Bridgeway Bible Dictionary
The word ‘sabbath’ comes from the Hebrew word meaning ‘to cease’. In the Genesis story of creation, God ceased from his work of creation after six days, then rested on the seventh (Genesis 2:1-3). It seems that from early times people in general recognized a week of seven days (Genesis 8:10; Genesis 8:12; Genesis 29:27), and God’s people in particular ceased their work one day in seven. This was for two purposes: firstly, to set the day apart for God instead of using it for themselves; secondly, to rest from their daily work and so gain refreshment (Exodus 16:22-30).
God’s appointment for Israel
When God formally established Israel as his people and gave them his laws, one of the laws was that they had to rest from their work every seventh day. The day was set apart especially for God and was, in fact, a sign that the people were bound to God by covenant. Anyone who did his work on that day was to be put to death (Exodus 20:8-11; Exodus 31:13-17; Numbers 15:32-36; Deuteronomy 5:15). Among the religious exercises of the Sabbath were the offering of sacrifices and the renewing of the ‘presence bread’ in the tabernacle (Leviticus 24:5-9; Numbers 28:9-10).
Working animals, such as oxen and donkeys, also had rest one day in seven (Deuteronomy 5:14; cf. Nehemiah 13:15-21), and the land had rest one year in seven (Leviticus 25:3-4; see ). A festival day on which people were to do no work was also called a Sabbath, though it may not have coincided with the usual weekly Sabbath (Leviticus 16:29-31; Leviticus 23:30-32; John 19:31).
Much of the Jewish Sabbath-keeping was not pleasing to God, because of the wrong attitudes of many of the people. Some were annoyed because it interrupted their money-making activities (Amos 8:5), and others used the day for their own pleasure, without concern for God (Isaiah 58:13-14; Jeremiah 17:21-23). Through despising God’s covenant requirements, the people in the end brought destruction upon the nation (Ezekiel 20:23-24; Ezekiel 23:38).
After the return from captivity in Babylon, Nehemiah introduced special laws to prevent people from working and trading on the Sabbath (Nehemiah 13:15-22). Over the next few centuries the teachers of the law (the scribes) built up a system of countless Sabbath regulations to add to the simple requirements of the law of Moses (cf. Mark 2:23-24; Luke 14:3-4; John 5:10; Acts 1:12). Through schools and synagogues, the teachers of the law spread and enforced their regulations. In doing so they often disregarded the Word of God, and as a result came into conflict with Jesus (Luke 13:10-17; see ; ; ).
The new era
Jesus pointed out that although God gave rules to guide people concerning what they may or may not do on the Sabbath, to do good on the Sabbath was always right (Matthew 12:9-13). Just as God’s daily work in caring for his creation does not break the Sabbath law, neither did Jesus’ work in healing the sick on the Sabbath (John 5:16-18). Life is more important than ritual. God gave the Sabbath for people’s benefit, not their discomfort. The Sabbath was intended to ease their burden, not increase it (Matthew 12:1-8; Matthew 23:4).
As Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus knew best how to use it. While he kept the law of God (Matthew 5:17; Luke 4:16), he opposed the traditions of the scribes and Pharisees (Mark 7:6-9). At the same time he knew that the law-code that Moses had given to Israel had fulfilled its purpose and was about to pass away. A new age was about to dawn (Matthew 9:16-17). Jesus’ death and resurrection marked the end of the law as a binding force upon God’s people (Romans 7:6; Romans 8:1-3; Romans 10:4; Colossians 2:14).
Christians are free from the bondage of the Israelite law and must not become its slaves. This applies to all the requirements of the law, whether concerning the Sabbath or any other matter (Galatians 4:8-11; Colossians 2:16).
On the other hand Christians can learn from the law. Although that law was given to a particular people (Israel) for a particular period (from Moses to Christ), the idea of a weekly day of rest existed before the time of Moses and continued after the time of Christ. It was taken from the symbolic rest of God, which expressed his satisfaction in bringing his creative work to its goal with the creation of Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:1-3; Exodus 20:11).
From the beginning of human existence, God has wanted people to find true rest through coming into a living relationship with their Creator. God desires also that within that relationship, they enjoy the created world and all their activity in it (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20; Ecclesiastes 12:1; Hebrews 4:1-4). The one-day-in-seven rest is a reminder to them that when work so dominates them that they have no time to cease from it, then it has become a god. Restful contemplation is as essential as energetic activity in the worship and service of God (cf. Psalms 46:10).
Even when the early Christians no longer kept the Jewish Sabbath, they still set aside time each week for fellowship with God and with one another. This was usually the first day of the week, a day that they called the Lord’s Day, because it was the day of Jesus’ resurrection (John 20:19; Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2; Revelation 1:10).
Sunday did not replace Saturday, as if it were a Christian Sabbath to replace the Jewish Sabbath. Nevertheless, it provided the opportunity to give practical expression to those values of cessation from work and devotion to God that God desired for people from the beginning.
Some people in the early church wanted to recognize certain days as having a kind of legal sacredness; others refused such recognition, since the church was not regulated by law. Paul taught that each person be tolerant of the other’s view, and that Christians treat every day in a way that acknowledges and honours God (Romans 14:5-6).
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Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Sabbath'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/bbd/s/sabbath.html. 2004.