To the Jews the Sabbath day was holy. In Genesis 2:3, it tells us that God blessed the 7th day because it was on that day that He rested. However, God never gave it as a special day of rest until Moses, and then it was only to the Israelites or those who lived among them.
The Sabbath was a special day of rest that was very important to the Jews. In Numbers 15:32-35, we find the story of a man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath day. God told them to put that man to death. In Exodus 31:12-17, we find that anyone working on the Sabbath was to be killed because they were treating it as a common day, rather than holy.
12 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 13 “Speak also to the children of Israel, saying: ‘Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you. 14 You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. 15 Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. 16 Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. 17 It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.’” (Exodus 31:12-17, NKJV)
It tells us that the Sabbath day was a perpetual covenant, but only between God and Israel. When we first read that, it sounds like something that is to be kept until the end of time. Actually, it is representing something that goes beyond the end of time and lasts for eternity. There are some other “perpetual covenants” that God gave Israel that are clearly no longer part of God’s law for man.
11 “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the children of Israel, because he was zealous with My zeal among them, so that I did not consume the children of Israel in My zeal. 12 Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him My covenant of peace; 13 and it shall be to him and his descendants after him a covenant of an everlasting priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel.’” (Numbers 25:12-13, NKJV)
The NASB calls this covenant “a covenant of a perpetual priesthood.” Does that mean that the priesthood of Phinehas is still going on today? Not at all. There are no longer any priests descended from Phinehas or anyone else and there never can be again. There is no one alive today who can prove that they are descended from Aaron or even the tribe of Levi and so nobody can be a priest at all. So what did God mean by this perpetual covenant? It represented another priesthood that does last forever. It represents Christ and His priesthood. That is why it is a perpetual covenant.
7 And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you. 8 Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.” 9 And God said to Abraham: “As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. 10 This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; 11 and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. (Genesis 17:7-11, NKJV)
In the New Testament, Paul writes regarding the covenant of circumcision, especially in view of Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians trying to keep it.
1 Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. 2 Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing. 3 And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. 4 You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. (Galatians 5:1-4, NKJV)
Paul said being circumcised because the Old Testament talked about it was a huge mistake. It actually cut the Christian off from Christ because they were trying to be justified by law instead of the sacrifice of Christ. We must understand that the everlasting covenant of circumcision was not meant to last in a physical way. It was representing something else that is eternal. It represented the circumcision made without hands. This is where our sins are cut off by Christ when we are baptized into Him. You can read about that in Colossians 2:11-12.
So what was the Sabbath representing that was eternal? It teaches us a lot about God, so we should look at it closely.
The Sabbath was a day of rest.
In Deuteronomy 5:12-15 the Israelites were commanded to keep it holy. They were to rest, remembering that they used to be slaves and never could rest. God was now giving them the rest that slavery never allowed.
The Sabbath was for focusing on God, not their own things.
Nehemiah 10:31 shows us that it was not a day to do their shopping. Jeremiah 17:21-22 tells us that it was not a day for getting new things or taking out the trash. Ezekiel 46:3 shows us that it was a day for worshipping the God who gave them this rest. Notice that worship is not considered work, but is considered rest.
There were certain works that were holy and allowed on the Sabbath. John 7:23 talks about circumcising your son on the Sabbath if that was the eight day after he was born. The work of the priests in the temple was required even on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:5). Matthew 12:12 shows us the idea that anything that is necessary and good for others was allowed on the Sabbath.
The Sabbath was for man’s benefit.
People like to treat the Sabbath like it is a day of great sacrifice because they cannot work. Isn’t resting just a terribly difficult thing to do? In Amos 8:5, talking about some of the wicked people, it says, “Saying: “When will the New Moon be past, That we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, That we may trade wheat? Making the ephah small and the shekel large, Falsifying the scales by deceit.” Their attitude toward the Sabbath was that it was a terrible burden not to be able to do their business and make money. If you cannot stop thinking about making money and working for a day, then the purpose of the Sabbath is completely lost on you.
Isaiah 58:13 shows that it was not a day to seek pleasure, but it was a day to bring people closer to God. That is what really benefits man.
And He said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. (Mark 2:27, NKJV)
Jesus stated that the Sabbath was made for man. It was not to be a burden, but a benefit. Life is not about working. It is not about keeping your garden looking perfect. It is not about how clean your house is. It is about your relationship with God. The Sabbath was a day to remind God’s people of that on a weekly basis.
A Sabbath remains for the people of God.
There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. (Hebrews 4:9, NKJV)
So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. (Hebrews 4:9, NASB)
The Seventh Day Adventists like to use this verse to show that we are to still keep the Sabbath today. But this is talking about the real purpose of the Sabbath which was to teach us about heaven. Look at what is being talked about in this passage.
1 Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. 2 For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it. 3 For we who have believed do enter that rest, as He has said: “So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest,’” although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. 4 For He has spoken in a certain place of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all His works”; 5 and again in this place: “They shall not enter My rest.” (Hebrews 4:1-5, NKJV)
We should look forward to resting, just like the Sabbath was something to look forward to. What we are looking forward to is God’s rest–rest from all of our works. That will only happen when we go to Heaven to be with God.
6 Since therefore it remains that some must enter it, and those to whom it was first preached did not enter because of disobedience, 7 again He designates a certain day, saying in David, “Today,” after such a long time, as it has been said: “Today, if you will hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts.” 8 For if Joshua had given them rest, then He would not afterward have spoken of another day. 9 There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. 10 For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His. 11 Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience. (Hebrews 4:6-11, NKJV)
It is not the weekly Sabbath or the rest they had in the land of Canaan. It is something still to come that can only be entered by obedience. The Sabbath was a tool to teach about heaven. That is why it is an eternal covenant. It teaches us that God gives rest to His people. Those who are slaves to sin receive rest in Christ. We have an eternal rest where there will be no more struggles with sin forever in the presence of God as we enter His rest.
So what does it mean that Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath? Jesus understood perfectly the purpose of the Sabbath. He is the one who really is in control of the Sabbath. He is the one who gives perfect rest to those who come to Him. It does not mean that He wants us to continue keeping the Sabbath day under the New Testament. In fact, it is made clear in Colossians 2:16-17 that we are not judged by that law at all.
16 So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, 17 which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17, NKJV)
While Jewish Christians may have kept the Sabbath from custom or to not offend their non-Christian Jewish neighbors, they understood that it was not necessary for pleasing God or being saved in Christ. For Gentile Christians (all of us who are not Jews), we never have had the Sabbath day as something we must keep. We do have a special day of worship every week–the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2). But this is never called a day of rest. Can you decide to rest on Sunday? Absolutely. It will not make you any better than those who do not, but if you decide to do that for your own benefit, there is no problem with it. The only problem is when we take any day and treat it as though God requires that we do no work on it. There is no such day today. But we should still learn the lesson of the Sabbath and look forward to the rest that we will have with God if we are diligent to obey Him.