Trinity Presbyterian Church, Arlington, VA                                             Feb 23, 2014

Adult Education: The Sabbath – Historical and Theological


Biblical Texts: Old Testament - The Basis of the Sabbath and the Sabbath Law

Genesis : Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

Exodus : 1622 On the sixth day they gathered twice as much food, two omers apiece. When all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, 23 he said to them, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy sabbath to the Lord; bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning.’” 24 So they put it aside until morning, as Moses commanded them; and it did not become foul, and there were no worms in it. 25 Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a sabbath to the Lord; today you will not find it in the field. 26 Six days you shall gather it; but on the seventh day, which is a sabbath, there will be none.” 27 On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, and they found one. 28 The Lord said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and instructions? 29 See! The Lord has given you the sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you food for two days; each of you stay where you are; do not leave your place on the seventh day.” 30 So the people rested on the seventh day.

Exodus : 20Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.  (see Ex 23:10-12 for the extension of the Sabbath to every 7th year. Deut 5:11-16)

Biblical Texts: The Sabbath Memory (a point of reference)

Nehemiah : 9   (Ezra is praising God before the gathered people)  You are the Lord, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham; and you found his heart faithful before you, and made with him a covenant to give to his descendants the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite; and you have fulfilled your promise, for you are righteous….13 You came down also upon Mount Sinai, and spoke with them from heaven, and gave them right ordinances and true laws, good statutes and commandments, 14 and you made known your holy sabbath to them and gave them commandments and statutes and a law through your servant Moses. (see also Nehemiah 13)


Isaiah : 58 13 If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going our own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs…


Biblical Texts: New Testament – Jesus and the Sabbath

Matthew 12 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But 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.” He left that place and entered their synagogue; 10 a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him. (Note: it is not acceptable for Jesus to cure on the Sabbath, but it is acceptable for the Pharisees to plan to kill Him!, see Mark 2 and 3)


Jesus seems specifically to teach and act on the Sabbath as a way of addressing the hypocrisy of the religious leaders. See Luke 6, 13, 14. Compare the focus of Isaiah 58 on the “real” fast that God chooses… does this apply to the Sabbath as well.  Jesus is fleshing out the “inner logic” of the Sabbath as the day of liberation and a day of celebrating the greatness of God. 


John714 About the middle of the festival Jesus went up into the temple and began to teach. 15 The Jews were astonished at it, saying, “How does this man have such learning,[f] when he has never been taught?” 16 Then Jesus answered them, “My teaching is not mine but his who sent me. 17 Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own. 18 Those who speak on their own seek their own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and there is nothing false in him. 19 “Did not Moses give you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Why are you looking for an opportunity to kill me?” 20 The crowd answered, “You have a demon! Who is trying to kill you?” 21 Jesus answered them, “I performed one work, and all of you are astonished. 22 Moses gave you circumcision (it is, of course, not from Moses, but from the patriarchs), and you circumcise a man on the sabbath. 23 If a man receives circumcision on the sabbath in order that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because I healed a man’s whole body on the sabbath? 24 Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”



Commentary: The Sabbath as the Rest of God and Rest for the People of God.


The first thing to be said about the Sabbath is that it too is a part of creation and not simply a religious holiday or concept applied in some best of intended ways. (see Karl Barth, CD III/1) The biblical account of creation treats of the seventh day as it has treated the first six.  It is an event of God’s Word.  God makes the decision to cease working and the Sabbath is created and follows the sixth day.  As a “day” in the sequence it is not a gap, a principle, or a hiatus between two other things; the work of God and then the work of man.  It is the event which gives meaning both to the days of creation and the days of man’s responsibility over it.  Once the human is created on the “afternoon” of the sixth day and creation is completed, there is still more to be done.  But this “more” is not work, but rest, a Sabbath.


God blesses this day which is now the culmination of the creation events. God’s rest on that day is an act of His freedom to cease doing what He has been doing, because it is finished.  The created materials require no further action upon them.  The divine declaration, “It is Good” is all that needs to be said.  According to the divine plan, creation of stuff out of nothing has reached its goal.  This is a determination which the creation could not determine for itself or be predicted.  One standing outside of creation and watching it take place could not have known that it would be finished as it was.  There well could have been an eighth or even a ninth day.  The determination of the “it is finished” is found in the God who created the world and then rested.  Theologically we are saying that creation does not contain its own teleology, its own reason for being and ending point.  Creation’s meaning must be given to it.  And that meaning is found in the Sabbath.  The divine decree that there be a Sabbath is already contained in the first “Let there be….”  That is, the day of rest into which both God and the human participate is the first manifestation of the Covenant which God has created, even before creation.  Barth uses the phrases “Creation is the external basis of the Covenant” and “Covenant is the internal basis of Creation” as ways of containing the balance between them.  And the Sabbath is the teleological meaning in that balance.  In the cessation of work on the seventh day there is found the true and full meaning of God’s grace and majesty as Creator.  The Sabbath is God’s point of view on the purpose of creation.  Isaiah warns Israel against “trampling” on the Sabbath by using it for one’s own purposes; “If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going our own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs….” (Isa 58:13)


The blessing and sanctification of the seventh day is much like the determination of the ground around the burning bush as holy “already.”  That is, once Moses is told that the ground round the burning bush is holy he can either continue to profane it with his shoes or he can take them off and experience the holiness that is there.  The seventh day is already holy by the determination of God in blessing it and resting on it.  After the six days of work, the seventh day is by its nature Sabbath.  Its status as the “day of rest” and “the Lord’s day” is not something that we make of it, it is so already.  The question is ones obedience to the nature of the day as it presents itself.


Israel in the wilderness, exiting Egypt and moving towards the Promised Land is called to participate in the Sabbath (Ex 16).  This is the first post-creation use of the word Sabbath.  God provides manna for them on six days.  On the sixth day there is a special instruction to collect twice the regular amount to sustain them over the day of rest, the seventh day.  For slaves of that time, people who had no history of a “day off,” this was not easy to do. Those who had already attempted to collect more than needed daily found worms and decay in their manna.  Their own history taught them that one must work for each days food on that day!  But the seventh day, the Sabbath rest, was God’s way of reminding them of His providence and care for them.  It was the sign of the Covenant with their God and it would become a Commandment to them as a fixed reminder of God’s Covenant.  All throughout Israel’s history the Sabbath has been critical to defining its relationship with God.  The prophets constantly call to Israel to keep the Sabbath holy as a mark of obedience to the Lord.  The meaning of the people, their teleology is also not found within them, but given to them as the Covenant people who keep the commandments holy.


Two more points will suffice for this brief survey of the Sabbath Day, and then a final one.  First, within the sequence of creation days, though mornings and afternoons are named, no day is given a name, only numbers.  It is when we come to the seventh day that a Name is given to it.  It is the Lord’s Day.  Again, throughout the biblical witness, days have numbers which fall within months, but only the Sabbath is given a name.  The differentiation on this day is a solemn reminder of the one who has so named it.  And the second point is related.  On the created seventh day, into which the human is called to rest, there is no “work” of theirs which can be called finished.  In our modern vernacular we might say they do not deserve to rest having done no work.  From the bibles perspective, what they rest from has been given to them.  There is no recuperation required.  There is not even a “preparation” for the work to follow.   The invitation to “rest” is grace from the beginning.  Barth carefully exegetes the text to bring out the nature of Sabbath as “cessation,” stopping, not doing something else which could in other ways and days be considered relaxing, but truly “waiting” as onto the Lord.  On a recurring and tightly repeated pattern, the people of God are called to stop and let creation itself remind us of the Sabbath which God himself takes and now takes with us.


We come now to the final point.  The synoptic gospels carry the account of Jesus saying the “Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” and the “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”  In these words we are reminded that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… and without Him was not made anything that was made.”  On that Seventh Day, in the mystery of the triune God, the Sabbath was Jesus’ gift was well.  In the mystery of his being the “first born of all creation” and the “very fullness of the deity” He too rested.  Even though His word “It is finished” stands at the end of his earthly life, what was finished was already envisioned and perfected on the Seventh Day.  The grace of God is never an afterthought.  Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath is Himself at rest in the Father and prepares the way for us to rest with him.  The meaning and purpose of life is found in this invitation of the Seventh Day.  “Follow me.”



HebrewsTherefore, while the promise of entering his rest is still open, let us take care that none of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For indeed the good news came to us just as to them; but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.[a] For we who have believed enter that rest, just as God[b] has said,

“As in my anger I swore,
‘They shall not enter my rest,’”

though his works were finished at the foundation of the world. For in one place it speaks about the seventh day as follows, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” And again in this place it says, “They shall not enter my rest.” Since therefore it remains open for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he sets a certain day—“today”—saying through David much later, in the words already quoted,

“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.”

For if Joshua had given them rest, God[c] would not speak later about another day. So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; 10 for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his. 11 Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs.

12 Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

14 Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested[d] as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.