The Sabbath: A Look Back, A Look Forward
Most of our summer outreaches are over, and our campus outreach, High Holiday services and Fall Ingatherings are yet to come. Many people on our missionaries’ case loads are away for summer vacations. We are still continuing to do the work this month, but for many it’s a bit of a “breather.” What better time is there to think about the Sabbath.
If I had to summarize the Sabbath in a few sentences, it might be something like:
In almost-the-beginning (following Creation), God rested. Later He told Israel to do the same thing, once a week. Later still, Y’shua came to give us rest. Finally, there’s an eternal Sabbath for those who follow Him. THE END. Ride off into sunset. Closing credits.
Well, it’s a good thing I don’t have to summarize the Sabbath in a few sentences, or even in one article. Neither could I begin to explain the rich meaning and purpose of the Sabbath in one article—which is why I’m writing a book on that very topic that Jews for Jesus hopes to release in the future. But we can certainly begin to explore one aspect of the Sabbath: it points us towards redemption—a redemption ultimately fulfilled in Jesus.
The word sabbath (in Hebrew, shabbat) does not appear until the book of Exodus. But in Genesis, we find a related Hebrew word shavat which means “cease,” or “rest.”
Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work He had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested (shavat) from all His work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He rested (shavat) from all the work of creating that He had done.
Of course God does not rest in a literal sense as He never tires. His “ceasing” has been described as “enjoyment of the finished creation.”1 Unlike the other days, the description of the seventh day does not close with the statement, “There was evening and there was morning.” Some see that as an indication that the seventh day of creation was intended to be an eternal enjoyment of God’s accomplishment. One writer suggests, “All creative activities of God flow into a universal rest period . . . God’s last creative act is not the making of man but the creation of a period of rest for mankind.”2
When humanity fell precipitously into sin (Genesis 3) our relationship with God was radically disrupted and the Edenic conditions were no longer possible nor appropriate for us. Thus God justly pronounced the curses mentioned in Genesis 3:14-19. But the rest of the Bible from Genesis 4 onwards is devoted to showing us God’s gracious promise and the initiative He takes in redeeming humanity—in effect, bringing us back to Eden.
God’s offers of rest, or restoration, vary in extent and intensity, increasing with one promise after another throughout the Bible until the last chapters of Revelation. There we see God’s intention to bring the human race “full circle” to the eternal rest and fellowship that human beings were created to enjoy, but lost so early in our history.
The “rest” portrayed in Scripture is not only a cessation of labor, it is a state of peace—and in that peace we see not only freedom from war and enemies but also a place of fellowship with God.
God intended for Israel to be a microcosm of redeemed humanity, a community beginning to live out the “rest” of a people in fellowship with Him, despite the continued struggle with sin and its effects.
To help Israel understand this redemption, God placed two institutions side by side as pictures of Eden: the Tabernacle* and the Sabbath.
The Sabbath (shabbat) is the time when Israel was to imitate God when He “rested” (shavat), or ceased from creating. The weekly Sabbath became a time when Israel, in the midst of an unredeemed world, could enter an Eden-like existence.
In rabbinic thought there is a link between the Sabbath and the Tabernacle since certain passages (Exodus 31:1-17 and Exodus 35) seem to juxtapose the two. Then Leviticus 26:2 explicitly ties the two together: “Observe my Sabbaths and have reverence for my sanctuary. I am the LORD.”
From these passages, the rabbis deduced that the work the Jewish people were prohibited from doing on the Sabbath fell into the same categories as the tasks that were necessary to construct the Tabernacle. These were creative labors that alter our environment; that is, labor in which we imitate God’s creativity.3 It is not necessary to follow rabbinic practice to see that their basic insight was correct. On the Sabbath, Israel was not to engage in any creating, making or adapting things. Israel was to cease from creative acts just as God did; they were to experience life on the seventh day by enjoying both the Creator and the Creation.
Jewish scholarship also includes some interesting thoughts on the future fulfillment of the Sabbath. The famous 20th-century Jewish scholar/philosopher/author Abraham Joshua Heschel said “that the Sabbath and eternity are one . . . is an ancient idea” and he cites a writing from the Apocrypha, “The Seventh day is the sign of the resurrection and the world to come.”4 Heschel also reminds us of the Sabbath prayer in Judaism, “May the All-merciful let us inherit the day which will be all Sabbath and rest in the life eternal.”5
Certainly the idea that Sabbath rest is meant to be eternal is ancient; we see seeds of these thoughts throughout the Jewish Bible. We have an even clearer view in the New Testament portion of Scripture that many Jews consider “off limits.”
God commanded the Israelites to take this rest on the one hand, but on the other, He promised the kind of rest that they could not truly experience without His intervention. When God both commands and promises the same thing, we know that it can only be fully accomplished by His grace.
We see that grace in the Old Testament, in the Torah, where God’s grace was necessary to give Israel rest from her enemies by fighting on her behalf. We see it again in the prophets where God promises a future rest and peace that will come after a time of great trial.
We see the ultimate expression of that grace in Jesus, who spoke of the Sabbath as a gift that God gave to benefit, not oppress His people (Mark 2:27). Jesus declared Himself the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28). He also pointed to Himself as the ultimate means by which we can experience rest:
“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” (Matthew 11:28-29).
We also read about God’s Sabbath rest in the epistles. Hebrews in particular, points out that whereas we have tasted the rest that God both commanded and promised, it has yet to be fully experienced. We read about a final rest—not in the sense of a “final resting place” in a dead graveyard, but in the sense of a forever enjoyment of God and His creation:
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 (Hebrews 4:8-11).
And because there is such great continuity between the Old and New Testaments, it is no wonder that in the final book of the Bible we have the picture of a re-creation that points back to Genesis and the Garden of Eden. We see a new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21:1). The tree of life, last seen in Eden, is seen once again in Revelation 22:2 while the curse that followed the fall of Adam and Eve is removed (Revelation 22:3).
In the meantime, we recognize that we still live in a fallen world in which we are only able to taste that which is to come. God provides those tastes in many ways, through the fellowship we have with one another, through the encounters we have with Him through worship and the leading of His spirit.
Christians hold various opinions concerning the place of the Sabbath for Jesus’s followers. However, I think we can all agree that consciously setting apart time to experience rest refreshes us, gives us a taste of what is to come, and it also makes us all the more conscious of the work we are called to do the remainder of the time. This too, is a reflection of a greater reality: our temporary Sabbath rests can remind us that we have much work to do so that others may hear the gospel, and may one day experience that Sabbath rest that is only possible through Jesus.
*The Tabernacle, as it looks back to the Garden of Eden as well as ahead to final redemption, will be addressed in a future edition of the Newsletter.
The Scriptures quoted in this article are from the New International Version.
- Dale Ratzlaff, Sabbath in Christ (Glendale, CA: Life Assurance Ministries), p. 23.
- Harold H. P. Dressler, “The Sabbath in the Old Testament,” in D. A. Carson, ed. From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), pp. 29-30.
- Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York: Noonday Press, 1951), pp. 28-29.
- Heschel, The Sabbath, p. 73 and p. 114 n. 1.
- Ibid., p. 114, n. 8.
Scholar in Residence, Missionary
Rich Robinson is a veteran missionary and senior researcher at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. Rich has written several books on Jewishness and Jesus, and he received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.