Remembering the Sabbath

October 14, 2018

If you grew up in the 50’s and 60’s you remember blue laws. Blue laws are laws that prohibit various activities of work and commerce on Sunday. In the 18th century the word, “blue,” carried the meaning of, “rigidly moral” in a negative sense.

Growing up, I was not allowed to do any kind of rigorous playing on Sunday. I do remember one time when I played football but I felt a little guilty about it. It was the Lord’s Day, after all! There were no little league games on Sunday and many stores were closed. Most of these laws have since been repealed and today the “Lord’s Day” is pretty much like any other day.

This morning we are looking at the 4th commandment. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” This was a sobering command. In Dt.31:15 we read, “Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death.” What is this all about? Does it have any relevance to us? Did Jesus nullify the Sabbath? We want to think carefully about this commandment because, you see the Sabbath command is a gracious gift of God to believers.


The noun, “sabbath” is sometimes said to refer to the number seven. It is the 7th day. But it is widely held today by Hebrew scholars that the noun is related to a verb which means, “to cease.” In other words the noun, Sabbath, refers to, “the day that stops.” As far as I can tell from my study, the Sabbath law is unique to Israel.

The Sabbath command is found in Ex.20 and restated in Deut.5. Both references are essentially the same except for a significant difference. The reason given for observing the Sabbath differs in each passage. Let’s consider Ex.20:8-11 (read).

In v.11 notice the reason given for ceasing from all work. The Lord blessed the Sabbath and made it holy because he rested on the 7th day after creating the heavens and the earth. The Sabbath was holy because it was a day brought into the realm of that which is sacred. It has to do with God and our relationship with God. In v.11 we are called to reflect upon God’s majestic work of creation and his sovereign rule over all creation. Notice that God rested from his creation work, not because he was tired, but because it was complete and he saw that it was good.

When God created mankind he gave mankind dominion over the earth. We have work to do in this world. Work is part of our vocation as humans created in the image of God. God tells his people, Israel, to enter into his rest from work. We share in God’s rest.

But the focus is not just on our having a day of rest. The Sabbath is to be a holy day because God has blessed it. In Ex.31:13 we read, “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, 'Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you.” God calls the day, “my Sabbath.” This day was appointed by the Lord as a sign for his people to acknowledge their relationship with God as Creator and Sustainer of all things.

How was Israel to observe the Sabbath? Well, notice that there is no command to go to the tabernacle or to make special sacrifices. It doesn’t say they were to sing special songs or give special prayers. It says they were to not do any work of any kind. In Ex.16 when Moses explains how the people were to gather manna each day he says that on the 6th day the people were to gather enough for two days because on the Sabbath day no manna would be found. In Ex.16:29 Moses explains, “See! The LORD has given you the Sabbath; therefore on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day." In Ex.35:3 we read, “You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day." In Num.15 a man was put to death for gathering wood on the Sabbath. In Neh.10:31 Nehemiah makes it clear that the people were not to conduct business on the Sabbath. The Sabbath was a day given to the Lord in worship of him.

But clearly it was difficult for Israel to embrace the purpose and quietness of this day. In fact, the Babylonian Exile occurred in part because the people did not observe the Sabbath. In Lev.26:33 God says, “And I will scatter you among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword after you, and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste.” Then in v.35 God says, “As long as [the land] lies desolate it shall have rest, the rest that it did not have on your Sabbaths when you were dwelling in it.” The people of Israel did not keep the Sabbath.

After the Exile it was a different story. The Jewish religious leaders were so concerned about keeping Sabbath that they added numerous rules, distorting the Sabbath. By the time of Jesus, these leaders had made the Sabbath into a burden for the people.

By the way, Jesus observed the Sabbath. In Lk.4:16 we read, “And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read.” Of course we all remember that Jesus caused great controversy because he did not follow the rules added by the religious leaders. He often healed people on the Sabbath which was against their rules. In Lk.6:5 Jesus said about himself, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath." In Mk.2:27 Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Jesus demonstrates God’s intent for the Sabbath. It was not a day for doing nothing. It was a day for rest and for doing good. But above all it was a day to honor the Lord in surrender and worship.

Today we worship on what we call the Lord’s Day. It is Sunday, the first day of the week. It is not known exactly when Christians began worshiping on Sunday, but clearly from Acts and the Epistles we see that the believers worshiped on Sunday probably because Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week. The believers continued to set aside a day for worship. Gentile believers in the Roman Empire probably had to work every day, so they would gather in the afternoon and evening for worship. All of this to say that the principle of setting aside a day to honor and worship the Lord of all is deeply embedded in the Scripture and is to be a regular part of our lives.


Just before the people crossed into the Promised Land, Moses reviewed the law of God. There are a couple of differences to notice here in Deut. For one thing, the statement about who is to enjoy a day of rest is given with a little more detail. But in v.15 a different reason for observing Sabbath is given. They were to observe the Sabbath because they had been “slaves in the land of Egypt and the Lord brought them out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” This is a reference to the Exodus, to redemption. God released them from bondage.

I think it is instructive to see that the redemption of Israel from bondage in Egypt was to be entered into and remembered by observing a day of rest. In fact, rest is an interesting idea in the Bible. The Promised Land was referred to as a place of rest. In Jos.1:13 we read, “Remember the word that Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you, saying, 'The LORD your God is providing you a place of rest and will give you this land.” In the 4th commandment it is instructive to see that the people of Israel were to extend Sabbath rest to all who lived in the land. Even those who were not Jewish were extended the grace of Sabbath rest. The Sabbath rest was a day for remembering God’s mercy and kindness in redemption and it was to be shared.

In the book of Hebrews the writer refers to the Sabbath rest. He makes his point using a kind of argument that is not common to the way we speak. But his point is that even though God promised to give his people rest in the Promised Land, many of those people did not enjoy the rest of God because of their unbelief and disobedience. “But,” the author of Hebrews says in Heb.4:9-11, “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.” What rest is he talking about? He is talking about the rest that comes through faith in Jesus. He is talking about redemption from bondage to idolatry and sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

After a week of hard work, we all need rest. God thoughtfully provided a day of rest for his people. But here in Dt.5 we see that this rest has spiritual significance. It is the rest of redemption. Israel didn’t do anything to earn redemption. When we embrace Christ as Savior, Lord and King we are redeemed from bondage, not because we deserve redemption, but because God is merciful and gracious. We are redeemed by faith in Jesus not by our works. God wanted his people to never forget their redemption from slavery in Egypt so he blessed the Sabbath and made it holy.

Some would say that the 4th commandment no longer applies to us today. I myself have said that in the past. In one sense it does not apply since the Sabbath law is not specifically enforced by the New Testament apostles. In fact, in Rm.14:5 Paul, writing about non-essential matters, says, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” And in Col.2:16, Paul writes, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.” So it seems that followers of Christ are not bound by the Old Testament Sabbath laws.

That said, surely the spirit of the Sabbath is still very much alive. Worshipping God our Creator and Redeemer ought to be a joyful priority for all believers. What could be more important than the worship of God?

One wonders if we have not become too casual in our worship. We probably don’t set aside a whole day for worship like Israel did. But do we feel any sense of compulsion that we ought not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together in worship? I’m not suggesting we need to be in church all day. I don’t think it’s wrong to sit down on the Lord’s Day and watch T.V. or enter into other activities. But I do think we short ourselves when we do not set time aside for thoughtful rest, worship, and thanksgiving to God. What actually makes the Lord’s Day different from any other day that you don’t have to work? How is your rest on Saturday different from your rest on Sunday? Are you intentional and thoughtful about your worship of God? Amen.