Life in Bible times was physically demanding and tiring. Our modern conveniences – such as electricity, cars and advanced medicine – were all unknown in those days. Yet God’s people were never more than a week away from a welcome break and holiday – a true ‘holy day.’ We refer to the Sabbath day. The word ‘Sabbath’ comes from the Hebrew verb ‘to rest or cease.’ The Sabbath was a commandment of God ordained for His peoples’ blessing and benefit. It was a means of physical rest and refreshment and spiritual renewal.
The fourth commandment, given by God to Moses, stipulated: ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work ...’ (Exodus 20:8 ff.). Whilst the Sabbath commandment was codified in the time of Moses however, the origin of the Sabbath predates Moses and goes back to the dawn of world history. Almighty God Himself is revealed as resting on the seventh day, having completed His creation of the universe in the preceding six days. ‘And on the seventh day God finished His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all His work which He had done in creation’ (Genesis 2:2-3).
A Holy Day
The Sabbath was and is a gracious provision of God for His peoples’ welfare. It is a ‘holy day’, that is, a different, special or separate day. It is a day devoted to God, when His people turn specifically from the things of earth to the things of God – from the changing, temporal matters to the permanent, eternal matters – ‘the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD’ (Exodus 31:16). Calvin writes:
‘By means of the rest of the seventh day, the Lord wished to represent to the people of Israel the spiritual rest by which believers must cease from their own works in order to let the Lord do His work in them. Secondly, He wished that there should be established a definite day in which believers might assemble to hear His Law and engage in worshipping Him.’
The Sabbath day therefore keeps a person in spiritual ‘focus.’ It prevents our being so unduly bound up in the everyday concerns of eating, drinking and working, that Almighty God, our Maker and Redeemer is sidelined and forgotten.
The Sabbath is a reminder that this world is here solely because it was created by God: ‘Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy ... for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it’ (Exodus 20:8,11).
The Sabbath is also a reminder of God’s saving grace and goodness. He is the redeemer of His people. He has intervened for our salvation. ‘Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy ... You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt and the LORD your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day’ (Deuteronomy 5:12,15).
On the Sabbath day, the public and private worship of God is to take precedence. The Bible reveals Him as both the great Creator and a gracious redeemer, infinitely worthy of His peoples’ devotion. God’s people are distinguished from others by being the special objects of His saving grace. God’s people are thus distinguished from others by devoting the whole of their lives to God generally, and by keeping one day in seven specifically, devoted to His special service. God said of this Day: ‘It is a sign for ever between me and the people of Israel ...’ (Exodus 31:17).
We tend to think that a new day begins either at midnight or dawn. The Sabbath day however began at sunset on what we would consider ‘the day before’ – our Friday. The origin of this again goes back to the creation account in Genesis, where we read the refrain ‘And there was evening and there was morning, one day’ (Genesis 1:5 et al.). Blasts of a ram’s horn signalled that the Sabbath day had arrived. In Bible times, the day was observed strictly: ‘in it you shall not do any work ...’ Touchingly, during the wilderness wanderings of the people of Israel, we read that God provided a double portion of bread – manna – for His people the day before the Sabbath. This enabled them to keep the Sabbath commandment (see Exodus 16). Normally, the provision of manna was only enough for one day, and if it was hoarded for the next day, it went off. On the Sabbath day though, miraculously, it did not (Exodus 16:24).
God’s words in Isaiah 58:13 read ‘If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight ...’ Joy in the Lord was at the heart of the Sabbath. ‘This is the day which the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it’ (Psalm 118:24). As time went on however, the joy of the Sabbath was marred by legalism. The Jewish leaders added more and more prohibitions and stipulations to God’s commandment, with the honest motive of ‘putting a hedge around the law.’ The Lord Jesus kept the Sabbath, but broke the man-made traditions that had built up around it. To the consternation of the Jewish religious leaders, He performed miracles of healing on the Sabbath day, and explained ‘My Father is working still and I am working’ (John 5:17). Christian consensus teaches that works of necessity and mercy are permitted and even encouraged on the Sabbath day, as the God of the Bible is compassionate to His creatures every day, and it is hypocritical for us to be less so at any time, let alone on God’s special day. When the Lord Jesus healed a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath day, He asked some Pharisees ‘What man of you, if he has one sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath’ (Matthew 12:11-12).
The Christian Sabbath
The fourth commandment stipulated that the Sabbath be kept on the seventh day of the week. Since the first century however, Christians have observed and continue to observe the first day of the week as the Sabbath day – also known as ‘the Lord’s Day.’ Something momentous therefore must have happened to alter a commandment of God that was literally and metaphorically engraved in stone. That momentous event was the resurrection of Christ. It was ‘on the first day of the week (that) Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark’ (John 20:1). It was ‘after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week (that) Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulchre’ (Matthew 28:1). Here they were greeted with the glorious news ‘Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for He has risen as He said. Come, see the place where He lay’ (Matthew 28:5-6).
The change of the Sabbath from the seventh to the first day of the week is one of the many compelling evidences that Christ really did rise from the dead. Only a momentous event would modify a commandment of God. Such an event was Christ’s conquest of the grave. Christians have kept the first day of the week as their special day ever since ‘He was raised on the third day, in accordance with the Scriptures’ (1 Corinthians 15:4) . Acts 20:7 reveals ‘On the first day of the week when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them ...’
On the first day of the week Christians gather together in the presence of their risen Lord to worship God. They hear His Word explained and they pray to God the Father, through Christ, aided by the Holy Spirit. They also break bread and drink wine in memory of the Saviour’s atoning death. They rejoice together in a common salvation procured by One who died for their sins and was raised back to life again on the first day of the week. Sunday is thus the Christian’s true ‘holy day.’ It is the Lord Jesus Christ who has made this day so exceedingly special. The Christian’s Sunday is a foretaste of the eternal Sabbath of heaven above.
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