What is the Sabbath and should we keep it?

What’s the deal about the Sabbath?

In our times, Christians are all over the place regarding the importance of the Sabbath. Some take it as seriously as the Jews did in the Old Testament. Others live as if it never existed, or as if it no longer applies. Yet others give it some importance and won’t do certain things on the Sabbath if they can help it. Only a few understand what the Sabbath is really about and live their lives keeping the Sabbath in the way that Jesus did and God meant us to.

What about you? Have you ever thought about whether you need to keep the Sabbath, and if so, how you are supposed to keep the Sabbath? How do you explain the fact that Jesus fulfilled the Law – the entire Law of God – and yet did things on the Sabbath that violated the Law (like healing on the Sabbath) and allowed His disciples to go even further (for example, He allowed them to pick grain on the Sabbath)?

Stop and think about these things before you read on.

The Sabbath in the Old Testament

In the Old Testament, the Sabbath was very important. In fact, it was one of the Ten Commandments, and of the ten, it was number three.

Ex 20:8-11 8 "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. 11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy."

The people were not supposed to do any work on that day but keep it for the Lord.

To emphasize this, and prepare the people for the Sabbath, God provided the manna for the Sabbath on the day before.

Note that it wasn’t merely that one wasn’t supposed to labor on the Sabbath, but also that one was to use the Sabbath for the Lord.

God modeled the Sabbath Himself, resting on the seventh day, as an example for us to follow.

Ex 16:22-26 22 Now on the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers for each one. When all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, 23 then he said to them, "This is what the LORD meant: Tomorrow is a sabbath observance, a holy sabbath to the LORD. Bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning." 24 So they put it aside until morning, as Moses had ordered, and it did not become foul nor was there any worm in it. 25 Moses said, "Eat it today, for today is a sabbath to the LORD; today you will not find it in the field. 26 "Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, the sabbath, there will be none."

God pointed out to the Israelites that they would not lose financially but not working on the Sabbath.

Ex 23:10-12 10 "You shall sow your land for six years and gather in its yield, 11 but on the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the needy of your people may eat; and whatever they leave the beast of the field may eat. You are to do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove. 12 Six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as your stranger, may refresh themselves. "

Similar to the six plus one day cycle, there was also a six plus one year cycle for the land. The idea was to get the people to think about blessing others.

In Ex 23:10-12 the purpose of the Sabbath was to allow our employees to rest and refresh themselves.

Ex 31:12-13 12 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 13 "But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘You shall surely observe My sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you.’"

The Sabbath was also a sign between the Lord and the Israelites, reminding them that it was the Lord who separated them from the rest of mankind for Himself.

Ex 31:14 ‘Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people.’

The Sabbath was so important that not observing it resulted in being cut off from the people of God (i.e. being put to death – see the next verse), and profaning it (i.e. speaking against it) was punished by death.

Ex 31:15-17 15 'For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall surely be put to death. 16 So the sons of Israel shall observe the sabbath, to celebrate the sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant.' 17 "It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor, and was refreshed."

It was a perpetual covenant between the Lord and the sons of Israel.'

It was to be a day of complete rest from all work, and a day meant for the Lord.

Gen 2:2-3 2 By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. 3 Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.

The reason why God created and made heaven and earth in six days and rested on the seventh day was to serve as a model for how man should work six days and then rest on the seventh day.

Num 15:32-36 32 Now while the sons of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering wood on the sabbath day. 33 Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation; 34 and they put him in custody because it had not been declared what should be done to him. 35 Then the LORD said to Moses, "The man shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp." 36 So all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, just as the LORD had commanded Moses.

God meant what He said about the Sabbath, and a man was put to death for disobeying the law about the Sabbath.

Deut 5:15 'You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day.'

Another reason why God gave the law about the sabbath was to remind the people that He delivered them from slavery in Egypt.

2 Chr 36:20 Those who had escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon ; and they were servants to him and to his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia, 21 to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its sabbaths. All the days of its desolation it kept sabbath until seventy years were complete.

When the people disobeyed God’s law about not tilling the land every seventh year God took them out of the land for exactly the number of years that they ignored the law and tilled the land. Here we see the exactness of the judgment of God.

Is 58:13-14 13 "If because of the sabbath, you turn your foot from doing your own pleasure on My holy day, and call the sabbath a delight, the holy day of the LORD honorable, and honor it, desisting from your own ways, from seeking your own pleasure and speaking your own word, 14 then you will take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; and I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken."

The Sabbath was to be a day where you didn’t seek your own pleasure but instead you sought what God wanted.

Jer 17:27 27 ""'But if you do not listen to Me to keep the sabbath day holy by not carrying a load and coming in through the gates of Jerusalem on the sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates and it will devour the palaces of Jerusalem and not be quenched.""'

Through Jeremiah, God told the Jews that if they didn’t keep the Sabbath then they would lose Jerusalem. The people ignored what God said, and they lost Jerusalem, just as Jeremiah prophesied.

The Sabbath in the New Testament

In Jesus’ time, His disciples collected grain on the Sabbath. Jesus Himself healed on the Sabbath. The Pharisees didn’t understand the purpose of the Sabbath, and the severely criticized Jesus and His disciples for doing what was ‘unlawful’ on the Sabbath.

Mt 12:2 But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, "Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath."

Jesus tried to explain things to the Pharisees but they never got it.

Mk 2:27 Jesus said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath."

And so they persecuted Him.

Jn 5:16 For this reason the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath.

In the New Testament, it doesn’t seem like the Sabbath needs to be kept in the way it was to be kept in the Old Testament.

Col 2:16 Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day –

Yet, on the other hand, there does remain a Sabbath rest for the people of God.

Heb 4:9 So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.

What then is this Sabbath rest for the people of God?

The meaning of the Sabbath today

In the Old Testament, after God finished creating and making the heavens and the earth He sanctified / separated the 7th day and spent the 7th day resting / communing with man.

In the Old Testament, God wanted man to spend time (of his first day) communing with God, and that is why He created the Sabbath for Adam and Eve, and then later put it as a part of the Law.

For believers, the Sabbath reflects the importance of communing with God, believing what He says, and then obeying what He said. When you take the time to find out what God expects of you each day, and then believe Him, and then do what He says, then you are keeping the Sabbath.

Remember how Jesus responded when Martha was distracted with work but Mary sat and listened to Jesus? That was a good example of prioritizing things and following the spirit of the Sabbath. One thing is necessary...

Lk 10:38-42 38 Now as they were traveling along, He entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who was seated at the Lord's feet, listening to His word. 40 But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, "Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me." 41 But the Lord answered and said to her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; 42 but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her."

Jesus didn’t have to keep the Sabbath in the way that the Old Testament Jews had to keep it because He communed with God continually, and always believed and obeyed His Father. He considered spending time with His Father so important that he spent entire nights in prayer (Lk 6:12) communing with God. So He was keeping the Sabbath in the true spirit of what the Sabbath meant to be. The Old Testament Sabbath separated only one day in seven, but what God really desired was that man be in continual communication with Him. The Old Testament Sabbath was ‘a shadow of the things to come’.

Jesus didn’t think the Sabbath was unimportant. In fact, He understood, better than anyone else, how important it was to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

Mt 4:1-4 1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry. 3 And the tempter came and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread." 4 But He answered and said, "It is written, 'MAN SHALL NOT LIVE ON BREAD ALONE, BUT ON EVERY WORD THAT PROCEEDS OUT OF THE MOUTH OF GOD.'"

Today, we too need to set aside time to commune with God and listen to what He has to say to us. Man (which includes you and me) shall live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

So for us keeping the Sabbath involves spending time listening to God’s instruction, believing what He says, and then doing what He is asking us to do.

This is not the same as going to church on Sunday. There you hear the pastor speaking to the congregation, which is not necessarily the same as hearing God speaking to you. The Sabbath is a personal thing between God and you, where God speaks to you, telling you what to do at that particular time.

The Sabbath rest is not the same as the Sabbath. Rather, it is the result of keeping the Sabbath.

From Heb 4:1-2 we see that we have to hear God and then believe Him and obey Him in order to enter His rest.

Heb 4:1-2 1 Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it. 2 For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard.

One enters into God’s rest after he has done what God asked him to do. Such a person is in the place where God wants him to be and has done and is doing what God wants him to do. For the Jews in Moses’ time, to enter into God’s rest was to live in the Promised Land. But they didn’t believe God when He said He would get them there and so He did not let them enter there.

It is possible for us to not enter God’s rest if we harden our hearts (i.e. do not listen) when God speaks to us.


Not hearing God’s word, or disobeying His word, because we refuse to believe it, prevents us from entering God’s rest.

Heb 3:18-19 18 And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? 19 So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief.

When we listen to the word of God it can tell us when we are off track and tell us what to do to get back on track. That is why we see Heb 4:12 speaking about God’s word after the earlier verses discuss the Sabbath rest.

Heb 4:12 For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

When we struggle to do what God asked us to do we can ask Jesus for help. That is why Heb 4:14-16 follows the discussion on the Sabbath rest.

Heb 4:14-16 14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. 16 Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Jesus Himself did the same thing – He asked God for help in His time of need and entered God’s rest after completing the task God gave Him to do. That is why Heb 5:5-7 follows the discussion on the Sabbath rest.

Heb 5:7-9 7 In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety. 8 Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. 9 And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation, 10 being designated by God as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

So then, let us be diligent to keep the Sabbath in the true spirit of what God expects. That is, let us take the time to hear what God has to say to us, and then believe Him, and then obey Him. After we have done what He asked us to do we can enter into His rest, just as He rested after He finished His task of creating and making the heavens and the earth.

People today, especially the youth, have a lot of distractions – smartphones, personal music players, social media, radio, television, and such – and these distractions prevent them from hearing God. It is becoming increasingly difficult for people to keep the Sabbath. Even in the church, sometimes there are too many activities, and people blindly engage in activities, like Martha, but fail to first hear God, and thus miss out entering into the Sabbath rest. But one thing is necessary, and make sure that you don’t let it be taken away from you.

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