Beautifully, Shabbat in rabbinic tradition is sometimes pictured as a bride, or an approaching bride. The idea that we learn from this is that rest with the bridegroom is to be the condition of the bride – leading to the use of white tablecloths, and fine dinnerware on Shabbat.
In Exodus and Deuteronomy, two different words introduce the commandment regarding shabbat: remember and observe, respectively.
What does it mean to זָכוֹר, “remember” the Sabbath or to שָׁמוֹר, “guard” the Sabbath? What does it mean that “Sabbath was made for man (the betrothed), not man for the Sabbath?” Or, “the Son of Man is Lord (the Bridegroom), even of the Sabbath?”
Shabbat is a memorial of things accomplished/done in the past (remember), and a resting from what we are attempting to get done for the future (observe). It is, at heart, a recognition of Lordship, even headship.
It is a blessed day of “shabbating,” of resting. We might understand it in this way: Shabbat is the spiritual worship of God by the temporal rest of man – it is an act of worship through rest. It is the day our bodies worship by saying “ah!” and our heart and minds say “Hallelujah!”
Yet, there is more.
In Leviticus 23:3 we read, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן מִקְרָא-קֹדֶשׁ, “and the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, a holy gathering.” “Sabbath” and “rest” in this verse (שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן) come from the same root שָׁבַת, meaning “to repose, desist, cease, rest, cessation or to sit down.” When we speak of Shabbat, we are really speaking of resting – specifically sitting/reclining. But what is it we are “rehearsing,” rendered “holy gathering” above?
The marriage feast of the Lamb.
Rest, then, becomes a sign – a betrothal sign (Matt. 11:28). It is a rehearsal of the Bride and the Bridegroom uniting as one. We now remember, anticipate, and set in right perspective the work He has set before us (Eph. 2:10). It is a living sign of the past redemption, and the future redemption, as a semi-eschatological redemptive rest – living out the now but not yet, as we await:
“And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God” (Rev. 19:9).
How blessed we are now, and how blessed we indeed yet to be!
When I am blessed to be serving the Lord away from my home country, on a short term mission, I purposely make time to sit and hear from local pastors. I want to dialog, answer questions, encourage, and reason through Scripture together. I remember vividly in 2012 – when I was in Kenya East Africa to help launch a Bible institute focused on training poor, rural pastors – being approached by a ministry student, who was actually a seasoned minister, who asked me this question, “What is the proper day of worship?” I answered with a follow up question, “What do the Scriptures say?” He looked at me with a rather dumbfounded expression, not entirely sure what to say. Based on his expression I answered, “Exactly, there is no specifically commanded day of worship given in the Bible; as we are to worship every day.”
Still, this is probably the most frequently asked question I receive, whether at home or abroad. Yet, the question itself reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the day of rest commanded in the Fourth Commandment.
Sabbath/Shabbat is not explicitly commanded to be a day of worship in the sense that we commonly understand worship today. It is a blessed day of “shabbating” or resting; excuse my use of the nonexistent English verb form of “Shabbat.” We might understand it in this way: Shabbat is the temporal worship of God by the physical and spiritual rest of man – it is worship through rest, with wider implications than a single day.
“Remember the day of Shabbat, to make it holy. Six days you labor, and do all your labors; but the seventh day is a rest to the Lord your God” (translation mine).
זָכוֹר, zachor, is to “remember, mark, recall.” In the case of Shabbat, it remembers the work the Lord has done in the past by the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the exodus from Egypt. In the Erev Shabbat blessings (Friday evening blessing), Shabbat is described as a memorial. It is a memorial of things accomplished/done in the past, and a resting from what we are attempting to get done for the future. A literal translation of Exodus 20:8-10a might read in this way, “Remember the day of ceasing, to set him apart. Six days you serve, and you do all your business, but the seventh day is a ceasing to the Lord.”
The Fourth Commandment is the first commandment to be voiced positively; notwithstanding this, it is also the most controversial. There is a continuing debate among followers of Messiah regarding which day is the proper day of assembly and worship, Saturday or Sunday?
Theologian Dr. David Jones writes, “In seeking to keep the Sabbath in a specific sense, many believers ask the question of the correct day of observance. The Jews clearly kept the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week, which is Saturday. In the New Testament, however, the early church moved the day of Sabbath observance to the first day of the week, which is Sunday.”
Jones holds that a Sabbath is an ethical imperative, but we will leave that for a few moments. He supports his statement that the early church changed the day of Sabbath observance by citing three verses of Scripture: John 20:26; Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2. I am not persuaded by this, either as Jones argues, or others arguing the same point.
Let us consider each of these briefly, you may want to read them for yourselves before considering my explanation below.
The events recorded in John 20:26 happen eight days after the day mentioned in John 20:19. The disciples were gathered together in 20:19 at the end of the Feast of First-Fruits, probably to share a meal, as the scripture does not say “day one of the week,” but “one of the Sabbaths,” referring to the Feast of First-Fruits – during this feast, Yeshua was resurrected (cf. Jn. 20:14). Yeshua was resurrected on the first day, Sunday, in order to be the eschatological fulfillment of the Feast of First-fruits, not to change the day of worship, as there was nothing to change in that regard. Further, there is no clear reference as to what time of day this gathering took place on the 8th Day: after Shabbat? during the daylight? toward the end of the day? The most probable reason for John to include this detail was the circumcision of Thomas’ heart – an 8thDay event, metaphorically speaking (Jn. 20:28).
In Acts 20:7, the brethren were “gathered to break bread.” This is a reference to the meal that would traditionally follow Havdalah, the formal end of the Sabbath day – on what we could call “Saturday night,” which biblically is the dawning of the first day of the week, in the evening, not the morning. As most Jewish families or small groups of friends were gathered to end Shabbat together anyway. The detail of Paul speaking until midnight, then, is a matter of a few hours, not a eighteen hour sermon, and was a common occurrence with a visiting rabbi.
I Corinthians 16:2.
I Corinthians 16:2 is probably a reference to “Motzi Shabbat” or the “departure of Shabbat” for a number of reasons. If Paul was observing Sunday as the “new” holiday, he would not have commanded both Jewish and Gentile believers to bring money on that day – as handling money on a day of rest would be biblical problematic for Paul. The only other place where this phrase, “day one of the week” or literally, “one of the Sabbaths” is used in reference to Paul is Acts 20:7, a clear indication of gathering for a meal after Havdalah – the dawning of the first day.
We do not find in these references a change of the day of gathering for purposes of worship – it simply is not there. Rather, we find in Acts 2:46, “And day by day, continuing with one mind in the Holy Temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart” (emphasis added).
Now please remember this, no one is going to be judged according to the keeping of a particular day of worship, and I point you to Paul’s words in Colossians 2:16-17 to underscore that point. In this setting we will not have time to address all of the theological issues raised by the covenant Lord’s inclusion of a resting day in the Ten Commandments, so we will look more closely at one aspect of Shabbat: the ethical principle of resting.
Theologian Dr. John Stott, among others, has noted that Shabbat is the climax of the creation narrative. In the creation account of Genesis 1 – 2, the Lord created for six days, then He blessed and rested on the seventh day (Gen. 2:1-3). This is understood as a creation ordinance, having eternal ethical standing. How so? As the Lord does not rest, as we might understand, He gave humanity a type of behavior to help us draw closer to Him in faith.
The sin of Adam and Eve, and their subsequent removal from the Garden of Eden, complicated the human condition, to say the least. As the beginning chapters of Genesis unfold, we find humanity moving further away from the Lord, not closer to Him. Until, that is, the calling of Abraham (Gen. 12). It is from Abraham, and the Lord’s covenant relationship with him, that a unique people would be singled out in the human drama to bear the light of heaven to a darkening world.
Israel is to be a light to the nations – to show forth the knowledge of the one true God, and help humanity draw closer to Him. A purpose we find reimagined in the Pauline vision of the one new humanity.
The Sabbath, as given in the Fourth Commandment, rests upon two events: 1) God’s rest after creation, and 2) God’s acts of redemption. It has long been understood that Shabbat is a type of the Messiah who would usher in rest from our works, and deliverance from the enemy, however that enemy may appear.
From this we learn what God desires to teach us about Himself, not about us, through Shabbat: 1) that He is our rest, and 2) He is our salvation.
We find the full meaning of Shabbat/rest in Messiah, who identifies Himself in Matthew 12:8 (cf. Lk. 6:5) as “Lord of the Shabbat.” Incidentally, it is often argued among theologians that the New Covenant affirms nine of the ten commandments, the exception being the fourth, Shabbat. I can find, nor do I find need for, any greater affirmation of Shabbat than Yeshua declaring Himself to be the Lord of it! Further, as our rest and salvation, Yeshua says, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I shall give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am meek and humble in heart, and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is gentle and My burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).
More than it appears.
In the Law of Moses, we find seven Shabbatot (plural for Shabbat), which blend ethical, spiritual, civil and ceremonial elements together; most of which relates solely to ancient Israel. Yet, the Fourth Commandment, resting on both the creation and redemption narratives, speaks to an enduring ethical obligation for those in Messiah. As I mentioned above, the argument over which day of the week is the “correct” day of worship is simply nonsense – and no answer can be confirmed in Scripture with any hope of scriptural accuracy, without relying on tradition and preference for enforcement – please note that I wrote “worship” and not rest. Still, there are two primary ethical obligations that we must shine forth through the ordinance of Shabbat, or the ordinance of rest.
That we are resting, daily, in He who is the full picture of the Sabbath type and shadow – Messiah. That we are resting from our fears, our guilt and shame, and our attempts to please the Lord God through our own works. This is rest, Shabbat, as demonstration of faith-obedience.
That we give ourselves a rest, physically, and recognize that all people, and beasts of burden, need rest as well. This rest is a guard against enslavement – and as a result, Shabbat safeguards life.
The primary purpose of Shabbat is not to make a day untouchable, but to foster a lifestyle of faithing toward God – loving Him, and because of that love, loving others. Therefore, the ethical imperative of rest is a demonstration of loving God with all our heart, soul and strength – and loving our neighbor, the stranger and even our enemy as our very selves – the great commandments.
As we rest we are remembering His acts of creation and redemption. We are leaving undone what we have yet to do, or complete. We are pausing to rest in our Lord – trusting Him with our livelihood.
Shabbat is more than a day: it is a rest for our weary souls that is daily walked out even in the midst of great physical toil, and in the middle of the work week.
Let us learn to rest, every day, in Him. Resting is the imperative, and “avoiding” rest because one is “free” in Christ is not an allowance found in Scripture. Arguing over the proper day of worship is futile, even arrogant – see above. Worship as a congregation as you feel led, comfortable, and even convicted to the best of your knowledge – provided that direction of your worship is Him, and that it is done daily. That being said, give others the same grace and room that you would expect to receive in return (Matt. 7:12).
Shalom. Be well.
 This is a reference to the day of Shabbat, as Kadosh is a masculine noun.