What is the purpose and meaning of Shabbat in the Covenant of the Law? There are four major reasons God gives for commanding Israel to keep the seventh day holy:
1. A Memorial of Creation
2. A Memorial of Deliverance from Egypt
3. A Covenant Sign
4. A Time of Rest A Tithe of Time
1. A Memorial of Creation
The holiness of the seventh day, and its character as a day of rest, does not come from the Covenant of the Law. It does not come from the Ten Commandments. It does not come from Israel. It is what God decreed in creating this universe. It is part of God's revelation of Himself. God created the Sabbath. "On the seventh day God finished His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all his work which He had made. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He rested from all the work of creating that he had done." Gen. 2:2-3
On the sixth day, "God created Adam in his own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them....The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it." Gen. 1:27, 2:15 God created Adam and Eve on the sixth day. He rested on the seventh day, the day He made holy. What did Adam and Eve, made in the image and likeness of God, do on the seventh day while God rested? Did they work, or did they rest? What did God want them to do? God did not create the Sabbath for Himself. He had no need to rest. As Yeshua said, "The Sabbath was made for Adam...." Mark 2:27 God created all of space and time. Out of all that He made, He made one thing holy. God made the seventh day holy, specially set apart to Him.
God created Israel to be His witness, i.e. to testify of who He is. e.g. Gen.43:10 He commanded Israel to commemorate His work of creation and His rest by observing the holiness of the seventh day.
"Remember the Sabbath day by keeping 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, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy." Ex.20:8-11
By observing the seventh day as a holy day of rest, all Israel was to bear witness that God is the creator and owner of all things. As it says in Ps. 24:1, "The earth is the LORDs, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it."
2. A Memorial of Deliverance from Egypt
"Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you. 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, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor the alien within your gates, so that your manservant and maidservant may rest, as you do.
"Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day." Dt.5:12-15 Israel was under cruel bondage in Egypt, but God set the Jewish people free. The Sabbath was to memorialize that deliverance and the reward of freedom. "I am the LORD who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy." Lev. 11:45 He redeemed Israel to serve Him in holiness, i.e. as a people set apart.
3. A Covenant Sign
The Sabbath itself is a covenant sign between God and Israel. God set apart the seventh day and sanctified it. He did the same with Israel. "You must observe My Sabbaths. This will be a sign between Me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy....The children of Israel are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever, for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He abstained from work and rested." Ex.31:13,16,17
Israel did not make itself holy. God made Israel holy. "Also I gave them My Sabbaths as a sign between us, so they would know that I the LORD made them holy." Ezek. 20:12
4. A Time of Rest A Tithe of Time
God commanded that every Israelite bring to Him a tithe, a tenth, of what his labor produced. All of it belonged to the Lord, but He asked only for a tenth as a recognition of His sovereignty. That recognition would ensure the protection and blessing of the Lord on the other nine-tenths. In the same way, God commanded Israel to rest on the Sabbath. "Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest and the slave born in your household, and the alien as well, may be refreshed." Ex. 23:12 Animals, servants, and strangers in the land were to have their rest as well.
In the wilderness, God showed that He would provide for His people on every day, including Shabbat. cf.Ex.16:22-30 He wanted Israel to trust in His provision. God commanded that even the land of Israel "must keep a sabbath to the Lord." Lev. 25:2 In every seventh year, the land was to be allowed to rest. And after every seven sabbatical years, there was to be a year of jubilee, a year of restoration and liberation, for the land of Israel and for the people of Israel. Lev. 25:8-12
God warned of the judgment of exile among the nations for Israels failure to let the land observe its sabbatical years. "Then the land will enjoy its sabbath years all the time that it lies desolate and you are in the country of your enemies; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths. All the time that it lies desolate, the land will have the rest it did not have during the sabbaths you lived in it....For the land will be deserted by them and will enjoy its sabbaths while it lies desolate without them. They will pay for their sins because they rejected My laws and abhorred My decrees." Lev. 26:34-35,43
Breaking the Sabbath Brings Death
Keeping the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments, which God engraved in stone for Israel to show the way He wanted her to live. Keeping the Sabbath is engraved alongside "I am the Lord your God...You shall not murder....You shall not bear false witness." It is that important. It is repeated in connection with these other great commandments. " Each of you must respect his mother and father, and you must observe my Sabbaths. I am the LORD your God. Do not turn to idols or make gods of cast metal for yourselves. I am the LORD your God." Lev. 19:3-4
God considered the observance of the Sabbath so important for Israel that He commanded the community to put to death anyone who broke the Sabbath. "For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day shall be your holy day, a Sabbath of rest to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it must be put to death." Ex. 35:2
"Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it must be put to death; whoever does any work on that day must be cut off from his people.
"For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death." Ex.31:14-15
During the time in the wilderness, God was tested on this commandment. "While the Israelites were in the desert, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. "Then the LORD said to Moses, The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp. So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the LORD commanded Moses." Num. 15:32-36 God meant exactly what He said. The penalty for breaking the Sabbath was death.
National Punishment for Breaking the Sabbath
When God made Israel a holy nation, He gave her His special feasts to observe. The Sabbath is the first of these.
"These are My appointed feasts, the appointed feasts of the LORD, which you are to proclaim as sacred assemblies. There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the LORD." Lev. 23:2-3
In Isaiah, God rebuked Israel for profaning the Sabbath and the other feasts of the Lord. "Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts My soul hates. They have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow." Isa. 1:13
God was not denouncing the Sabbath and the feasts which He instituted. Nor was He denouncing prayer. He was denouncing the way the people were perverting these things through their violence and unrighteousness. The inward corruption of the people, and the violent fruit which it produced, made any outward observance a detestable mockery.
Among Israels other sins was the failure to observe Gods Sabbath. In fact, the failure to keep the Sabbath was a major cause of Gods denunciation and judgment. Ezekiel delivered many of Gods rebukes to the people in exile.
"Yet the people of Israel rebelled against Me in the desert. They did not follow My decrees but rejected My laws although the man who obeys them will live by them and they utterly desecrated My Sabbaths. So I said I would pour out My wrath on them and destroy them in the desert. But for the sake of My name I did what would keep it from being profaned in the eyes of the nations in whose sight I had brought them out.
"Also with uplifted hand I swore to them in the desert that I would not bring them into the land I had given them a land flowing with milk and honey, most beautiful of all lands because they rejected My laws and did not follow My decrees and desecrated My Sabbaths. For their hearts were devoted to their idols.
"Keep My Sabbaths holy, that they may be a sign between us. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God. But the children rebelled against me: They did not follow My decrees, they were not careful to keep My laws although the man who obeys them will live by them and they desecrated My Sabbaths. So I said I would pour out My wrath on them and spend My anger against them in the desert." Ezek. 20:13-21
God says "My Sabbaths." He punished Israel for desecrating His Sabbaths which He had given as a gracious gift.
The Blessings of Keeping the Sabbath
On the other hand, God promised great blessing if Israel would keep the Sabbath. "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 LORDs holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the LORD, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob." Isa. 58:13-14
Keeping the Sabbath would even ensure the continuity of the Davidic kingdom. "If you are careful to obey Me, declares the LORD, and bring no load through the gates of this city on the Sabbath, but keep the Sabbath day holy by not doing any work on it, then kings who sit on Davids throne will come through the gates of this city with their officials. They and their officials will come riding in chariots and on horses, accompanied by the men of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, and this city will be inhabited forever.
"People will come from the towns of Judah and the villages around Jerusalem, from the territory of Benjamin and the western foothills, from the hill country and the Negev, bringing burnt offerings and sacrifices, grain offerings, incense and thank offerings to the house of the LORD. " Jer. 17:24-26
Observance in the Future
God makes it clear in Tanakh that the observance of the Sabbath will continue in the Messianic age. e.g. Ezek. 45:17, 46:1-4 He also makes it clear that the observance of the Sabbath will continue in the ages to come, even in the time of the new heavens and earth. In that time, all the nations will join with Israel in celebrating Shabbat.
" As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me, declares the LORD, so will your name and descendants endure. From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before Me, says the LORD." Is.66:22-23
Gentiles and the Sabbath
There is no Biblical indication that God ever commanded the Gentiles to observe Shabbat. Throughout the Bible, Gentiles are condemned for transgressing different universal laws of God. they are condemned for transgressing each of the Ten Commandments, except for one keeping the Sabbath. Yet the Sabbath is the one feast of the Lord which Gentiles are specifically invited and encouraged to keep. God promises to bless anyone who keeps the Sabbath.
"This is what the LORD says: Maintain justice and do what is right, for My salvation is close at hand and My righteousness will soon be revealed. Blessed is the man who does this, the man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath without desecrating it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.
"Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say, The LORD will surely exclude me from His people. And let not any eunuch complain, I am only a dry tree. For this is what the LORD says: To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, who choose what pleases Me and hold fast to My covenant to them I will give within My temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.
" And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to serve Him, to love the name of the LORD, and to worship Him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to My covenant these I will bring to My holy mountain and give them joy in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on My altar; for My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations. " Isa. 56:1-7
Gentiles are not commanded to keep the Sabbath, but they are encouraged to. Those Gentiles who join themselves to the Lord and keep His Sabbaths will receive joy and an eternal inheritance from the Lord. God always intended Shabbat to be a blessing, not a burden.
Shabbat in the New Covenant
Now we can examine the place of Shabbat in the New Covenant. Despite the importance that God placed upon the Sabbath, and the blessings He promised for keeping it, we and our fathers did not keep it. Consequently, all the judgments He promised came upon us. We did not obey God. We did not rest, and we did not let the land rest. So we were sent into exile. Then "The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah." 2Chr. 36:21
Even after the return from the Babylonian exile, we still did not keep the Sabbath. e.g. Neh.13:15-22 God had redeemed us from slavery in Egypt and invited us, commanded us, to enter His rest, but we never did. We never submitted to the one who redeemed us. Our failure to keep the Sabbath was so complete that the Rabbis later said that if Israel were to keep one Sabbath, Messiah would come.
In an effort to protect the sanctity of the Sabbath, the Pharisees surrounded it with many laws. The Law of God had commanded the observance of Shabbat, but had not produced that observance. The Pharisees were mistaken in thinking that the laws of men could produce what the Law of God could not. They tried to compel obedience by restricting Israels actions even more. They prohibited what God had approved.
It was into that atmosphere that Yeshua came, teaching that, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." Mark 2:27 For him, the Sabbath was a time to teach, to heal, to set people free. The Pharisees did not see it that way.
"Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue ruler said to the people, There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.
"The Lord answered him, You hypocrites! Doesnt each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her? " Luke 13:14-16
God had commanded that even the animals should rest on Shabbat. For that to take place, it was necessary that the animals be given water and fed. Cows needed to be milked, or they would be in great pain. In the sight of God, there was a difference between doing those chores so that the animals could rest and doing the same chores for the owners economic benefit. The same act was both permitted and prohibited, depending upon the motivation.
It was also recognized that circumcision i.e. initiating a child into the Abrahamic covenant took precedence over Shabbat. So did saving a life. So did the Passover. cf. Pesachim 65b-66a
Accordingly, consistent with Torah, Yeshua taught, "How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath." Mt. 12:12 God is the definer of what is good. Yeshua was not teaching men to break the law - which is holy, righteous, and good - he was teaching them how to uphold it.
The following generations of Rabbis added still more laws. In the words of the Talmud, "The laws concerning the Sabbath... are as mountains hanging by a hair, for they have scant scriptural basis but many laws." Hag.10a These laws were the creation of the Rabbis, but the Sabbath is a time to celebrate God setting us free from the slavery of men.
The Rabbis had it backwards when they said that if Israel were to keep one Sabbath, Messiah would come. It is the coming of Messiah that enables us to keep the Sabbath. When he comes, he brings the New Covenant. Through the New Covenant we receive the Spirit of the Lord to enable us to walk in obedience. "There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters Gods rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from His." Hebr. 4:9-10
Keeping the Sabbath
We all need rest for our souls, but we usually live according to the demands of our schedules. If we can rest, we do. If we cant, we dont. We know that God could rest, but we cant, because we have so much to do.
We forget what Solomon in all his wisdom learned: "Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain. In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat for He grants sleep to those He loves." Ps. 127:1-2
There is something displeasing to God in our unceasing labor. As David said in Psalm 23:2, "He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me to waters of rest." Yeshua proclaimed that the Sabbath was made for man. In Hebrew, his words are more revealing: "Shabbat was made for Adam, not Adam for Shabbat." God created Adam on the sixth day. He made the seventh day a day of rest for Adams sake. God Himself had no need to rest. If we, the descendants of Adam, do not rest, we distort the nature and purpose of our own lives.
We must first accept the fact that the Lord is in charge of building the house. It is the Lord who gives us rest. It is the Lord who makes us holy. Shabbat was made for us, but that doesn't mean that we can do with it as we please. All things are to be used according to the purpose for which God created them. In doing that, we receive from these created things what the Creator intends for us to receive.
The Sabbath is a time to humbly commemorate the creation of God, and recognize our need for His deliverance. It is a time to cease from the business religious and otherwise of men. When we enter into the rest of God, then we can keep the Sabbath. God tells us that we keep the Sabbath holy, "If you keep...from doing as you please..., if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words." Isa. 58:13-14
Gods purpose for Shabbat remains the same. That is why we are told, "There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters Gods rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from His. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience." Hebr. 4:9-11
Observance of the holy Sabbath flows from a relationship with the Holy One. When we seek to minutely specify what is permitted and what is prohibited, we substitute law for relationship. THE law of Shabbat is, "Do not do your own will. Do what God wants you to do."
Can a person be mistaken, confused, or deceived about what God wants them to do? Of course. However, the path to clarity is not human legislation, but rather developing a closer relationship with God. It is not in the decrees of an elite. It is in taking individual responsibility for ones own life before God, and walking humbly with God. For God characterizes the New Covenant as one in which "you shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them." Jer.31:34
By resting from labor, Israel was to proclaim that the earth belongs to the Lord, Israel belongs to the Lord, and all her work belongs to the Lord. All things, especially His people, belong to Him. All the work that is done on the other six days must be done in the light of that. We were slaves of men, but God set us free. We are to live, work, and rest as free men, not as slaves of other people or things.
All that we have belongs to God, but we follow the faith and example of Abraham (and Jacob) in giving a tithe to God. The tithe is not a substitute for godly living. It should be its fruit, a tangible recognition of the sovereignty of God. Yeshua warned, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former." Matt. 23:23
In the same way, all our time belongs to God, but setting apart Shabbat is like a tithe, a tangible recognition of His sovereignty over time. It is not a substitute for, nor the measure of, a godly life. It should be its fruit. In every week there is a seventh day.* In fact, it is the seventh day that divides time and makes a week a week. The seventh day is the end of the week. The seventh day is Shabbat. God made it so when He created the world. It will still be so when He creates the new heavens and the new earth. God rested on the seventh day and made it holy. That is forever true.
We can choose to live as though we were not set apart to God, and we can choose to live as though the seventh day were not set apart to God, but God has called us to live as a holy people. He made us holy, saying to our fathers, "I am the LORD, who makes you holy....The children of Israel are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as an everlasting covenant."
*Some theologians have taught that Sunday has become Shabbat. There is not a single scripture anywhere in the Bible that says anything even remotely supportive of such a teaching. There is no sense to such a teaching. The first day is the first day, not the seventh. God created Shabbat as the commemoration of the conclusion of His work of creation. Sunday is a fine day for meeting, worshipping God, resting, or commemorating the resurrection of Messiah, but it is not the seventh day, the day which God made holy. Shabbat commemorates the completion of God's creative work.
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