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Why did God command the keeping of the Sabbath?
Now, before you protest that this question doesn’t matter because we’re no longer under the law, let me assure you that I have no intention of preaching legalism here. But remember also that the commandment to “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy” is part of God’s Moral Law, part of the Ten Commandments, and not part of the specifically Jewish Ceremonial Law. If “Thou shalt not murder” and “Thou shalt not commit adultery” apply to everyone, then isn’t there at least a sense in which “Remember the Sabbath” applies to everyone as well?
No legalism, please. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. God came up with the Sabbath for a reason.
What was it?
Of course the Sabbath teaches that man should rest regularly from his labors. That’s a given. And the writer of Hebrews speaks eloquently of the symbolism of the Sabbath, and how it relates to the rest that remains for the people of God. That’s a wonderful truth.
But what reason did God give when he commanded us to “keep it holy”?
For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
Keep it holy, rest on that day…because that’s what God did.
Now, if you’re like me, your mind will balk. “But God didn’t get tired, so He didn’t need to rest. Clearly He rested to set us an example, right? But why did He have to do that? People will naturally rest, after all. Why should it be commanded? And why would God go through the show of resting Himself, when He didn’t need to?”
Take a look, if you will, at Exodus 20:2-17, and see if anything special about the Sabbath commandment jumps out at you. Do you see it?
It’s the only commandment for which God explains His reasoning. And He doesn’t just do it here. It’s reiterated throughout the Old Testament. Clearly, the reason is very important.
Rest, because God rested.
The Ten Commandments begin with God introducing Himself (Exo. 20:2). Then comes the commandment that tells us He is supreme. There are to be no other gods before Him (Exo. 20:3). Then He tells us that we are also to have no “lesser gods,” nor are we to make any idols to represent Him (Exo. 20:4-5). Then He tells us that even His Name is to be treated as holy (Exo. 20:7). And then, before all the commandments about how we’re to treat our parents and our neighbor, He inserts this commandment with its explanation.
Work six days, and rest the seventh, because that’s what I, your God, did.
The law is not arbitrary. As Del Tackett so clearly points out in The Truth Project, God didn’t flip a coin to decide whether stealing, murder, or adultery should be considered right or wrong. Things are right or wrong based on their conformity with God’s own nature, with His character. Lying, stealing, etc are wrong because they are opposed to the very character of God. That’s why Jesus could say, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). If you love Me, you’ll want to be like Me. You’ll take your cues from Me. You’ll want to do what I do.
I believe that this is at the heart of the Sabbath commandment.
Rest, because I rested. Have that kind of heart…the kind that looks for life in Me, that yearns to imitate Me. Have a heart that longs to beat with a rhythm that matches My own. Do that because you love Me (Eph. 5:1).
Every human understands that murder, stealing, lying, and adultery are wrong…at least if they are the victims of those wrongs. It would be easy to take this moral law, which God has written on every human heart, and redefine it as primarily a man-centered thing. The most important thing is to do right by your neighbor.
And Jesus affirmed the importance of doing right by your neighbor as the fulfillment of the law (Matt. 22:37-40). But loving your neighbor, as important as it is, was only the second most important thing He listed in this passage. He said that the law and the prophets hung on two commandments. What was the first?
Jesus said to him, 'YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.' This is the first and great commandment.
Do you see the connection?
- Love God with everything you are.
- Rest because He rested.
- In other words, love Him and do like He does.
The meaning fairly screams from the pages if we have eyes to see it. If you love Me, you’ll want to be like Me! That’s what the law of the Sabbath tells us. This is what makes God’s moral law different from any other legal codes made by man. It does good for its neighbor’s sake, and it does good, first and foremost, because of love for God, and to bring glory to God.
So why don’t Christians observe the Sabbath any more?
Well, the fact is that some do…and I’m not referring to legalists. There are those who find joy in expressing love to God in the formal observation of a Sabbath day. They’re not putting themselves back under the law. They just enjoy the beauty of devoting one whole day per week to the worship and service of God. Far be it from any of us to protest against that, even though we would rightly protest against a legalistic Sabbath observance.
Students of the Bible will expect me to refer to Romans 14 next. And they would be right. Paul deals with such things as Sabbath observances for Christians in this chapter, and one of the most misused verses in that chapter is this one.
One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind.
Many Christians look at that verse and say, “See, we don’t have to observe the Sabbath any more,” and they leave it at that. But to stop there is to ignore the very reason why we no longer have to have a special day set aside. It’s found in the very next verse.
He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it.
Paul makes a hugely important point here. We are not released from the Sabbath because God no longer wants our devotion. We are released from having a Sabbath Day because our whole life is to be a Sabbath! We are free to “not observe the day,” only if we are doing so “to the Lord.” When verse 5 says “another esteems every day alike,” Paul wasn’t saying, “It’s ok to think of every day as secular and godless.” Heaven forbid! He’s saying that we should consider every day “Holy to the Lord,” whether it’s a working day or a resting day. Every day should be marked by the restfulness of trusting souls which have ceased from legalism, from worldly fretting, from the materialistic rat race, and from all forms of self-focus. Every day should find God-centered Christians resting in Him and seeking to conform their lives to Him; Christians who long to be like Him and do what He does because they love Him.
For thus says the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel: "In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and confidence shall be your strength."