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The Sabbath and the Lord’s Day
By George Zeller
The Old Testament Sabbath
The word “Sabbath” comes from a Hebrew verb meaning “to cease, stop, desist; to come to an end, rest.” The basic meaning of this verb is illustrated in such passages as Genesis 8:22 (the seasonal and day/night cycles “shall not cease,” i.e., they will have no Sabbath); Jeremiah 31:36 (“cease”); and Job 32:1 (these men gave their mouths a rest).
Based on this definition of the word, the Sabbath Day was a “Cease-From-Work Day.” It was a day when God’s people were to cease and stop working. They were to cease from their normal daily routine. It’s important for God’s people to have a break from the business and busyness of the daily work schedule. The Sabbath afforded such a break.
On the Sabbath Day, God’s people were to cease and stop working so that they might think about and remember their God.
According to Exodus 20:8-11, they were to stop and remember their Creator. They were to realize that everything they had (even breath to breathe and strength to work) came from their Creator-God (compare 1 Corinthians 4:7) and that apart from Him, they would have nothing. They were to rest so they might reverence their Creator.
According to Deuteronomy 5:15, they were to stop and remember their Redeemer. They were to remember the awful slavery in Egypt and the wonderful deliverance that God wrought for them. They were to rest so they might reverence their Redeemer.
What Day of the Week Was the Sabbath?
Genesis 1 and 2 clearly state that the seventh day of the week was the Sabbath Day. New Testament confirmation is found in Hebrews 4:4:
For he spake in a certain place of the seventh day on this wise, And God did rest the seventh day from all his works.
Thus, Saturday (the seventh day of the week) was the day of rest for God’s people.
Nowhere in the Bible do we read about the Sabbath Day being changed to some other day. Many believe that the Sabbath Day (Saturday) was changed to the first day of the week (Sunday). Again, nowhere in Scripture is such a change mentioned.
Nothing About Sabbath Observance Until Moses
Genesis 2:1-3 states that God rested on the seventh day (Saturday) having finished His work of creation (cf. Exodus 20:11). It should be noted that although God observed the Sabbath, there is no command given in Genesis 2 that instructs man to observe the Sabbath. Indeed, throughout the book of Genesis, there is no record of any Sabbath observance on the part of men. There is no record that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or Joseph observed the Sabbath. Job lived in the patriarchal period or thereabouts, and although we read of him offering sacrifices, there is no mention of any Sabbath observance. After the flood, God gave some key commands to Noah and his sons (Genesis 9), but nothing is said about Sabbath observance. There is no record of anyone observing the Sabbath until the days of Moses.
The first record of any kind of Sabbath observance is found in Exodus 16. These manna-gathering instructions were given just prior to the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai. God was preparing His people for the Sabbath command they would soon be given. The first “Sabbath-breakers” are found in Exodus 16:27-28.
The Sabbath was a sign between God and the nation of Israel:
Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying, Verily my sabbaths ye shall keep: for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that ye may know that I am the LORD that doth sanctify you. (Exodus 31:13)
It was a set-apart day to remind them that they were a set-apart people. It was a perpetual reminder to Israel of their separation unto God. The heathen (other nations) did not observe the Sabbath.
The penalty for breaking the Sabbath law was death (Exodus 31:14; 35:2). In Numbers 15:32-36, there is an account of a man who was stoned for breaking the Sabbath (cf. Exodus 35:2-3).
The land was to observe a Sabbath. The land was to be worked for six years and rested on the seventh year (Leviticus 25:1-7). God would provide for His obedient people (Leviticus 25:18-22). However, God’s people did not obey this law and did not rest the land during these Sabbath years. This was one of the reasons God’s judgment came upon His people involving the seventy-year Babylonian captivity. During these seventy years, God gave the land rest to make up for all the time that Israel failed to observe the Sabbath year rest. The Lord enforced His Sabbath upon the land. God saw to it that the land got its rest!
And I will bring the land into desolation: and your enemies which dwell therein shall be astonished at it. And I will scatter you among the heathen, and will draw out a sword after you: and your land shall be desolate, and your cities waste. Then shall the land enjoy her sabbaths, as long as it lieth desolate, and ye be in your enemies’ land; even then shall the land rest, and enjoy her sabbaths. As long as it lieth desolate it shall rest; because it did not rest in your sabbaths, when ye dwelt upon it. (Leviticus 26:32-35)
And them that had escaped from the sword carried he away to Babylon; where they were servants to him and his sons until the reign of the kingdom of Persia: To fulfil the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her sabbaths: for as long as she lay desolate she kept sabbath, to fulfil threescore and ten years. (2 Chronicles 36:20-21)
By causing the land to remain uncultivated for seventy years, God gave to the land a time of rest and refreshment, which its inhabitants, so long as they possessed it, had not given it.1
Special Holy Days
In addition to the weekly sabbaths, there were special holy-day “Sabbaths” connected with some of Israel’s feasts (e.g., Leviticus 23:7-8, 21, 24-25, 27-28, 30-32). On most of these “non-working” days, no regular occupational work was to be done. The regulation for the day of atonement was even stronger: even minor household chores were forbidden (vv. 28-32).
The New Testament
The Word “Sabbath” in the New Testament
In the Gospels, the word “Sabbath” occurs fifty times. In the book of Acts, it occurs nine times. In the Epistles (Romans through Revelation), this word occurs once (Colossians 2:16).
It is worthy of note that whenever the Ten Commandments are repeated in the New Testament (e.g., Matthew 19:18-19 and Romans 13:9), the Sabbath commandment is never included in the list. This is important to remember especially for those who believe that observing the Sabbath Day is key to their salvation.
The Lord Jesus Christ and the Sabbath
In the Gospels, the Lord Jesus Christ observed the Sabbath Day (Luke 4:16; 13:10, etc.) since He was “under the law” (see Galatians 4:4).
The Sabbath Day was meant to be a blessing to man. It was a special day given to God’s people so that they could stop and remember their Creator and Redeemer and think about their relationship to Him. However, the Jewish religious leaders had added so many restrictions to the Sabbath that the day had become a great burden rather than a great blessing (see Mark 2:23-28 and compare John 5:8-10,16). This is the condition into which the Sabbath had degenerated by the time of our Lord’s earthly ministry; and this is why the Lord Jesus Christ, “the Lord of the Sabbath,” was involved in so many Sabbath controversies during His public ministry.
The New Testament Believers Gathering Together
In the book of Acts, the Sabbath is set forth not as the “Christian day of worship;” rather, it was used as a day of evangelism (see Acts 13:14-16; 13:42; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4). For Paul and the other Christian evangelists, the Sabbath Day was indeed a work day, as they labored for souls!
On What Day Did Christian Believers gather Together?
And we sailed away from Philippi after the days of unleavened bread, and came unto them to Troas in five days; where we abode seven days. And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight. (Acts 20:6-7; emphasis added)
Apparently, Paul stayed seven days so he could be with the believers on Sunday (see verse 6). Note what took place on this day: the disciples came together, they broke bread (communion), they heard the Word of God preached.
Paul requested that a special offering for the poor saints of Jerusalem be collected on the first day of the week, which was Sunday. Why on this day? Because this was the usual day that believers gathered together.
Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye. Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come. (1 Corinthians 16:1-2)
The Lord Jesus Christ arose from the dead very early on the first day of the week (Sunday).
Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils. (Mark 16:9; and compare Luke 24:1)
There are some (such as former cult leader Herbert Armstrong) who say that Christ arose on Saturday and not on Sunday. On the contrary, the Bible teaches that Christ rose again on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:3-4; Luke 24:7). According to Luke 24:21, the two disciples with whom Jesus walked on the road to Emmaus considered Sunday (even Sunday late afternoon) to be “the third day since these things were done” (compare verse 1). If Christ rose again on the third day, and if Sunday was considered the third day, then He must have risen on Sunday, the first day of the week, not on Saturday.
Beginning with that first resurrection Sunday, the Lord Jesus seemed to set a precedent for His disciples to gather together on the first day of the week. On the first resurrection Sunday, the Lord appeared to the group of disciples, but Thomas missed this “Sunday Evening Service” (John 20:19-23). According to the Jewish method of time computation (the inclusive method), the Lord appeared to the disciples exactly one week later (verse 26: “after 8 days”). On this Sunday, Thomas was in attendance (verses 26-29). It was also on a Sunday that the Holy Spirit came and the church was born (see Acts chapter 2 and compare Leviticus 23:15-16). The day of Pentecost occurred seven weeks after the Lord’s resurrection. The disciples were getting into the habit of gathering together on the first day of the week in celebration of the day when Christ victoriously arose from the dead.
Then, as mentioned earlier, the word “sabbath” appears only once in all the Epistles (from Romans through Revelation) where Paul states:
Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days. (Colossians 2:16)
And while it is only mentioned here in all the Epistles, Paul proclaims that we are not to constrain anyone to observe “sabbath days.” While there are some who have deduced that Paul is not talking about weekly sabbaths here but special days of rest, a careful reading of this verse makes it plain that Paul has already covered these special days in this verse and, moving in a descending scale, mentions the yearly “holyday,” then the monthly “new moon,” and finally the weekly “sabbath days.” In none of these is the believer bound any longer under the law to observe them.
The Lord’s Day
The Lord’s Day is seen prophetically in Psalm 118:22-24:
The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner. This is the LORD’S doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day which the LORD hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it. (compare Acts 4:10-12)
“This is the day which the LORD hath made.” What day is the Psalmist referring to? It was the day when God did a marvelous thing in bringing forth His Son from the dead. The rejected Stone (cf. John 1:11) was made the Head of the Corner!
The Lord’s Day, therefore, should be a day of great gladness and rejoicing (Psalm 118:24). It is a day for believers to gather together for worship, for the breaking of bread in remembering our Lord and what He has done on our behalf (1 Corinthians 11:25-26), for the collecting of gifts and offerings (1 Corinthians 16:1-2), and for the preaching and teaching of God’s Word (Acts 20:6-7).
Is Sunday the “Christian Sabbath”?
However, there is no verse in the Bible that commands believers to worship on the first day of the week. We do not do this because of any command. We do this simply because this has been the practice of Christians from the very beginning, based upon the life-changing fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Sunday is not the “Christian Sabbath.” The first day of the week is nowhere referred to as the Sabbath. Many refer to Sunday as the Sabbath, but this is not biblically correct. And we must realize that our coming together is not a salvation prerequisite. We come together with the saints, as we are instructed to in Scripture (see Hebrews 10:24-25, Colossians 3:16), to remember and celebrate together what the Lord Jesus Christ has done for us (salvation through the Cross and the Resurrection) and to edify, encourage, and exhort one another.
There is a Sabbath rest for the people of God (Hebrews 4:9), but this Sabbath rest is not for Saturday or for Sunday—it is for every day of the week!
A Sabbath Rest for Believers
There is a real sense in which every day of the week is the Lord’s Day. We are not to serve the Lord one day out of seven. We are to serve the Lord seven days out of seven! In this sense, the New Testament teaches that every day is equal (Romans 14:5).
Should believers today observe the Sabbath? The answer is yes! But a better way to say it would be, should believers today enter a Sabbath rest? There is a Sabbath rest for the people of God today: “There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9). Believers in Christ need to rest and to cease from their own works: “For he that is entered into his [God’s] rest, he also hath ceased from his own works” (Hebrews 4:10). When we, as believers, do this, it brings us to a place of humility and recognition that Christ’s work of redemption on our behalf is complete and finished (John 19:30). Now, having ceased from our own works, it opens the way for the living God to work in and through us (Philippians 2:13; Hebrews 13:21). This “faith-rest life” should be the daily portion of every believer. May we enter into this rest. May unbelief not hinder us.
On what day should we as believers rest? Notice the emphasis in Hebrews 3 and 4 on the word “today” (see Hebrews 3:7, 13, 15; and 4:7). When should we rest? We should rest “TODAY” (today and every day). There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, and we are to enter into this rest today and every day, seven days a week!
The rest to which Hebrews 4:1-11 refers is not the rest that the believer enters into at death, as so many commentators teach. The promised land was not meant to be a picture of Heaven, which the words of many hymns might suggest. Joshua and Caleb entered a land full of enemies. They entered because of their faith in a God who would work on their behalf (see Exodus 14:14: “The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace” and Numbers 14:9: “the LORD is with us”). If the “rest” of Hebrews 4:11 refers to Heaven, then this verse would be a command to commit suicide!
The person who enters into God’s rest is the person who 1) ceases from his own works (Hebrews 4:10) (i.e., realizes his salvation is not based on his own works but is based on what Christ has done, and thus, he stops striving); 2) mixes the promises of God with faith (Hebrews 4:2-3); and 3) allows God the freedom to outwork and manifest His life in his own life (Hebrews 13:20-21). Harry Ironside adds some helpful insight into the “Sabbath rest”:
If you want to find real sabbath rest for your soul, you can find it only in the Lord Jesus Christ. You have tried other things, you have turned aside to what the world had to offer, but you never found heart satisfaction, and you never will. No one has ever found it. This world has never satisfied any man or woman who lived for it, and you may be certain that it will never satisfy you. But if we could only call them together, we could get testimonies from literally millions of people who say that when they came to Jesus, when they trusted Him and received Him as Savior, they entered into sabbath rest; they found peace of heart, they found a calmness of spirit, they found joy of soul, which they had never been able to find in the world. Yes, there remaineth a sabbath rest for the people of God.2
According to Colossians 2:16-17, the Sabbath, which was given under the law in the Old Testament, was meant to be a picture of a greater Sabbath. It was but a shadow which would find its substance and fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ.
Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ. (emphasis added)
Exodus 31:13 declares to the Jewish people in the Old Testament that obeying the Sabbath was a sign between them and God so they would know God had “sanctified” them as a peculiar and chosen people set apart from the world. So too, our Sabbath rest (in Christ) from our works and striving is a sign that God has sanctified the born-again in Christ and set us apart from the world. And when the world sees our rest and trust in the One who promises to save us and deliver us from the snares of death, it will be a witness to them of God’s greatness and faithfulness.
The following chart may help to illustrate how the Old Testament Sabbath foreshadowed and pictured a greater Sabbath:
|The Sabbath Under Law||The Sabbath Under Grace|
|The believer was to rest on the seventh day (Exodus 20:8-10).||The believer is to rest seven days—“today” and every day (Hebrews 4:1-11).|
|God’s work of creation took six days (Exodus 20:11).||God’s work of the new creation (redemption) took approximately six hours—the time that Christ spent on the Cross (see Mark 15:25,33-37).|
|After His finished work of creation, God rested (Genesis 2:1-3). God later transferred the significance of His day of rest to the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:11).||After His finished work of redemption, Christ rested and sat down at the right hand of God (John 19:30; Hebrews 1:3). Note: Contrast the priests in the tabernacle who could never sit down because their work was never finished (Hebrews 10:11-12).|
|The Old Testament believer was to stop working on Saturday (Exodus 20:10).||The New Testament believer is to stop working and to cease from his own works every day of the week (Hebrews 4:1-11). It is a Faith-Rest Life based on the finished work of Christ, in the power of God the Holy Spirit.3|
Yes, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God today! Are you observing it? Are you entering into it by faith? Is Hebrews 13:20-21 true of you? Are you resting and enjoying the happy, healthy, holy working of God in your life . . . Today?
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- Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament (in the public domain, see under 2 Chronicles 36:21).
- Harry Ironside, Care for God’s Fruit-Trees, chapter 14. (Ironside’s writings are in the public domain. You can read more about him at www.harryironside.com.)
- There are many other verses in God’s Word to support the fact that our works do not save us (such as Ephesians 2:8-9).
Today, within what is called the Spiritual Formation movement, many of the movement’s authors are writing books about the Sabbath. The message in most of these books is quite different than the message in George Zeller’s booklet. In the booklet you have just read, the emphasis on a Sabbath rest is based solely on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the finished work on the Cross. Within the Spiritual Formation camp, the focus is on performing certain “spiritual disciplines” so one can become more “Christ-like.”
According to Spiritual Formation advocates, anyone can practice these disciplines regardless of beliefs (a relationship with Jesus Christ is not required). These disciplines include things like fasting, praying, helping the needy, practicing contemplative prayer (a mantra-like mystical practice) and Sabbath keeping (but usually on any particular day). In actuality, Spiritual Formation offers the very opposite of a Sabbath rest as this booklet has described. Spiritual Formation is a very works-based ideology wherein the practitioner must perform the disciplines if he or she hopes to become like Christ (yet, as with any works-based “theology,” there eventually becomes a devastating void, which is why so many in this camp turn to the esoteric experiences of contemplative prayer so they can “feel” Christ-like). Unfortunately, this is a very deceptive substitute for a living relationship with Jesus Christ that is based on the grace of God through faith in Him. If after reading this booklet on the Sabbath, you would like to know more about the dangers of the Spiritual Formation movement, please write to us, and we will send you a free booklet on this topic.
To order copies of The Sabbath and the Lord’s Day, click here.