In the first of these reflections on the Sabbath, we considered it in the context of God’s creation. If you missed it, you can find it here. In this instalment, we are going to jump ahead to the 4th commandment and think about the Sabbath day in the context of the Law of Moses.
It wasn’t until God made a covenant with the people of Israel at Sinai that the Sabbath is associated with a specific command. The Sabbath ordinance of observing Saturday as a day of rest is not a “creation ordinance” but a “legal ordinance” that is patterned after the Creation week. The commandment is as follows…
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
There are a number of things we need to understand regarding the Law of Moses. First, God made the covenant with Israel in order to set them apart as a theocracy – a unique nation ruled by God’s law. The Law of Moses, including the ten commandments, was a part of the vision to establish this Israelite theocracy and was part of the covenant with Moses. Secondly, it is also important to note that the Mosaic covenant is conditional. If Israel obeyed, they would experience national peace and prosperity. If they broke the covenant, they would experience judgement and exile. Finally, the curses and blessings associated with this covenant were temporal and material.
The Sabbath plays an important role within this covenant, not only as one of the foundational moral principles but also as a sign of the Mosaic covenant of works.
Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. 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 31:16-17)
Obedience to the Sabbath day was a moral command for the people of Israel and a sign that the Israelites were under the Law, the Mosaic covenant. The sign of the Sabbath served two purposes: it pointed them back to God the creator who made them to enjoy a state of eternal blessing (lost in the fall), and it pointed them to God the Redeemer who rescued them out of slavery in Egypt. This is the God with whom they are in covenant.
Although I will look at the Sabbath in the New Testament in more detail during the next article, it should already become apparent that, as a command and sign of the Old Covenant (the Mosaic covenant), the Sabbath command does not apply to those who are no longer a national theocracy under the Old Covenant. At least, it should not be applied by Christians in the same way as theocratic Israel. Christians are New Covenant people.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Justin Taylor who summarises this point very helpfully.
We would expect the Sabbath to no longer be in force since it was the covenant sign of the Mosaic covenant, and… it is clear that believers are no longer under the Sinai covenant. Therefore, they are no longer bound by the sign of the covenant either. The Sabbath, as a covenant sign, celebrated Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, but the Exodus points forward, according to New Testament writers, to redemption in Christ. Believers in Christ were not freed from Egypt, and hence the covenant sign of Israel does not apply to them.