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The Sabbath and what it means to Christians
by Charles Johnson
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The place to start with this study is by examining the Scriptures to see what they say and drawing conclusions from them.

The Biblical basis for the Sabbath begins with creation found in Genesis 1-2. God created everything in six days and rested on the seventh day. The seventh day from that time on was considered hallowed because God had rested on that day. The term “Sabbath” is not used in Genesis, but the period of seven days is repeated often; Genesis 7:4, 10; 8:10, 12; 29:27. The term “Sabbath” is first found in Exodus 16:23 during Israel’s journey in the desert. God provided manna for his people each morning which was to be eaten that day but on the sixth day enough was to be gathered for two days because the seventh day was a weekly Sabbath and no ordinary secular labor was to be performed. Exodus 20:8-11 gives the reason for the Sabbath is because God rested after 6 days of creative work. Exodus 31:17 Yahweh refreshed Himself, literally, “catching his breath.” The seventh day is set apart for holy purposes in honor of his own rest after six days of creation.

Exodus 20:1-17, 34:1-5, 27 the law is spoken to the people and then written in the tablets of stone including the commandment concerning the Sabbath. They were to observe the seventh day and keep it holy; they, their children, their man-servant, maid-servant, animals and aliens within their gates. The reason given; God rested, blessed, and hallowed it. Restrictions were not to guard against the wrath of an angry god, but were to be a blessing to man and not a burden.

Following the sin of worshipping the golden calf, God again reminds them of the Sabbath. Exodus 34:21. Levitical legislation frequently mentions the Sabbath. Exodus 31:13-16, 35:2, Leviticus 19:3, 10; 23;3, 18.

A willing Sabbath breaker was to be put to death, Numbers 32:32-36.

Equal recognition is given to the importance and value of the Sabbath. Deut. 5:12-15. The reason assigned to the Sabbath was humanitarian, “that your man-servant and maid-servant and you may rest.” The Sabbath is one of the characteristic institutions of Israel’s religious and social life. Compare Deut. 16:8, Ex. 43:21, and Leviticus 25

In the prophets the Sabbath is mentioned in connection with celebrating the new moon. II Kings 4:23, Amos 8:4, Hosea 2:11, Isaiah 1:13, Ezekiel 46:3. The prophets saw the Sabbath observance lacking spirituality and did not promote love and gratitude. The prophets who faced the Babylonian observance of the exile exalted the Sabbath as a most valuable institution for Israel. Great promises are attached to faithful observance of the Sabbath and confession is made for being unfaithful or profaning the Sabbath. Jeremiah 17:21-27, Isaiah 56:2, 4; 58:13, Ezekiel 20:12-24.
Nehemiah struggled to have the people of Jerusalem observe the law of the Sabbath; Nehemiah 10:31, 13:15-22.

In the inter-testamental period, the Sabbath became a day of worship and studying the law as well as ceasing from secular employment. The pious carefully observed the Sabbath which is clear from the conduct of the Maccabees and their followers to the point of declining to resist their enemies on the Sabbath. I Maccabees 2:29-38. But necessity drove them to defend themselves from hostile attack on the Sabbath. I Maccabees 2:39-41.

Two treatises in the Mishna, Shabbath and Erubhim are devoted to details of the Sabbath observance. The Sabbath is mentioned in other parts and there are extended discussions in the Gemara including divergent opinions by the rabbis. The Mishna has 39 classes of prohibited actions on the Sabbath.

The Sabbath was to be a time of rest. There is no doubt about it and it is clearly indicated in Scriptures so therefore the theme of rest must then be followed to its ultimate conclusion. Deuteronomy 12:9, “…you have not reached the resting place and the inheritance that the Lord your God is giving you.”

Exodus 31:16, “The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant.” The Sabbath was the sign of a covenant established from creation. This is referred to in both verses 13 and 17, “This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come so that you may know that I am the Lord who makes you holy,” and again, “it will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever…” Rejecting the Sabbath was rejecting the covenant. Nehemiah 13:17-18, “What is this wicked thing you are doing; desecrating the Sabbath day? …you are stirring up more wrath by desecrating the Sabbath.” Ezekiel 20:12, a sign that they would know the Lord had made them holy, verse 13, “…they utterly desecrated my Sabbaths” and verse 20, a sign that I am the Lord your God.

Psalm 95:11, “I declared an oath in my anger, ‘they shall never enter my rest.’” To understand this, one needs to go to Exodus 17. Only a chapter before this God promises rest but now the Israelites quarrel with the intention of stoning Moses and putting the Lord “to the test,” questioning if the Lord is with them. He calls the place Massah and Meribah, meaning testing and quarreling. But still God in his patience continues to promise rest, Exodus 33:14, “My Presence will go with you and I will give you rest.”

In Joshua 22:4 God speaks to the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh,”The Lord your God has given your brothers rest…” and then again in Joshua 21:44, “God gave them rest on every side.” This rest came with conditions of obedience, Joshua 22:5, “But keep the commandment… love the Lord…walk, obey, hold fast to Him…and serve Him.” But the history of Israel reveals they did not keep their part and rest was not part of their experience as God used their neighbors to discipline them. God continues to hold his promise of rest even in the tumultuous times of Jeremiah where God promises in 31:1, “The people who survive the sword will find favor in the desert. I will come to give rest to Israel.” A turning point comes in Jeremiah 31:31, “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers.” The former was a sign of what would come; now a new covenant is promised.

Hebrews picks up the theme and gives much of chapter four to the subject, “The promise of rest still stands but the gospel was preached to no avail because they lacked faith.” He quotes Psalm 95:11 and summarizes Genesis 2:2-3 indicating God rested from all His work because it was finished at the time of creation.

I believe his summary statement is very important. Hebrews 4:8, “If Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains then a Sabbath rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.” The fulfillment of that rest (Sabbath) is Jesus Christ. He is what the “sign” (Sabbath) pointed toward. No longer is there a need of Sabbath for that rest is fulfilled in Christ.

The Sabbatical year is identified through the term “year of release” in Deuteronomy 15:9, 31:10. It is first mentioned in Exodus 21-23. The connection to the Sabbath day is obvious. The primary intention was relief for the poor with an emphasis on the responsibility of those who had more to help relieve the plight of the less fortunate.

To ensure future fertility, rest of the land is emphasized. The motives of the Sabbatical year are social and economic with both rooted in God’s dealings with Israel.

Humane legislation is found in Exodus 21:26. The length of slave servitude is six years. This may or may not coincide with the Sabbatical year. Deuteronomy 15:12-18 while Deuteronomy 15:1-3 took place in the Sabbatical year, literally, “year of release.

This had general observance as it was proclaimed throughout the land. The Sabbatical year began in the seventh month (Sabbatical month) with the Feast of Tabernacles (booths) and the proclamation was read to all of Israel. The proclamation of Deuteronomy 31:10-13 indicated the Sabbatical year to be a time of religious instruction and not just a time of leisure.

The central idea of the Sabbatical year shows God to be owner of the soil and by His grace His people now possess the land. All they have and are belong to Him; the land and the means of life and survival are His. If they live, work and prosper, it is due to his loving kindness. Israel’s response needs to be absolute trust in God without doubting His word or power. The agricultural, social, commercial and political relations were based on God’s divine call and shaped according to His will.

Israel failed to fulfill the proclamation resulting in captivity for their disobedience. II Chronicles 36:21, the land would lie desolate to fulfill the Sabbaths (70 years). This is the fulfillment of God’s promise if they fail to do as He commanded regarding the Sabbath, Leviticus 26:34, 43. This is the punishment for their iniquity.

One of the precepts Nehemiah emphasizes upon rebuilding the temple is faithfulness to the Sabbath, Nehemiah 10:33. It is well known that the Sabbatical year was observed at the time of Alexander the Great as Samaritans petitioned that he remit tribute to them on the seventh year since they did not plant a crop. This is recorded by Josephus. It was also observed strictly during the Maccabean and Hasmonean times. The Sabbatical year is referred to I Maccabees and Josephus indicating it was observed during the Herodian period. Tacitus records the seventh day they are said to have prescribed rest because this day ended their labors, and in addition, being allowed by lack of energy they also spend the seventh year in laziness.

The pinnacle of Sabbath observance is found during the year of Jubilee. To be consistent in Sabbath observance this would also have to be included. The regulations are found in Leviticus 25. The term is introduced in Leviticus 25:13, 28 and Numbers 36:4.

Liberty is proclaimed on the tenth day, seventh week after seven Sabbath years making it the fiftieth year.
1. Real property reverts to its original owner, Leviticus 25:10, 13.
2. Those who sold themselves as slaves to their brethren due to poverty would regain liberty, Leviticus 25:10, 39
3. Observance would be in like manner as the Sabbatical year as there would be no sowing or reaping, they would live on what the land produced of itself, and the people were not to store the products of the land, Leviticus 25:11.

One can find three factors in the year of Jubilee.
• Personal liberty. Liberty for all, slaves and masters alike realizing they were all brethren and citizens of a theocratic kingdom. They all owed their lives to God and were subject to his will. Independence and freedom from other masters such as other nations were only due to God’s divine will.
• Restitution of property. The year of Jubilee fixes the price of real property, Leviticus 25:15, 25-28, and excludes selling property permanently, Leviticus 25:23. The motive is God owns the land and the people are strangers and sojourners. This also applied to houses inside and outside the walled cities, Leviticus 25:31-32.

The price of slaves was determined by the length of time until the year of Jubilee, Leviticus 25:47-54. This applied to all slaves whether owned by a foreigner living in the land or a fellow Hebrew.

Land was returned to its original owner. Land could be redeemed at any time by the owner or some nearest relative, Leviticus 25:25-27, 29, 48, 27:19. This was closely connected to the high calling of god’s people. It refers to the restoration in the course of time of God’s kingdom from perversion by man’s sinfulness and its slavery. God would provide liberty for His children and deliver them from the corruption found in man’s depravity, Romans 8:19. A future era is foreshadowed for those who labor and are heavy laden, Isaiah 61:1-3

• The simple life. This is the finale of the cycle of Sabbatical days, months and years; rest in the land. Along with the preceding year, this makes two consecutive Sabbatical years, Leviticus 25:18-22. People live on the produce of the sixth year and the volunteer growth of the seventh and eighth years.

They could not help but simplify their lives for two consecutive years. The habit of living within their means was an everyday reality. This laid down the moral and religious foundations of Hebrew life, Leviticus 25:18-22, “I will command my blessing upon you.” Faith was all that God expected which resulted in confidence in His power which would not be shaken, Matthew 4:4, Deuteronomy 8:3.

Throughout the entire Bible Sabbaths used as a plural can be found using a specific term or words characterizing the Sabbaths. Beside weekly and land Sabbaths the plural is used in other contexts. The singular for Sabbath is always referring to the weekly Sabbath, Exodus 31:14-17 where it is mentioned four times.

Leviticus 23 lists annual days in their calendar as Sabbaths.
• Passover begins at sundown on the 14th day of the first month. The following day is the Feast of Unleavened Bread which continues for seven days. The first day, the 15th commences the feast and is a Sabbath and the seventh day is also a Sabbath.
• The Wave Offering is when the first grain is harvested. The grain is brought to the priest who on the day following the Sabbath waves it before the Lord. This is the beginning of barley harvest. This would correspond with Easter and so Paul can rightly say, “Christ is the first fruits…”
• Feast of Weeks happens fifty days following the wave offering. New grain is offered to the Lord and in verse 21 “proclaim a sacred assembly and do not work.” This falls on the first day of the week and is known as Pentecost. It is mentioned from the time of Solomon as one of the three feasts he observed, II Chronicles 8:12-13 the other two being the Feast of tabernacles and the Feast of Unleavened bread. This is the conclusion of wheat harvest and a celebration of gratefulness for God’s provision.
• Feast of trumpets is the first day of the seventh month. It will be declared a day of rest announced with a blast of a trumpet with no work to be done and make an offering to the Lord.
• Day of Atonement is the tenth day of the seventh month in which you will deny yourself and do no work because an offering of sacrifice has been made for you. This is a Sabbath and any transgression of it is punishable by death, Leviticus 23:30.
• Feast of Tabernacles is the 15th day of the seventh month lasting seven days in which you will live in booths reminding you of Israel’s journey in the desert. You will present offering each of the seven days and the eighth day is a Sabbath.

The summary states this is all in addition to the other Sabbaths and in addition to your gifts, whatever you have vowed and the free will gifts you have given. Verse 38.

The plural of the Sabbath is also found in the New Testament. The translation is often, “first day of the week” which is correct but literally is “first of the Sabbaths.” This refers to the wave sheaf offering which begins the counting of days to Pentecost.

A mistranslation can be found in several New Testament texts where the plural is translated as a singular.


• 1:21
• 2:23,24
• 3:2,3,4

• 4:16,31
• 6:1, “the Sabbath, second foremost” refers to the second Sabbath of the week being the annual Sabbath of unleavened bread, following the first Sabbath foremost, the Sabbath of beginning the week of unleavened bread. This is parallel to Matthew 12:1 and Mark

• 13:14
• 16:13
• 2:23 where the term “Sabbaths” should be used designating the second Sabbath since it was unlawful to pluck grain prior to the wave sheaf day. Leviticus 23:14.
• 6:2,9
• 13:10
• 28:1, “At the end of the Sabbaths…” indicates two Sabbaths had passed between Christ’s death and rising.

Except for his claim of being Messiah, the Sabbath was the greatest conflict Jesus had with the religious leaders of His time. He set Himself against the rabbinic restrictions as contrary to the spirit of the original law of the Sabbath. The rabbis saw the law as an end in itself, an institution by which the pious Jew must subject all personal interests. Therefore man was made for the Sabbath. He might suffer hardship but the Sabbath must not be violated.

Jesus argued the Sabbath was for man’s benefit. If a conflict arose between man’s needs and the letter of the law, man’s interests and needs took precedence. Matthew 12:1-14, Mark 2:23-3:6, Luke 6:1-11, John 5:1-18, Luke 13:10-17, 14:1-6.

Jesus did not discredit the Sabbath for it was His custom to attend worship in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Luke 4:16. This was one precept of the Decalogue which was ceremonial but did have sociological and moral value. Jesus held it in high regard even if being Messiah He was not subject to its restriction and at any moment He could assert His Lordship over the Sabbath. Mark 2:28. The Sabbath was not on par with the greater moral precepts which were unchangeable.

While Jesus pushed the moral precepts into the realm of thought and desire making them more difficult and the law more exacting, he fought for a more liberal and lenient interpretation of the Sabbath.

Early Christians kept the Sabbath as the Jews did. Gradually the First Day of the week was recognized as the day to worship. The resurrection was on that day and the Day of Pentecost was on that day so it became the most joyous day of the week.

When Gentiles joined the church, the question arose concerning the Law of Moses. Paul won freedom for his fellow believing Gentiles. The attitude of the apostles and the decrees of the Jerusalem Council did not address the Sabbath, Acts 15:28. Paul boldly declared that believers, Jew and Gentile were set free from burdens of Mosaic Law. Circumcision meant nothing now that they were free and saved by Christ, Galatians 5:6. Christian liberty included days and seasons. A man could observe special days or not as his conscience dictated, Romans 14:5, “One man considers one day more sacred than the other, another man considers everyday alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his mind. He who regards one day as special does so to the Lord.” But in all things do not be a stumbling block to your brethren, Romans 14:3. Paul argued for personal freedom in regards to the Sabbath according to Colossians 2:16, “Therefore let no one judge you by what you eat or drink or with regard to a religious festival, a new moon celebration, or a Sabbath day.” Here he groups together dietary laws, feast days, new moons, and Sabbaths. Christians brought together the best elements of the Sabbath without its rigid restrictions. Paul’s most bold and outspoken statement is found in Galatians 4:10, “How is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? You are observing special days, months, seasons and years. I fear for you that I have somehow wasted my efforts on you.”

Lord’s Day is used in the Roman Empire to distinguish the day set aside and dedicated to the Lord distinguishing it from what belonged to the emperor. It was used in an adjective to protest against Caesar worship and designate a day contrasting it with special days of worshipping the Emperor.

Revelation 1:10 is the only reference in the Bible to the “Lord’s Day” but post apostolic literature refer to it. Ignatius, a contemporary of the Apostle John in Ad Mag ix1 “no longer keeping the Sabbath but living according to the Lord’s Day on which also our Light arose.” Ev. Pet. Verse 35, “The Lord’s Day began to dawn.” Barn. 15:9 “We keep the eighth day with gladness….”

Two specific references can be found to “the first day of the week.” Acts 20:7 “when the breaking of bread… “The impression is given that Paul and his companions prolonged their visit to join in the service. In I Corinthians 16:2, “upon the first day of the week let each one of you lay by him in store…” With the imperative a better English rendering would be, “Lay by on successive Sundays…” Lay by literally meaning, “Be at home with…” A seven day week was unknown to the Greeks but a regular cycle had been established.

“First day of the week” being included in all the gospel records of the resurrection, in Acts 20:7 and I Corinthians 16:2 is not accidental but a fixed Christian base. It is impossible to identify a specific date when Sunday worship began. According to Acts 2:46, worship happened daily. But as followers returned to their vocations and there was rapid growth of converts, daily gatherings were improbable. A special day was necessary for corporate worship and Sunday was chosen. Individuals and small communities surely continued to meet daily and Sunday worship was gradual.

Sunday worship was sharply distinguished from the Sabbath. Sunday was a specific form of Christian worship as contrasted to the Sabbath form which included ritual rest and circumcision. Galatians 5:3 and Acts 21:20. Gentiles were free from all obligations of Sabbath observance and there was no renewal of Sabbath rules or a transfer of them to Sunday. Acts 15:28-29 summarizes what was necessary with no reference to Jewish regulation. A given day was unnecessary Galatians 4:10 and Sabbath keeping is condemned. Colossians 2:16.

Inclusion in Christian worship was expression of praise and thanksgiving to God, giving as an expression of joy “the Lord loves a cheerful (literally hilarious) giver, breaking of bread as Jesus had taught them to do and proclamation of the Word of God. If the daily worship of Acts 2:42-47 is any indication of their Sunday worship, a great gap is found between them and Jewish worship. The Sabbath worship continued with reading and arguing the intricate interpretations of past generations’ understanding of the Torah as well as the mandatory tithes and offerings of Jewish law.

Due to physical, psychological, social as well as spiritual needs, one needs a period of rest and relaxation from the week’s routine. Worship is much more meaningful in the context of rest. Sunday was fixed as the day of worship by apostolic practice.


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