Accompanied by Josiah, I was dropping off eggs to Dr. Don one day early this spring when began to share some of what he had been studying lately. Z. Hall had been looking at the Sabbath and had encouraged him to do the same—with the result that he had become convinced he ought to “keep it” and was very excited to do so. Dr. Don is always excited and he spoke a million miles a minute with a quick wind-up asking if we had any thoughts, but in the busy rush of a dental clinic he had to be off to the next patient before we had a chance to respond. I walked away chuckling. If he thinks I am quiet and serious, it is only in comparison to the outstanding energy he and Miss J possess. I did have many thoughts which began with one simple scripture and have continued with me until I have at last been able to unravel them all in digital letterhead. What I’ve discovered has brought me great delight and, as always, has brought again to mind the beauty of the gospel and the precious Lord Jesus—who is Lord of the Sabbath.
The phrase “keep the Sabbath” has been used loosely throughout the years since Jesus’ resurrection. In my lifetime I’ve heard it defined in a dozen different ways for a dozen different purposes. But if we, as believers, are to keep the Sabbath, we must understand what it is and where it originated. And we must know if Jesus’ coming has changed the Sabbath or ended the Sabbath or fulfilled the Sabbath or left us simply groping to know whether or not the Sabbath is a remnant of a past covenant or an integral part of this period of grace.
“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy,” came the command from Mount Sinai, through the tablets of stone which God wrote in the presence of Moses (Exodus 20:8-11). The edict harkened back as a picture of creation, when God created the world in six days and on the seventh, the Sabbath, He rested (Genesis 2:2). “For six days you shall labor and do your work, but the seventh you shall keep as holy to the Lord your God. You shall do no work therein.”
For the Jewish community, living under the Law of Moses, each day began at sundown and continued through sunrise until the following sundown, in the pattern of creation (Genesis 1:5). The Sabbath began at sundown on our Friday and ended at sundown the following day—on our Saturday. The prohibitions for work included all regular labor and travel and food preparation (Exodus 16:23; Deuteronomy 5:12-13; Exodus 35:2-3). The goal? To keep the day holy to the Lord. It sounds beautiful, until we consider the consequences of failure to keep the Sabbath: for gathering sticks on the Sabbath, a man should be stoned to death (Exodus 31:14-16; Numbers 15:32-33).
Should we be surprised? Through the Law comes death (Romans 7:9-10). And as each person living under Mosaic law soon found, the Law also brings a curse (Galations 3:13). And where the Law is, sin abounds all the more (Romans 5:20). Romans gives us the true perspective on the Law, “by the works of the Law is no flesh just before God.” (Galations 2:16) Because even if we kept all the Law and yet stumbled in one respect, we would be guilty of the whole Law (James 2:10). Justification cannot come through the Law (Romans 3:20). The Law is holy and righteous and good, but it lacks power to make men right with God (Romans 7:12; Romans 8:3-4).
Then what is the purpose of the Law? This side of the cross, we are given a clearer understanding of the purpose of the law: to show us God’s holiness. To show us our helplessness. Paul preached clearly to those who would seek to be under the Law that “the Law has become our schoolmaster to lead us to Christ.” (Galations 3:24) In our vain groping to be right with God, we search for things to do to please Him, to earn His favor. But the works of the Law can never please God. With all our working, we will always come out like the rich, young ruler—unable to love God the most (Matthew 19:16-24). Living under the Law, David understood that God wasn’t really interested in our “sacrifices”, but there was something He was looking for: “a broken and contrite heart.” (Psalm 51:17) That was the purpose of the Law—to shut every mouth (Galations 3:22). To break our hearts with the knowledge of our sin.
But death is in the Law because it can only break hearts, it can never heal them. The Law was preparatory, setting the stage for the great act of God: Jesus Christ. In Christ the Law was fulfilled—in two ways (Romans 10:4; John 15:25). Jesus fully kept the spirit of the Law which He summed upped as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-40) And He finished the Law. The purpose of the Law is to break our hearts and shut our mouths and leave us silent before God—in need of a Savior. The purpose of the Law was to take our hands and lead us to Christ. The purpose of Christ was to reconcile us to God—to make us right with Him (Ephesians 2:16; Romans 5:1). Righteous. Holy. Once we know Jesus, there is no more purpose in the Law. Its purpose is fulfilled. Finished. The Law does not speak to the righteous man, but to sinners (1 Timothy 1:9).
Where does this leave the Sabbath? By the time Jesus made His debut in the worldly time-table, the Sabbath had become an intricate system of rules which could be wriggled in and out of until they bound every man, woman and child under a load too heavy to carry. Instead of being a day of rest, the Sabbath had become a day when good was denied and evil was planned (Mark 3:4). Instead of being dedicated to God as a day wholly devoted to Him, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day devoted the Sabbath to seeking to destroy God’s Son (John 5:18). Yet Jesus proclaimed Himself Lord of the Sabbath (Luke 6:5).
Jesus said, “Come to Me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me for I am gentle and lowly of heart and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:29-30)
In the Law we see God’s holiness, we are reminded of the past, but we are also given glimpses and foreshadowings of things to come (Hebrews 10:1): the Passover lamb, which pointed to Christ, the day of Atonement, which pointed to Christ, the mediating High Priest, which pointed to Christ. As the writer of Hebrews phrases it, “Jesus is the mediator of a new covenant.” (Hebrews 12:24) So also the Sabbath of the Law was a shadow of things to come—of a greater rest in Jesus.
Is there a Sabbath rest for the believer? Absolutely! “There now remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for he who has rested has ceased from his works.” (Hebrews 4:9-10) The rest which the Israelites failed, by unbelief, to enter into in the wilderness is the very rest which we may now enter—through belief in Jesus who has finished the work that saves us and has sat down at the Father’s hand (Hebrews 3-4). In the temple of old, the priest’s work was never done. Even on the Sabbath, he must offer sacrifices, for even on the Sabbath did the people sin. No seats were placed to relieve his weariness. Always the constant reminder that men cannot outweigh their sin by sacrifice. Only Jesus can. Jesus, the High Priest who offered Himself and was heard has opened a way for us through the curtain that was torn and sits by God, always living to intercede for us (Hebrews 1:3; Hebrews 7:25). Because His work is done, we can, by faith, enter into His rest—a rest from our works. A rest from the Law.
Through Christ we are able to keep the spirit of the Law—“Love the Lord with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.” We love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). Through Christ we are able to stand before the mercy seat of God, accepted in the Beloved (Ephesians 1:6). Through Christ we have entered our Sabbath rest—and remain in it—free from the works of the Law. Free from the curse of the Law. Free from death that comes through the Law. The mystery is revealed, the purpose of the foreshadowing is made clear. Christ fulfills the Law. Christ is Lord of the Sabbath.
In light of this, the writer of Hebrews tells us, “Through Him, then, let us continually, offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is the fruit of lips that gives thanks to His name.” (Hebrews 13:5) Ought we to keep the Sabbath day holy to God? Scripture tells us our Sabbath rest is in Jesus, and in light of Jesus every day should be holy to God. The Sabbath ended a period of works. Our works have ended. Our Sabbath does not. Just like the priests in the temple were to offer continual sacrifices, so we should, too. Just like worshippers sought God in the temple of old, so our bodies are a temple of God (1 Corinthians 6:19), indwelt by His Holy Spirit and we are to “offer our bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God.” (Romans 12:1-2) Acceptable through Jesus. And in a like manner, whatever we do, in word or deed—gathering sticks, baking bread, traveling—we are to do in the name of the Lord! Not through the Law comes holiness, but through Christ and His work and through doing all yoked with Him in light of His love.
"Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day--things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ." (Colossians 2:16-17)
There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God: Jesus.