In Exodus 20:8, God commands His people:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, 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, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
This would serve to establish an entire system of observances built around the idea of Sabbath.
The Sabbath Cycle
The original Hebrew word Shabbat means to “cease from labor.” The idea is that you withdraw from the labors and distractions of this world to focus entirely on family and God when observing Shabbat. It is a reminder that God is the source of all blessings and life, and that He is the standard by which we measure what really matters as reflected in the kiddush and havdalah blessings that open and close Shabbat observance.
As outlined in Leviticus 25, every seventh year was a year of Sabbath. This is called shmita, meaning “release”. This year of release was a time of healing and restoration. The land was to rest and heal from cultivation and debts were to be released. It was also a time of faith, for anyone observing shmita would have to have faith that God would care for them and their families during this time when they forgave debts and rested the land.
The final component of the Sabbath system is also in Leviticus 25. This is Jubilee, also called yovel, or “a trumpet blast of liberty”. Every seven shmitas, Jubilee would be announced by the blowing of a shofur — a trumpet fashioned from a ram’s horn. The year of Jubilee was more than an extra Sabbath year to conclude the cycle; Jubilee included everything associated with the Sabbath year as well as returning all land property to its original owners or families and releasing all indentured servants from labor.
Several themes repeat through the Sabbath system, themes that were meant to remind the children of Israel all their God had done for them in their release from Egypt and their inheritance of the Promised Land.
- Freedom. People were to free themselves from worldly labors. The land would be freed from cultivation. People would be freed from debts, and servants freed from their bondage.
- Redemption. With freedom came redemption, extending to both people and property. These were restored back to their original places, released from any debts they might have previously been held under.
- Healing. The forgiveness of debts allowed for the unity of God’s people to heal, and abstinence from labor and agriculture allowed both people and the land to heal from the burdens of perpetual labor.
Jesus addresses these themes when He reads the prophecy of Isaiah in Luke 4:16. He reads about liberty, about healing, and about redemption. He is reading about the Messianic Jubilee, and then He closes the scroll and says He is there to fulfill those verses. Jesus is our eternal Sabbath. He is our Jubilee, and we find freedom, redemption, and healing in Him.
Our Sabbath Rest
Our biggest association with the Sabbath is rest. Shabbat is often translated as “rest,” but a more accurate translation is “to cease from labor.” The Sabbath is not a time to merely lay back and do nothing. Rather, it is a time to withdraw from the cares and labors of this world to focus on things above. It is a time to spend with family and others of like faith, reading from God’s word, saying prayers, singing hymns, and meditating on God. It is a rest from man’s labors, so God’s people can be about His work instead.
This is Jesus’ call in Matthew 11:28 when He says:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
He wants to take us away from the heavy burdens of this word. He still has work for us to do, but His is a gentle work, filled with peace and hope. It is a work that is lighter than the hopeless burdens of this world.
Ephesians 2 explains that we walk by faith in God’s grace, that we do not rely on our earthly works to merit God’s forgiveness, but Paul still says we are created for good works in verse 10. He calls on us to celebrate a Sabbath from this world when we come to Christ. We release the cares and concerns of this world. We release anxiety and ambition, and we look above. Like Jesus says in Matthew chapters 6 and 7, we cease to worry about tomorrow and we look up. We seek God’s kingdom first. We trust in Him, and we will find rest from the cares of this world.
Accepting Christ into our hearts — truly and fully accepting Him — gives us rest. It means we no longer have to worry about or fear the powers of this world, for they cannot take our hope away from us. It means we no longer worry about getting ahead in business or wealth, for those do not affect our hope. We withdraw from the cares, the priorities, the work, and the anxiety of the world, so we can fully focus on God’s work.
Just as the Sabbath system of the Old Testament pointed to something better, so does our peace in Christ. Hebrews 3 and 4 talks about a final rest for God’s people, a better rest than anything we can hope for in this world. There still remains a greater Sabbath for God’s people, and that will come when Christ comes again. The invitation to that rest is always the same. “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your heart.” Let God into your heart, and enter into Christ’s Sabbath. Then set yourself to fulfill the new ministry before you, working and worshipping side by side with your new family in Him, looking ever toward that final Sabbath.
lesson by Robert Smelser