The pastor at our new church has been going through a series these past few weeks on the covenant that God made with the Israelites early on. I believe the point of the series is leading up to Christmas and God’s ultimate fulfillment of the covenant with the gift of His Son.
One particular Sunday, as he was laying out the details of the covenant, he briefly listed the 10 commandments as they were given to Moses. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear the rest of the sermon as one significant detail stood out to me – right smack dab in-between “using the Lord’s name in vain” and “honor thy father and mother”, is the fourth commandment:
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and 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.” Exodus 20:8-11
This commandment is listed with as much importance as “though shall not murder”, “though shall not steal”, and “though shall not commit adultery”. So why do we not put in as much effort in obeying it?
What it Means to Observe the Sabbath
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. Genesis 2:1-3
Have you ever wondered why God had to rest after creating the world and everything in it? I mean, He’s God right? Why would He need to rest? He has no weakness. The only possible explanation is that He did so purposefully, as an example to His people, who are most definitely flawed with weakness.
God rested, so that we would know how important it was to rest.
Why would He do that? Why is rest so important that the God of all the universe would lower Himself to performing such an unnecessary function for who He is, and then to go so far as commanding His people to follow suit?
The short answer? God may not have weakness, but we definitely do. Our bodies, not to mention our souls, can only handle so much before they give out. We are limited beings, and our Father knew we would feel the need to prove that we are above such things. So He made it a commandment. Especially here in the United States, where acknowledging our humanity in general is typically viewed as weakness.
Slow Down and Listen
Taking a day to rest isn’t just a solution for your body and mind, it will also cause you to slow down enough to see and hear God clearly. When we are too busy to spend time with Him, we become distant and tend to start focusing on the next task to be accomplished rather than on cultivating a relationship with our Maker.
“If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 58:13-14
Taking a day each week to slow down and to take stock in the here and now, creates a new appreciation for those things in your life that are so precious. And when we develop appreciation, we begin worshipping the One who is the giver of all things precious.
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What if You Don’t Keep the Sabbath?
In Old Testament times, it was a grave thing to break God’s commandments, this one included. He gave these Sabbath day rules to protect us from separation from Him, both here on earth and in all eternity (as disobeying His command is a sin, and the penalty of sin is death).
In the mid-400s BC, when Babylon released the Israelites to return to their homeland, they had a hard time realigning with God’s laws:
In those days I saw in Judah people treading winepresses on the Sabbath, and bringing in heaps of grain and loading them on donkeys, and also wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of loads, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. And I warned them on the day when they sold food.Tyrians also, who lived in the city, brought in fish and all kinds of goods and sold them on the Sabbath to the people of Judah, in Jerusalem itself!Then I confronted the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing that you are doing, profaning the Sabbath day? Did not your fathers act in this way, and did not our God bring all this disasteron us and on this city? Now you are bringing more wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath.” As soon as it began to grow dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and gave orders that they should not be opened until after the Sabbath. And I stationed some of my servants at the gates, that no load might be brought in on the Sabbath day. Then the merchants and sellers of all kinds of wares lodged outside Jerusalem once or twice. But I warned them and said to them, “Why do you lodge outside the wall? If you do so again, I will lay hands on you.” From that time on they did not come on the Sabbath. Then I commanded the Levites that they should purify themselves and come and guard the gates, to keep the Sabbath day holy. Remember this also in my favor, O my God, and spare me according to the greatness of your steadfast love. Nehemiah 13:15-22
Honoring the fourth commandment has been a struggle for all of God’s people from the beginning of time. Who wants to waste a perfectly good day for getting things done? But the truth of the matter is that it is a commandment as serious as not murdering your neighbor and comes with the same level of eternal consequences.
Keeping the Sabbath in the New Testament
The good news is that, while it is still considered a serious commandment, Jesus came to fulfill the law and to pay the consequence for our disobedience. This by no means gives an excuse for not taking the Sabbath seriously; but instead brings grace to our lives.
Unfortunately, the Israelites over time had built up a fear of celebrating the Sabbath incorrectly and as a result, had missed its purpose altogether, making it instead into a form of legalism to hold over other’s heads.
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One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” Mark 2:23-28
The point is that the Sabbath was created as a mere glimpse of what was to come. When Jesus was born, He came as the fulfillment of the whole law. God’s covenant with His people stated that if the Israelites kept their side of the agreement by keeping the law (i.e. the 10 commandments plus some), God would keep His side by bringing blessing and salvation.
It is easy to get caught up in doing things “right” and checking off all the boxes. But this kind of focus can be stressful and counterproductive, especially when looking at how to observe Sabbath, which by nature, should be restful. The result takes your eyes off Christ, who is the very definition of true rest, and how can you benefit from the Sabbath if you’re not finding your rest in the Lord?
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Colossians 2:16-17
Rest in the Lord
Jesus came to abolish the law, observing the Sabbath included. However, the requirement and need to find rest still remains. But now, instead of finding it in a day at the end of a week, we can find that rest in Christ Himself. Jesus is where our rest lies. In Him we find peace, confidence of salvation, a reliance on His strength, and a promise of a heavenly home for all eternity.
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Then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. Hebrews 4:9-11
It is still a good idea to observe the Sabbath. Afterall, it was a commandment that was put into place for our benefit and as a reminder of who God is in our lives. But do so with that purpose in mind, not because you’re looking for some fulfillment in the day itself. The Sabbath was created as a means to grow closer to the Creator Himself. Please take advantage of it today.