Christ and the Sabbath

Founders Journal 67 · Spring 2007 · pp. 6-14

Christ and the Sabbath

Ken Puls

Leviticus is a book of law. Almost the entire book is made up of regulations dictated by God to Moses. It begins with the words, “Now the LORD called to Moses and spoke to him from the tabernacle of meeting, saying…” And then it moves directly to regulations concerning the sacrifices. Chapter by chapter this book reveals to us the pervasiveness of the law in all its detail and precision and rigor. It was committed to the tribe of Levi, who had the responsibility in the Old Testament for caring for the Temple, leading in worship and teaching the people of God the law of God. Leviticus is a manual written down for Israel to teach them how to live and serve and obey a holy God.

Leviticus is a book of law, but it is also a book rich with the gospel. Leviticus speaks of Christ. Christ is proclaimed all through the Old Testament. In Luke 24:44 Jesus told His disciples, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.”

In Leviticus 23 God gave Moses an outline of the feasts and festivals that were to shape the yearly calendar of the nation of Israel. The festivals are part of the ceremonial law in the Old Testament that includes the temple and sacrifices—that part of the law that applies the first four of the Ten Commandments to Israel’s worship of God. Through the feasts and festivals God reminded Israel of the great works He had done for them as their Provider and Creator, and He pointed them to the greater work He would accomplish in sending Christ as Messiah and Redeemer.

God instructs Moses in the first two verses of Leviticus 23 to speak to the children of Israel and proclaim to them, “The feasts of the LORD.” But before Moses introduces the list of feasts beginning in verse 4, he inserts a declaration of the 4th commandment in verse 3:

Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work on it; it is the Sabbath of the LORD in all your dwellings (Leviticus 23:3).

As we focus this verse in the context of this passage, we need to ask five questions:

  1. What does this verse teach us about the 4th Commandment?
  2. Why is the Sabbath Commandment here in this passage?
  3. How has Christ fulfilled the Sabbath?
  4. In light of Christ’s fulfillment of the Sabbath and the presence of the 4th Commandment here in this passage, is the Sabbath part of the Old Covenant that has “grown old and vanished away” (Hebrews 8:13)?
  5. In light of Christ’s fulfillment of the Sabbath, do we have an obligation to the Sabbath Commandment as believers in Christ?

What does this verse teach us about the 4th Commandment?

Leviticus 23:3 begins with an exhortation to work 6 days a week. God commanded His people to honor Him with their time by being diligent in their labors for 6 days and then setting apart the 7th day to be a Sabbath. God established this pattern at creation. He marked out 6 days creating and filling the heavens and earth, doing His marvelous work of speaking the world into existence, forming man out the dust of the ground, breathing life into him and creating woman out of man. Then, on the 7th day, He rested from His work.

Following this pattern from creation, man was to keep track of time and take time to do fruitful labor and to regularly in the framework of a week, stop and rest. Notice this verse calls this “a solemn rest.” In Hebrew the word “Sabbath” comes from a root meaning “cease” or “rest.” That word occurs twice here in this verse, grammatically tied together to intensify the noun shabbat shabbaton . Literally it is a rest of rest—a Sabbath of Sabbath. The NKJV conveys the intent of the grammar here by calling it a “Sabbath or solemn rest.” In other words this was rest with a purpose and holy intention. The verse states, “You shall do no work on it.” It is a day to cease from work. But this was not a day to cease from work in order to be idle or lazy or carefree—this was a day to cease from work in order to give time to remembering the works and splendor of God and worshiping and delighting in Him.

Notice also that worship on this day is not described as in terms of just private worship or family worship—it is called a “holy convocation.” That is—a gathered assembly of the people of God for the purpose of worshipping Him. Worship on this day was to be corporate.

The idea that one could honor the Sabbath Day by going off somewhere by himself or just spending time with immediate family would have been utterly foreign in Old Testament Israel. This was a day to gather with the people of God and amplify His praise by sharing and hearing testimony with others of what God is doing in midst of His own. The Sabbath is a day for gathering and joining voices—a day for corporate worship.

This is the testimony of the psalms. Consider the words of David:

Oh, magnify the LORD with me,
And let us exalt His name together (Psalm 34:3).

He has put a new song in my mouth—
Praise to our God;
Many will see it and fear,
And will trust in the LORD (Psalm 40:3).

I have proclaimed the good news of righteousness
In the great assembly;
Indeed, I do not restrain my lips,
O LORD, You Yourself know.
I have not hidden Your righteousness within my heart;
I have declared Your faithfulness and Your salvation;
I have not concealed Your lovingkindness and Your truth
From the great assembly (Psalm 40:9–10).

I will declare Your name to My brethren;
In the midst of the assembly I will praise You (Psalm 22:22).

Praise the LORD!
I will praise the LORD with my whole heart,
In the assembly of the upright and in the congregation (Psalm 111:1).

We could go on and on with verses illustrating this point (Psalm 35:17–18, 27–28; 107:31–32; 149:1–2; etc.). The Sabbath is a day to join in and share in the lives of one another. We need this!

Notice also in Leviticus 23:3, the Sabbath is to be a day focused on the LORD. It is a Sabbath of the LORD. It is not a day we can call our own, not a day we should treat like other days and fill with our own agendas. The day is His and He has given it to His people as a stewardship and commandment for our good and for His glory.

The verse concludes with the phrase “in all your dwellings.” This was to be observed wherever God’s people lived, in every household. This is what the verse says concerning the Sabbath, but now we come to our second question:

Why is the Sabbath Commandment here in this passage?

This chapter is a proclamation of the Feasts of the Lord—the festivals and holy days of ancient Israel. Why do we find this commandment here? What is the significance of the Sabbath to this Old Testament Calendar of worship? I believe it is here, because the 4th commandment speaks of our moral obligation to honor God with our time.

God applied this commandment to Israel, under the Old Covenant by establishing holy days and festivals to help the nation remember Him and focus on Him as their Creator and Provider, and to give them glimpses of Christ and what He would do when He came to serve as our Great Prophet, Priest and King. The Sabbath Day and week, established at creation, serve as a framework in which God places His feasts that He will use in the Old Covenant to prepare for and point toward the coming of Christ. The Sabbath Day, like the feasts and the festivals, is all about Christ.

So we come to our third question:

How has Christ fulfilled the Sabbath?

Christ fulfilled the Sabbath in at least 3 ways. First, Christ perfectly obeyed the Sabbath Commandment. Jesus was perfect in His keeping of the law. He did what we could not do. Down to every jot and tittle, in every minute detail, He never failed to do His Father’s will. Though the legalists of His day accused Him of breaking this law, He demonstrated perfect righteousness and obedience. In John 5 Jesus healed a man at the Pool of Bethesda on the Sabbath. The Jews accused Him breaking the Sabbath. Yet He never failed in doing His Father’s will. Jesus said in verse 19, “Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner.” Christ alone lived under the law without sin. He and He alone has perfect righteousness.

Second, Christ declared Himself Lord of the Sabbath. In Matthew 12:1–14 Jesus and His disciples went through some grainfields on the Sabbath. When the disciples began plucking heads of grain to eat, the Pharisees complained to Jesus: “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!”

The Pharisees had wrongly interpreted and applied the law. Jesus, as the great Law-Giver clarified the meaning of law and declared Himself to be Lord of the Sabbath. He is the One with all authority. He is the One with the infinite insight and all understanding of the depth and breadth and full intention and implications of the law.

Was Jesus breaking God’s law by plucking heads of grain to eat and healing on the Sabbath? No! He is the perfect Law-Keeper. He says in verse 7 (quoting from Hosea 6:6), “But if you had known what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” Christ was guiltless before the law. He knew no sin.

In Deuteronomy 23:24–25, the law teaches:

When you come into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes at your pleasure, but you shall not put any in your container. When you come into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the heads with your hand, but you shall not use a sickle on your neighbor’s standing grain.

Against the harsh, legalistic interpretation of the Pharisees, Jesus reminded all who heard Him that God never intended His law to usurp mercy and compassion. There was never a time when God said, “enough of mercy, enough of grace, I’ve tried it already—now let’s see how they do under the law.” No, God gave us the law to drive us to mercy, as a tutor to bring us to Christ—to show us the glories and beauty of His character and to plumb the depth and wretchedness of our sin so that in Christ He might lift us out of the pit of condemnation and seat us in the heavenlies with our Lord and Savior, Christ Jesus.

In Christ we see the law fulfilled and lived out in perfect obedience, proper application and abundant mercy. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath and He commands us, “Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:12).

Third, Christ is our Sabbath rest! We are sinful and fall short of God’s glory. Outside of Christ, the law of God can only condemn us. It is a heavy yoke we cannot bear (Acts 15:10). And so Christ graciously calls us to Himself to rest in Him:

“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30).

The book of Hebrews also points us to Christ as our Sabbath rest. Throughout this book the writer of Hebrews demonstrates the superiority of Christ and the New Covenant over the types and shadows of the Old Covenant. Chapter 1 begins:

God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they (Hebrews 1:1–4).

In contrast to the priests of the Old Testament, whose work was never finished, who could never sit down—Christ, “when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on High.” We see this theme throughout the book:

Now this is the main point of the things we are saying: We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens (Hebrews 8:1).

But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool (Hebrews 10:12–13).

Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2).

Christ completed His works of righteousness and redemption. He declared on the cross “It is finished” and has now sat down at the right hand of the Most High.

Hebrews 4 draws an interesting parallel between God’s rest after His work at creation and Christ’s rest after His work of redemption. This passage calls us to heed the gospel that we might enter God’s rest. It warns us not to miss the rest that God has provided for us Christ, as so many did in the Old Testament because of disobedience and hardness of heart. Verse 10 points us to Christ’s finished work:

For He who has entered His rest has Himself also ceased from His works as God did from His (Hebrews 4:10).

This is the rest we need. We cannot rest in the unfinished and unholy works of our hands. We must rest in the finished work of Christ for our salvation. And so in the next verse the writer of Hebrews exhorts us:

Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience (Hebrews 4:11).

Christ is our Sabbath. He is the rest we need! We must rest in Him! But this brings us to our fourth question.

In light of Christ’s fulfillment of the Sabbath and the presence of this commandment here in this passage, is the Sabbath part of the Old Covenant that has “grown old and vanished away” (Hebrews 8:13)?

To this I would answer, “No.” This is part of God’s moral law that He established at creation and intended for all mankind—not just for Israel under the Old Covenant. The Sabbath is a gift of God made for man. Jesus said in Mark 2:27, “The Sabbath was made [or more literally “created”] for man and not man for the Sabbath. God intended it for our good and His glory. It is not just for Jews, not just for believers in Christ, but it is a command to which all people will be held accountable.

As a part of God’s moral law, it has its foundation at creation, not at Mount Sinai. God told His people on Mount Sinai to remember the Sabbath Day, not establish it. We see the Sabbath in Genesis 2 as God rested on the seventh day. In Exodus 16, where the children of Israel were told to gather manna in the wilderness, we see them working 6 days and observing the Sabbath before they arrived at Mount Sinai to receive the law.

We see the Sabbath displayed at creation and throughout human history because it is rooted in the character and nature of God revealed in His Word. God rested on the 7th day. He did not rest because He was tired. He did not rest because His energy was depleted and He needed to regain His strength. He did not rest because He became distracted or unclear and needed to refocus and get reorganized. God rested because it was His nature to do so. It was His nature to stop, reflect, enjoy and delight in the work of His hands—to manage time in a way that most perfectly revealed and celebrated His glory.

Notice that this is not just a theological principle of rest. It is a practice of rest as well. God took time to rest. The Almighty Creator of heaven and earth put rest in His schedule. He took time to delight in the act of creating for 6 days and on the seventh day he took time to cease and reflect. It was His nature to do so. And as His image-bearers, this moral practice of work and rest should be reflected in our lives as well.

  • We need to rest, not just because we get tired and need refreshed (although for us—we need refreshment).
  • We need to rest, not just because we get distracted and need to refocus (although for us—we need refocusing).
  • We need to rest, not just because we are forgetful and need to remember (although for us—we need to be reminded).
  • We need rest primarily because God made us to reflect His own glory and we need time to stop, reflect, enjoy and delight in the works of His hand.

And this is even more true for the Christian who has seen God’s work not only in creation and the deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage in the Old Testament, but also in the glorious work of redemption in Christ in the New Testament.

This brings us to our final question.

In light of Christ’s fulfillment of the Sabbath, do we have an obligation to the Sabbath as believers in Christ?

I would answer this question “Yes” for four reasons. First, the moral obligation to honor God with our time remains. The Sabbath is a positive command and an abiding moral principle that teaches us to trust God and honor Him with our time. We are not to lose track of time. We are not to engage in a continuous pursuit of work or pleasure. We are to number our days. We are to regularly stop and refocus and refresh and remember. We are to be diligent to work 6 days and regularly come apart from our labors for appointed times of rest. God graciously gives us one day in seven to devote exclusively to His glory and the good and nourishment of our souls.

Worshiping God (especially corporately) still requires time and planning and intention. The Sabbath is a day for gathered worship, a day for doing good, a day for remembering God. We are to spend the day in works of piety (worship and devotion), works of necessity and works of mercy— honoring God with our time.

Second, the command to rest still remains. We see this most clearly in Hebrews 4. Verse 10 of Hebrews 4 points us to Christ who has finished His work as God did from His and calls us in verse 11 to be diligent to enter that rest. In light of Christ’s fulfillment, verse 9 tells us, “There remains therefore a rest for the people of God.” The word translated as “rest” here in the Greek is not the same word used for “rest” in the other verses of this chapter. The word here in verse 9 is sabbatismo;” sabbatismos (derived from a transliteration of the Hebrew word for Sabbath). It means “Sabbath-keeping.” There remains a Sabbath-keeping for the people of God. This is not just a theological understanding or ackowledgment that our rest is in Christ, it is a practical demonstration in the way we schedule and use our time that we are committed to Him. There remains a Sabbath-keeping for God’s people in the New Testament, because just as God completed His work at creation and rested, Christ completed His work of redemption on the cross and rose again and has entered His rest, seated now at God’s right hand.

All of history points to Christ. The Old Testament was always looking forward to what He would accomplish as Messiah and Redeemer. And when, in the fullness of time, He came and finished His marvelous work of redemption through His death and burial and resurrection, the completion of His work and the entrance into His rest has refocused the day. It is because of Christ’s finished work that the established day of worship and rest has shifted to the first day of the week. We now look back to the cross and the empty tomb as a finished work in human history.

We rest because God finished His work and rested and because Christ finished His work and “entered His rest.”

Third, the need for rest and refocusing remains. We are forgetful. We are fragmented. We need to remember. Jesus gave us the Lord’s Supper for this very purpose. We eat the bread and drink the cup in remembrance of Him, proclaiming His death till He comes (1 Corinthians 11:23–26). We must keep the gospel constantly before our eyes and in our ears that we might remember. The Sabbath teaches us that our work cannot earn us God’s favor. We must rest from our work. We cannot be good enough for God in ourselves. Only Christ and His perfect righteousness can save us.

We must remember Christ. And we must do this “till He comes.” So, finally, the hope of Christ’s coming still remains. We look for the day when the work He began in us will be complete, when we will be glorified and see Him face to face, when we can rest not only from the penalty and condemnation of sin, but from its very presence. Until then, as we are in the battle, fighting against sin and pursing holiness, let us remember Him and hope for His coming. And let us regularly gather to feed our souls, feast on Him and speak of His works and focus our lives anew in His service.