“Is there only one reason for wise living? No! Quite the reverse! The One Wise Life is founded on a multitude of rationales.”

Trauts Rebmik


            As we’ve been working our way backwards through the Ten Commandments – for the benefit of a secular world – we’ve come to understand them as protective ‘stop signs’ and wise ‘safety barriers’ for Humanity. But we’ve already realized that as we get closer to the opening commands they’re inevitably going to get us looking upwards towards God. 

            Because, of course, whether our world chooses to believe in Him or not makes no difference to the fact that He exists, created all things, and is the centre of the life and purpose of human beings. Arriving at the fourth Commandment we find God fully in the picture.


            But as well as being the longest, there’s something else unusual about this Commandment. We’ve been looking at the Commandments from the Book of Deuteronomy, when Moses is summing up all that’s gone before, as God’s people prepare to enter the Promised Land. But they were first given in the Book of Exodus just after the people left Egypt 40 years earlier – and this Commandment differs slightly in the two versions. The Commandment itself is almost identical, but the reason given for it is different…

 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.    For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. 
(Exodus 20.8-11)
“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigners residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” 
(Deuteronomy 5.12-15)


            Incredibly, after six days creating the universe for human beings to live in, God quite literally has nothing better to do than to rest. Why? Was He tired? No. He wanted to enjoy His creation and spend time with Adam and Eve of course! Why else did He go to all that trouble? The Sabbath isn’t a holy day only for us, but also for God – a day to spend with His children. 

“By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” (Genesis 2.2)

This Commandment has roots in the very first days of the created order. Before the disastrous choice made by Adam and Eve, before the break in their relationship with God and each other, at the time when God enjoyed nothing better than to walk in the garden with his children in the cool of the day (Genesis 3.1-9). And when God gives His Commandments, after the Fall of Mankind, in the middle of the broken world where evil persists, and as part of His ongoing plan of salvation to bless all nations through Abraham, God commands a place to stop working and to spend time with Him. 

This is still His longing. And it’s still not a restrictive command about what you can and can’t do on one particular day of the week. It’s a creative command about how you can spend time getting to know your Creator and growing into what He created you to be – a child of God! If Adam and Eve had never made that fatal wrong choice, then perhaps walking with God in the garden would have been the Kingdom of God on earth. In a world separated from God we can only catch a glimpse and have a small taste of the Kingdom by taking advantage of the opportunity that God offers us in the Sabbath.

But before we look at what the Sabbath commandment might mean for a secular world, we should remind ourselves that what we’ve called ‘the Sabbath principle’ is an essential part of both the Old and New Testaments. 


Just as when we looked at the commandment about adultery we found that ‘Marriage’ is a golden thread running through the whole Bible, so we also found that ‘Sabbath’ underlies the commandment about stealing – and it also runs through the whole Bible. And now we’re going to find that it underlies something even deeper.

The Sabbath Day of rest for all (every week), the Sabbath Year of rest for the land and for forgiving debts (every seven years), and the Year of Jubilee when all land returned to its original owners (after seven Sabbath Years), is an incredible principle of justice, fairness, and restriction on wealth. A remarkable socio-economic system that has probably never been tried! (Read again Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15.1-18)

The Sabbath Day itself is a constant punctuation mark in the daily life of God’s people from the middle of the Book of Exodus to the end of the Book of Nehemiah, the last history book in the Old Testament. A sabbath day is first mentioned when the Israelites began gathering the manna God sent them to keep them alive during their wilderness wanderings…

“Each morning everyone gathered as much as they needed, and when the sun grew hot it melted away. On the sixth day they gathered twice as much… and Moses said to them: ‘This is what the Lord commanded: ’Tomorrow is to be a day of Sabbath rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord… you will not find (manna) on the ground… six days you are to gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will not be any.” (Exodus 16.21-26) 

            Having time for God was so important that He arranged for them not to even have to think about gathering food on the day He was going to set aside for them! 

            And historically the last mention of the Sabbath in the Old Testament is the occasion at the end of the Book of Nehemiah when Nehemiah had to bring reforms into the life of the people, long after they had returned from Exile, because they were, yet again, failing to live in obedience to God’s Law. And it was the Sabbath that was central…

“In those days I saw people in Judah treading winepresses on the Sabbath and bringing in grain and loading it on donkeys… And they were bringing all this into Jerusalem on the Sabbath… When evening shadows fell on the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I ordered the doors to be shut and not opened until the Sabbath was over. I stationed some of my own men at the gates so that no load could be brought in on the Sabbath day… From that time on (the merchants) no longer came on the Sabbath. Then I commanded the Levites to purify themselves and go and guard the gates in order to keep the Sabbath day holy. Remember me for this also, my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love.” (Nehemiah 13.15-22)


So why is keeping the Sabbath such an obsession in the Old Testament? 

Christians often find it odd and a bit difficult to explain why keeping the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments. The others are more obviously about moral and godly behaviour, but isn’t Sabbath-keeping just legalistic? Anyway, our holy day is Sunday not Saturday. Surely we don’t have to keep Old Testament rules about what we do on Sunday? 

But this difficulty of ours only shows how badly we misunderstand the Sabbath. 

From Moses to Nehemiah, everyone in the Old Testament who had truly met God and walked with Him knew how essential it was that they make time to meet God and walk with Him! They completely ‘got it’ that as sinners in a fallen world separated from God, we easily forget Him and ignore Him – and so we need to clear a space and make room for Him.


Similarly, God completely ‘got it’ that He needed to make special provision to show His people that despite their sin and separation, He had created them to know Him, worship Him and be with Him. That provision was first a Tent in the desert and then a Temple in Jerusalem so that He could ‘live with them and be worshipped.’ And also, built into their weekly routine, He carved some Time out of their working lives so that He and they could be together. It’s always been God’s longing to be with His people – to ‘walk with us in the garden’ (Genesis 3.8) – and for us all to enjoy being Father and children together. Sabbath isn’t a time to stop doing things, it’s a time to start living with the Lord in the kingdom He is surely bringing about.

But as well as being mentioned more than a hundred times in the Old Testament, the Sabbath commandment is also spoken of some 60 times in the New. This is largely because it was a constant source of contention between Jesus and the religious leaders who opposed Him. Jesus often did things on the Sabbath Day that the Pharisees and teachers of the Law regarded as ‘work’ – and so they attacked Him for breaking the commandment. 

All of the first three Gospels tell us about a series of incidents that illustrate the problem perfectly – as well as showing us what Jesus made of the Sabbath commandment…

“One Sabbath Jesus was going through the cornfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some ears of corn. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?’ He answered, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for the priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.’ (see 1 Samuel 21.1-6) Then he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.’” (Mark 2.23-28)


            Jesus makes quite clear here what we’ve already discovered from looking at the Ten Commandments. God’s laws were never about rule keeping. But this was the Pharisees first mistake: they thought it was.

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” God didn’t make human beings because He likes rules and wants someone to keep them! His laws were made for the benefit of human beings because He loves them and wants them to know Him. 

“The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” The Sabbath law in particular isn’t about restricting what work you can do, but about meeting with the Lord of the Sabbath – meeting with God Himself. And so Jesus was saying to those Pharisees: ‘Today, on this Sabbath, you are meeting the Lord of the Sabbath Himself. That’s what the Sabbath is for – not for rule-keeping!’

And incidentally, if that wasn’t a claim to be God, I don’t know what is!

But these very religious Pharisees had deeply misunderstood what the Law and what the Sabbath were about. They even wanted to use it to catch Jesus out and accuse Him – entirely for reasons of their own. And this really made Jesus angry…

“Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shrivelled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shrivelled hand, ‘Stand up in front of everyone.’ Then Jesus asked them, ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” (Mark 3.1-6)


With absolutely no concern for the man suffering with a shrivelled hand, the Pharisees were looking for an opportunity to use a healing as a weapon to attack Jesus. If He did this ‘work’ on the Sabbath, they’d got Him! And this was their second and most damning mistake.

They had so lost sight of the purpose of the Law and had so lost sight of God, that they didn’t even recognize God Himself doing the work of His kingdom – and on the very day He had set aside for experiencing Him and knowing Him. And they started planning to kill Him for it – on the Sabbath! Throughout all four of the Gospels Jesus has this running battle with the religious leaders over the observance and the meaning of Sabbath keeping. This is surely a message, in itself, that truly knowing and experiencing God had been lost, even amongst the leaders of the people of God –and so Jesus had come to make Him known in flesh and blood.

The commandment as we find it in Deuteronomy makes the second reason for the Sabbath Day crystal clear…

 “On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigners residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5.14b-15)


The Sabbath is very definitely a day for spending time with God, but Deuteronomy emphasizes that it is also a day of rest from work. And it is to be rest from work for everybody. Men, women, young, old, slaves, foreigners – even animals – are all to be given rest on the Sabbath Day. This makes it very much part of ‘the sabbath principle’ of justice and fairness for all. And what better time to take rest than when everyone should also be enjoying time with God? It wouldn’t be at all surprising to find that this is the earliest expression in law of the equal value of every human being. Indeed the whole concept of human rights and equality springs from this kind of thinking. 

So taken together, the two versions of the Sabbath commandment tell us that all human beings need rest, and all human beings need the opportunity to get to know the God who created them – but who seems strangely distant.  So this protective and creative law carves out one day a week, 14% of our time, for exactly that. And a detailed reading of the Old Testament regarding ‘sabbath rests’ associated with the annual worship festivals takes that ‘ring-fenced’ time to nearer 20% of our lives!

In a secular world, this law also is a blessing from God.

Finally, there is one more mention of Sabbath in the New Testament that we must look at before we finish, because it casts the full brilliance of the Christian Gospel on the ‘sabbath principle.’ 

            It’s in the Letter to the Hebrews that Sabbath is mentioned for the last time in the New Testament, and it’s a fitting climax to the golden thread of Sabbath that runs through the whole Bible. 

In the first three chapters of his letter, the author of Hebrews demonstrates from Scripture that Jesus is superior to the angels and to Moses, and that He came to make God known to us in fully human form.  Then at the end of chapter 3, he draws a parallel between the generation of God’s people who refused to live obediently with God and died during their wilderness wanderings without entering the Promised Land, and the people of the ‘Jesus generation’ who can finally enter into the rest that they forfeited…

“Therefore, since the promise of entering God’s rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. For we have had the good news proclaimed to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because they did not share the faith of those who obeyed. Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God said, ‘So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They will never enter my rest.’’

“And yet his works have been finished since the creation of the world. For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: ‘On the seventh day God rested from all his works.’ And again in the passage above he says, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’

“Therefore since it still remains for some to enter that rest… God again set a certain day, calling it ‘Today’. This he did when a long time later he spoke through David, saying, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.’

“…There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following the example of the disobedient.” (Hebrews 3.1-11)


The Sabbath commandment clears a space where people can start to get to know God and start to live with Him if they choose. Christians enter this space of knowing God when they repent, believe, and start a relationship with Jesus. Sabbath living now means living with Jesus, and in Jesus, all the time – and so all the more should we be making time to be with Him, His word and His people. 

It still takes effort, of course, because we continue to live in a busy, driven, broken and self-centred world, and we ourselves continue to be busy, driven, broken and self-centred people. But Jesus is ‘Emmanuel – God with us.’ In Him we can taste, live and experience the kingdom of God before it has fully come. And so embracing the Sabbath commandment, in the way that Jesus understood it and lived it, is an absolute ‘no brainer’ for Christians! 

Despite regularly annoying religious leaders by ‘working’ on the Sabbath, we find in the Gospels that even Jesus Himself had a regular practice of going to the synagogue on the Sabbath and to the Temple when He was in Jerusalem; He had a regular practice of going alone to a quiet place to pray; and in many places He explicitly taught His disciples how to pray and how to relate to their heavenly Father. 

The first ‘calling’ of the first disciples of Jesus was to be with Him, follow Him and spend time with Him together; from the very start of the Book of Acts the followers of Jesus made it their practice to “devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” – and because of the attractiveness of this lifestyle of spending time with God, “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

Throughout the Book of Acts, the followers of Jesus, including Paul, went regularly to the synagogue and the Temple – and evidence of time spent in prayer can be found in all Paul’s letters. 

None of this was legalism, and it wasn’t just part of the busyness of pursuing the Great Commission. It was carving out time to spend with God, to rest with God, and to enjoy the relationship with God that is the whole purpose of the Gospel – on the Sabbath, on other days, and as part of a whole lifestyle of living with the Lord in a world that didn’t yet have the joy and privilege of knowing Him.  What’s not to like about Sabbath rest! Even sociologists of religion say that ‘religious observance’ leads to greater sense of well-being.

            Only when we get to the Book of Revelation and its vision of where we’re all going, is there no need for Tent, Temple, Time or Sabbath…

“Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth’… ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God… I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple… The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face… they will no longer need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will be their light. And they will reign for ever and ever.” (Revelation 21.1-3 and 22; 22.3-5)

Until then, perhaps the link between living in God’s presence now, and living with Him in heaven is provided by this glorious ending to the Letter of Jude – the last of the New Testament’s letters to churches…

“To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and for evermore. Amen!” (Jude verses 24-25)

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