When most people think of Sabbath-keeping, their minds run to rules. They picture a list of activities to avoid.
This hardly does the Sabbath justice. The Sabbath was a key ingredient in God’s covenant, and keeping the Sabbath proclaimed wonderful news about God’s grace to his people.
The Sabbath as a Sign
God’s Sabbath command is rooted in creation and made plain on Mount Sinai, but the first extended discussion of the Sabbath is in Exodus 31.
After God gives his blueprints for the tabernacle, he tells Moses what to command Israel about the Sabbath (Ex 31:12–17). God doesn’t owe his people a reason for his laws, but that’s what we find here.
We learn that the Sabbath is a sign. Exodus 31 says the Sabbath is a sign in two ways, both of which are profound statements about the Lord.
First, the Sabbath points to God’s sanctifying work.
You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, `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. (Ex. 31:13)
When the people keep the Sabbath, they are to remember God’s work to sanctify them. God alone is the one who sets apart, who makes holy, who calls the people his own.
The Sabbath also points to God’s work and rest during that first creation week.
It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed. (Ex. 31:17)
In what way was God refreshed on the seventh day? Was he tired? Was he feeling spent and overworked?
Of course not. God’s refreshment came from completion. He finished his work, rested, and was refreshed. (See Gen. 2:2.) There’s a special refreshment that comes after completing a project.
The Sabbath is Holy
The discussion in Exodus 31 makes one thing clear: the Sabbath speaks about God. The command is deadly serious because it involves the way the people understand and remember what God has done.
In particular, Israel must keep the Sabbath because it is holy. They do not make it holy by their observance; rather, they observe because the day is holy. God has make the day holy.
The Sabbath is a sign pointing to God’s work, not what the people need to do. In the same way, the Lord’s Day points to the finished work of God.
From the cross Jesus announced that his work was finished (John 19:30). His body rested in the grave on the Sabbath but burst forth on Sunday morning. Jesus’s resurrection was a verification, a jubilant trumpet call announcing the finished work of God to set apart people for himself.
The Refreshment of the Lord’s Day
Without getting into the thornier issues of modern Sabbath observance, there are a few things we can say with confidence.
The Lord’s Day points to God. While the fourth commandment certainly has implications for our behavior, the ground of the command is God’s work. We celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and his atoning work for us by worshipping on the first day of the week. This very act of corporate worship points to God’s sanctifying work—setting aside his people and making us holy.
The work is finished. We rest because God rested. The day is holy because God made it holy. We rejoice because of the resurrection.
The command is not a burden. The command was obeyed and fulfilled perfectly by Jesus. As God’s children, we now have power to obey from the Spirit. The command to observe the Sabbath is not a burden, it is for our refreshment.
So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. (Heb 4:9–10)