanctifying Lord. The theme of Sabbath is rest and remember!

Thus the institution of the Sabbath was established. From that time, and throughout the remainder of the Old Testament, the fact that the Sabbath was to be a day set apart was not questioned, although the actual observance of the Sabbath by the Children of Israel waxed and waned along with their spiritual prosperity.

Sabbath and the Levitical Priesthood

There are various exhortations to keep the Sabbaths and to reverence the sanctuary throughout Leviticus (e.g. 19:3,30; 26:2). As well as the weekly Sabbaths, there are references to special feast days — Passover, Pentecost, Day of Atonement etc. These were each to be a special Sabbath of rest (Hebrew: shabbath of shabbathon) to the Children of Israel (Leviticus 16:31; 23:3-7, 16-21, 27-28). There was particular significance attached to each of these days, involving particular sacrifices and rituals, which set them apart from the weekly Sabbaths. The very fact that they were special worship days suggests that the weekly Sabbath was not itself a day of worship as such.

The instructions regarding observance of the weekly Sabbaths do not include any requirements for religious rituals or worship. The daily sacrifices were doubled for the Sabbath day (Numbers 28:3-10), but this was a priestly function, and no other instructions for religious observances were given to the Israel people. The practice of worship on the Sabbath did not become common until the development of synagogues during the Exile, when the Sabbath became a day of worship and study of the law (though not so appointed by God).

Prior to this, of course, the only place where worship and sacrifice could be conducted was the sanctuary/temple – as specified by God – "unto the place which the Lord shall choose …. thither shall you bring your burnt offerings and sacrifices and tithes … " (Deuteronomy 12:1-9). Israel was not to worship anywhere they chose, on every high hill and under every green tree, as the heathen did.

The story of Elkannah reveals a typical application of this commandment. We read in 1 Samuel 1:3 that Elkannah "went up out of his city yearly to worship and to sacrifice unto the Lord of Hosts in Shiloh." It certainly was not practicable, nor within a Sabbath day’s journey, for the people of Israel to travel from all corners of the nation to Jerusalem (once the temple was established there) each Sabbath day for worship. Nor was this intended by God in His plan for the rest day.

The weekly Sabbath was simply a day of rest and remembrance. Israel was not to become so engrossed in business and commerce that the God of their deliverance and salvation was forgotten. To ensure this, they must utterly cease from all their labour on the last day of the week, and use this time to think about their Lord, who had promised to prosper His people Israel and to consecrate them.

The Sabbath in the New Testament

The Greek language transliterates the Hebrew term ‘Sabbath’ to become ‘sabbata’ or ‘sabbaton’, meaning Sabbath (day) or the Sabbath, and these are the terms used in the New Testament for reference to the Sabbath. An interesting variation is found in Hebrews 4:9, where the term, rest, is translated from sabbatismos, a Sabbath rest, or the keeping of a Sabbath.

The general, New Testament terms for ‘rest’ are:

(i)  Anapausis, cessation, refreshment, rest. (Matthew 11:29)
        This term is used constantly in the Septuagint for the Sabbath rest.

(ii)  Katapausis, causing to rest, putting to rest. (Hebrew 4:1,3,11)

The Sabbath in the Gospels

A study of the references to the Sabbath in the Gospels reveals that Jesus was at odds with the orthodox religionists of His day, who had turned what was meant to be a day of rest and blessing into a matter of strict, legalistic bondage. Jesus, of course, lived in the closing days of the Old (Mosaic) Covenant, and the terms of that Covenant were still applicable even as Jesus Himself was introducing the New Covenant.

Of the occasions where the Sabbath is mentioned in the Gospels, on six occasions Jesus was healing the sick; on four occasions He was teaching in the synagogues; on three occasions the reference is simply an indication of the time of the week, and on two occasions the actual observance of a Sabbath is suggested.

Where Jesus is mentioned as teaching on the Sabbath, He is using the opportunity, as a Rabbi, to reach people who were gathered to hear God’s word. Where actual observance of the Sabbath is implied, reference is to the disciples resting on the Sabbath after Christ’s crucifixion (Luke 23:56); and in the Olivet discourse, warning them to avoid the Sabbath day and its limitations on travel, in their flight from the destruction of Jerusalem which occurred in AD70 as predicted (Matthew 24:20).

On none of these occasions did Jesus instruct His disciples about Sabbath-day observance. The fact that Jesus observed the Sabbath Himself does not support its observance now, in the New Testament Age, any more than His participation in Temple worship then supports our observance of such sacrificial worship now. He was simply meeting the requirements of the dispensation in which He lived. Jesus knew that the pattern of the weekly Sabbath was about to be superseded by a greater sign of God’s creative and sanctifying power.

The Sabbath in the Book of Acts

After the death and resurrection of Jesus and the institution of the New Covenant with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the New Testament Church was formed, and we can begin to look for relevant information about Sabbath observance during the Church Age.

When the Sabbath is first mentioned in Acts 1:12, it is only in reference to the distance from Mt Olivet to Jerusalem being a Sabbath day’s journey (about 2000 cubits or 1 km).

When Paul went on Sabbath days into the synagogues at Pisidia (Acts 13:14,44), Thessalonica (Acts 17:2), and Corinth (Acts 18:4), he did so to reason with the Jews who gathered there on that day, still reading Moses (instead of Jesus!).

More significantly, when the Council of Jerusalem met to decide how much of the law of Moses should be expected of Gentile converts: " it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us (the disciples) to lay on you (the converts) no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication; from which, if you keep yourselves, you shall do well" (Acts 15: 28-29).

There is no mention at all of keeping Sabbaths!

The Sabbath in the Epistles

When the Church Age began at Pentecost, its new instructions were set out in the letters to the Churches. These instructions included all the moral precepts of the Ten Commandments, but not a single word is given about keeping the Jewish weekly Sabbath. What we do find is that Christians who fell back into the habit of observing the Sabbaths were rebuked. Paul indeed describes the keeping of Sabbaths as, “a shadow of things to come, but the substance is Christ” (Colossians 2:14-17).

Should the Old Testament pattern of the Sabbath continue forever?

Moses spoke of the Children of Israel keeping the Sabbath for a “perpetual covenant” (Exodus 31:16). This sounds permanent. But the term ‘perpetual’ is from the Hebrew olam, meaning an age, an indefinite time, and is the term used in Exodus 29:9, when the High Priest’s office is given to Aaron and his sons for a perpetual (olam) statute.

Under this statute, the High Priest was the one and only mediator, taking the blood of the sacrifice into the Mercy Seat in the Tabernacle, and later, in the Temple, on the Day of Atonement. But this office ceased with the death of Jesus and the rending of the Temple veil, and the establishment of the new and living way which Jesus "consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, His flesh" (Hebrew 10:20). The perpetual covenant of the weekly Sabbath finished at that moment.

What about the rest promised in Hebrews?

"Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into His rest, any of you should seem to come short of it."(Hebrews 4:1).

So there is a ‘rest’ available to the Church Age, and it is possible to miss out on it through unbelief, as the Children of Israel did with their ‘rest’.

This ‘rest’ is in fact a ceasing from works of one’s own righteousness, and adopting the promise that, "there remains, therefore, a rest (literally, a keeping of a Sabbath) to the people of God. For he that is entered into His rest, he also has ceased from his own works, as God did from His" (Hebrews 4:9-10).

Keeping the Sabbath is the continuous rest to be enjoyed by believers in their fellowship with the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit, in contrast to the weekly Sabbath imposed by Old Testament Law.

How do we find this rest?

As far back as the prophet Isaiah, God has identified how this New Testament rest would be distinguished:

"For with stammering lips and another tongue will He speak to this people. To whom He said, this is the rest by which you may cause the weary to rest, and this is the refreshing" (Isaiah 28:11-12).

Paul identifies the New Testament experience of receiving the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4,38), and the accompanying sign of speaking in tongues (Mark 16:17), as the basis of the rest, when he quotes the prophecy of Isaiah to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 14:21) in connection with the operation of Spiritual Gifts, in particular, speaking in tongues.

To receive, or be baptised with, the Holy Spirit, we must first meet God’s requirements of faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ on our behalf, forsaking all attempts to gain any standing with Him by our own works, or keeping of a law. The Holy Spirit’s law, which is life in Christ Jesus, sets us free from the custody of the law of sin and death (Romans 8:1-2).

So, being set free, we are finally able to keep a Sabbath of rest, in which, having ceased from our own works, as God did from His, we live in unity with God, remembering Him as our re-creator and sanctifier.

So the New Testament Sabbath is at last seen to be:

not a day of the week,
but the rest of a lifetime!

 

Is the Sabbath now a Saturday or a Sunday?

It is neither! The various arguments in favour of Saturday versus Sunday observance of a weekly Sabbath are spiritually sterile and completely misleading, since as we have just seen, the New Testament Sabbath is an every day rest.

The special Sabbath-feast days of Leviticus 23 were ‘types or shadows’, of greater things to come. Passover speaks of Christ our Redeemer, and the Feast of the Firstfruits speaks of Christ risen from the dead; Pentecost points to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the New Testament Church; the Day of Atonement looks forward to the Great High Priest, Jesus, the Son of God. Just so, the Old Testament pattern of a weekly Sabbath, in which Israel was to remember their Creator and Redeemer, foreshadowed that greater and complete rest into which we enter when we receive the promise of the Holy Spirit.

This is why Paul warns the Colossians: (Colossians 2:16-17 RSV)Therefore let no one pass judgment on you with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ".

Paul’s exhortation is not to chase shadows (such as Sabbaths), but seek the substance, which is Christ!

Is it right to observe Sunday as a day of worship?

It’s as good as any other day and more convenient than most, because of the way our society is organised! The Old Testament seventh day was not replaced by another day of the week. Rather, it was replaced by a permanent, every day, ceasing from our own works. Only confusion results from attempting to show that the Old Testament seventh-day observance was replaced by first-day of the week worship. This debate misses the point of the New Testament rest, which is a complete every-day Spiritual rest in which we treat every day as holy to the Lord, and accept His offer to rest from our works by adopting His plan for our redemption.

Our Rest in the Lord

Israel in the Old Testament was given the Sabbath as a sign of their special relationship with their Creator. They were instructed to rest on the seventh day, not to work, and not to carry burdens. But Israel profaned the Sabbath, and blasphemed God, by forsaking His statutes, and were found guilty before Him.
Today, Jesus’ invitation is:

"Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you shall find rest unto your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light."
(Matthew 11:28-30).

Failure to accept Jesus’ invitation by rejecting His proffered gift of the Holy Spirit in favour of some man-made tradition or ideology, is rejecting the New Testament Sabbath. For, under the New Covenant, the Sabbath is not any particular day; it is Holy Spirit rest, into which we enter through Jesus Christ, our sin-bearer and Sabbath of rest.

 

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The Revival Centres Church was established after World War 2 in Australia, and has since grown into having assemblies around the world. We believe God is still answering people directly and personally today.