Two articles back, I mentioned Scripture Lady, the mysterious woman who offers Bible readings to hikers on a nearby trail. When I last met her, she revealed herself to be a Sabbatarian (someone who believes we’re still bound to keep the Sabbath). You might also know some Sabbatarians; the best-known group are the Seventh Day Adventists, who worship on Saturdays and believe other Christians are in error for worshiping on the first day of the week, rather than the last.
It might surprise you to learn how little the Sabbath is mentioned in the New Testament. Of course, breaking the Sabbath is a hot topic in the Gospels, where the Pharisees continually try to catch Jesus breaking it. (His disciples picked grain as they passed through a wheat field on a Sabbath day, and Jesus performed miracles seven days a week.) In Acts, we see Paul entering synagogues and preaching on the Sabbath, trying to share the gospel with the Jews. But the earliest Christians met on the first day of the week, not the Sabbath (Acts 20:7; I Cor. 16:2), which John referred to as “the Lord’s day”(Rev.1:10), the day Jesus rose from the dead.
The only other New Testament references to the Sabbath are found in Hebrews 4 and Colossians 2, and neither bind Sabbath-keeping on believers. Let’s look at Hebrews first.
For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains, then, a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience. (Heb.4:8-11)
Scripture Lady, along with other Sabbatarians, takes this passage as a proof-text for observing the Sabbath today. In context, that’s not what the writer means at all. His reference points to our future rest. Like many Old Testament figures and events, the Sabbath was merely a shadow of far greater spiritual realities. That’s what Paul points out in Colossians:
Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration, or a Sabbath day. These are only a shadow of the good things that are to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (Col.2:16-17)
The New Testament is rich with Old Testament shadows made clear, and discovering them makes the Bible come alive in fresh ways. Moses was a ‘type’ of Christ; Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac and the last-minute ram foreshadowed the Cross, as did the Passover lamb; crossing the Red Sea represented our baptism into Christ; the tabernacle was a shadow of what exists in heaven. The Hebrew writer explores many shadows and realities at length, as we’ll discover on our hike, enhancing our understanding of both Testaments.
In this chapter, the reality behind the Sabbath points to heaven, our true and final rest. God’s work—the work of Creation—was finished on the sixth day, the day he made Adam and Eve, his ultimate project. It’s amazing that sustaining the entire universe, watching over the affairs of a troubled world, and knowing the inner thoughts and the exact number of hairs on each of our seven billion heads isn’t ‘work’ for God; it requires no effort. How mighty is our Maker!
Genesis notes what Hebrews repeats:
By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day God rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on the seventh day he rested from all his work. (Gen.2:2-3; see Heb.4:3-4)
Although it eventually became a point of contention among the Jews, the Sabbath was enjoined as a gift: for a full day each week, everyone among God’s people was granted rest. This included servants, animals, and any foreigner living in their midst. It was a day to remember their Creator, to refrain from chasing money and focusing on the secular. Of course, over time the Pharisees would devise hundreds of rules to define what constituted rest or labor. “A Sabbath’s day’s walk” was not a God-given distance, but an arbitrary, manmade ordinance.
However you feel about stores and services operating on Sundays—I remember the days when nearly everything was closed on Sundays and other holidays—the principle of devoting a day to rest and enjoy God’s blessings is a sound one. God hasn’t bound absolute rest on us, but there’s a clear biblical example of meeting on the first day of the week to share in the Lord’s supper, be exhorted by the Word, and engage with other believers in praise and worship. We know many slaves or servants were part of the early church, and it’s unlikely any of them were exempt from working an entire day, unless their masters were fellow believers (or Jews who gave them a Sabbath break). So it’s hard to make a case for complete restraint from any sort of work on Sundays; the teaching simply isn’t there.
The Sabbath rest we’re discussing in Hebrews is heaven: our ultimate rest. And it won’t be boring, like a rainy Sunday afternoon with nothing to do. Unlike an endless tropical vacation, ‘resting’ with God in heaven will be anything BUT a static, passive experience. We’ll be partaking in God’s nature and being, participating in whatever an eternal, omniscient, all-powerful, all-loving, infinite Creator is and does. We can’t come close to imagining our union with God; like an unsprouted seed, our puny human experience is merely a brown, wrinkly shadow of the radiant life awaiting us.
No earthly vacation or paradise can come close to what heaven will be. It’s why God made EVERYTHING.
I’ll close with Paul’s words to the Romans, as apt a commentary on our subject as any:
One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself alone, and none of us dies to himself alone. (Rom. 14:5-7)
We’re given great freedom in Christ to determine how we’ll eat, drink, rest, and play, but we must base our choices on scripture and be fully convinced in our own minds. And we’re not to judge others for thinking differently (further in Romans 14).
I’m writing this on a lovely Sunday morning. No, I haven’t skipped church this week: our congregation meets on Sunday evenings, a time I rarely miss. Scripture Lady might consider this writing ‘work’— a violation of Sunday rest. Not me…. I consider it pure joy!