The Hebrew word for “Sabbath” (šāḇaṯ) and words related to it appear over 190 times in the Old Testament, carrying the idea of resting, ceasing, stopping. After delivering them from Egypt and declaring the terms of the covenant, God gives the people of Israel the Sabbath as the sign of the covenant delivered on Mount Sinai. In effect, then, the Sabbath would be a sign of God’s power and presence in the midst of his people, and the people of Israel’s keeping of the Sabbath would be a sign of their faith and outward commitment to the terms of the covenant.
In the New Testament era, the importance of the Sabbath is linked more explicitly to the heart of the Sabbath. There is an importance of recognizing that God intends to give—and has given in Christ—rest or Sabbath to his people rather than his people being made to keep the terms of Sabbath as a rule to follow (Mark 2:27).
As such, believers under the New Covenant can keep the Sabbath by resting and remembering God’s provision of eternal rest that is found only in Jesus.
Sabbath Rest Meaning in the Bible
On the seventh day of creation, God instituted the Sabbath when he rested from his work of creation (2:2-3). When God modeled Sabbath rest at the beginning of creation, his “rest” or “Sabbath-ing” becomes paradigmatic for his people throughout all generations. God gives his people the Sabbath to give them a taste of the rest that is found in relationship with him.
Later in the history of Israel, the Lord specifically gives the people the Sabbath as the sign of his covenant relationship with them at Mount Sinai (Exodus 31:12-14). When the people would keep the Sabbath, they would be declaring with their actions (and hopefully their hearts) their faithfulness to the terms of covenant and dependence upon the Lord to be their God. Moreover, the Sabbath would serve as God’s reminder to Israel of his presence and power, his faithful and steadfast commitment to give them rest, to make them a kingdom of priests and a light to the nations, to bring about his salvation to the ends of the earth.
Even today in the New Testament age of the Church, the Sabbath means that we are not responsible or even able to provide for all of our needs. We do not have to work unceasingly to make ends meet. We can trust in God, who shows us what it means to rest in his presence, knowing that he will give those whom he loves all that they need.
The Bible describes the Sabbath as the seventh day of the week.
According to the modern or Western rendering of days, Sunday is the first day of the week and Saturday is the seventh. In this accounting, Saturday would be the Sabbath. Whether our Saturday is the same day as the “seventh” day of the week in ancient times is irrelevant. (In some countries around the world, such as China, the first day of the week is considered to be Monday, which would leave Sunday as the seventh day of the week.)
Some of the confusion between Saturday and Sunday regarding Christian Worship or Sabbath is related to the fact that the majority of Christians around the world worship on Sunday. We need not turn further than the pages of Scripture to understand this difference. The Bible is clear that the Jewish Sabbath is the seventh day of the week (Genesis 2:2, 3; Exodus 16:26; 20:10; 23:12); the Bible is equally clear that Christians in the New Testament began worshiping on the first day of the week (the day following the Sabbath) because this was the day that Jesus rose from the dead (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2, 9; Luke 24:1; John 20:1, 19; Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2).
According to Exodus 20:10, God commanded the people of Israel to refrain from working on the Sabbath. Because God’s laws reveal his heart and character, we might ask: What purpose did it serve for the people of Israel to cease from working on the Sabbath?
The story of the manna from Exodus 16 is telling. When God provided the people with manna, he commanded them to gather a double portion on the sixth day of the week because none would fall on the Sabbath. On the Sabbath the people would cease from their labor to provide for themselves, instead trusting wholly in and being fully dependent upon God to provide for all of their needs.
The people of Israel would keep the Sabbath by refraining from “work” one day a week, displaying their faith, allegiance, and steadfast commitment to the covenant God made with them at Sinai. In other words, their obedience to the Sabbath would be indicative of their faithfulness to the entirety of the covenant. While the heart never should be divorced from the action itself, neither should the action be divorced from the heart. The two rightly coincide with one another.
In his earthly ministry, because of the Pharisees’ emphasis of outward observance to the Law, Jesus re-emphasized that the heart of the law: trusting in the God who provides for his people by meeting their needs.
Refraining from work on the Sabbath, then, means taking a rest from the daily grind of trying to earn and provide and, instead, refocusing on the God who provides.
The Bible speaks of the Sabbath as having great importance. However, the implications, application, and understanding of the importance of the Sabbath varies throughout the Bible.
The importance of the Sabbath from creation to Moses is the established principle of regular rest. While the teaching of the sabbath would not be explicated until the time of Moses, we might assume that Sabbath is, in a sense, built into human DNA: the understanding that regular rest is not only needed but integral to our understanding of who God is and what he has done for his people. The result of Sabbath observance should always be worship.
The prophets emphasize the connection between keeping Sabbaths and holding fast to the covenant on numerous occasions (Isaiah 56:4, 6; Ezekiel 20:12, 13, 20). The importance of the Sabbath under the Mosaic covenant, then, was the people’s commitment to the terms of the covenant, teaching them to rest in the God who provides.
Jesus taught the importance of the Sabbath as a sign of God’s presence and power in the midst of his people, to do them good, to build his kingdom, and bring to them the realities of that kingdom.
Just as the importance of the Sabbath remains but its implications vary, so too may we think of the “rules” of the Sabbath as having import but not in the same way, or with the same consequences, as they had in the Old Testament. Keeping the Sabbath in the Old Testament was directly related to the covenant established at Mount Sinai. In keeping the covenant, the people would maintain possession of their inheritance and God’s blessings; failure to keep the covenant would result in exile and covenant curses.
Whereas the people of Israel were commanded to keep the Sabbath as a sign of the covenant cut at Mount Sinai (Exodus 31:12-14), Jesus makes it clear in his teaching that the meaning of Sabbath was actually to do them good rather than a mere rule to keep. Exodus 16:23-30 makes it clear that the Lord commanded the people of Israel to rest from their normal labor of gathering, recognizing instead the Lord’s ability and commitment to provide for his people.
This recognition is the same essential understanding, or “rule,” concerning the Sabbath in the New Testament. The heart and rule of keeping the Sabbath is the understanding that God promises to provide rest for his people. And we can depend on him to keep his promises.