The word “sabbath” comes into English from a Hebrew word that means “rest.” The verb form, “to rest,” first appears at the end of the cosmic creation account in Genesis 2:2-3, informing the reader that on the seventh day God “rested from all his work.”The next time the scriptures mention a seventh day “rest” is in Exodus 16:23when God had brought Israel out of Egypt and began to supply bread, manna, for them six days a week. God used manna as a way of introducing the seven-day cycle of work and rest, six days to work and one day to rest, for the Israelite community. Several weeks later, the Sabbath was made part of God’s covenant with Israel at Sinai as the fourth commandment given by the voice of God and then written on the tablets of stone (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5).
The ten commandments are specifically identified by Moses in Deuteronomy 5:2as “a covenant”the LORD our God made “with us at Horeb”(Horeb is Sinai). The Sabbath was between God and Israel, the people God redeemed from slavery in Egypt. There is no hint anywhere that anyone prior to Israel in the wilderness was commanded to rest on the seventh day. Rather, in the prayer and praise of Nehemiah 9, when God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt was reviewed, we read that at Mt. Sinai God “gave them regulations and laws that are just and right... You made known to them your holy sabbath and gave them commands, decrees and laws through your servant Moses”(Nehemiah 9:13-14). Only in regard to the manna (Nehemiah 9:15)and the commands delivered at Sinai, was the Sabbath made known as a command of God for Israel. The uniqueness of this command as part of the Sinai covenant between God and Israel is emphasized again in Exodus 31:16-17where God told Moses, “The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever...”This was not a command God had given before to any other people, nor a part of any other covenant God established, but specifically a covenant sign between God and the people he brought out of Egypt.
In giving the Sabbath commandment to Israel, God reminded them of their deliverance from Egyptian slavery (Deuteronomy 5:6, 15), as well as the creation account (Exodus 20:8-11). Deliverance from slavery was one of the lessons of the Sabbath, that they could rest because God had given them rest. The Sabbath was to be a day of trusting God, Creator of the universe. They were to have enough faith to refrain from working one day each week, believing that God would bless their rest as well as their labor and provide. One lesson of the Sabbath was to be still and trust God, remembering what God had already done for them, as Creator and Redeemer. Rest, and be refreshed, God can be trusted.
The Sabbath commandment did stress remembering their own harsh servitude in Egypt. With that recollection the Israelites, when keeping the Sabbath, were to show mercy to those under their power, unlike the treatment they had received from their masters in Egypt. That is, not only were the adult Israelites to rest, but they were specifically instructed to allow their children, their servants, their animals, and their visitors to rest as well (Deuteronomy 5:14). During his ministry, when conflict repeatedly arose over his healing people on the Sabbath, Jesus reminded his critics that God desires “mercy, not sacrifice”and it “is lawful to do good on the Sabbath”(Matthew 12:7, 12). A day of rest and devotion was a day for mercy toward family and servants, and animals and strangers, and a day to still do what is right and good to meet the needs of others. Obedience and trust call for mercy tempering ceremony and ritual.
Several times in restating the Sabbath commandment for Israel, Moses emphasized that their day of rest was to be “a day of rest to the Lord”(Exodus 35:2). Not just a day of indolence, but a day dedicated to God. It was also mentioned as a “day of sacred assembly” in Leviticus 23:3, which was eventually formalized into the synagogue system we see in the New Testament stories. The Sabbath also required additional offerings each week (Numbers 28:9-10)and the rotation of the sacred bread of the presence eaten by the priests (Leviticus 24:8). The Israelites were to be holy and obedient to God, mindful of his commandments every day, but there was an emphasis in the Sabbath commandment for the individual, the family, the priests, and the community, to remember their relationship with the Lord and each other.
When the time came for the New Covenant of Christ (Matthew 26:28, Hebrews 7:22, 8:7ff),the Sabbath assemblies of the Jews among the nations provided a perfect opportunity for the apostles and evangelists of Christ to proclaim the good news of Jesus all over the Roman and Asian world, beginning with the Jews (Acts 13:14, 27, 42-47). The Sabbath commandment was part of God’s preparation of a people and a time for the proclamation of redemption in Christ to the world (Galatians 4:4).
When Jesus was raised early on the first day of the week, after “resting” in the tomb on the Sabbath, the first day was the day of resurrection appearances and became the day of Christian assembly and celebration, as mentioned in Acts 20:7and implied in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2. There was no deliverance from Egyptian slavery, but rather a new beginning, a new life, freed from bondage to sin (see Romans 6). There is no New Covenant command to not work when celebrating resurrection day, but there is a promise of rest for those who come to Jesus (Matthew 11:28, Hebrews 4:3),and the Sabbath lessons of faith in God, of mercy toward others, of dedication and holiness and remembrance of God’s works, of sacred assembly and doing good (Hebrews 10:24-25), of giving to God, all of those Sabbath lessons apply in the Covenant of Christ.