The ordinances of God are sweeter than honey and more to be desired than gold, David writes in Psalm 19. One of the sweetest ordinances God gave is the fourth commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). From the creation of the world, God set the Sabbath apart as a day of rest from common work, a day to delight oneself in God. The Sabbath isn’t just a good idea or a chance to take a break: It is a clear command (Exodus 20:8-11). But it is also a gift, an invitation to rest and peace. Ceasing from the mundane and stressful to enter into rest and fellowship with the Creator is a golden opportunity.
Seventh-Day Sabbath Keeping
Christendom has a long tradition of keeping Sunday, the Lord’s Day, as a Sabbath. While it is important to honor this day—the day of Jesus’ resurrection—God designated the seventh day, Saturday, as the day of rest (Gen. 2:2). The Sabbath was to be observed from sunset Friday evening to sunset Saturday evening, as each day of creation started with the evening, then the morning (Gen. 1:5).
A Day of Rest
The primary function of the Sabbath is for rest for the people of God. God modeled this kind of rest on the seventh day in the week of creation (Exodus 31:17). We are to emulate Him, working for six days and resting for one (Exodus 23:12). The commandment tells us specifically that we are to “keep the day holy [set apart; sacred].”
The most obvious way to do that is by taking a day off from work, but the story of Nehemiah offers some further insight into what that means. When Nehemiah discovered that the people of Jerusalem were treating the Sabbath like any other day, buying and selling and doing their common work , he commanded that the gates of the city be shut for the entire day, and did not allow anyone to carry their burdens into the city (Neh. 13:15-22). As we keep the Sabbath, we, too, can “shut the gates” against common work and everyday concerns. We can set down our burdens at Jesus’ feet, choosing instead to focus on Him and on His day.
A Day to Commune with God
Once we have set down burdens and closed the gate, so to speak, we discover that this rest lends itself to being able to commune with God in a deeper way than in the hustle and bustle of the week. The Sabbath is referred to as “a sabbath to the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:10, Leviticus 23:3). It’s not just a day off: It’s a day for meeting with God and worshiping Him. God calls the Sabbath “My holy day” (Isaiah 58:13). It is a set-apart day, a sanctified day.
Under the Gospel, we know that our rest is in Christ, and it is for every day and all time. But there is something about the Sabbath specifically that makes this very real. The Sabbath is a time for connecting with God in a deeper way, and finding the richness of fellowship with Him.
God gives some specific promises to those who “call the Sabbath a delight” (Isaiah 58:13). He says that He will make those who honor the Sabbath to “ride on the heights of the earth,” and that He will “feed [them] with the heritage of Jacob” (Isaiah 58:14). He says that those who join with Him, loving His name, His Sabbath, and His covenant, He will “bring to [His] holy mountain,” and that He will “make them joyful in [His] house of prayer” (Isaiah 56:6-7).
One of the most precious aspects of the Sabbath is that it is a covenant—a sign—between God and His people (Exodus 31:16-17). God said, “Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you” (Exodus 31:13). As we keep the Sabbath, it reminds us weekly of who God is, and that we are His (Ezekiel 20:20). The Sabbath gives a set occasion on which to remember these things, and to thank God for who He is and all He has done for us. It is another opportunity to follow the injunction of David: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits” (Psalm 103:2).
Jesus and the Sabbath
Jesus kept the Sabbath while He was here on earth. He kept it holy, serving as an example for all of us who are His followers. But he also clarified something: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The day is intended for our benefit and blessing, not as a burden or a crippling constraint. Jesus set an example of helping others on the Sabbath. He healed, He taught, and He declared, “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:12).
Sabbath Keeping in the Future
Sabbath keeping is a part of God’s design for all time. God calls it a “covenant forever” (Exodus 31:16). When describing in Isaiah’s prophecy the day that He will return and create the new heavens and the new earth, He says, “From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me” (Isaiah 66:23). What a glorious time that will be, and what a wonderful opportunity we have now to enjoy a little foretaste of that time as we observe the Sabbath each week.