What Is the Sabbath?

Ten Commandments

“And he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.’ (Mark 2:27)

Thus the debate begins. Is Sabbath an abiding principle, or is it something just for the nation of Israel? Are there Ten Commandments or nine? Does the New Testament church still need to honor the Sabbath? These are questions over which many sincere believers disagree. But what does the Bible teach us? Before we answer that question let us make time to understand our cultural context.

Until fairly recently North American culture respected the idea of Sabbath. This idea was implemented by the settlers of the New World and can be traced back as early as 1620. More than 300 years later, in 1961 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of laws prohibiting commerce on Sunday. In Canada, the Lord’s Day Act was finally struck down in 1985 to allow stores to be open on Sunday. Those prohibitions have long been cast aside and the idea of a national day of rest is laughable to most. Others, on the other extreme, turn Sunday into a day of list keeping. Therefore we have two extremes. One says the Sabbath is to be ignored, the other turns it into a checklist of things to and not to do.

To understand Sabbath we have to start at the beginning. To what point in history can our foundations for the Sabbath be traced? We can turn right to the beginning of time: creation. As God creates the world he institutes foundational ordinances to shape man’s relationship with the world he is to steward as well as with the God who gave him this responsibility. We will look briefly at the first two before settling in on a more detailed study on the Sabbath:

  1. Work. In Gen. 2:15, God places Adam in Eden to work there. Work is not a result of the fall, but precedes the fall and will continue into heaven. Work is what God does (see John 5:17). Man, as his image bearer, should reflect him.
  2. Marriage. In Gen. 2:24, bringing Adam and Eve together is the foundation for the institution of marriage. It is because God brought the first people together that marriage continues today. In Hosea, God himself is described as the faithful husband to an unfaithful bride, Israel. Marriage is designed by God and practiced faithfully by him. Man, as his image bearer should reflect him.
  3. Sabbath Rest. In Gen. 2:1-3 God sets apart one day in seven for rest. This rest is made up of the enjoyment of God’s blessing and the recognition of the special purpose assigned to the seventh day when God makes it holy (v. 3). Blessing in the Bible is the opposite of cursing. When God curses Adam after the fall he banishes him from his presence (Gen. 3:24). This curse is replaced in heaven with blessing when God promises to dwell among his people (Rev. 21:3). In addition, God makes the Sabbath holy. When God makes something holy he sets it apart for a special use. The seventh day is set apart to enjoy the blessing, or presence, of God. God rests on the seventh day, not from all his work, but from the work of creation. God rests on the seventh day. Man, as his image bearer should reflect him.

Sabbath. It is established at creation as one of the three foundational creation ordinances. Whatever we conclude in the weeks ahead, we cannot say Sabbath is cancelled with Moses’ other ceremonial laws, because it predates the law given at Sinai. Our task in the weeks ahead will be to discern the significance of this creation ordinance in the life of Israel, but then also in the life of the church.

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