The Sabbath Day does not begin with the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:7), but is interwoven into the very fabric of creation itself. At the very dawn of creation, God established the Sabbath. In fact, it is the creation account in Genesis that defines our week—six days of creation, and the seventh the Sabbath day. The seven-day week does not come from the natural order (as do the month and the year), but emerges out of the creation account in Genesis 1 and 2.
The Bible teaches that God is the author of all creation. We are not given exact details on the process or timing, but we know that God is the author of all creation, and that the creation account is organized around a seven-day week. In the first six days God created the entire world, and on the seventh day God rested.
The word for “rest” used in Genesis 2:2 is where we get our word sabbath. It means “to cease,” or “to rest.” The use of the word “rest” could not possibly mean that God was exhausted after creating the world. It is impossible for God to be tired or to need rest. The whole of creation emerges through His creative, spoken word and does not tax the infinite energy or resources of the Divine Majesty! Rather, the word is used to indicate that God “ceased” from His labors that He might dwell on and enjoy a creation of His own making that He has called “very good” (Gen. 1:31).
Unlike the other six days of creation, which all came to an end, the seventh day was not meant to end. All of creation was meant to live in the ongoing “Sabbath” of God. It was the entrance of sin into the world, through the disobedience of Adam, that brought the Sabbath to an end. The Sabbath was not so much a day as a condition—a time to cease and to celebrate God’s rule. When Adam and Eve rebelled against God’s rule and reign, they broke the Sabbath because they shattered the ongoing celebration of God’s rule, which was meant to be the undergirding foundation of the productivity that came forth from the Garden of Eden.
With this background in mind, we are better able to look at the fourth commandment. I have already pointed out that the Ten Commandments are found in two places in the Old Testament. There are only minor variations in the two versions, but one of the differences relating to the fourth commandment is worth noting. The actual wording of the fourth commandment is identical in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, but the reason given for the commandment is different. In Exodus 20 the Sabbath is rooted back into the creation account and, therefore, is meant as God’s gift to the whole human race, both believers and unbelievers. It is part of God’s design that all people have a healthy rhythm of work and rest in life. In contrast, Deuteronomy 5 roots the Sabbath legislation into a specific response to Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian slavery. This reflection will focus on what the Sabbath specifically means for us as Christians, though an equal treatment could be given for Sabbath as a general gift to all people everywhere.
There are three important points about the Sabbath that are significant for Christians to hear from this text. First, the Sabbath is not just about our not doing something. It is not simply about inactivity. That is the problem Jesus encountered with the Pharisees in the New Testament who had made the Sabbath into a legalism of “not doing.” Instead, the fourth commandment calls us to remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.
Moses was not establishing something new, but rather calling us to remember what once was. It is a weekly reminder that the world today is not as it should be, that we have all been broken by the Fall. We long for the day when God’s Sabbath reign will be reestablished in the New Creation at the end of time (Rev. 21–22). We honor the Sabbath and keep it holy by remembering what the world was like before we shattered it through sin. We cease from our labors so that we can remember why we work the other six days and recognize that the most important things that happen in our lives are the things that happen through God’s work.
Second, the Sabbath is our weekly opportunity to break our trust in work. Jesus had conflict with the Pharisees because they had turned their inactivity on the Sabbath into another form of “work” so that they could establish their own self-righteousness. Jesus makes it clear that the Sabbath is not an obligation that we grudgingly undertake to make God happy. The Sabbath rest is God’s gift to us. This is why Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). We’ve turned the Sabbath into a law of inactivity. It is vital that we cease from our labors every week, but that ceasing in and of itself is not what constitutes Sabbath. Rather, it is a day to quit trusting in our works and allow God to work.
The reason we cease from our labors one day of the week is because we need to take time to remember. It is a weekly reminder of our dependence on God. For most of us, our work gives us three things: our self-worth, our sustenance, and our sense of independence. The Sabbath reminds us that our self-worth comes first and foremost from God, that He is our Provider and Sustainer, and that we are totally dependent upon Him. Breaking our weekly trust in work actually enables us to work better and more effectively the other six days because it is now kept in the proper perspective.
Third, the Sabbath is a celebration of the resurrection and the future reestablishment of the Sabbath. In the Old Testament, the fourth commandment looked backwards at the original creation and how God ceased His work on the seventh day. In the New Testament, the Christians wisely shifted the focus from the seventh day to the first day of the week, which was the day of the resurrection of Christ. By doing this, they were looking forward to Christ’s second coming and the New Creation, when the Sabbath reign of God will be reestablished.
We no longer look back and remember what should have been; instead, we look forward and eagerly await the new heavens and the new earth. In Christ, we see the in-breaking of these future realities and a foretaste of the health and wholeness and full reign of the kingdom that is to come. Dedicating a day once per week for worship, rest, reflection, and renewal is but a tiny foretaste of the final Sabbath rest that will be reinstituted once Christ has returned and sin has been banished. All of life will be “Sabbath,” not a ceasing from work, but work without drudgery, and in the complete absence of sin, in the fullness of God’s fruitful design.
Did you enjoy this entry? It is part of a book by Timothy Tennent titled, Ten Words, Two Signs, One Prayer: Core Practices of the Christian Faith. In its pages, Tennent casts a vision for a long tradition of Christian discipleship and catechesis focusing on the Ten Commandments, the two sacraments of baptism and Communion, and the Lord’s Prayer. It will helps individuals and groups:
- Gain a deeper Christian appreciation of God’s Ten Commandments to his people Israel
- Learn the meaning of the two sacraments—baptism and communion
- Discover the value of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray (the “Lord’s Prayer”)