The Sign of the Sabbath
And He gave to Moses, when He had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God. (Exodus 31:18)
Imagine being there, at the top of Mount Sinai, and receiving those two stone tablets engraved with the ten most important instructions from the heart of the Creator to His highest creation, man. Wouldn’t your heart have been pounding? Wouldn’t you have read them very carefully, and cherished them in your heart, and felt an urgency to pass on His words to everyone you loved so that they would be able to please their Creator? What could be a greater treasure than to have your Creator’s infinite wisdom condensed into ten simple commandments, given out of His great love for His people?
Perhaps you haven’t thought of the Ten Commandments in that way before. You may not even remember them all, or know where to find them in the Bible. Most people have forgotten at least one of them. Ironically, it is the only one that begins with the word, “Remember...”
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy... (Exodus 20:8)
If you are a Christian, you are probably already saying to yourself, “Oh, the Sabbath was for the Jews. For Christians, Sunday has replaced the Sabbath as our day of rest.” Perhaps you have been taught that Jesus fulfilled the Law, therefore the commandment to keep the Sabbath is no longer binding upon Christians. You may remember that Jesus said to His disciples:
Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the Law until all is fulfilled. (Matthew 5:17-18)
But there is a problem with this line of reasoning. If Jesus fulfilled the Law and the Prophets, and if that means that His followers are released from keeping the Sabbath, then are we not also released from honoring our father and mother? Are we now free to murder and to commit adultery? Can we now worship other gods, and make idols, and take His name in vain? After all, we’re free from the Law. Ridiculous! Yes, but why is it not also ridiculous to set aside the fourth commandment? After all, right after the verse quoted above, Jesus also said:
Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19)
So even if you consider the keeping of the Sabbath to be the least of the commandments, shouldn’t these words of the Savior cause you to pause? Ironically, the commandment to keep the Sabbath is the one about which more instruction is given in the Bible than any other commandment. It is also the first commandment which, when broken, resulted in the death penalty for the offender.1 Why, then, is it routinely ignored by the vast majority of Christians?
Actually, there is a very good reason lurking in the pages of church history.
Most Christians do not realize that the early church kept the Sabbath. According to the New Testament, the first disciples rested on the Sabbath, and then after the sun had set, marking the beginning of the first day of the week,2 they gathered to break bread, as is clear from Acts 20:7-8.3 It became the custom for the early church in the second century to rest on the seventh day and then have a festival on the first day of the week, at which there would be teachings and other ways of celebrating the resurrection. Ignatius wrote early in the second century: “And after the observance of the Sabbath, let every friend of Christ keep the Lord’s day as a festival, the resurrection day...” As late as the early fourth century it is recorded that Christians observed both the Sabbath and the “Lord’s Day” in their different ways.3 But by the end of the fourth century, Sunday had replaced the Sabbath in the minds and habits of most Christians.
A Sign between God and His People
“So what’s the big deal?” you might ask. “What difference does it make whether I go to church on Saturday or Sunday?”
It doesn’t make any difference at all for those who are not His people, but for His people, it makes a big difference! But the Sabbath is much more than a day of the week to cease working and attend a religious gathering. For God’s holy people, it is actually a prophetic event of great significance, which this passage expresses in the strongest terms:
And the LORD said to Moses, “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.
You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death.
Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. 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.’”
And He gave to Moses, when He had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God. (Exodus 31:13-18)
The Sabbath is a sign between God and His people that He has set them apart unto Himself, and is purifying them, which is what sanctify means. Israel was always intended to be a set-apart people, as even Balaam reluctantly prophesied: “Behold, a people who dwell apart, and will not be reckoned among the nations.”4 That meant that they were to dwell together and not live according to the cultures and the values of the nations around them. Instead, their tribal life, characterized by care for one another and trust in their God, was to be a light to the nations around them. According to the prophet Isaiah, being this light was Israel’s prophetic purpose, for by it they would bring salvation to the ends of the earth.5 Paul carried this right over into the New Covenant as the purpose of the church.6
Their keeping of the weekly Sabbath would be a profound expression of that care and trust as they set aside their regular work, with its potential to increase their income, and focused their attention on their relationships with one another and their God. Even their servants and their livestock were to rest, as well as any visitors who were within their gates.7 It wasn’t an individual thing, as if one person could keep the Sabbath alone, or by merely going to a religious service on Saturday. The Sabbath was a set-apart day for God’s holy people to keep together, “in all your dwelling places”8 — a stipulation that was based on the assumption that they dwelt together as a people set apart from the cultures around them. As a people, they had been delivered from slavery in Egypt, and as a people they were to enter into rest, experiencing the spiritual liberty of the sons of God, set free from anxiety and restless energy. That would be a sign that their God was winning their hearts and making them into His holy nation.
The Sabbath as Training Ground
But the Sabbath day was also a training ground to prepare them for the Sabbath year, which was an even greater test of their willingness to trust their Creator and live in peace with their brothers:
Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: “When you come into the land which I give you, then the land shall keep a sabbath to the LORD. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather its fruit; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath to the LORD. You shall neither sow your field nor prune your vineyard. What grows of its own accord of your harvest you shall not reap, nor gather the grapes of your untended vine, for it is a year of rest for the land. And the sabbath produce of the land shall be food for you: for you, your male and female servants, your hired man, and the stranger who dwells with you, for your livestock and the beasts that are in your land — all its produce shall be for food.” (Leviticus 25:2-7)
Imagine that, for an agricultural society! To the natural mind, it would seem foolish and irresponsible for the whole nation to take a year off from planting and harvesting. But those with spiritual understanding saw that their God had promised them that He would command a blessing in the sixth year so that the land would produce a crop sufficient for three years.9 Would they trust Him enough to obey this radical command?
And if that were not enough to test their trust for Him and their love for their brothers, they were also commanded to forgive all debts every seventh year:
At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release. And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor, his brother, because the LORD’s release has been proclaimed... If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, “The seventh year, the year of release is near,” and your eye look grudgingly on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the LORD against you, and you be guilty of sin. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. (Deuteronomy 15:1-2,7-10)
The Sabbath Depends on Love
How on earth could anyone ever attain to such a high standard? Certainly old Israel never did! They reasoned their way around the clear intent of the commandment regarding the Sabbath, but the God of Israel never forgot. The prophets tell the sad story of Israel’s mistrust and unbelief. Jeremiah foretold seventy years of exile — one year for each of the years the land did not have its Sabbath rest.10 In at least some sincere hearts, the question must have burned, “Would Israel ever keep all the Sabbaths, including the Sabbath years? Or would it only be reduced to rote ritual and an opportunity to point the finger?”
So when you consider all that the Sabbaths entailed, it is not hard to see why, many years later, Jesus made such a sweeping statement to the Pharisees when they asked Him which was the greatest commandment:
Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40)
In other words, it is impossible to fulfill the righteous requirements of the Law11 and all that the Prophets have spoken without loving God with all of your heart, soul, and strength12 and loving your neighbor as yourself.13 It is easy to think that you love God supremely, but it is tested by how you love those closest to you, which is what neighbor actually means.14 Or as the Apostle John put it:
If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.
And this commandment we have from Him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:20-21)
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18)
Apart from this high standard of love being lived out among a spiritual people who dwell together as a distinct society, there is no possibility of keeping the Sabbath days or years in sincerity. For if I truly love my neighbor as myself, how can I find rest unless my neighbor also finds rest? It’s not a matter of what day religious activities are scheduled; it’s a matter of sharing a life of love and care for one another, based on a radical trust in God.
That is why Jesus was continually making a point of healing and otherwise caring for people on the Sabbath in full view of the religious leaders of His day.15 Their indignation exposed the empty ritual to which the Sabbath had been reduced, devoid of compassion or concern for one another, and full of lawlessness, malice, and the pointing of the finger.16 They had set aside the very purpose of the Sabbath, and His desire was to restore it:
And He said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27-28)
And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:7-8)
For three and a half years the Lord of the Sabbath labored to form in His disciples a heart of compassion and care for one another, and to write the spirit of the Law on their hearts so that they could fulfill its righteous requirements and bring about all that the Prophets have spoken. He was raising them up to be apostles, to be the very “finger of God” by which the Law could be written on the hearts17 of a new spiritual Israel of twelve tribes18 who would be a light to the nations,19 showing them the Father’s lovingkindness and the good fruit of keeping His word.
A Life Worthy of the Sabbath
It is no accident that the result of Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost was the birth of that New Covenant Israel as a commonwealth:
So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. (Acts 2:41-45)
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all.
There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35)
The people had responded to what they heard,20 which gave them the faith to utterly abandon their old lives and throw their lot in together to be a living demonstration of the heart of the Law and the Prophets.21 Contrary to what most Christians have been led to believe, that common life of love and unity continued and multiplied throughout the Mediterranean world for several decades through the ministry of Paul22 and the other apostles. The life of the early church began to bear the fruit of righteousness and justice that old Israel had never consistently borne, which is why the kingdom was taken away from them and given to this new spiritual Israel.23
Their days, weeks, and years were punctuated by the appointed times and feasts that had been given to old Israel,24 to be expressed in a new and living way.25 They gathered daily,26 every morning and evening, as a spiritual priesthood27 to offer up spiritual sacrifices of praise and prophecy.28 Their Sabbaths were the culmination of their week of laboring together in the works prepared for them,29 resulting in a true rest that comes from unhindered fellowship and a good conscience.30 That kind of spiritual rest made room for the good deeds that love demanded on the Sabbath, such as reaching out to the lost.31
For such a people, their keeping of the Sabbath in spirit and truth was a clear sign that they belonged to Yahweh,32 the God of Israel, who had established the Sabbath as a perpetual covenant33 between Him and His set-apart people. If they remained faithful, the Sabbath days would lead them into keeping the Sabbath years, which would lead them to the Sabbath age — the return of the Messiah and His millennial reign. But it would take them, as His body on earth,34 putting all of His enemies under His feet35 — the spiritual enemies like selfishness36 and pride that divide and degrade mankind.
The Sad Facts of Church History
It is a sad fact of history that the early church did not maintain the light of that life of love and unity for very long,37 for the very reason their Master stated in Matthew 22:37-40 — they did not love their God with all their heart and soul, nor did they love their neighbor as themselves.
These two commandments are like two solid signposts from which hang a sign identifying an establishment, and below that sign hang many smaller signs that identify the services of this establishment. The sign of the Sabbath signifies a people set apart by their love for their God and for each other, and the signs hanging from it encompass all that the Law and the Prophets say Israel must fulfill. And Jesus told us how His set-apart people would do this great feat — by upholding those two solid signposts of love.
But the early church left that first love38 — their wholehearted love for God and for one another — and as a result, all that “hangs” on that love fell by the wayside. (And remember, everything in the Law and the Prophets hangs on that love!) They ceased living together in community, since they were unwilling to pay the high cost of loving39 and forbearing with one another40 and sharing their lives and possessions. Their gatherings became stale weekly rituals at which only one “Nicolaitan”41 would speak, and their Sabbaths were reduced to a dry religious form42 that lacked the social warmth and evangelistic power that it had in the days of the apostles.43
Rather than fulfilling the Law and the Prophets and bringing about the return of their Master, they drifted away from the apostolic faith.44 Thus they effectively “cut off” the finger of God that could engrave the spirit of the Law on their hearts.45 This internal falling away from love was the necessary precursor to what was to come. Cold, rigid doctrine replaced fervent love and community as the litmus test of orthodoxy.46 The once-solid signposts of love rotted and were eaten away by creeping things, and eventually gave way, and the sign47 that used to signify a set-apart people fell to the ground. Nothing remained but a form of godliness, increasingly shrouded in ritual.
But it is amazing how enduring rituals can be. By the end of the third century, the church had splintered into almost 2000 bishoprics whose bishops were divided from one another by innumerable controversies. Meanwhile their parishioners dutifully followed their well-established rituals, including resting and fasting on the seventh-day Sabbath and going to church on Sunday, unaware that their religion was virtually unrecognizable when compared with its original form.48 But God was not unaware of the difference, and soon He would act to make the distinction very clear.
Enter Constantine, Servant of God!
At least, Christianity thinks of him that way. After all, he ended state-sanctioned persecution of the church and gave it official status and legal protection throughout the empire. Not only that, but he rolled up his sleeves and got to work trying to unify all the bickering bishops, helping them hammer out a doctrinal creed to which they could all substantially agree. Yet this sun-worshiping pagan emperor, who declined to be baptized a Christian until he was on his death bed, unwittingly did his greatest act of service to God when he got rid of the fallen sign that they were God’s people.
In 321 AD, Constantine issued an edict proclaiming “the venerable day of the Sun” to be the official day of rest in the Roman empire, and the process he unleashed by sanctioning the church and recognizing the authority of the bishops soon brought an end to the Sabbath in the life of the church. Indeed, they instituted a literal “Anti-Fourth-Commandment,” forbidding rest on the Sabbath and mandating work instead!49 Thus, through the agency of Constantine, God officially disowned the fallen-away church by taking away the sign of the covenant50 that they were set apart for Him, and a new religion was established under the sign of the Sun god. That religion is Christianity.
Almost 1700 years have come and gone since that time, and never in all that time has there been a spiritual nation of twelve tribes51 dwelling together in love and unity under the sign of the Sabbath — until now. The restoration of all things has begun, starting with the restoration of the first thing lost: the “first love”52 that formed the “first church”53 as a community of those who saw the Pearl of Great Price and gladly sold everything to obtain that Pearl.54 On that foundation of love for Him and for one another,55 our Father is faithfully writing His Law on our hearts and fulfilling the words of the Prophets. We are looking for others who desire this treasure we have found, and are willing to forsake everything to have it.
We gather every Friday evening to bring in the Sabbath together. Come and enter in with us!
1 Numbers 15:32-36
2 Each day was considered to span from sunset to sunset, as in Genesis 1:5,8,13, Leviticus 23:32, etc. If you read this passage carefully, you will see that it was evening — the eve of the first day, not Sunday morning. See also Luke 4:16, “...as was His custom, He went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day...”
3 See also The Best of Complements on page 9 for more about this.
4 Numbers 23:9
5 Isaiah 49:6
6 Acts 13:47
7 Deuteronomy 5:12-15
8 Leviticus 23:3
9 Leviticus 25:21
10 Jeremiah 25:11-12; 2 Chronicles 36:21
11 Romans 8:4
12 Deuteronomy 6:4-5
13 Leviticus 19:18
14 Neighbor comes from nigh, meaning near, and gebor, meaning dweller, hence, “one who dwells near.”
15 Matthew 12:1-13; Mark 2:23-28; 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11; 13:10-17; 14:1-6; John 5:2-17; 7:22-24; 9:13-17
16 Isaiah 58:9,13
17 2 Corinthians 3:3
18 1 Peter 2:9-10; Galatians 6:16; Acts 26:7
19 Matthew 5:14-16; Acts 13:47; Isaiah 49:6
20 Acts 2:40
21 Jeremiah 32:38-39; Ezekiel 36:26-27. These verses speak of the natural seed of Abraham being restored to their land in the next age, but they must first be fulfilled by spiritual Israel in this age, so as to move a remnant of the Jews to jealousy (Deuteronomy 32:21; Romans 10:19) and prepare their hearts for the return of the Messiah, that they might mourn over Him whom they pierced (Zechariah 12:10).
22 1 Thessalonians 2:14
23 Matthew 21:43
24 Acts 20:6,16; 1 Corinthians 5:7-8; 16:8
25 Hebrews 10:19-25
26 Acts 2:46; Hebrews 3:13,15; 10:25
27 1 Peter 2:9; 1 Chronicles 23:30 (The spiritual priesthood of the New Covenant was the reality to which the Old Testament Levitical priesthood pointed.)
28 Hebrews 13:15; 1 Peter 4:11; 1 Corinthians 14:26
29 Ephesians 2:10; 4:16
30 Hebrews 4:9-12
31 Acts 13:42,44; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4
32 Exodus 31:13; Ezekiel 20:12,20
33 Exodus 31:16
34 Ephesians 5:23; Colossians 1:18,23
35 Hebrews 10:13
36 2 Corinthians 5:14-15
37 John 1:4; Acts 5:20
38 Revelation 2:4
39 1 John 3:14,16,23
40 Ephesians 4:1-3
41 Revelation 2:6,15 — The word Nicolaitan is derived from nikao, meaning “to conquer,” and laos, meaning “people,” hence, “people conquerors” — a professional clergy that replaced the spontaneous outspokenness of all the people in the lively gatherings of the early church. The clergy is a system that God hates.
42 2 Timothy 3:5
43 Acts 13:42,44; 16:13
44 Hebrews 2:1-3
45 2 Corinthians 3:3-6
46 John 13:34-35; 17:21-23; 1 John 3:14,16
47 Exodus 31:13; Ezekiel 20:20
48 “Between the years AD 100 and AD 500, the Christian Church changed almost beyond recognition.” Tony Lane, The Lion Book of Christian Thought (Lion Publishing Company, Batavia, Illinois, 1984), page 8.
49 At the Council of Laodicea, c. 364 AD, there must have still been a remnant of Sabbath-keepers who needed to be brought into line, since Canon 29 from that council reads, “Christians must not judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honoring the Lord’s Day; and, if they can, resting then as Christians. But if any shall be found to be judaizers, let them be anathema from Christ.”
50 “between Me and you” — Exodus 31:13; Ezekiel 20:20
51 Acts 26:7; 13:47; Isaiah 49:6; James 1:1
52 Revelation 2:4; Ephesians 6:24 (“undying love” in the NIV); John 13:34-35; 1 John 3:14,16
53 Acts 2:44-15; 4:32-35
54 Matthew 13:44-46
55 Matthew 22:37-40