There are different kinds of commands in the Old Testament.
Laws where the meaning is in the action itself These are often called “moral laws.” (Violation of ANY law of God is immoral, but in these law the immorality is inherent in the action itself.) Examples of this category are adultery, murder, or giving false testimony. The action is wrong regardless of what is in your heart.
Purpose: to teach us about the character of God.
Laws where the meaning is only illustrated by the action. These are often called “ceremonial laws.” Scripture calls them shadows. (Heb.8:5, 10:1) There is nothing inherently evil or virtuous about burning an animal on a pile of rocks or eating a pork sandwich. The purpose of the shadows was to illustrate spiritual principles.
BOTH KINDS OF LAWS ARE EQUALLY IMPORTANT! The meaning behind the rituals and the sacrifices is just as important as the meaning behind laws requiring faithfulness to your wife, honesty, murder, etc. The only difference is, in the first group, the meaning is always inextricably tied to the action, and in the second group it may not be depending on the circumstance.
In the 10 commandments, there are 9 of the first kind and 1 of the second kind. The Sabbath law is a symbol.
Ex.31:16 The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant.
Like circumcision, the Sabbath was an illustration – an expression of one’s loyalty to the covenant. It is also a picture of spiritual rest.
It is to be taken seriously
The Sabbath was very, very important and was (and is) to be taken seriously. Although based on the 7 days of the creation account, it is not instituted until the Mosaic Law. It became a symbol of obedience – a demonstration of loyalty to God and His covenant. In fact, it became a litmus test for an obedient heart.
Isa.56:1,2 “Maintain justice and do what is right… 56:2 Blessed is the man who does this…who keeps the Sabbath without desecrating it
Isa.56:6 all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant—7 these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy
Isa.58:13-14 If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath… then you will find your joy in the LORD,
Jer.17:22 But if you are careful to obey me, declares the LORD, and bring no load through the gates of this city on the Sabbath…this city will be inhabited forever…. 27 But if you do not obey me to keep the Sabbath day holy… then I will kindle an unquenchable fire in the gates of Jerusalem that will consume her fortresses.’
Keeping the Sabbath became shorthand for faithfulness and obedience to God in general. It was so important that Exodus 31 prescribed the death penalty for a violation.
How does one take the Sabbath command seriously?
1. Rest on Saturday
There was to be no work – not even animals were to work (Ex.20). No gathering of manna was permitted (Ex.16), no lighting a fire (Ex.35:3), no commerce (Nh.10:31, 13:16ff), and no carrying a load (Jer.17:21). In Numbers 15:32ff Moses had a man put to death because he was caught gathering wood on the Sabbath.
These restrictions were an expression of God’s love (Ex.16:29 Bear in mind that the LORD has given you the Sabbath). It was to give man rest needs. It was for man’s benefit.
So why is it so important to God that we rest? Is the most important thing that we not become fatigued? No. Fatigue is not a bad thing. God often requires His servants to push themselves to the limit of what they can physically handle.
The reason it is so important is it glorifies God when we rest, because rest requires faith in Him. Remember when God provided manna for the Israelites in the desert, and told them they were not to gather any more than they could eat in one day? If they did, God would cause it to rot. He did not want them stockpiling because He wanted them to be reminded that they were dependent upon Him every day for food. Then when Friday rolled around, they were to gather enough for two days and on Saturday they were not to gather anything. Again, this required faith. It’s hard not to go pick up some food on Saturday, unless you have every confidence God will provide again on Sunday. Taking a day off work, in a poor, agricultural society, required great faith. Common day laborers worked each day for the food they would eat that day. So to take a day off would require trust in God’s provision and care.
The reason God chose the Sabbath as one of the key factors through which His people would demonstrate loyalty to Him is because it meant doing something every week that showed full trust and confidence in His loving care. If there is one thing God despises it is when a person comes under the illusion that he is self-sufficient and independent. He despises that for two reasons. One, because it is a slap in His face. It is a refusal to recognize His gifts and grace.
Secondly, it destroys the person who thinks he is self-sufficient. If your little toddler is convinced he can handle crossing the freeway without your help, that will lead to his destruction. Once we are convinced we can venture out on our own and are not dependent upon God, we go blindly into the future, and stumble into destruction. Utter dependence upon and trust in God rescues us from destruction and glorifies His name.
So in Old Testament times the way to take the Sabbath seriously was by ceasing work on that day. That shows God’s kindness to us and our trust in Him.
2. Worship God
Lv.23:3 "`There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, a day of sacred assembly.
Ps.92 is a song of worship written specifically for Sabbath Day worship. It was a day set aside for focusing on rejoicing in God and finding your joy in the Lord.
Isa.58:13 If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the LORD’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, 14 then you will find your joy in the LORD.
That last phrase is the key. Every human being faces a fundamental choice in life. Are you going to find your joy in the LORD, or in doing as you please? Doing as you please is not rest. Finding joy in the Lord is. The keeping of the Sabbath was part of an expression of what was on the inside, and so keeping the Sabbath meant nothing unless it was an expression of a pure heart. God had no interest whatsoever in people keeping the Sabbath if their hearts were evil, because since it is an illustration type command, it is devoid of all meaning if it is practiced only on the outside.
Amos 8:4 Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land,:5 saying, “When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?”—skimping the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales…8 “Will not the land tremble for this,…10 I will turn your religious feasts into mourning and all your singing into weeping.
If you go through the motions of a command that is to be a picture, but ignore the meaning, it is detestable. If the whole time you just can’t wait for it to be over so you can get back to your sin, then your external observance is absolutely meaningless. That is like going through a whole wedding ceremony but refusing to say, “I do.” If you are not fulfilling the purpose of the ceremony, the ceremony is meaningless. To carry out a ceremony while violating the spirit is to break the law.
So the Sabbath was intended by God to be a day of rest and worship.
The Purpose of the Illustration
At the time of Moses, God created a picture designed to illustrate spiritual rest. Illustrations are not designed to point to themselves. They are to help us understand a greater reality. Once difference between moral laws and illustration type laws is the latter are temporary. (Heb.9:10) The principle and meaning is not temporary. The reality that the shadows point to is not temporary. But the shadow itself has a purpose that lasts for a limited time. The purpose is to point to the reality; so once the reality that is being illustrated and pointed to is in place, the illustration is no longer needed.
Jesus came and gave us true spiritual rest, and fulfilled the picture. Now we no longer need the illustration, because we have the reality. That’s why the New Testament does not require us to follow the Sabbath. It was an illustration-type law (a shadow) that had the purpose of illustrating something until Christ came. It is similar to the sacrifice laws. They were a shadow of Christ’s sacrifice. Now that we know about Jesus’ death on the cross, we do not need that shadow anymore – now that we have seen the real thing, there is no need for the illustration.
The principles behind the ceremonial laws, however, still stand. The principle behind the sacrificial system in the Old Testament was that in order for us to be able to be forgiven, someone else’s blood had to be shed in our place. That principle is as valid now as ever. But we no longer need that principle to be illustrated to us with animals, because we understand the real sacrifice for our sins – the death of Jesus on the cross.
So any kind of ceremonial law that served as an illustration of Christ, while the principle is eternal, the illustration itself is no longer needed after Jesus came. So we no longer have a physical Temple with the Holy of Holies, we no longer have the showbread, we no longer make animal sacrifices, we no longer keep the festivals, etc. The book of Hebrews calls all those things shadows.
Sabbath day observance was just like the sacrificial system or the showbread – it was an illustration law that was a picture, a shadow illustrating a greater reality. Now we know the greater reality, and so there is no need to focus any longer on the picture.
The whole problem with the Pharisees is they were in love with the shadows and ignored that which was casting the shadow. They were in love with the illustration but ignored the point of the illustration (like someone today who raves about a great story that was told in a sermon but is oblivious to the point being illustrated by that story).
Suppose my wife went away for several months – I would miss her terribly. Finally on the day she returned, imagine me sitting in my driveway working on something as she came walking up behind me. She doesn’t say anything, but suddenly I notice her shadow and realize it’s her. I would be thrilled to see that shadow, but if all I do is keep on staring at the shadow, and try to embrace it and kiss it and pay no attention to her – something’s wrong.
How do we know that the Sabbath is in the category of a shadow?
Col.2:16-17 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.
This is why of the Ten Commandments, the Sabbath command is the only one that is not repeated in the New Testament. It was the only one that was a shadow type command.
This is why we are not required to observe a Sabbath day each week. According to Ro.14:5, the one who is weak in faith thinks one day is more holy than the others. He who is strong in faith regards all days the same, because all days are the same now.
In fact, it can be a serious sin to observe the Sabbath – a sin that demonstrates a person is not saved. That is the case if the Sabbath is observed as a ritual that somehow earns merit toward salvation. Paul harshly rebukes the Gal. In 4:10 - You are observing special days…
For those who observe the Sabbath not as a meritorious means of salvation, but simply because they believe in doing so they are honoring the Lord, we are to accept them as brothers and sisters, rejoice over their desire to please the Lord, and not look down on them. (Ro.14:1-6)
Don’t we need rest once a week?
I don’t know exactly how much rest we need physiologically. My guess is that resting one day a week is a healthy pattern, but there is no ethical requirement on us from Scripture along that line. The purpose of the Sabbath law was not so people wouldn’t become fatigued. It illustrated a spiritual principle of spiritual rest.
When God gave the Sabbath command He said we are to work 6 days. And in Mt.20 God is portrayed as a kind landowner who expresses his kindness by providing a 12-hour workday for his workers. That is a 72 hour work week. So the biblical pattern is work 72 hours then take a day of rest. In a culture where we work 40 hours and then take a whole weekend off, and every few weeks there is a holiday, the concern for many is probably not too little rest but rather to much. However the point of the Sabbath is not how much physical labor you do or when you do it. The point of the Sabbath law was to illustrate a spiritual principle.
So is the Sabbath abolished?
No. The principle it illustrates is still in place. The external observance, however, has been set aside. When Jesus was confronted over the fact that His disciples were traveling and picking grain on the Sabbath, we might have expected Jesus to respond by pointing out that the disciples were violating human tradition, but not the actual Sabbath law from Scripture.1 But that was not Jesus’ response. Instead Jesus pointed out that the priests were permitted to work on the Sabbath, and He was the Lord of the Sabbath. (Lk.6:5-11) The implication is that just as God had the authority to make exceptions to the Sabbath law for Old Testament priests, Jesus has the same authority regarding His followers. The writers of the New Testament as well as the early church seem to have taken this as a setting aside of the Sabbath observance, just as Mark 7:19 seems to have been taken as a setting aside of observance of the dietary laws.
We still celebrate the Sabbath day today. Which day is it? Not Saturday, and not Sunday, but it is a specific day. Which day? The answer to that is in Heb.3. God’s rescuing of Israel from Egypt was another shadow – it illustrated the salvation offered through Christ spiritually. The deliverance from the bondage of Egypt illustrates our being delivered from sin (conversion). The wandering in the desert illustrates our life in this world – from your conversion until you enter heaven. Entering the Promised Land illustrates our entrance into heaven.
So that pattern is this: God rescues you from bondage, there is an interval of testing between that and paradise, and then you enter paradise provided you persevere through the interval. The problem with Israel is they did not persevere through the interval, and so most of them never entered the Promised Land.
Heb.3:7-5:1 So, as the Holy Spirit says: "Today, if you hear his voice, 8do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert, 9where your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did. 10That is why I was angry with that generation, and I said, `Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.' 11So I declared on oath in my anger, `They shall never enter my rest.'"
Entering God’s rest, then, refers to entering the Paradise.
15 "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion." 16Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt? 17And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the desert? 18And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed? 19So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.
If you revert to unbelief during the time of testing in this life, you will be like the ancient Israelites who were not allowed to enter God’s rest.
Think for a moment about the concept of God’s rest. On the 7 day He ceased His work of creation, but that is not to say He became idle.
Jn.5:17 Jesus said, "My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working."
On the 7thth Day God didn’t create a Lazy Boy and just doze off for the rest of eternity. God is constantly active. So when it says He rested from His work, it is only talking about one specific kind of work. The Sabbath rest the people were to enjoy on Saturdays, and the Sabbath rest the people were to enjoy in the Promised Land was not a situation where they would sit around and stare at their navels. Life in the Promised Land was an active life. It was a life of work and activity. So Sabbath rest refers only to ceasing from one specific kind of work.
Anyone with a desk job understands that rest does not mean inactivity. A couple weeks ago I couldn’t work anymore, and so I rested by going golfing. Sitting still in my chair was work, but carrying my golf bag around 18 holes was a wonderful, rejuvenating time of rest.
Application for us
4:1Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands… (The promise still stands for us. God hasn’t yet said to the readers of Hebrews, “OK that’s it – no more chances for you. You will never enter My rest” like He finally did with Israel in the desert), let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. 2For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith. 3Now we who have believed enter that rest…
There is one sense in which you enter that rest on the day you believe.
So when is the Sabbath Day? It’s not Saturday. It’s not Sunday. It’s the day you became a Christian. That was the day you entered God’s rest. That’s the fulfillment of the picture. Up until then, you were toiling in spiritual hopelessness. You were laboring at an impossible task – trying to save yourself. But then the day came when you heard Christ say to you, "Come to me, you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you… and you will find rest for your soul. (Mt.11:28,29) That verse sounds paradoxical. You find rest by taking on a yoke? A yoke is what you use to hitch up an ox to a load – to do work. But it is not as paradoxical as it sounds once you understand that the word easy literally means “useful.” The idea is that the yoke is fitted so well to you that it makes what is a heavy burden seem light. If you put an ill-fitting yoke on an ox, it will not be able to pull much of a load. If that yoke is pulling against his throat, or jabbing sharply into the side of his neck, or chaffing, he will not able to accomplish much, and it will be a painful ordeal. But God has designed oxen such that if the yoke fits well, they can pull a very heavy load with ease. And they don’t mind it. They were designed for it.
Being a Christian is not a life of effortlessness or idleness. It is a life of arduous effort. But it is a different kind of effort than what you have as an unbeliever. It is effort you were designed for. It is work that is so well suited to you and your makeup and the way you were designed by God, that it seems light. Christ’s yoke is an enabling yoke. I could tell you countless stories of Christians who have done incredibly difficult things – lived in inhuman conditions, suffered unimaginable physical pain, worked relentlessly at a hard task; and all the time rejoiced in their easy yoke – even having a sense of amazement about how fortunate they are! That is the easy (useful) yoke.
And that wonderful spiritual rest we now enjoy in part and someday will enjoy in full was illustrated and prefigured in Old Testament times in the Sabbath law. We do not have to work our way to heaven. The religions of the world labor and are heavy-laden trying to work their way up. Man made religions bury God’s love under rules. There are people in legalistic systems who are staggering under the load of sacraments, prayers, rules, rituals, never knowing if they have done enough. They are heavy laden, burdened, tired and need rest. That is an impossibly heavy load. But there is a lightness to serving Christ. It is demanding, but at the same time light.
Picture a kid who runs away from home so he can experience total freedom. He’s 10 years old. Out in the world by himself he finds nothing but difficulty. He throws all his ability into just getting by and the result is nothing but complete failure. He’s not old enough to get a regular job, he can’t drive, he has not idea how to set up a budget, he can’t get a checking account or a credit card, it doesn’t occur to him to get insurance or pay his taxes. He’s just not suited to adult life. So he works harder and harder, and the harder he works the more obvious it becomes that it isn’t working.
Then he gets to know a man who shows him tremendous kindness. The man grows to dearly love this boy, and so he says, “Come work for me, and I’ll adopt you into my family and take care of your every need.” So now the boy has an ideal life. He is working hard, but it is work perfectly suited to a 10 year old boy. He’s good at it; he loves it. For the first time in his life he is actually accomplishing something meaningful. And all the strain of having to worry about caring for himself is lifted off his shoulders because he has full confidence that his new father will provide everything he needs. That is rest.
Rest is always a function of trust. The reason a child sleeps so well in his own parents’ arms is because of trust. He can so completely trust them that he can afford to relax. Which day is the Sabbath? It’s the day you first believed.
But that is not the only Sabbath Day. There remains another Sabbath day – a far greater one. The day of your conversion you entered into a spiritual rest in a partial way. You are free from the impossible struggles of trying to make yourself acceptable to God, but still their remains remnants of your old struggle. You still fight against sin, and there is still an element of seemingly futile toil. That is because you have only tasted a tiny piece of the real promise of rest.
9 There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; 10for anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. 11Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.
The ultimate Sabbath Day is the day you enter heaven. That will mark the end of futile, burdensome toil. That is not to say it will be the end of the blessing of fruitful labor and meaningful work. But it will be the end of the futility of spinning your wheels toiling at impossible tasks you are not equipped to do. Notice what we are going to enter into: God’s rest. The kind of rest God enjoys. He can enjoy any kind of rest He wants, so rest that is satisfying to Him must be something wonderful beyond our imagination.
Kent Hughes: “To catch something of the idea here, imagine yourself invited by Prince Charles to enjoy his rest. You are picked up by the Royal limo at Heathrow and whisked into London and through the gates of Windsor Palace where you are shown its glories. Then the two of you motor north in his 1968 Aston Martin to Balmoral Castle where you relax before a fire and then go out to explore the royal trout streams. You are sharing what Prince Charles calls “my rest” – his own personal rest. The sublime fact that we share God’s personal rest, the rest he enjoys, ought to set our hearts racing!”