Give Work a Rest


The Point:  Rest is a gift from God for His glory and your benefit.

Sign Between God and His People:  Exodus 31:12-13.

[12]  And the LORD said to Moses, [13]  "You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you.  [ESV]

[12-13]  “It is hard to say which of God’s commandments gets broken most frequently. Is it the commandment that forbids lying or the one that outlaws idolatry? Is it God’s law against lust or His law against murderous anger? Such questions are impossible to answer because people seem to break all the commandments all the time. What is perhaps easier to determine is which commandment is the most likely to get ignored altogether. Nearly everyone knows that it is wrong to lie, steal, or murder. But how many people know that God has given us a holy day of rest, when we may cease from our regular labor and offer ourselves to God in worship? Most secular people don’t know this commandment at all, which is why the old Sunday restrictions have all but disappeared. Sunday has become a day for shopping and sporting events, just like the rest of the week, only more so. The situation is not all that different in the church. Most Christians still go to church on Sunday mornings. However, they do not dedicate the whole day to God. Today some Christians do not think they need to honor God’s holy day at all. And even the ones who do keep the Sabbath consider this commandment less important than the rest of God’s law. Is this really the way God wants us to treat His holy day? Remembering the Sabbath is clearly important to God. In Exodus He mentions it no less than five times. The first was when He sent manna six days a week and told His people that the seventh day was a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord [Ex. 16:23]. The second time was when He gave Moses the fourth commandment: Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy [Ex. 20:8-11]. This commandment is repeated in the Book of the Covenant, where God uses it to promote social and ecological justice [Ex. 23:12]. By this point the Israelites should have known that God wanted them to keep His day holy. Yet the commandment is repeated two more times, once at the end of chapter 31 and then again at the beginning of chapter 35. Obviously God thought that Sabbath-keeping was very important. It was central – not peripheral – to His plans for His people. These five passages may seem repetitive, but they are not redundant. Each one provides a slightly different perspective on the Sabbath, so that we get the full picture of God’s purposes for the day. What God says in chapter 31 is similar to what He said in chapter 20, but at least three things are new. One is that keeping the Sabbath comes in a new position. Earlier it was part of the Ten Commandments. Here it is reiterated in the context of the tabernacle. By Sabbaths, the Bible means the weekly Sabbath. God refers to them as His Sabbaths because they follow His example and are given at His command. Why did God put the Sabbath in this position? The commandment is put here to remind Bezalel, Oholiab, and the rest of Israel’s artists that they did not have to work on the tabernacle all the time. They were serving the Lord, making the most important building in the world. Nevertheless, they still needed to keep the Sabbath. They could not use their sacred calling as an excuse not to take their holy rest. This is emphasized by the grammar of verse 13, where the words above all function as a restrictive adverb. It makes an exception to what has just been said. God has been telling His artists to make the tabernacle; however, they were restricted from working on the Sabbath. This reminds us not to use our service to God as an excuse for breaking His law. More specifically, it warns us not to come up with reasons why it is okay for us to break the Sabbath. If anyone had a good excuse, it was Bezalel and Oholiab. But even they had to honor God’s holy day. Of course, there are some kinds of work that must be done on Sunday: works of mercy, such as feeding the homeless; and works of necessity, such as putting out fires or performing emergency surgery. But the rule is to honor God on His holy day, and we should be slow to grant ourselves exceptions, even for what may seem like good reasons. Another thing that is new in Exodus 31 is that the Sabbath has a new purpose: for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. Here God makes explicit what to this point had only been implied – namely, that the weekly Sabbath was designed to promote the knowledge of God. God had entered into a relationship with His people, a covenant relationship in which they were to know Him as their God. To that end, He decreed that they should set apart one whole day in seven to rest in His grace. God had already told them to set aside some sacred space: the tabernacle where He promised to dwell. But He also knew that building a relationship takes time. His people needed more than a place to worship. They needed holy time to meet with their God. The Sabbath was God’s way of making sure that His people would take the time to get to know Him. Together the tabernacle and the Sabbath put God at the center of Israel’s time and space. The Sabbath looked back to creation, when God made the world in six days and rested on the seventh. The Sabbath also looked forward to full redemption, when God’s people would enter their rest in the Promised Land. But for the present it was a time to grow deeper in the knowledge of God. By spending time in prayer and praise, God’s people would come to know Him as their God. And in the process they would become holy, like Him. God gave them the Sabbath so that they would know Him as the Lord, who sanctifies them (or makes them holy). Their covenant relationship with God was a sanctifying relationship, and the Sabbath was part of the process. As the people set apart a day for worship and rest, God set them apart for His service. In other words, He sanctified them. Jesus said, The Sabbath was made for man [Mark 2:27], and one way the Sabbath is for us is that it helps us grow in the knowledge of God. When we sanctify God’s holy day, God uses it to sanctify us.”  [Ryken, pp. 957-960].

Keep the Sabbath:  Exodus 31:14-15.

[14]  You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. [15]  Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death.  [ESV]

[14-15]  “The third thing that is new about the Sabbath command in Exodus 31 is the punishment on those who break it. There is a new penalty: You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people [14]. The prohibition was absolute. The word Sabbath means to cease, and on the Sabbath the Israelites were not allowed to do regular work of any kind. It was not a day for business as usual, or for people to ‘do their own thing’. If they did, they would suffer the penalty. Verse 14 speaks of one who profanes the Sabbath, and there is some question as to what falls under this category. Does it refer to any work at all, or only to certain kinds of labor? Similarly, there is some question as to what is meant by the phrase cut off from among his people. Does this refer to the death penalty or to some form of excommunication? If the account in Numbers 15 is any indication, the answer is that all work was forbidden under the strictest pains of death, because there we read about a man who was executed for gathering firewood on the Sabbath [Num. 15:32-36]. This penalty no longer applies. Remember that there were three types of Old Testament law: moral, civil, and ceremonial. The moral law is God’s universal and eternal will for all people in all places. The civil law was for Old Testament Israel as a nation under the direct rule of God; its judicial sanctions are no longer binding. The ceremonial law governed the rituals of religious worship, such as the system of sacrifice. This law has been fulfilled in Christ. So where does the command to keep the Sabbath fit in? What kind of law is it? In its essential requirement, it is part of the moral law, which is why it is included in the Ten Commandments. God demands that once a week we cease from our regular work to worship Him. Certain aspects of this law were ceremonial, such as the day it was celebrated (Saturday) and the addition of other Sabbath days to Israel’s festival calendar (such as Passover). There were also penalties for breaking the Sabbath, which were part of Israel’s civil law. But these sanctions were not part of the Ten Commandments, and they are no longer binding. Yet the punishment still seems severe. Why did Sabbath-breaking demand the death penalty? Remember that the commandment’s purpose was to protect and preserve God’s relationship with His people. Breaking the Sabbath was an act of defiant rebellion. It was a repudiation of the covenant. It was a way of saying to God, ‘My relationship with you isn’t important to me. You are not worth the time it would take to get to know you’. When people say that, they really are cutting themselves off from God, and it is only right for them to be cut off from His people. That is why keeping the Lord’s day holy ought to be important to us. We want to know God. We want to grow in our relationship with Him and make progress in holiness. So rather than treating every day the same, we honor God’s holy day. It is not just holy to Him; it is holy to us.”  [Ryken, pp. 960-961].

The Sabbath Rest:  Exodus 31:16-17.

[16]  Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. [17]  It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’"  [ESV]

[16-17]  “The question many Christians ask today is whether or not we still have to keep the Sabbath. And this is the way people usually ask the question: Do we have to? It is as if six days are not enough for us! We want to claim all seven so we begrudge God His holy day. Sabbath-keeping is a matter on which Christians often disagree. Some believe that the Sabbath has been so fulfilled in Christ that we are no longer obligated to rest one whole day in seven. As we rest in Christ, trusting in His work for our salvation, we find the true rest that God has promised. The Sabbath was a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ [Col. 2:17]. Now every day is equally holy to God. One problem with this view is that keeping the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments, which were written in stone as a testimony of their abiding authority. Exodus 31 ends by saying, And he gave to Moses, when he had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God [18]. What was written on these two tablets was the Decalogue, including the fourth commandment. Therefore, setting aside a day for rest and worship was not just God’s law for Israel – it was His will for all people. Furthermore, the basis for Sabbath-keeping went all the way back to creation. In Exodus 31 the commandment is given as a sign of God’s covenant with His people. but it is also rooted in creation, in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed [17]. The Sabbath is one of the world’s original institutions, going back to the week the world was made. As we have seen, certain aspects of Sabbath-keeping – such as the death penalty – were only for Old Testament Israel. The Sabbath also had unique significance for Israel as a sign of the covenant. There was already a Sabbath, but now it was given added significance as a sign of their relationship with God. Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel [16-17]. These verses emphasize the Sabbath’s abiding significance. God’s holy day is to be kept in perpetuity. To understand how this applies to us, we need to remember that in the New Testament the church is called the Israel of God [Gal. 6:16]. God’s promises to His people Israel are fulfilled in the church of Jesus Christ. Where do Jews come to salvation today? Not outside the church, but within it; not apart from Christ, but in Him as their Messiah. So where will God’s holy day be honored? Also in the church. When we turn to the New Testament, we find that the early church cherished Sunday as a day of rest and worship. It was on the first day of the week that the Holy Spirit was poured out on the church [Acts 2:1-4]. Sunday was their Sabbath. But rather than calling it the Sabbath, the apostles referred to it as the Lord’s Day to show that it had come under the lordship of Jesus Christ. Why did the early church celebrate God’s holy day on Sunday rather than Saturday? What gave the apostles the right to change the day? The answer is that they did not change it – Jesus did! The only thing that could change the day of God’s command was something as significant as the creation itself: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. God transformed His holy day from Sabbath to Lord’s Day by raising Jesus from the dead. He accomplished this new exodus on Sunday, the first day of the week. From then on the people of God – both Jews and Gentiles – observed Sunday as a day of rest and worship. The Old Testament people of God were looking forward to salvation. It was only right for them to have their special day of worship at the end of the week, in anticipation of the coming of their Savior. But now that Christ has come, we begin our week by worshiping God on the day of resurrection. We do not keep the Jewish Sabbath in all its particulars, with all its penalties, but we do honor the Lord’s Day by ceasing from our regular work and devoting the day to the pleasures of knowing God. The benefits of Sabbath-keeping are still available to us as believers in Christ. In keeping God’s holy day, we are simply following the example of Jesus Himself. First Jesus had to rescue the Sabbath from legalism, of course, but He honored the day itself. He loved to be in the synagogue for Sabbath worship [Mark 1:21; Luke 4:16]. He also loved to use the day for showing mercy by healing the sick [Matt. 12:9-14]. Jesus Christ is the Lord of the Sabbath [Mark 2:28], and one of the ways we experience the joy of His lordship is by keeping God’s day holy. The Lord’s day is not an obligation but a privilege, not a chore but a gift; not a burden but a delight.”  [Ryken, pp. 961-964].

“Christians welcome God’s holy day as a weekly opportunity to experience life’s highest pleasures. What are the blessings of this day? First, there is the blessing of spiritual refreshment, The Lord’s Day is a vacation for the soul. It is a day to revel in the wonders of God and the mysteries of His Word. It is a day to regain perspective. Before we launch out into another week, with all the difficulties and distractions of daily life, we take a day to remember who God is and who we are in relationship to Him. One of the day’s primary purposes is to help us know God. To that end, the Lord’s Day is for worship, especially public worship. Nothing we do makes a bigger difference in who we become than worshiping with the people of God every week. Of course, we need to spend time with God every day. Daily Bible reading and prayer sustain our spiritual vitality. But meeting weekly with God in corporate worship provides an anchor for our whole spiritual existence. Praise God that we can set aside a day to do this! And it is a day, not just a morning. As in any relationship, developing deeper intimacy with God cannot be rushed. It takes time to develop – more than just a couple of hours on a Sunday morning. Another blessing of God’s holy day is physical rest. This is important because the last thing most people need is another day of work. We are living in an accelerated culture, where everything is moving faster and faster. Yet for all our labor-saving devices and time-saving products we do more work and have less time to spare than ever. God’s holy day offers us a weekly opportunity to savor the moment. It is a day to show by our actions that there is more to life than just work. We stop working and rest in God’s peace. We stop producing and rest in God’s provision. We stop accomplishing and rest in our identity in Christ. We stop acquiring and rest in God’s care. We stop worrying and rest in God’s sovereignty. This does not mean that we should spend the Lord’s Day doing nothing. God has called us to worship with His people. Sunday is also a day for works of mercy, works of necessity, and works of ministry. A third blessing of the Lord’s Day is evangelistic witness. Honoring God’s holy day is one of the things that ought to distinguish us from the world. Outwardly we are like our neighbors in many ways, but the Sabbath is a clear sign that we belong to the covenant community of God’s people. Simply by attending worship on the Lord’s Day we are making a public confession of our faith in Christ. We also make a statement whenever we tell people that we can’t do something on Sunday, like work an extra shift or show up for baseball practice. Sometimes this invites opposition or even ridicule. This is to be expected. But it also gives us an opportunity to explain that nothing is more important to us than honoring Jesus Christ. Sunday also gives us opportunities for service. During the week we don’t always have time to get involved in mercy ministry. But Sunday is a day to care for the sick, feed the hungry, and visit prisoners and shut-ins. Since we do all these things in the name of Christ, Sunday is a day of witness to our faith in Him. People ought to know that we are Christians by the way we use God’s holy day.”  [Ryken, pp. 964-969].

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What three things concerning the Sabbath does God teach us in Exodus 31? How can we apply these three things to our keeping the Sabbath holy?

2.         If someone asks you (or maybe you ask yourself) the question: “Do Christians today still need to keep the Sabbath,” how do you answer? Why is it still important today to obey the fourth commandment? How are we to obey the command in today’s world? What do we lose when we fail to obey?

3.         What are the blessings we experience by keeping the Sabbath (or the Lord’s Day) holy? Are you experiencing these blessings? If not, what can you do differently?


Exodus, John Mackay, Mentor.

Exodus, Philip G. Ryken, Crossway.

Exodus, Douglas Stuart, NAC, B & H Publishing.

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