This lesson is the beginning of a two-part series on the Sabbath. In truth, our study will be much broader than just the subject of the Sabbath, but it will be our focal point. Let us contemplate four questions regarding the Sabbath in this first lesson.
1. WHAT IS THE SABBATH?
The term Sabbath originally comes from a Hebrew word Shabbath. The root meaning is rest. Specifically, rest from labor and for God (i.e., for purposes of thanksgiving, meditation, praise, etc.). The word Sabbath can refer to a day, festive period, month, or year of rest. Typically, most people think of the Sabbath day (i.e., Saturday or the seventh day) since this is the most frequent usage of the term in the Old Testament. However, it should be understood that the word is not used exclusively in reference to the final day of each week.
2. WHEN DID THE SABBATH BEGIN TO BE OBSERVED?
The Bible teaches that the Sabbath was not observed by man prior to Moses' day. Some will question this statement based upon Genesis 2:2,3, so let us direct some attention to those verses at this time - "And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made."
This passage is a good example of prolepsis (i.e., a figure of speech in which a future event is referred to in anticipation). Clearly, Genesis 2:2,3 is connected with Exodus 20:8-11, which reads:
"Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it."
Clearly, God rested on the seventh day of the creation week, but He did not command the Hebrews to rest on Saturdays until at least 2,500 years later (i.e., in the days of Moses). God didn't sanctify or set apart the Sabbath until Moses' day. Moses, who wrote both Genesis and Exodus, looked back through the centuries, and connected the two events when he wrote Genesis 2.
The Bible contains other examples of prolepsis. Consider Matthew 10:1-4 where Judas Iscariot is mentioned as the one who betrayed Jesus. However, on that occasion, Judas is merely being selected as one of the twelve apostles. Matthew, who wrote decades after both events (i.e., the selection and betrayal), connected them both for the reader's benefit. Another example of prolepsis is found in Genesis 3:20 - "And Adam called his wife's name Eve, because she was the mother of all living." Here Eve is referred to as the mother of all living even though she had not borne any children yet at that time.
Exodus 16:22,23 records the first mentioning of the Sabbath in the Bible - "And so it was, on the sixth day, that they gathered twice as much bread, two omers for each one. And all the rulers of the congregation came and told Moses. Then he said to them, 'This is what the LORD has said: "Tomorrow is a Sabbath rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD. Bake what you will bake today, and boil what you will boil; and lay up for yourselves all that remains, to be kept until morning."'"
This statement was made in the wilderness just prior to the encampment at Mt Sinai. It was said in anticipation of the Law which was soon to be given. Had the people already been observing the Sabbath prior to this time? The answer is no. Otherwise, why would Moses have had to explain something that was already an established observance?
Nehemiah 9:13,14 tells us plainly when the commandment was given to observe the Sabbath. The Levites, as they speak to God in prayer, declare - "You came down also on Mount Sinai ...You made known to them Your holy Sabbath..." God had not made known the Sabbath command to mankind prior to Moses' day.
Numbers 15:32-36 also provides strong evidence that the Sabbath had not been observed prior to Moses:
"Now while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron, and to all the congregation. They put him under guard, because it had not been explained what should be done to him. Then the LORD said to Moses, 'The man must surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.' So, as the LORD commanded Moses, all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him with stones, and he died."
It should be obvious that if the Sabbath had been observed for centuries, then the people would have already known what to do with this man. But, since the Sabbath law was still very new at that time, it had not yet been revealed as to what the punishment for violating it should be.
3. WHO OBSERVED THE SABBATH?
The Bible is clear that the Sabbath was given only to the Hebrew people. Their contemporaries in other nations did not observe it, and they were not expected to do so.
Deuteronomy 5:2,3 reveals on this point - "The LORD our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. The LORD did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us..." The "us" referred to here is the Israelites (or Hebrew people). We know (from passages like Exo. 20:2) that this law was given after they had been brought out of the land of Egypt (c. 1500 B.C.). According to Ezekiel 20:10ff, God gave the Sabbaths to those who went forth out of Egypt. He gave them the various Sabbaths as a sign between He and them. Nehemiah 9:13,14 also reveals that these laws were given to those who were gathered at Mt. Sinai (cf. I Kings 8:20,21; Exo. 31:17). There is no Biblical evidence to suggest that the Sabbath laws were given to anyone who was outside the Israelite nation. The Gentiles of that age were not bound by the Old Law or the Sabbath.
However, just because the Sabbath was initially given to the Hebrews does not mean that they would be bound by it forever. There would come a time when the Sabbath and the rest of the Old Testament law would be abrogated.
4. WHEN WOULD THE OLD TESTAMENT LAW (INCLUDING THE SABBATH) BE DONE AWAY WITH?
The simple answer is: when Jesus the Christ died on the cross! Jesus came to fulfill the Law (cf. Matt. 5:17), and He did exactly that. There is plenty of Scriptural evidence to support this claim (which we will consider in a moment).
Let it first be observed, however, according to Jeremiah 31:31-34, that a new covenant was coming:
"Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah--not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more."
This passage is quoted in Hebrews 8:5ff as proof that the Old Law was taken away (i.e., removed or no longer binding). Hebrews 8:13 is clear - "In that He says, 'A new covenant,' He has made the first obsolete..." The Ten Commandments (including the Sabbath law) were the essence of the covenant God made with Israel (cf. Deut. 9:9-11; Exo. 34:27,28). Thus, when Christ fulfilled the Old Covenant, it was no longer in force (it was no longer binding). When Jesus was nailed to the cross, the Old Law was put to death with Him (cf. Col. 2:14-17; Rom. 7:1-6). When the covenant was done away, the Ten Commandments were done away. When the Ten Commandments were done away, the Sabbath Law (the fourth commandment) was also done away! Tragically, there were many with hardened minds who refused to see the end of the Old Law, even after it had been replaced by a better covenant (cf. II Cor. 3).
Galatians 3:16-19 teaches that the Old Law would serve its purpose "till the Seed [Christ] should come..." Clearly, the Old Testament, Ten Commandments, and the Sabbath laws were never intended to be authoritative forever. Galatians 3:23-25 declares - "But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor." No one is under the Old Law as a tutor anymore. A primary function of the Old Testament was to bring men to Christ, and that purpose has been fulfilled.
There are certainly other passages that could be studied pertaining to the abrogation of the Old Law (e.g., Eph. 2:14-16; Gal. 4:21ff; etc.). However, let us draw a conclusion at this time, trying to tie together several points. God made a covenant with Israel at Mt. Sinai, and this covenant included the Ten Commandments. The covenant had not been given previously, and it made known the Sabbath law. God promised that a new covenant would come later. Before the second covenant could be authoritative, however, Jesus Christ had to do away with the first covenant. He accomplished this at the cross and established the New Testament in His blood.
There is more to consider on this important theme. We will continue this study in our next feature lesson. Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.