Lord of the Sabbath

WE AUSSIES LOVE taking it easy, don’t we? A good number of us spend the working week counting down the days to that blissful moment when the burden of our work finally lifts off our shoulders. We exchange the customary ‘Have a good weekend’ with our co-workers, stride cheerily toward the door, and make a dash for freedom. All being well, the next day or two will provide a chance to relax, breathe deeply, reflect a little, and enjoy a break from the ever-present need to produce—a need that might otherwise define our existence.1

God’s holy day of rest

It is little wonder that we feel a recurring desire to lay down our tools and escape the stress and routine of our work. Genesis, the first book of the Bible, tells us that after God had completed His six-day work of creating, He spent the seventh day at rest. It is a pattern that He instilled into humanity (Genesis 1:26-27): we too need a regular rest from our work.

We are told in Scripture that after resting from His work, God was refreshed (Exodus 31:17). One suspects, however, that His day of rest was more than merely an opportunity to ‘put His feet up.’ After resting from all His work, He blessed the seventh day and made it holy’ (Genesis 2:2-3)—He adorned it with special honour and set it apart for His own exclusive use. The seventh day, it would seem, was exceedingly precious to God; it was something for which He was reserving an exalted place and purpose.

Rebellion and restlessness

Further on in Genesis, we read about the shocking decision of human beings to rebel against their Creator. Adam, our human representative, had been commanded by God not to define good and evil for himself (Genesis 2:17), but he seized this ‘right’ anyway (Genesis 3:6) and plunged into sin. It was a fateful choice that is echoed in all of us. We were created to obey God and so be filled with His peace, but instead we waged war with Him by going our own way. As a natural consequence, the human heart entered into a state of restlessness: the restlessness that came from knowing that we weren’t what we wanted to be. We wanted to be ‘like God, knowing good and evil’ (Genesis 3:5), but we were fallen beings: unclean in God’s sight, ineligible for His holy presence, and fated for judgement.

The land of rest

God’s response to this appalling calamity will stand forever as a testament to His love. He launched an epic mission to save us from our uncleanness and reunite us eternally to Himself. His chosen channel of blessing to the world was a particular nation: Israel. As a symbol of what He wanted to do for all humanity, He sent Moses (who prefigures Jesus) to rescue the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (a metaphor for our slavery to sin) and lead them into the ‘Promised Land’—a rich, fruitful utopia where He would bless them, make them holy, and give them rest.

A day of sabbath rest

Along the way, God began training the Israelites in obedience so they could truly be His holy people. One of their most important lessons in this journey was the principle of the Sabbath. On five consecutive days, God provided them with bread that was good to eat for only one day. On day six, He provided them with twice the usual amount and told them it would be good to eat for two days. The seventh day, He said, would be ‘a day of Sabbath rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD’ (Exodus 16:23). They were to rest (shabath) on the seventh day from their usual work of gathering food.

Two weeks later, God appeared to the Israelites at Mount Sinai.2 There, through Moses, He proclaimed to them the laws that would define them as His people. When they heard the words of the Fourth Commandment, they might have had a touch of déjà vu:

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)

God wasn’t inviting the Israelites to observe the Sabbath; He was giving them a commandment.3 Yet He didn’t intend the Sabbath to be a chore or a bore; it was a gift. If His people took a weekly rest from all their work, they would be happier, healthier, more balanced, more resilient, more unified (since they were resting together), and more productive when they returned to their work. They, like us, weren’t made to exert themselves without end; God had embedded the need for a regular sabbath rest into their physical, emotional and spiritual DNA. If they ignored that need, they would be fighting against their own nature as human beings made in God’s image.

The Sabbath in God’s law

But God didn’t institute the Sabbath just to ensure that His people would be well-rested; the seventh day was a Sabbath ‘to the LORD.’ He was bestowing on them something about which He felt a particular ownership: ‘You must observe My Sabbaths’ (Exodus 31:13; Leviticus 19:3; see also Leviticus 19:30; 26:2). He felt avidly that they should remember Him on that day; they were to honour Him by receiving His gift gladly and treating it well. It would be vital for them to do so, given their fallen human tendency to think primarily of themselves. With the LORD entrenched in their minds as the Giver of everything they had and the One in whom they lived, they would be less inclined to think and act self-sufficiently. An attitude of humility, thanksgiving and trust would be nurtured in their hearts, leading to a deeper relationship with Him and a sharper sense of their true dependence on Him.

By remembering God in this way, the Israelites would also be remembering that they were His people. They weren’t self-made; their identity and purpose were drawn entirely from their shared union with God—a union that He had initiated. If they observed the day that He had blessed and made holy, they would know that they had been blessed and made holy (Exodus 31:13,16-17; Ezekiel 20:12,20). It was a truth to which the law required them to testify every Sabbath by setting before Him twelve loaves of bread (Leviticus 24:8)—a memorial to the twelve tribes of Israel, who were ever before the LORD their God.

God’s law was full to overflowing with references to the Sabbath. It featured more than a few impassioned declarations of the Sabbath commandment,4 and linked the Sabbath day to some important annual festivals.5 It gave expression to the Sabbath principle in implicit ways too: all Hebrew slaves were to be freed in the seventh year of their service (Exodus 21:2; Deuteronomy 15:12), and the land was to be rested (allowed to lie unplanted) for the whole of every seventh year (Leviticus 26:34-35,43).

The LORD’s Sabbaths ignored

So, did the Israelites observe the Sabbaths of the LORD their God? Did they obey His commandments? Largely, no. The Israelites whom God had saved from Egyptian slavery grumbled against Him repeatedly and refused to enter the Promised Land. Their offspring went in, but most ensuing generations showed contempt for God. They worshipped idols, sacrificed their children to false gods, engaged in debauchery, shed innocent blood, perverted justice, pursued dishonest gain, and exploited the poor. They certainly ignored the LORD’s cherished Sabbaths.

Jesus and the Sabbath

What, then, did God do in response? He sent His one and only Son, Jesus Christ, to fulfil Israel’s calling and show the world what obedience looks like. But here’s something remarkable: Jesus worked on the Sabbath. He taught about God’s kingdom and healed the sick whenever the need arose, irrespective of the day of the week. It’s not as if He never rested; He needed regular time out from His work and ‘time in’ with God just like we do. But He didn’t customarily stop work on the Sabbath; He often spent God’s holy day of rest attending to His Father’s business. Some nit-picking religious professionals had themselves a scandal: the man who claimed to be the Son of God was flouting God’s law.

Far from denying that it was His practice to work on the Sabbath, Jesus mounted a spirited defence of His actions. He cited instances from the Old Testament when Sabbath laws were broken with impunity (Matthew 12:3-5). He exposed His accusers’ hypocrisy: they would help an animal on the Sabbath, but deny healing to a child of God on the same day (Matthew 12:11-12; Luke 13:15-16; 14:5). It is lawful, He insisted, to do good on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:12; Mark 3:4; Luke 6:9). ‘My Father is always at His work to this very day, and I too am working’ (John 5:18).

Lord of the Sabbath

Jesus boldly proclaimed Himself to be ‘Lord of the Sabbath’ (Matthew 12:8): He had divine authority over the seventh day. His words and deeds testified that the commandment to not do any work on the Sabbath had never been mandatory for anyone who was obedient to God in spirit. ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:27).

Does this mean we are to forget about the Sabbath altogether? Is God no longer passionate that His people come away from their work on a regular basis and remember Him? Surely He is. Then what universal truth does the Old Testament Sabbath regulation teach?

God once said of the Israelites who had continually rebelled against Him and refused to know His ways, ‘They shall never enter My rest’ (Psalm 95:11, quoted by a New Testament author in Hebrews 3:11; 4:3,5). He was hinting at something really significant about Himself: His rest is much more profound than a weekly religious observance; it is an enduring reality that can be entered and lived in, much like a home. We don’t enter our home only one day per week; we inhabit it continually. It is the place where we are most at rest because within it we are safe, secure, among loved ones, and free to be vulnerable. Our home is life-giving: within it we revitalise so that we can engage in our work with vigour. In the same way, God wants to be our home; He wants us to be in Him and to find and know His rest. God’s rest isn’t just one-day-per-week; it always endures because He always endures; He rested on the seventh day as a sign of who He is eternally.6 He is the everlasting Safe Haven in whom exists no fear, no insecurity, no anxious striving—only perfect rest.

Rest for our souls

Are you working hard to get Somewhere or become Somebody so that others will accept you? Are you being oppressed by workaholism, perfectionism, greed, selfish ambition, or a need to over-achieve? Are you stuck in the rat race, always slogging on the treadmill but never making progress? Perhaps you are overlooking the need to enter God’s rest due to busyness, laziness, or (ironically) tiredness. If your load is too heavy or you are being driven by restlessness, listen to these words from Jesus:

Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

Jesus, ‘Lord of the Sabbath,’ has God’s rest—God’s holy, eternal Sabbath—within Himself to give, and He wants to give it to you. So, allow Him to lift from your shoulders the hard yoke that is oppressing you; it is a load that you simply weren’t created to carry. Accept Christ’s easy yoke, learn from Him, and allow Him to welcome you into His eternal sabbath rest.

Stop and remember

Will practising some kind of Sabbath assist you to do this? You certainly don’t have to practise a Sabbath in the formal sense, but you are free to do so if you want—on any day of the week. No matter what you do, know that the Creator of the universe has given you a regular, guilt-free break from all your work. And know that God’s gift of His eternal, blessed, holy rest—both now and forever—is intended for you.

Let’s remember our God often and give heartfelt thanks to Him for caring so passionately that we enter His rest—His gracious gift to us through Jesus Christ.

Greg Denholm


  1. Not everyone, of course, has a five-day working week. Some people work part-time, others do shift work, and still others work whenever there is work to do. But it is nonetheless true that most of us enjoy taking a regular break from our work.
  2. Later, when the covenant was confirmed, God alluded to the significance of the seventh day: He covered Mount Sinai with the cloud of His glory for six days, then on the seventh day, called to Moses from within the cloud (Exodus 24:16).
  3. Anyone who did any work on the Sabbath was to be put to death (Exodus 31:14-15; see also Exodus 35:2). This penalty was later applied when an Israelite man was found collecting wood on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36).
  4. In addition to Exodus 20:8-11 (cited earlier), there was Exodus 23:12; 31:13-17; 34:21; 35:2-3; Leviticus 23:3; Deuteronomy 5:12-15.
  5. The Festival of Unleavened Bread (Leviticus 23:8; Deuteronomy 16:8), the Festival of Trumpets (Leviticus 23:24-25), the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29,31; 23:28-32), and the Festival of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:35-36,39) were all associated in some way with the Sabbath.
  6. In Jewish thought, seven is the number of divine completion and perfection. This probably explains why it features so prominently in God’s law.