Besides being one of the 10 Commandments, God also says the Sabbath is a sign. How is the Sabbath a perpetual sign of the people God has set apart as holy?
In explaining one reason He expected His people to observe the Sabbath, God told Moses: “Speak also to the children of Israel, saying: ‘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).
Being sanctified—set apart—is a blessing from God
Worship of the true God on the seventh day of the week distinguished the ancient Israelites from everyone else. God also said that worship on this day was to remind His people that God was the One who sanctified them.
“To sanctify means commonly to make holy, that is, to separate from the world and consecrate to God” (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, “Sanctification”).
Being considered sanctified—separate and holy—by God is a wonderful blessing. As Isaiah 56:2 explains, “Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who lays hold on it; who keeps from defiling the Sabbath, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.”
The Sabbath: a sign and a perpetual covenant
Continuing His teaching about the Sabbath through Moses, God added, “‘Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed’” (Exodus 31:16-17).
Jesus Christ’s apostles and the first-century Christians also continued to remember the Sabbath.Here we see that the Sabbath is a perpetual covenant. This means that it is going to continue forever.
The Sabbath as a sign in Ezekiel 20
Hundreds of years later, Ezekiel recorded God’s words rehearsing this Sabbath sign:
“Moreover I also gave them My Sabbaths, to be a sign between them and Me, that they might know that I am the God who sanctifies them. Yet the house of Israel rebelled against Me in the wilderness; they did not walk in My statutes; they despised My judgments, ‘which, if a man does, he shall live by them’; and they greatly defiled My Sabbaths” (Ezekiel 20:12-13).
This recurring rebellion continued throughout all the years between the Exodus and their exile.
Israel rejected the Sabbath sign
When the northern 10 tribes went into captivity to the Assyrians, the majority never returned. Having rejected the Sabbath sign, they also lost their identity and became known as the lost 10 tribes of Israel.
Ezekiel wrote after the northern house of Israel had been taken captive. He recorded what God had long before warned would happen because of their sins, including Sabbath breaking:
“Also I raised My hand in an oath to those in the wilderness, that I would scatter them throughout the countries, 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 20:23-24).
The southern house of Judah also went into captivity for their sins, but after 70 years God allowed them to return. They retained knowledge of the Sabbath sign, and they did not lose their identity. They are known as the Jewish people today.
The Sabbath is a sign for all people who serve God
But the Sabbath was not just for Israel and Judah. God made the Sabbath for all mankind. Isaiah recorded God’s words of praise for gentiles who observed the Sabbath:
“Also the sons of the foreigner who join themselves to the LORD, to serve Him, and to love the name of the LORD, to be His servants—everyone who keeps from defiling the Sabbath, and holds fast My covenant—even them I will bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer. … For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:6-7).
Reflecting the ongoing existence of the Sabbath even after Christ returns to teach His laws to all peoples on the earth, God inspired the prophet Isaiah to write: “‘For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain before Me,’ says the LORD, ‘So shall your descendants and your name remain. And it shall come to pass that from one New Moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all flesh shall come to worship before Me,’ says the LORD” (Isaiah 66:22-23).
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The Sabbath sign in the New Testament: the example of Jesus and the apostles
When Jesus Christ came to earth the first time, He observed the seventh-day Sabbath: “So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read” (Luke 4:16).
He described the Sabbath a benefit for all people and proclaimed He is the Lord of the Sabbath. “And He said to 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 2:28-29).
Jesus Christ’s apostles and the first-century Christians also continued to remember the Sabbath:
- “So when the Jews went out of the synagogue, the Gentiles begged that these words might be preached to them the next Sabbath. Now when the congregation had broken up, many of the Jews and devout proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking with them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God. On the next Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God” (Acts 13:42-44).
- “Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, saying, ‘This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ’” (Acts 17:1-3).
- “Imitate me, just as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
- “He who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk just as He walked” (1 John 2:6).
The Sabbath as a sign in the end times
Jesus warned that “lawlessness will abound” in the end times, and urged His followers to “pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath” (Matthew 24:12, 20). So His followers will still be observing the Sabbath.
The apostle Paul warned of the coming of “the man of sin” in the end time (2 Thessalonians 2:3). This “lawless one” will use “all unrighteous deception” to lead people to not believe the truth, but to have pleasure in unrighteousness (verses 9-12).
In contrast, the apostle John describes God’s end-time followers as “those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 14:12).
The Sabbath and the Church of God
Through the ages there have always been people who continued to obey God’s commandment to keep the seventh day holy, and this practice continues to identify them today.
For more on how the Sabbath sign continues to be important today, read the articles “How to Keep the Sabbath as a Christian” and “Why Look for a Sabbath-Keeping Church?”