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Celebrating the Sabbath

by Gretchen Passantino

Copyright 2002 by Gretchen Passantino

God has given us three reasons to “keep the Sabbath,” or dedicate one day each week to worship and rest. The first two reasons were to commemorate God’s acts in history which are earthly examples of spiritual realities. We are to keep the Sabbath in memory of God’s perfect and complete creation of the physical world, which is a tangible evidence of his creative perfection in creating us in Adam in God’s own perfect image. We are to keep the Sabbath in memory of God’s complete rescue of the Jewish nation from physical bondage in slavery in Egypt, which is a tangible evidence of his saving power to rescue us from spiritual bondage in slavery to sin. The third reason is the actual spiritual reality: In Jesus Christ we are created anew in right relationship to God and are released from our death-doomed bondage to sin, which results not merely in physical death, but also spiritual death.

God’s creative perfection. In Genesis 2:2 we are told, “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (NIV). In Exodus 20:8 Moses explains the fourth commandment, saying, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

God’s redemptive power., Deuteronomy 5:12-15, repeating the fourth commandment from Exodus, reminds the Jews of a second reason to keep the Sabbath: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day” (verse 15).

Christ, our true Sabbath rest. Finally, the writer to the Hebrew Christians gives us a third reason to keep the Sabbath: “Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. . . . Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said, ‘So I declared an oath in my anger, They shall never enter my rest.’ And yet his work has been finished since the creation of the world. . . . It still remains that some will enter that rest, and those who formerly had the gospel preached to them did not go in, because of their disobedience. Therefore God again set a certain day, calling it Today, when a long time later he spoke through David, as was said before: ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.’. . . 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 none will fall by following their example of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:1-11).

Physical Examples of Spiritual Truths. Jesus himself said that God taught us by physical examples when he was talking to Nicodemus about begin born again. When Nicodemus, who was a teacher of the law, a Pharisee, and who probably had memorized the first five books of the Old Testament, said that he did not understand what Jesus was saying, Jesus rebuked him for not understanding. He said, “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” (John 3:12). If Nicodemus had understood the earthly examples given throughout the Old Testament, he would have understood what Jesus meant about being born again, as is so eloquently described as “a new covenant,” one written “on their hearts” in Jeremiah 31:33-34. Jesus then went on to give Nicodemus an earthly example from the Old Testament: when the Israelites were bitten by poisonous snakes and were dying as punishment for disobeying God, God provided an escape from the deadly venom. He ordered Moses to make a bronze serpent and place it on a pole, visible throughout the camp. All those who looked on the bronze serpent were cured; those who did not, died (Numbers 21:4-9). Jesus told Nicodemus that redemption from physical death by snake bite was an earthly example of spiritual redemption from spiritual death by sin: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

The physical examples of Sabbath keeping are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He is our Sabbath Rest. While the Israelites at one time looked to the serpent on the pole for physical healing, this was merely a pattern to prepare them to look to Jesus Christ on the cross for spiritual healing. While the Israelites at one time observed the seventh day in honor of God’s perfect creation, and at a later time in honor of God’s power to save them from physical slavery, this was merely a pattern to prepare them to observe the seventh day in honor of God’s creative redemption in Jesus Christ. This is why the early church quickly changed their Sabbath keeping from the seventh day (our Saturday) to the first day (often called “The Lord’s Day”), the day of the week on which our Savior rose from the dead. It is therefore proper and biblically supported to “keep the Sabbath” on Sunday instead of Saturday because we understand the spiritual reality represented by the previous Sabbath commemorations.

A day of worship and rest. Even before Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, many Jews misunderstood the purpose of Sabbath keeping. Rather than honoring the plain words of the Lord on the subject, many began to believe that a rigid, almost superstitious ban on any constructive activity on the Sabbath would promote a righteousness based on works (in this case, “non-works”) rather than on the mercy of God. Jesus corrected this error by declaring that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28). He reminded them that even in their own man-made laws regarding the Sabbath, they permitted works of necessity, such as feeding and watering animals (Luke 12:15) or rescuing an animal from a pit (Matthew 12:11). How much more lawful is it, he then argued, to do God’s work of healing and saving on the Sabbath?: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” and “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” (Luke 6:5, 9; see also Matthew 12:1-14; Mark 2:23-3:6).

As Christians who understand and have been saved by the spiritual realities represented by the earthly examples, we should honor God by setting aside one day a week for rest and worship. Ideally, this day is on Sunday in recognition of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. But we are also to remember that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath; and that it is commendable to do good on the Sabbath. We are not saved for keeping the Sabbath, neither are we condemned for breaking the Sabbath. We are, however, Christians who have been redeemed from sin and re-created to bring praise to God by Christ’s work on the cross, and our honoring of the Sabbath honors God.

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