The Sabbath exists to make much not of the Sabbath but of Christ. As Christians, this is the critical center to every thought and discussion concerning the Sabbath.
Confusion over the Sabbath is nothing new. Dogmatic misunderstanding and misapplication of the Sabbath characterized Israel in the days of Christ’s earthly ministry. It plagued the early church. It dominated the medieval church. It persisted even through the Protestant Reformation. Confusion over the Sabbath divides people still.
Let us not approach the subject lightly. So great was the importance of the Sabbath that capital punishment was appointed as the perfectly righteous and just penalty for violating its keeping (Exodus 31:14). And its significance is found in no less a crucial context than the first stated occasion of men conspiring to execute Christ (Matthew 12:1-14). The Sabbath is a weighty matter.
Discerning the decisive and chief end of the Sabbath, therefore, is key. What could make the observance of a day of rest so important to God? The answer is thoroughly theological.
We miss the point of the Sabbath when we lose sight of its glorious purpose—its substance. First, then, let us address what the glorious substance of the Sabbath is not and conclude with what it is.
The Sabbath is not about a certain day of the week.
To be sure, the Sabbath was instituted as a covenant sign for the nation of Israel to be observed on the seventh day. In the Old Covenant, it explicitly states, “the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath … 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” (Exodus 31:16-17). It was linked to God’s work in creation and His cessation of work to identify Israel with the God of creation.
It was specifically a covenant sign for the nation of Israel: “I gave them my Sabbaths, as a sign between me and them” (Ezekiel 20:12). God delivered Israel out of the unceasing labor of slavery in Egypt. The covenant rest that He then commands is linked to His redeeming work, to remind them that in Him they find rest. “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:15).
Contrary to the modern preoccupation with all things practical, the Sabbath was not primarily for physiological or psychological benefit—though it most certainly avails these. The call to rest was particularly a call to find refreshment and refuge in God. Shabbat is purposed to testify supremely to the shalom that is found in God alone.
The meaning and purpose of the Sabbath is not about a certain day of the week (Romans 14:5). It has always represented rich symbolism—symbolism that finds its fulfillment in Christ, not in the observance of a certain day. Therefore, the church is warned, “You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain” (Galatians 4:10-11). Paul is disturbed that people to whom Christ has been revealed are missing the point; they are preoccupied with shadows and not the substance!
In Christ, substance far surpassing the symbol has come. Those who make the Sabbath out to be a law about days of observance miss the point. Again, recipients of the gospel are warned, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:16–17). The Sabbath Day belonged to the law of the Old Covenant: “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (Hebrews 10:1). But the true form of the reality of the Sabbath is found only in Christ. The Sabbath is ultimately about rest in Christ, not a certain day of the week.
The Sabbath is not about our obedience.
Christ is the fulfillment of the Sabbath, not our obedience to its command. Ironic is the debate among Christians that obsesses over observing the Sabbath. This is what the Pharisees of old did, even against Christ and His disciples (Matthew 12:1-14; Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-11). This is dogmatic misunderstanding and misapplication.
All in Christ are called to see that the He alone is the fulfillment and only offer of our true Sabbath rest. This is the argument of Hebrews 4:1-11. We are assured that “whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Hebrews 4:10) and therefore in Christ, “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9). This “rest” is made possible not because of our obedience but because of Christ’s obedience (Hebrews 4:14-16). Trusting in Christ is the key to entering the true Sabbath rest. Therefore, attention is drawn to the importance of the thoughts and intentions of our hearts and away from externals (Hebrews 4:12-13).
Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The Sabbath serves us, not the other way around. Ultimately, this points to Christ. As the fulfillment of the Sabbath, He embodies all that grants us rest from our unceasing slavery to sin. Christ is “the Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28). He alone has come to fulfill the Law and not abolish it (Matthew 5:17). By abiding in Christ, we abide in the Sabbath rest that God has provided—indeed the substance that belongs to Christ.
Jesus offers the only true rest.
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28–29).
It is no coincidence that two passages follow these verses, addressing specifically the tragic misunderstanding of the purpose and fulfillment of the Sabbath.
The whole figure of rest has deep theological connotations. With sin came the curse, and particularly work was cursed to become toil—a restless, wearisome, unending and exhausting struggle to live. In this way, life itself is labor. It is weighed down by many cares and pains. The difficulties of life under the curse will eventually exhaust a person, even to the point of death.
But God is rich in mercy and has used the figure of rest to glorify His grace towards the undeserving who are wearied with the consequences of their sin, the curse, and estrangement from God. The theology of the Sabbath has always been linked to the God of creation as the one true God over all (Exodus 20:8-11) who redeems His people as the only true Savior (Deuteronomy 5:15). It is a picture of redemption that provides rest from toil under the curse and from the slavery of sin. It is about the only fountain of true and everlasting refreshment for the weary soul—God Himself. The astonishing truth is that Jesus assumes the place of God, inviting and promising that all who come to Him will finally find the only true and lasting rest for their soul. Christ is our only means of complete devotion to God, our only hope of true and final refreshment, wholeness, wellness, rest, and life. Christ is the substance of the Sabbath, the fulfillment of its deepest meaning and purpose.
The Sabbath exists to make much not of the Sabbath but of Christ.