Jesus kept the Sabbath, so why shouldn’t we?

If I was an Old Covenant Jew like Jesus was, of course I’d be keeping the Sabbath like he did. I’d also be selecting or buying a Passover lamb every year, building a temporary shelter out of tree branches at the Feast of Tabernacles in the autumn each year, have blue cords hanging from the corners of my clothing according to Numbers 15:37-41, and be trying to obey every other Old Covenant ritual as perfectly as Jesus did. I’d also be attending a synagogue every Saturday, offering sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem three times a year, and celebrating Hanukkah – like Jesus did.

If we’re going to do what Jesus did, and keep what Jesus kept, then all those things would be required of us, just as they were required of him. But many Christians don’t do some (or all) of those things, their reason being that Jesus introduced a New Covenant that cancelled out all those rituals in favour of looking to him.

But surely the Sabbath wasn’t a “ritual,” right? It’s one of the ten commandments. But how did God want the Sabbath commandment obeyed? By obeying all the Sabbath rituals he attached to it, like not working, not lighting a fire, and not harvesting, etc. In reality, then, the Sabbath came down to rituals too.

Jesus then showed in Matthew 12 that those Sabbath rituals fell into the same category as the rituals God gave about the temple shewbread. Both sets of rituals were equally subject to human need, which in both cases – of the disciples snipping off grain on the Sabbath, and David and his men eating the temple shewbread – was hunger. According to the Lord and Designer of all the Old Covenant rituals, therefore, human need overruled ritual, including Sabbath ritual. Jesus also made that clear when he said the Sabbath “was made for man.” It was made to serve human need.

Taking that into account, then, what is our greatest human need today? Is it keeping all the Old Covenant Sabbath rituals as strictly as possible, like the Pharisees, or is it trusting Christ? Well, Jesus himself already answered that question in the previous chapter, Matthew 11, when he said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” He wanted people focused on him and trusting him as the solution to human need.

And that was the focus he encouraged the Pharisees in Matthew 12 to concentrate on too when he said, “I tell you that one greater than the temple is here.” All that temple ritual – and every other ritual too, therefore – had been superceded by Jesus himself.


Is the Sabbath done away?

No, the Sabbath is not done away, as Hebrews 4:9 makes clear: “There remains, therefore, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God.”

So what is this “Sabbath-rest” that’s still in operation today? It’s the same Sabbath-rest that God himself took on the 7th day of Creation, “for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his,” verse 10. And when did God rest from his work? Verse 4, “And on the seventh day God rested from all his work.” And why did he rest on the seventh day? Because, verse 3, “his work has been finished since the creation of the world.” So the Sabbath-rest that remains for us today is the same Sabbath-rest that God took on the 7th day of Creation when all his work was finished.

But why, if it’s supposed to be a rest, does it take “effort to enter that rest,” verse 11? Because it’s possible to fall short of it like Israel did, verse 1: “Therefore since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it.”

So how does one fall short of the Sabbath-rest? By lack of faith, verse 2, “because those who heard (the gospel) did not combine it with faith,” but verse 3, “we who have believed enter that rest.” The Sabbath-rest that remains today, therefore, is still entered by the same method – by faith. Without faith, God “declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest,'” verse 3.

The effort involved in entering the Sabbath-rest, therefore, is faith, but faith in what, though? Faith in Jesus Christ, verse 14: “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.” We enter God’s Sabbath-rest by doggedly hanging onto our trust in Christ.

And why do we trust Christ? Because “Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. And we are his house,” Hebrews 3:6, and we “come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first,” verse 14. We get to share in Christ’s faithfulness if we keep on trusting him to see us through, and that’s what Hebrews means by the Sabbath-rest: It’s all about trusting in the faithfulness of Christ, and always “approaching the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need,” Hebrews 4:16.

And that’s the Sabbath-rest that remains for the people of God today. It’s Jesus Christ – and he’s certainly not done away.

“Make every effort to enter God’s rest”

How can entering a rest involve effort? It seems like a contradiction in terms. Yet that’s what Hebrews 4:11 says, and verse 10 seems to support that contradiction too, “for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his.” So in verse 10 it says we don’t need to do any work to enter God’s rest, but in verse 11 it says we make every possible effort we can to enter God’s rest. Two complete opposites, it seems – and in adjacent verses. It’s a dilemma.

For some Christians the answer to the dilemma is simple: Verse 10 means we set apart a Sabbath Day to rest on every week, and verse 11 means we make absolutely sure we set it apart every week. “God rested from all his work” on the 7th day, Hebrews 4:4, therefore we’d better make every effort to rest on the seventh day too.

But verse 3 says, “Now we who have believed enter that rest,” meaning we enter God’s rest by faith, not by keeping a Sabbath Day holy every week. Belief, or trust, is the key to entering God’s rest, as we discover from Israel’s sad story in the wilderness in Hebrews 3:7-12. God showed the Israelites again and again that he would take care of all their needs, and all he asked of them in return was their trust, because when they trusted him they would enter his rest, the same rest he entered on the 7th day of creation. But the Israelites could never bring themselves to fully trust God, so they didn’t enter his 7th day rest (verse 19).

It’s now our turn to enter that rest. How? By the same means, by believing God has everything sorted out and he will take care of us: “We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first,” Hebrews 3:14, and Hebrews 4:14, “let us hold firmly to the faith we profess,” and verse 16, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence.”

But under trial it’s not so easy to believe God has everything sorted out, is it? The Israelites buckled in their “time of testing” (Hebrews 3:8), and they turned their hearts against him (verse 12). I can see, then, why the author of Hebrews told us to “hold firmly,” because under trial it requires considerable mental effort on our part to not get shaky and not give up on God. “Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest,” because trusting God – enough to keep on trusting him “to help us in our time of need” (4:16) – does take effort, real mental effort.

“There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God”

The “Sabbath-rest” of Hebrews 4:9 has been interpreted by Christians in two ways – either as a Sabbath Day to be kept holy every week, or as the future rest promised to Christians at Christ’s return. “There remains a Sabbath-rest,” then, is interpreted as either a Sabbath-rest remains in force today – OR a Sabbath-rest remains in waiting for the time Christ returns.

The Greek word “Sabbatismos” (for Sabbath-rest) in that verse handily takes both interpretations into account. It’s a cleverly coined word, not used anywhere else in the New Testament, that brilliantly lumps ALL meanings of the Sabbath in Scripture together – the Sabbath-rest that God began on the 7th day of creation, the Sabbath-rest God commanded Israel to keep, the Sabbath-rest Israel experienced in the land of Canaan under Joshua, the Sabbath-rest Israel could have entered permanently, the Sabbath-rest available to Christians today, and the Sabbath-rest awaiting all creation at Christ’s return that continues for eternity, all of which are included or implied in the context of Hebrews chapters 3 and 4 as well.

And the reason the author of Hebrews includes all Sabbath-rests in Hebrews 3 and 4 (and in the word “sabbatismos”) is because entering God’s Sabbath-rest – no matter which Sabbath-rest Scripture is talking about – is what the gospel is all about, and all Sabbath-rests are entered by faith. All Sabbath rests – past, present and future, Old or New Covenant – are entered by the same means, by trust in the living God for all our needs, and that’s what the author wants to get across in these verses.

He shows how Israel didn’t trust God because of their “sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God,” Hebrews 3:12, the result being, “they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief,” verse 19. Israel could have entered God’s rest, but they didn’t trust God in their time of testing in the desert (verse 8). But “we who have believed enter that rest,” Hebrews 4:3. It’s a simple formula: God’s great Sabbath-rest, that began on the 7th day of creation, can be entered by anybody at any time for simply trusting God in their time of need (or testing) rather than turning away from him.

The author’s conclusion is very simple: “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God,” meaning the Sabbath-rest is still our goal as Christians, and so is how we enter it, by trust, or as Hebrews 4:16 says, by knowing and believing we can “approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Any time we do that we enter God’s Sabbath-rest, and that remains true for everyone in any age.

“The Sabbath was made for man”

“The Sabbath was made for man” has meant two very different things to Christians. Some Christians believe it means there is still a required Sabbath Day to be set apart every week and kept holy, while for others it means there are no rigid rules and regulations as to what can or cannot be done on the Sabbath; the Sabbath was made “FOR” man, therefore Christians are free to choose what they do on the Sabbath. Both groups believe a Sabbath Day every week is important, but is either of their interpretations correct when reading what Jesus meant by “The Sabbath was made for man” IN CONTEXT?

The context of Mark 2:23-28 is an accusation by the Pharisees that Jesus’ disciples were doing something “unlawful on the Sabbath” by picking heads of grain. The Pharisees based their accusation on the Sabbath laws given to Israel, that no Israelite should work on the Sabbath, and to them plucking corn was work. Jesus pointed out, however, that David and his companions also did something unlawful by eating the consecrated bread in the temple, but human need superceded the law, which Jesus then applied to his disciples picking grain on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and just like David and his men who were hungry, human hunger came first. It wasn’t “unlawful,” therefore, to meet human need on the Sabbath.

The Pharisees disagreed with that. They believed that man was made for the Sabbath, meaning a man had to obey the Sabbath rules given to Israel no matter what his need was. Jesus replies that the Sabbath was made for man, by which he meant, in context, that the Sabbath regulations given to Israel were always overruled by human need.

And having corrected the Pharisees on their interpretation of the Sabbath regulations given to Israel, Jesus then says to them, “So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” The context is still what is lawful and unlawful on the Sabbath, and who decides. Jesus says it’s the Son of Man who decides, referring indirectly, of course, to himself. The Son of Man is the ultimate authority on matters of the Sabbath, because the Son of Man is “Lord even of the Sabbath” too. It’s a very strong statement by Jesus to the Pharisees that he is the rightful authority on these matters, not them.

Jesus used the Pharisees’ accusation to not only stamp his authority as the Son of Man and Lord of the Sabbath, but also to stamp his authority on the correct interpretation of Scripture. And as usual the Pharisees didn’t accept his authority. Instead, they plotted to have him killed (chapter 3:6).


The Jewish Sabbath versus the Lord’s Day

In Exodus 31:12-13 God said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a SIGN between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy.’” And in verse 16, “The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant,” and verse 17, “It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he abstained from work and rested.”

The Sabbath was a sign to the Israelites every Saturday from their Creator that HE was making them holy. This was what resting on the Sabbath every week told them, that there was nothing they need do but simply trust God to provide. He’d done it already with the manna, and now he’d do it again with their holiness. That’s why the 7th day Sabbath is so important to Jews, because it’s the sign of THEIR covenant with God that he will provide for them and save them, both physically and spiritually.

But that’s NOT the sign for Christians because, Ephesians 2:12, “as Gentiles by birth” we are ”excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of promise.” The covenants and promises given to Israel were never meant for us, so they aren’t the sign that Christians look to for THEIR salvation. “BUT NOW IN CHRIST JESUS,” verse 13, “you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.” It’s “IN HIM,” Ephesians 1:7, “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins.” The Jews, however, stumble over Jesus Christ, so their lifeline to God in the meantime is still the Sabbath Day – “UNTIL,” Romans 11:25, “the full number of the Gentiles has come in.”

For a while Christians also kept the Sabbath Day on Saturday, but then began celebrating “the Lord’s Day” on Sunday as well when it dawned on them how important Jesus’ resurrection was. When Jesus rose from the dead it was the dawn of a new day, a new creation, that would fill the whole world. The Lord’s Day, therefore, became a signpost pointing ahead to the time when heaven and earth would come together as one, at last. It was an encouraging reminder when times got tough that Jesus’ resurrection guaranteed the new creation was on its way, and one day it would be fulfilled completely.

The Lord’s Day was never a required sign like the Sabbath was for the Israelites. It was a useful signpost, though, that the new creation had begun.

Should Christians be offending Jews?

By calling Sunday (or Saturday) a Sabbath Day, Christians are offending Jews. Is that important? Yes, because God calls us Gentiles to show his beloved Jews that entering God’s eternal rest is based purely on faith in Jesus Christ making us holy, not a day (or any other work we do) making us holy.

But what do we Christians do instead? We make Sunday a Sabbath Day and make it seem holy and even necessary for salvation. But that’s no help to the Jews because we’re only reinforcing the idea in Jewish heads that a day of the week is still important – when it’s not. The only “day” of importance to all humanity in all of Scripture is the 7th day of creation, God’s eternal rest, and the only way we enter that rest is by faith in Jesus Christ who made that eternal rest possible in the first place.

That’s the message Jews need to hear because they failed to enter God’s eternal rest due to their LACK of faith (Hebrews 4:1-3). They never believed as a nation that God would totally take care for them, provide for them, and make them holy (Exodus 31:12-13). That’s why he had them keep a Sabbath day in the first place, to prove to them that he would provide for all their physical and spiritual needs, which he always did when they trusted him, but they could never keep on trusting him (Hebrews 3), and that was their problem.

So, Romans 11:11, “salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious.” God is now using Gentiles to reach his beloved Israel. How? By us Gentiles “pursuing righteousness by faith” (Romans 9:30). We aren’t depending on any works of our own to make ourselves holy and righteous in God’s sight; we trust entirely in the “the righteousness that comes from God” (Romans 10:3). And that’s what the Jews need to see us Gentiles doing, because that’s how they, and we, enter God’s eternal rest. It’s not by making ourselves holy (by keeping one day in the week holy), it’s by trusting Christ to make us holy every day.

Paul’s great desire in his ministry was to “somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them” (Romans 11:13-14). He knew it was God’s desire that “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26), because God loves them (verse 27) and he hasn’t rejected them (verses 1, 11). It was never Paul’s desire, therefore, to offend the Jews, and neither should it be our desire either, because God called us Gentiles to be the best help possible to his beloved Jews – not by keeping a day to make us holy, but by trusting Christ to make us holy.