The Sabbath in the Bible

If people had no previous understanding of the Sabbath day and decided to research the subject for themselves in the Bible, what would they find?

The Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—all have different days of worship. Even though all three of these religions revere at least parts of the same Bible, the day of the week their adherents devote to congregational worship varies.

Muslims gather for prayer on Friday. Jews assemble on Saturday. And most professing Christians congregate on Sunday.

All three religions give explanations for their choice of day. Some even say that the day doesn’t really matter—that we can choose which day works best for us.

But what would a person discover if he or she decided to simply read the Bible and let what it says guide his or her decision? Doesn’t it make more sense to consider what God says in His inspired instruction book than to rely on human reason alone?

Why we need the Bible

After all, the Bible says man doesn’t know how to figure out the correct spiritual path on his own. As an ancient prophet acknowledged, “O LORD, I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps” (Jeremiah 10:23, emphasis added throughout).

The same prophet later recorded God’s explanation of why we can’t determine our own way. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). Our human minds can deceive us. We often rationalize things so we can follow a popular teaching or do whatever we want.

Jeremiah was not an outlier. His teaching about humanity’s inability to properly figure out the correct spiritual direction on its own is continuously upheld throughout the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.

With that understanding of why we need to let the Bible be our guide, let’s take a quick journey through its teachings about the Sabbath.

The Sabbath at mankind’s creation

After God refashioned the earth and created man, the Bible says, “And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day” (Genesis 2:2).

The text goes on to explain that God gave this seventh day special, unique prominence over the other days. “God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made” (verse 3).

No other day of the week has this distinction. The seventh day was blessed and sanctified—set apart from the others—by God Himself. As you read through the rest of the Bible, you will see that this sanctification has never been removed or transferred to another day. Furthermore, God “rested” on this day. The Hebrew word for “rested” in these verses is shabath, which means to keep or observe the Sabbath (Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Definitions).

God thus observed the Sabbath after preparing the earth for mankind. But why? God didn’t need to rest—He wasn’t weary or tired (Isaiah 40:28). What was the purpose of God’s sanctification of the seventh day? Other biblical passages reveal that the Sabbath was created by God as a gift for mankind (Exodus 16:29; Mark 2:27).

The Sabbath and manna

When God gave the ancient Israelites manna to eat while they were in the wilderness, He told them that the manna would not be available to gather on the Sabbath (Exodus 16:25-26). The Israelites had to gather the manna every day throughout the week because it spoiled overnight—but on the sixth day they were to gather twice as much. On this one night God miraculously gave the manna a longer shelf life so it didn’t spoil as it did on other nights.

Why did God do this?

As Moses explained on the sixth day, “This is what the LORD has said: ‘Tomorrow is a Sabbath rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD’” (verse 23). The people, who had been slaves in Egypt, likely working seven days a week, were being given a day off. On the Sabbath they could rest.

The Sabbath commandment

When the Israelites heard God thunder the 10 Commandments from Mount Sinai, God repeated laws that were already known. The Sabbath was included in these commandments.

God said, “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” (Exodus 20:8-11).

The Sabbath: a day of holy convocation

As God instructed the Israelites about how to live, He explained that in addition to being a day of rest, the Sabbath was a day when a holy convocation was to occur. “Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation” (Leviticus 23:3).

A “holy convocation” is an assembly for a religious purpose—a “sacred assembly” (Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Definitions).

The Sabbath: a sign of God’s people

God told the ancient Israelites to observe the Sabbath, saying, “It is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations” (Exodus 31:13). Observing the Sabbath was to be “a perpetual covenant” between them and God to show that they were His people (verses 16-17).

Even in the first century, after Jesus Christ’s time on earth, the Sabbath continued to be a mark of identity for the New Testament Church. Paul referred to Christians as “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16).

Israel ignored the Sabbath

Even though God had given the ancient Israelites the Sabbath as a special gift—a day for physical rest and worship—many of them ignored the Sabbath and treated it as any other day of the week.

Why did they reject such a beautiful gift from God?

Because, the Bible says, people do not naturally have a heart to fear God and keep His commandments (Deuteronomy 5:29).

This was an issue that would be remedied by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost in A.D. 31. From that time forward, all people called by God would have the opportunity to receive the Holy Spirit upon repentance, baptism and having a minister lay hands on them (Acts 2:38; 13:3).

But what happened to the ancient Israelites because they ignored the Sabbath?

In reviewing Israel’s history of rebellion against His commands, God recalled especially their rejection of His Sabbath command: “They profaned My Sabbaths. Then I said I would pour out My fury on them and fulfill My anger against them in the wilderness” (Ezekiel 20:21). Ultimately, the Israelites’ continued Sabbath-breaking resulted in the destruction of their nation and the scattering of the people throughout the surrounding countries (verse 23).

Jesus observed the Sabbath

When Jesus was fulfilling His ministry here on earth, He regularly taught in the Jewish synagogues on the Sabbath. Luke 4:16 tells us that it was His “custom” to do this.

It is significant to note that although the Jewish authorities accused Jesus of breaking the Sabbath, they did so because of specific things He did on the Sabbath—not because He did not observe the Sabbath.

What the Pharisees objected to was that Jesus healed people on this holy day (Luke 6:6-7; 13:10-17; John 5:1-18). But healing did not break the biblical Sabbath commandment, even though they considered it against the extra rules that religious leaders had added.

Jesus modeled the behavior that Christians are to follow today. Paul, Peter and John all affirmed that Christians are to live their lives as Jesus did (1 Corinthians 11:1; 1 Peter 2:21; 1 John 2:6).

Some people today ask, “What would Jesus do?” as they contemplate a decision they must make. Perhaps the better question would be, “What did Jesus do?” If we apply this to Sabbath observance, the answer is obvious. Jesus kept the Sabbath—so should we.

The Sabbath in the New Testament: the example of the apostles and the Church

Some people have the mistaken idea that obeying the Fourth Commandment—the command to remember the Sabbath—does not apply to Christians. However, the record of the apostles and the New Testament Church after Christ’s death is that Sabbath observance was still practiced by both Jews and gentiles who became members of the Church of God.

When Paul and Barnabas came to Antioch in Pisidia, they went into the synagogue on the Sabbath (Acts 13:14). Paul was then given an opportunity to speak, and he explained who Christ was. Afterward, “the Gentiles begged that these words might be preached to them the next Sabbath . . . On the next Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God” (verses 42, 44).

Here we see both Jews and gentiles assembling on the Sabbath to hear God’s Word preached. Paul did not change the day when people should assemble for a church service.

Observance of the seventh-day Sabbath continued in the first-century Church, after Jesus’ death. As the writer of the book of Hebrews noted: “There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9, English Standard Version).

The Sabbath after Christ returns

The book of Revelation addresses Church history up to and through the return of Christ to earth. In this “Revelation of Jesus Christ,” the people of God are described as people who keep the commandments of God (Revelation 1:1; 12:17; 14:12). These people will be blessed by God with access to the tree of life, symbolizing eternal life and the opportunity to live with God in New Jerusalem (Revelation 22:14).

Since there is no mention in the Scriptures of the Sabbath commandment ever being rescinded, it is obvious that the people of God will continue to observe this commandment.

Further confirmation of this is found in the fact that after Christ returns and establishes the Kingdom of God on earth, all peoples will observe the Sabbath (Isaiah 56:6-7; 66:23).

Will you keep the Sabbath?

The biblical record is clear. From mankind’s inception, the seventh-day Sabbath has been an important component of how God’s people are to live and worship their Creator. Jesus, the apostles and members of the New Testament Church continued to observe the Sabbath, and the Sabbath will be observed by all mankind after Christ returns.

So now you have to decide what you will do. If you’d like to know more, see our article “How to Keep the Sabbath Holy,” our video series “The Sabbath: A Gift From God” and our infographic “The Sabbath—Past, Present and Future.”

About the Author

David Treybig

David Treybig

David Treybig is a husband, father and grandfather. He and his wife, Teddi, have two grown children and seven grandchildren. He currently pastors the Austin, Texas, congregation of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association. He has served in the pastoral ministry for over 40 years, pastoring congregations across six states.

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