‘Remember the Sabbath’
The Sabbath was meant to be a day of rest, but people have a way of complicating God’s intentions.
When my wife and I lived in Minnesota, we enjoyed visiting the Minneapolis Institute of Art where more than 90,000 beautiful works of art are on display at any given time. To top it off, general admission is free. We loved to stroll casually through the galleries, observing the paintings from afar or getting up close to examine in detail an artist’s brushstrokes.
Like an art museum, the Bible contains “galleries” that display works of art created by the Master Artist Himself. These works consist of the timeless truths and concepts of Scripture that picture the unfolding of God’s eternal plan. One such gallery is the Sabbath.
The Hebrew for Sabbath (Shabbat) means “desist, cease,” or “rest.” Although the Bible mentions many Sabbaths, the term Shabbat primarily speaks of the seventh day of the week, the day God rested from His labor of creation (Ex. 20:8–11).
The Sabbath was to be observed from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday (the Jewish day begins at sunset), and it was holy because God Himself blessed the seventh day (Gen. 2:3).
Shabbat is particularly important to the Jewish people because God gave it exclusively to Israel as a sign. When He delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and made them a nation at the base of Mount Sinai, He gave them the Ten Commandments, the fourth of which reads:
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: . . . 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 (Ex. 20:8–11).
God called the Sabbath “a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you” (31:13). Keeping the Sabbath was to inspire God’s covenant people to live holy lives devoted to Him. Resting from work was intended to help them identify with the one true God and Creator of the universe.
The Sabbath was to be a day of rest and refreshment for the Jewish people (Dt. 5:12–14). They were to do no work. The biblical idea of work involves activity to provide for one’s daily bread, transacting business, earning a living, or laboring at one’s profession (Ex. 16:29; 35:3; Num. 15:32; Neh. 10:31; 13:15; Jer. 17:21; Amos 8:5). To rest on the Sabbath means refraining from these activities, which focus on one’s personal interests, and concentrating instead on God’s interests.
Shabbat was also to be a day of remembering God’s redemption (Dt. 5:15). The Israelites were never to forget they had been slaves in Egypt and that God had delivered them with great power and might. They were to detach themselves from the material and temporal to focus on the spiritual and eternal. They were to reflect on their relationship with their great God, putting aside their own desires and putting God’s first (Isa. 58:13–14).
But people have a way of complicating the simplicity of God’s intentions and subverting them. The ancient rabbis decided that if keeping the Sabbath meant not working, they had to determine what constituted work. So they came up with 39 general categories that they prohibited on the Sabbath.
For example, they taught it was forbidden to untie a knot and to carry or grind anything on Shabbat. Since preparing medicine often involved grinding, it became forbidden to prepare or take medicine on the Sabbath. It also was forbidden to treat sick or injured people, unless their lives were in danger.
Do Good, Not Harm
Ultimately, the Sabbath is about the Messiah. A Sabbath hymn still sung in Jewish homes today contains these lyrics:
Soon shall he come to redeem us / Offspring of David, thy servant,
He that is breath of our spirit / Send thine anointed [literally, Messiah], O Lord!1
It is no wonder Jesus of Nazareth is the fulfillment of the Sabbath. Jesus used the Sabbath to show His Messianic credentials and did much of His teaching and miraculous healings then. In fact, Scripture says it was “His custom” (Lk. 4:16) to attend synagogue on Shabbat. However, His healing ministry conflicted drastically with the rabbinic interpretations of Sabbath law.
For example, by healing a woman who had been doubled over for 18 years, Jesus broke the rabbinical law against untying a knot on Shabbat. He acknowledged as much when He said, “So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound—think of it—for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?” (13:16). The Greek word for “loosed” means “released or untied.”
Had Jesus healed her using only one hand, perhaps He would not have been accused of breaking the law. For the Mishnah states, “None is culpable because of any knot which can be untied with one hand” (Mishnah, Shabbath 15.1). However, Jesus wanted to make a point. The text specifically states He used both hands: “He laid His hands [plural] on her, and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God” (v. 13).
By telling a disabled man of Bethesda, “Rise, take up your bed and walk” (Jn. 5:8), Jesus bid him to break the rabbinical law against carrying. The Jewish leaders told the man, “It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed” (v. 10).
By mixing dirt and spittle to make an eye salve for a blind man, Jesus broke the rabbinical law against mixing medicine on the Sabbath. Thus, some of the Pharisees declared, “This Man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath” (9:16).
Unfortunately, the rabbinical system turned the Sabbath into a legalistic burden, not a day of rest. Jesus taught that God values mercy over legalism and that it is more lawful to do good than harm on the Sabbath and more righteous to save a life than take one (Mk. 3:4). He declared, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man [a messianic title referring to Himself] is also Lord of the Sabbath” (2:27–28).
The Sabbath’s Invitation
The Minneapolis Institute of Art still offers free admission. It doesn’t cost me anything to go because someone else is paying the price. Similarly, salvation is free for you and me. We do not pay for it. We cannot work for it. We receive it by faith. But it cost God a high price. Jesus died a horrible death to pay for our sin. He died in our place and rose from the dead, verifying who He is and what He did.
Not only every weekend, but also every major Jewish festival is characterized by a Sabbath rest. Why? Because God wants us to understand that salvation is not based on our efforts or hard work. It’s based on resting in what He has done for us through Jesus.
Why not stop working so hard to get into heaven and start resting in what Jesus has already done for you? Jesus said, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt. 11:28–29).
In Jesus the Messiah, God has provided a Sabbath for your soul. Why not make Him your Shabbat Shalom (Sabbath Peace) today?
- Joseph H. Hertz, The Authorised Daily Prayer Book, rev. ed. (New York, NY: Bloch Publishing, 1948), 413.