“And the LORD said to Moses, ‘You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, “Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths” (Exodus 31:12-13a, emphasis added). Why would God say that the keeping of the Sabbath is important “above all”? In the preceding chapters in Exodus, God gives instructions for the priests’ garments (ch.28), the consecration of the priests (ch. 29), the ark of the covenant (ch. 25), and the tabernacle (ch. 26). Surely the symbol of the covenant between God and His chosen people is of utmost importance, or perhaps the construction of His dwelling place on earth. But despite chapters of careful instructions to Moses, God places the Sabbath above everything else. In fact, God says, “Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death” (31:15b). Why was it so important? And since it is so important, we also ought to ask: does it have any implications for believers today?
To understand why the Sabbath was so important, we should understand why it was established. Verse 13 continues: “for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you.” The Sabbath is established in part to remind Israel what their limitations were. They could not sanctify themselves, only God could do that. In order that He might remind them of this fact, He established the Sabbath as one day out of the week that the Israelites would devote to remembering His power and grace. God was asking the Israelites to take a day to trust that He would deliver them from sin. The Sabbath is all about God’s sovereignty, goodness, and providence, and His demonstration of that to His people. Through the Sabbath, God commands the Israelites to trust that He will take care of them, physically and spiritually. Through the Sabbath, God commands faith.
This is why the Sabbath is not just part of a covenant, it is the covenant in its very essence (31:16). It is an agreement between God and His chosen people that if they will do as He says, He will sanctify them; if not, He will put them to death. God creates the Sabbath as a real and concrete way for Israel to understand what faith is. He commands them, “Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord” (v.15a). God uses the Sabbath to teach Israelites to have faith in Him. One day out of the week, the Israelites would do nothing–no harvest, no tending to the animals, no cooking. In the most extreme way possible, they would need to depend on God to sustain them and provide for them. And God would use the Sabbath as an opportunity to show them, week after week, that He would uphold them, just as He said He would.
God had taught the lesson of faith to the Israelites before. In the desert after they had left Egypt, God physically sustained His people by providing manna for them each day. In Exodus 16:9-30, God gives the people manna each morning. Each household was allowed to take as much as they needed for the day–no more, lest it spoil and “[breed] worms” (16:20). In this, God was teaching the Israelites to have faith that He would give food to them every day. And it would be very clear to the Israelites who had faith and who did not, because those who did not would attempt to keep their manna until the next day, and the manna would look to them as their distrust does to God. To save manna out of concern for the future was not good planning, it was disbelief in the promise that “in the morning you shall be filled with bread” (v.12). God would provide, according to His promise.
At the end of His words on the Sabbath, God says, “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” (31:17). What does it mean that God “rested and was refreshed”? And why does He include this final sentence? He was making to the point to the Israelites that the Sabbath should be an opportunity for joyful rest, because they knew that God would provide for them. There was no need to worry, or to toil every seventh day; they could rest in the assurance that God would work on their behalf. It would be the most refreshing rest they knew, because they understood the sovereignty of their God. Why would they worry, when they had seen this God part the Red Sea, obliterate Pharaoh’s army, and provide manna from the heavens? Their dependence on God in faith was to produce rest.
If a lot of this sounds like it is a New Testament concept, that’s because it is. Colossians 2:16-17 says, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” The external form of the Sabbath is abolished, in that we no longer have to set aside the seventh day of every week to rest. The Sabbath was merely a shadow of the substance of Christ–training wheels, if you will–so that the Israelites could understand what it would mean to put their faith in the coming Messiah. Jesus is, after all, the “lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8). He fulfills it.
Jesus goes on to say, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. . . . you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). In the new covenant, we are also assured rest, just as the Israelites were under the old covenant. We are freed from the fear that we will have to work for our salvation. We no longer have to worry constantly about if we have pleased God enough. We also do not have to offer repeated sacrifices–we rest easily under the yoke of Christ, who was sacrificed “once for all” (Hebrews 7:27). We have faith that the death and resurrection of Christ gives us full forgiveness for our sins, now and forever. This is the implication the Sabbath has for believers today: Jesus fulfills the Sabbath, so our rest is everyday and eternal. The sanctifying, sovereign God who established the Sabbath is still our God today, and we spend our lives in rest because of the faith we have in Him for the forgiveness of our sins.