Both the Jews and early Christians regarded the Sabbath as a type or symbol of the world to come.
—William Trollpe, Analecta Theologica (1842)
The Origin of the Sabbath
Unlike the day, the month, and the year, the seven-day week has no basis in the apparent motion of the sun or moon. Its origin is divine. God ordained it at the beginning of the world. He worked for six days, creating, shaping, and massaging the Earth. Then, by example, He set the seventh day apart as a day of rest. Genesis says that God “blessed the seventh day and sanctified it”. God’s blessing here does more than speak polite words… it actually transforms reality. By God’s decree, the seventh day of the week became a blessing, and by example, God invited man, made in His image, to share that blessing. The seventh day was both a picture of God’s rest and a foretaste of it.
A Sign of Freedom
We have no explicit record of how God’s people observed the seventh day before the Exodus. Obviously, during Israel’s enslavement, the Hebrew people had no time off for rest or worship as they were slaves. But when God redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt, He firmly established the seventh day as a day of rest for His freed people. He called that day, perhaps for the first time, His Sabbath (Neh. 9:14). The word means cessation or rest. The Sabbath was initially tied to God’s provision of manna in the wilderness (Ex. 16). God gave Israel manna from heaven five days a week and a double portion on the sixth day. For five days the people were to gather just enough for that day’s needs, but on the sixth day, they were to gather enough for two days. There was to be no food gathering or any other kind of servile work on the Sabbath. His people were to rest and worship as free men and women.
The Fourth Commandment
When God delivered His law from Mt. Sinai, He enshrined the Sabbath and the seven-day week in the Fourth Commandment:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it (Exodus 20:8-11).
God made the Sabbath the seal of His covenant with Israel, and He defined and structured it with additional legislation (Ex. 31:12-17; 35:2-3). And, any high-handed violation of the Sabbath merited death according to the text. God added other “rests” both annual festivals and sabbath years—to further elaborate and reinforce the meaning of the weekly Sabbath (Lev. 23; 25).
The weekly Sabbath was both a feast to God as well as a solemn assembly (Lev. 23:2). It was a day for God’s people to rest from their labors, celebrate His goodness, and meet together to hear His word. The Law forbade any sort of commercial activity on the Sabbath, but works of mercy, healing, and salvation were always appropriate (Matt. 12:1-14). The Sabbath was supposed to be a blessing and delight to God’s people, not an insufferable burden.
The Sociology of the Sabbath
Religious rituals necessarily shape the assumptions, perspectives, and cultural habits of the people who observe them. God intended no less for Israel when He gave them His Sabbath. The Sabbath was structure, discipline, type, and object lesson all in one.
First, the Sabbath reminded God’s people that their lives were not their own. Their labors, productivity, and time all belonged to God. All of life is inevitably religious. The Sabbath was not a token 24 hours for God, but a confession that every hour, every moment, in a man’s life belongs to His Creator. What’s more, the Sabbath commemorated the original creation. It’d important to note that Israel’s celebration of the Sabbath was an explicit rejection of the evolutionary pantheism of the ancient world and a profession of faith in the sovereign God who made all things in six calendar days.
Second, the weekly Sabbath conditioned Israel to the concept of linear time. For the Egyptians, time was eternal and history was static. Eternity was incarnated in the reigning pharaoh and the Egyptian State and was celebrated in the yearly resurrection of Osiris. Babylon, Sumer, and Assyria had similar conceptions of time. So did Greece and Rome.
The eternal cycles of Nature, celebrated in the festivals of the nation’s respective dying-and-rising gods, always turned time back on itself and mired human culture in the stagnation of the eternal present. But for Israel, six days of labor marched toward rest, celebration, and fellowship with God. Certainly there were patterns and cycles within history—every week had its Sabbath—yet the promise of God’s patterns and cycles could move man forward ethically as well as culturally. A people who have met with God and heard His law expounded over a thousand Sabbaths probably should be bearing fruit in their culture.
Third, the Sabbath taught Israel to look forward (don’t miss the metaphor here!) to the week’s end. As a child looks forward to Christmas or a struggling student to the summer with no school, Israel looked forward to the Sabbath days and the sabbath years. Israel developed a psychology and an eschatology of hope through the sabbath. This seems rather simple to us, but the concepts was revolutionary in the ancient world.
Fourth, Sabbath-keeping disciplined Israel to a regular pattern of work and worship. God’s people learned, one week at a time, to work first and rest later. But in order to maintain and enjoy this pattern, they would have to plan and schedule their work load. For instance, they couldn’t gather firewood on the Sabbath; it had to be done in advance (Num. 15:32-36). They had to do a great many things during the six workdays—or put those things off into the next week—so that they could celebrate the Sabbath properly. Sabbath-keeping, then, was a primer in self-denial and delayed self-gratification.
Fifth, the Sabbath fostered community. There could be no synagogue hopping or shopping in ancient Israel. Each family assembled with its immediate neighbors to hear God’s law, to confess their common faith, and to offer up prayers for one another. This weekly fellowship promoted accountability within the community and across the boundaries of economic and social class. The Sabbath was a constant reminder that communion with God and men was to be structured by God’s covenant law.
Sixth, the Sabbath law established a holiday (holy day) for slaves, servants, and laborers bound by contract. They were to receive what Israel never received in Egypt… a day for rest and worship. God’s law of rest trumped all human demands for a seven-day workweek. The sociological and psychological implications of this dimension of the Sabbath law are profound. On the Sabbath all men met on equal footing before the heavenly throne of Yahweh. On the Sabbath day, all men were free.
Seventh, the Sabbath pictured the rest and peace of the world to come, the age of Messiah ( Mic. 4:1-7; Isa. 65:17-25 and 66:22-24). It foreshadowed the victory of God’s kingdom within history and beyond history. It spoke to God’s people of an eschatology of victory. David’s “Psalm for the Sabbath Day” expressed this positive note in these words:
When the wicked spring as the grass, and when all the workers of iniquity do flourish; it is that they shall be destroyed for ever: but thou, LORD, art most high for evermore. For, lo, thine enemies, O LORD, for, lo, thine enemies shall perish; all the workers of iniquity shall be scattered. But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil (Ps. 92:7-10).
For David, the Sabbath was a celebration of God’s victories on Earth and within history.
The Lord’s Day
The advent of the Messiah transformed the way God’s people worship. In Christ, God’s covenant with His people died and rose again. The resurrection of Christ inaugurated a new creation, and many of the externals of covenant worship changed dramatically.
The risen Christ came to His disciples, not on the seventh-day Sabbath, but on the first day of the week (Luke 24). After His ascension, He poured out His Spirit on the first day of the week (Acts 2). The early Church assembled to “break bread” on that same day (Acts 20:7). The Book of Revelation shows us that Christ continues to manifest His glory to His churches on the Lord’s Day, what we call Sunday (Rev. 1). By His resurrection, Jesus changed the pattern of worship from 6-1 into 1-6. But the week remains, and so does a day set apart for worship and fellowship with God.
Through the ages, the Church has been divided on how far the Sabbath regulations of the Old Covenant ought to govern the observance of the Lord’s Day. Whatever the outcome of that debate, there is a Lord’s Day, and it carries with it the very promises of God. Unlike the Old Testament Sabbath, it testifies to advent of God’s kingdom, to a Messiah who has already come. Like the original Sabbath, it is designed to transform our mindset and lifestyle. But even more than that, it is designed to transform our society and our culture.
During the French Revolution, the revolutionary government, crazy-eyed over the decimal system, tried to replace the biblical week with a ten-day week. Each “week” ended with a secular holiday. Napoleon, after taking power, swept the innovations away and restored the traditional calendar. Beginning in 1929, Soviet officials experimented with both a five-day and a six-day week. The experiment failed. Both the French and Soviet revisions of the calendar were thoroughly religious rejections of the Christian concept of time and rest in favor of secular humanism’s version of the same.
Time keeping is always a religious activity. Our rationale for marking time and our methods of keeping time grow out of our religious presuppositions and ultimate commitments. The seven-day week points back to the six-day creation. The Lord’s Day testifies to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Where keeping track of time, as well as “resting,” is concerned, religious neutrality is never an option. It can never be. Our hopes, our rests and our calendars will always be shaped by someone’s religion. The only question is… whose?
For Further Reading:
Francis Nigel Lee, The Covenantal Sabbath: The Weekly Sabbath Scripturally and Historically Considered (Lord’s Day Observance Society, 1969)
Gary North, The Sinai Strategy, Economics and the Ten Commandments (Tyler, TX: The Institute for Christian Economics, 1986).