by Bill Nugent
One of the things that shows the uniqueness of the Bible and proves its divine wisdom is the Sabbath. One ancient Roman writer lamented that “The Hebrews waste one-seventh of their lives.” Better minds now know that rest is not waste! The whole world now follows a seven day week and businesses all around the world (with he exception of retailers!) close either on Saturday or Sunday or both.
The importance of the Sabbath in the Bible is clear. The command to rest on the Sabbath is the fourth commandment. “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8.) The Sabbath is the seventh day of the week. By Hebrew biblical reckoning the day begins at sundown and ends the following sundown. Hence the Sabbath begins on Friday evening at sundown and ends on Saturday evening at sundown. Orthodox Jews observe the Sabbath 20 minutes before sundown on Friday to 20 minutes after sundown on Saturday. The extra 20 minutes on each end of the Sabbath is like a buffer to ensure that the entire Sabbath day is observed.
Down through the centuries there has been much discussion and much dispute among Christians as to whether or not to observe the literal seventh day Sabbath. Most mainstream Christians believe that the Sabbath has been moved from Saturday to Sunday. They say this because Jesus was raised from the dead on the first day of the week which is Sunday. So there is a dispute not only about whether the Old Testament Sabbath laws apply to Christians today but also what day we are to observe, if any.
Personally I see nothing in the Bible that states or even infers that the Sabbath has been moved from the seventh day to the first day of the week. I also see that the Bible clearly teaches that literal Sabbath observance, that is the actual cessation from work on the Sabbath, is not required of the Christian. “Let no man therefore judge you . . . in respect of . . . the sabbath days” (Colossians 2:16). “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind (Romans 14:5).
The passage from Romans 14:5 quoted above is particularly intriguing. Here we see Paul, the apostle, writing to the church under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and telling them that Sabbath observance is optional. Just observe the Sabbath or refrain from observing it according to how you are persuaded in your own mind. Think of it. Paul is writing about the fourth commandment! He writes as if it is totally optional. Paul was raised as a Pharisee which is a very strict sect of Judaism. He didn’t say “Jewish believers must observe the Sabbath but you Gentiles believers can regard every day the same.” He made a general statement that infers that all Christians, whether of Jewish or Gentile heritage, can observe or not observe the Sabbath at will.
The Sabbath law is a clear example of how we are not under law but are under grace. Romans 14:5 is also a very clear example of the Christian concept of individual rights and individual autonomy. Paul didn’t use his authority as an apostle to simply command all Christians to rest on the Sabbath. God lets each person “be fully persuaded in his own mind.” That is radical stuff. That is freedom. This and many other verses in the Bible formed the basis for the western concept of individual rights and liberties. The founding fathers of the United States quoted from the Bible far more than any other book in their political writings.
So what then of the Sabbath? Should we just ignore it? Should we observe it in a loose way and just take it easy on Saturday or Sunday? I think the answer is found in Jeremiah 31:33 which is part of an Old Testament predictive prophetic passage written around 600 BC in which God was speaking about the future new covenant that would be implemented at the coming of Christ. In Jeremiah 31:33 God says through Jeremiah that He will write the law on our hearts. “I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts” (Jer. 31:33).
All of the Old Testament commands are written on our hearts. Under the New Covenant we think and move from the heart. Under the Old Testament people were expected to think and move more from the mind. Under the Old Testament law everything was spelled out. Clear commands were given such as rest on the seventh day, give 10% of your income, abstain from shellfish and if you need guidance cast lots.
In the New Testament the last time the apostles cast lots was in Acts 1:15-26 and that was immediately before the Holy Spirit was poured out mightily upon them in Acts chapter two. The contrast is clear. The Old Testament walk was by external law, by rote, by formula and everything was spelled out. The New Testament walk is much more intuitive, much more from a personal relationship with God and hearing from God as an individual.
Most Christians simply ignore the fourth commandment. Most of us just rush through life and work every hour of every day. Mark Twain once said that “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.” Most Christians live lives of quiet (and some not so quiet) desperation.
Hebrews 4:9 says “There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God.” That rest is not a literal Sabbath observance of cessation of physical labor every seventh day. This New Testament rest is a rest that fills all seven days per week. The fulfillment of Sabbath rest is a freedom from anxiety, turmoil and worry. As we take the yoke of Christ upon us we find rest unto our souls (Matthew 11:28-29).
So there is a fulfilled Sabbath under the New Covenant. The Old Testament law of enforced rest every seventh day was a prophetic picture, a mere parable that foreshadowed the fulfilled New Testament rest that fills all seven days. Can I explain it or can I give you a three step process to get to this rest? Let me try. Yield your self to the Lord. Lay your life down before him and take up your cross daily and follow Him. Draw close to God and He will draw close to you (James 4:8). To rest in Christ and to fulfill the Sabbath we must walk in a constant state of trust and yieldedness. So we must keep the fulfillment of the Sabbath every day. Remember, if you are anxious or worried you are breaking the Sabbath!