God had plans for the Sabbath day from the beginning—and what’s more, those plans involve you. The Bible shows us why the Sabbath still matters today.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).
That’s where our story begins.
The book of Genesis then describes an earth that had become “without form, and void” (verse 2). The Hebrew words here are tohu and bohu—a state of confusion and chaos.
As the biblical creation account unfolds, we are invited to watch day by day as God transforms the earth from chaos to paradise, gradually moving it farther and farther from the tohu and bohu that had defined it.
For the first three days, God’s efforts are focused on creating the boundaries that will organize the earth into something beautiful. He illuminates the world, dividing the light from the darkness. He creates the atmosphere, dividing the water-bearing clouds above from the water-covered surface of the earth below. He gathers those same surface waters together, dividing the dry land from the oceans and seas.
Starting with the third day, God also begins setting in motion the patterns that will shape life on the earth. He creates the plants of the world, each of them designed to reproduce after its own kind. He sets the sun, moon and stars in the sky to mark the passage of time and to divide the day from the night. He fills the sea, sky and land with a vast array of creatures, each one capable of reproducing after its kind.
For His final act on the sixth day, God creates the human race “in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (verse 27). All other forms of life, from the produce of the ground, to the birds of the sky, to the creatures of the sea, to the beasts of the earth—these were designed to multiply after their kinds.
Humans, too, are instructed to “be fruitful and multiply” (verse 28)—but God marks them as different. Their kind is the God kind—created in the very image of their Creator. He sets them over the entirety of His physical creation, giving them dominion “over every living thing that moves on the earth” (verse 28).
In six days, God moves the earth from a state of tohu and bohu to a state of order and beauty. Day by day, the earth is filled with reason and purpose and direction. “Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good. So the evening and the morning were the sixth day” (verse 31).
Why would God need to rest?
But on the seventh day, God does something strange.
Jesus took the opportunity to highlight how the Pharisees had unintentionally turned the purpose of the Sabbath day upside down with all their extra rules.Why? He certainly didn’t need to. The six days of creation hadn’t left Him feeling exhausted or worn out. As Isaiah tells us, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, neither faints nor is weary” (Isaiah 40:28).
And yet, in spite of that, the creation account tells us that “on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made” (Genesis 2:2-3).
Our verb rested is translated from the Hebrew verb shabath in the original text, which carries the sense of stopping, ending or ceasing from activity. Although God wasn’t tired, He rested by ending His creative work.
But . . . why?
There’s a clue in that passage. After putting an end to His work, “God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it.”
God did something special to the seventh day
Blessed and sanctified.
It’s easy to gloss over the meanings of those religious-sounding words, but they both add incredible emphasis to this moment of divine rest.
William Mounce explains that the Hebrew word for bless “indicates the action of pronouncing good things upon the recipient,” noting that “when God blesses, it is not an impotent wish but the empowering and transforming word that accomplishes its purpose” (Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, “Bless”).
And when God sanctifies something, He sets it apart for a holy purpose.
In blessing and sanctifying the seventh day of the week, God wasn’t dealing with a single 24-hour period. He was pronouncing a special blessing on a recurring day that was now set apart for all of time.
Lessons from the Sabbath commandment
The holy purpose of the seventh day isn’t immediately obvious in the Genesis account. In fact, many years pass before we get more insight into the day itself.
When God gave the 10 Commandments to Israel, He claimed ownership of the Sabbath: “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” (Exodus 20:8-10, emphasis added throughout).
God tied this weekly Sabbath observance all the way back to His act of shabath in Genesis: “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” (verse 11).
As part of their covenant relationship with God, the Israelites were commanded to do no work on God’s seventh-day Sabbath. In fact, they were to give rest to everyone and everything in their sphere of influence—their family members, their livestock, and even the foreigners who were dwelling in their land (verse 10).
The Sabbath was a fundamental component of the Israelites’ identity as God’s people. He told them, “Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you” (Exodus 31:13).
If the Israelites treasured and honored the day God had sanctified during the creation week, obeying all His commandments, God would sanctify the Israelites as “a special treasure to Me above all people” (Exodus 19:5).
Building a fence around the Torah
But Israel didn’t keep God’s Sabbath holy. They consistently failed to remember the Sabbath day—and consistently failed to live their lives according to God’s perfect standards.
After centuries of disobedience, God allowed His people to be enslaved by other nations “because they had not executed My judgments, but had despised My statutes, profaned My Sabbaths, and their eyes were fixed on their fathers’ idols” (Ezekiel 20:24).
As a countermeasure, the surviving Jewish religion began to “make a fence round the Torah” (Talmud tractate Pirkei Avot 1:1; compare Pesachim 2b:12) by adding extra restrictions to God’s instructions.
For example, the Jewish Mishna lists 39 major categories of work that are forbidden on the Sabbath (tractate Shabbat 7:2), elaborating on hundreds and hundreds of forbidden subcategories across the space of 24 chapters. The vast majority of these so-called restrictions were never put in place by God—they were well-intentioned fences put in place to protect God’s law.
For a nation that had lost its homeland through disobedience, it’s easy to follow the train of thought that led to this approach. By religious leaders making God’s laws broader and stricter, even if people were to violate the additional restrictions, they would still be miles away from violating God’s actual laws.
But God’s laws don’t need a fence. They need to be obeyed. Adding extra restrictions just transforms God’s “perfect law of liberty” (James 1:25) into something difficult and frustrating to keep.
By the time Jesus Christ began His ministry, the Sabbath had become less of a blessing and more of a burden.
Over and over again, the religious leaders of the day (mistakenly) accused Jesus of violating the holiness of the Sabbath. They saw healing as a form of work and took offense when Jesus performed His miracles on the Sabbath. (Jesus was always quick to show that this was a restriction that had come from man, not God—see Matthew 12:10-13; Luke 14:1-6; John 5:6-16; 7:21-24.)
When Christ’s disciples plucked and ate a few kernels of grain from a field, “the Pharisees said to Him, ‘Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’” (Mark 2:24). The Pharisees considered plucking any amount of grain to be an act of harvesting, and harvesting on the Sabbath was forbidden by God in Exodus 34:21.
Jesus took the opportunity to highlight how the Pharisees had unintentionally turned the purpose of the Sabbath day upside down with all their extra rules. He told them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28).
The Sabbath was made for man
But the true blessing of the Sabbath is about more than just physical rest. This sacred day, which stretches all the way back to the creation week, also stretches all the way forward into eternity.That short, simple rebuttal ought to transport us back in time—out of the grainfields of the first-century Middle East, all the way back to a world that was still in a state of tohu and bohu.
This time, as we rewatch God clearing away the confusion and chaos one day at a time, creating boundaries and patterns, organization and divisions, we can watch with a brand-new perspective. This time, we can watch it all knowing that this week of creation is building toward a crescendo on the seventh day. This time, we know the reason.
“On the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made” (Genesis 2:2-4).
It was a gift for all mankind. It was a gift for us.
A gift for you.
Making use of the Sabbath gift
From the beginning of recorded history, God blessed and sanctified the Sabbath day. He set it apart as a perpetual blessing—a holy, recurring 24-hour period when we are commanded to stop from our labors just as God stopped from His.
In place of the work that fills (and often consumes) the other six days of our week, rest is commanded for the seventh day, which has been sanctified for all of time as a Sabbath. It’s a day of rest when we can find a deeper and more meaningful relationship with our Creator—and when God helps us clear away the tohu and bohu in our own lives.
Jesus told the Pharisees that God did not create the human race because He wanted to make sure someone was observing His Sabbath. God created the Sabbath as a sanctified blessing for His people throughout time.
There are rules for Sabbath-keeping, but the rules that matter were given by God, not man. When we “call the Sabbath a delight”—when we learn to treat the Sabbath as the divinely offered gift that it is—then we “shall delight [ourselves] in the LORD” (Isaiah 58:13-14).
A rest remains for the people of God
But the true blessing of the Sabbath is about more than just physical rest. This sacred day, which stretches all the way back to the creation week, also stretches all the way forward into eternity.
The author of the book of Hebrews looked back at that first Sabbath day when “God rested on the seventh day from all His works” (Hebrews 4:4), acknowledging that, ultimately, the Israelites never truly found the rest that God had offered them. More than that—because of their disobedience, God says, “So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest’” (verse 3).
But there’s more to the story: “Since therefore it remains that some must enter it, and those to whom it was first preached did not enter because of disobedience . . . There remains therefore a rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:6, 9).
The author used a special Greek word for “rest” in verse 9—in fact, this is the only place it appears in the entire New Testament. The word is sabbatismos, and it specifically refers to the act of observing the Sabbath day. In other words, verse 9 tells us that a Sabbath-keeping remains for the people of God, “for he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His” (verse 10).
This aspect of the Sabbath looks forward to our ultimate rest from this physical life, when we have laid “aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and . . . run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
When that race is done, and our physical lives are over, we will cease from our works for a time. The Sabbath points us toward the true rest that will come when our Lord and Savior calls us from our graves to tell us, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord” (Matthew 25:23).
The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.
The Sabbath was made for you.
To learn more about God’s Sabbath, be sure to download our free booklet The Sabbath: A Neglected Gift From God.