What Does the Bible Teach About Sabbath Rest?

by Tom Terry
Are We Obligated To Keep The Sabbath?

The writings of the Apostle Paul would seem to be clear that Christians do not need to observe the ceremonial and legal practices of the Mosaic Law. This point is brought out whenever there are debates about certain commands in the law—whether or not they were overturned by Jesus and are no longer applicable to Christians today. Here are three:

* Sabbath-Keeping
* Circumcision
* Tithing

All three of these things were not only part of the Mosaic Law, but actually pre-date the law and therefore, it would seem to some that they must be observed in Christian practice today. But is that really the case?
First, is circumcision a requirement of the faith? Paul says Jesus is of no value to you if you get circumcised for salvation (Galatians 5:2).

As for tithing, this is not repeated as a New Testament command (though giving is). The general practice of tithing we engage in today is one born more out of relationship rather than rule.

But only one of these goes back to creation and was established as a standard before sin came into the world: the sabbath.

Now, about the sabbath, Paul would seem to say it is not applicable to Christians as he told the Colossians not to let others judge them regarding observing special days (Colossians 2:16). But in this context, Paul seems to be saying that sabbath-keeping is not a part of effecting salvation.

The reason why I have brought up these three things relative to sabbath-keeping is that all three are mentioned, commanded, or demonstrated in the scripture before the Mosaic Law was given. Because they precede law, and are not applied as a requirement of law, they can also be dismissed apart from the law, and the New Testament writers would seem to dismiss them as a requirement, with one possible exception: the sabbath.

When I refer to sabbath-keeping, I am not referring to the legal practice of the various sabbaths as mentioned in the Mosaic Law, and specifically in Leviticus. If the law does not bind us ceremonially, then the sabbath, as prescribed in the law, does not bind us either since it was a ceremonial part of Judaism. But, since I’m not referring to the sabbath under the law, there is room for devoted observance that does not contradict our faith in Christ or the manner in which we are saved—by grace through faith alone. Paul’s mention of the sabbath in Colossians 2:16 is in the context of salvation. Sabbath-keeping does not save or condemn anyone. But there is value in sabbath-keeping of another kind that should excite us. It is found in Genesis 2:3, “God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because on that day he rested from all the work of creation that he had accomplished.”

Genesis 2:3 marks the end of the creation account that began in Genesis 1:1. By saying that he “sanctified it,” Moses is telling us that the sabbath is something that is before and beyond the law. Consider, it was sanctified before sin entered the world. It is therefore, also, as Genesis 1 repeatedly uses the term, “Good.” It is not a rule for observance under a specified law. It is an entering into God’s rest and enjoyment of his creation. And we should observe it, not as a rule, but as a response to all that God has done for us in Genesis 1 because keeping the sabbath in this sense is directly related to God’s statement in Genesis 1:26, “Let us make man in our image.”

How is sabbath-keeping related to the, image of God? Just exactly what is the Image of God? Being created in the image of God is not, necessarily, about God’s communicable attributes, though that seems the popular way to define what constitutes the image of God. I do not hold this as my primary understanding of what the image of God is. I believe creation in the image of God is revealed in Genesis 1 in the acts that God performed and that being in the image of God means that we are designed to do those same acts. Let me give you some examples.

Immediately after stating that man is created in God’s image, God says to man, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that crawls upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28). These are things that God commands us to do because he himself does them and did them in Genesis 1:3-27. When was God fruitful and multiplied? When he created life on the earth, specifically, human life, which can commune with him. When did he fill the earth, when he filled it with all kinds of plant and animal life. When did God subdue? When he was bringing the unformed mass of the earth under his creative control. When did he rule? When he issued commands to the creatures and man.

Do you see what is happening in the text? God created man to do the things that he does and to have the authority he possesses over the domain of creation he has given us. To do the things that God does means to do what God did in Genesis 1, but in a creaturely way. This includes sabbath-keeping as the creation account is finished in Genesis 2:3. If God rested, we are to rest also. In this specific text it is not prescriptive, but it is demonstrative.

What is sabbath-keeping? It might help if we translate sabbath as what God did on that first sabbath. He rested (שָׁבַת֙). Today, in our culture, we take two sabbath days, Saturday and Sunday. Two days of rest. Who doesn’t want a day of rest? We scream and cry if we don’t get our days off. But sabbath-keeping is a little more than just resting and taking a day off of work. It regards the day as holy and dedicated to God. This is signified by Moses’ usage of the word, “sanctified” in verse 3. This implies worship and a setting aside of the day for holy pursuits. But since when are holy pursuits allotted for a sabbath day only? We don’t follow sabbath days as defined in the Mosaic Law, but we do observe rest and worship because it was demonstrated to us by God and our goal is to become like him in a creaturely way.

Some theologians divide up the laws in the Old Testament under three general categories: judicial, ceremonial, and moral. We regard the judicial and ceremonial laws as fulfilled by Jesus and no longer applicable to us today. But the moral law remains applicable because the moral laws were repeated by the New Testament. They were fulfilled by Jesus, as the other laws were, but were also repeated for us to follow as well. The Ten Commandments are the summary of the Old Testament law. They are moral commandments. Sabbath-keeping is listed in the moral commandments. Here’s what this implies: it is moral to rest. It is immoral to refuse rest. Because God set apart the sabbath day (sanctified), biblical rest, therefore, is a holy thing.

Unlike God, we need rest. We cannot survive long without rest. We cannot maintain a healthy brain or body without regular rest. Rest is essential to the human experience. God wants us to rest. He wants us to work, but he also wants us to rest. Here’s the truth we should grab hold of: resting is an expression of the image of God in us. It is no more or less true than being fruitful, multiplying, subduing and ruling.

We should not forget that it was God who sanctified the sabbath, not the law, or Moses. And while we may have the freedom to change the day we celebrate, the point of having a sabbath rest is still valid as a practice. Jews celebrate it on Saturday. Western Christians celebrate it on Sunday. Arab believers celebrate on Friday. The days may differ, but the need for a day of rest is universal because the sabbath is universal, being sanctified by God at the pinnacle of creation.

Are We Obligated To Keep The Sabbath? At the very least, the sabbath is a rest from work to experience rejuvenation. Why would you not want that? Ideally, sabbath is a holy experience when the Christian should pursue Christ even more. As a Christian, why would you not want that?


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