[Note: This is the prepared text for a message given to The Dalles congregation of the United Church of God on Sabbath, July 23, 2022.]
When we last spoke about the boundaries of the Sabbath we focused on the discussion of the sort of work that was acceptable and even commanded on the Sabbath. What I would like to do today is discuss the boundaries of the Sabbath in a different respect, and examine the boundaries of the Sabbath itself. Why does the Sabbath exist and what does the Sabbath point to? We speak about and think about the Sabbath often, especially the context of the Sabbath and the Holy Days, but the boundaries of the Sabbath is something that is less often discussed.
Yet the subject of the boundaries of the Sabbath as well as its purpose for mankind is something that appears very early on in scripture and is something that is present under the surface throughout much of scripture, and so let us look today at some of the first elements of the Sabbath as we find them in Genesis. Let us first turn to Genesis 1:14-19, and the discussion of the sun and the moon as being set for signs and seasons. Genesis 1:14-19 reads: “ Then God said, “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons, and for days and years; and let them be for lights in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth”; and it was so. Then God made two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night. He made the stars also. God set them in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. So the evening and the morning were the fourth day.”
From this we may see that the sun and the moon determined the various signs and seasons that people would experience on the earth. Seven days make a week, one rotation of the moon from new moon to full and back again made for a month, and so it goes. The combination of the sun and moon established the time cycles that the people of the Bible lived within, matters which always required a great deal of observation and calculation. We first see the Sabbath itself mentioned a little later in Genesis. Let us turn over a page or so, perhaps, to Genesis 2:1-3. Genesis 2:1-3 reads: “Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.” With the Sabbath day, after mankind had been created, God was finished with his initial work of creation, and so He rested on the seventh day to set an example for us.
It is this example which He points to when the Sabbath is discussed in the ten commandments, so let us now turn to Exodus 20:8-11. This discussion of the Sabbath points to creation and not to the deliverance of Israel from slavery as the repetition of the ten commandments in Deuteronomy did. Exodus 20:8-11 reads: ““Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.” Here we see that since God rested after the creation was done, so too we see the command that mankind rest likewise. And so too we should note that this rest was not limited to an elite, but included sons and daughters, manservants and maidservants, and even foreigners and animals. No one was to be excluded from the rest that the Sabbath supplied, except for those who, as we noted in the last message, were serving God and the people of God as part of their labors.
It should be noted here that the Sabbath was a matter of great importance to God throughout the Bible. So far we have stayed in familiar territory when talking about the boundaries of the Sabbath, but we will try in this next section to discuss some of the more far-flung aspects of the importance of the Sabbath, dipping into more familiar sections mainly for necessary context. By recognizing the importance of the Sabbath to God we can better understand how the Sabbath should be important to us, and what sort of lessons we should be drawing from the Sabbath commandment in our own lives and in our own thinking.
Let us note first that the Sabbath commandment was established before Mount Sinai. We have already read about the beginnings of the Sabbath in Genesis that are pointed to in Exodus when the Sabbath is mentioned as the fourth commandment. But the Sabbath had already been introduced in Exodus 16:22-30. Let us read what is said there in Exodus 16:22-30: “And so it was, on the sixth day, that they gathered twice as much bread, two omers for each one. And all the rulers of the congregation came and told Moses. Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Tomorrow is a Sabbath rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord. Bake what you will bake today, and boil what you will boil; and lay up for yourselves all that remains, to be kept until morning.’ ” So they laid it up till morning, as Moses commanded; and it did not stink, nor were there any worms in it. Then Moses said, “Eat that today, for today is a Sabbath to the Lord; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will be none.” Now it happened that some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather, but they found none. And the Lord said to Moses, “How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My laws? See! For the Lord has given you the Sabbath; therefore He gives you on the sixth day bread for two days. Let every man remain in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.” So the people rested on the seventh day.”
Here it is that we see that while some people disobeyed the Sabbath commandment and treated the Sabbath just like any other day, the people as a whole did rest on the Sabbath day and followed the commandments that had been given concerning the Sabbath day. It is worth noting as well that the Sabbath, even before Sinai, was considered to be a part of God’s commandments and laws. This gives us the implication, of course, that God’s Sabbath and other aspects of God’s laws were known and understood at least in part before they were fully discussed at Mt. Sinai, and that what we see here is a weekly miraculous aspect of God preserving food so as to demonstrate the worth and importance of the Sabbath.
We also see that the Sabbath has its own covenant in Exodus 31:12-18. Much of this covenant is a repetition of what is seen in Exodus 19, but there are some new details we see as well. Exodus 31:12-18 reads: “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak also to the children of Israel, saying: ‘Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you. You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. 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.’ ” And when He had made an end of speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses two tablets of the Testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.”
Again, we see notes about the death penalty being applied to those who profane the Sabbath, but what is new here is a focus on several aspects that serve to remind us about the importance of the Sabbath to God. For one, not only is the Sabbath a sign between God and believers throughout the entirety of human history–and not only the Jews either–but it is also a recognition that just as God sanctified and set aside the Sabbath day as holy, so He does the same thing to us. Our sanctification by God depends on our recognizing what God has set aside and made holy and treating it as God does with the respect and honor that He has placed on such things and such times.
We are sufficiently familiar with Leviticus 23 to pass by this chapter without a great deal of time except to note that the language that this chapter uses in expanding the Sabbath in many ways mirrors what we have already read in Exodus. It is Leviticus 25 that I would like to turn to in looking at two ways in which the Sabbath is expanded in ways that are repeated throughout the Hebrew prophets. Let us first look at Leviticus 25:1-7, which discusses the Sabbath year of rest for the land. Leviticus 25:1-7 reads: “And the Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When you come into the land which I give you, then the land shall keep a sabbath to the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather its fruit; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath to the Lord. You shall neither sow your field nor prune your vineyard. What grows of its own accord of your harvest you shall not reap, nor gather the grapes of your untended vine, for it is a year of rest for the land. And the sabbath produce of the land shall be food for you: for you, your male and female servants, your hired man, and the stranger who dwells with you, for your livestock and the beasts that are in your land—all its produce shall be for food.”
Here we see that the Sabbath, which we think of as being for people primarily and animals secondarily, is also for the land, so that it can rest from exploitation. The principle of rest expands far beyond what we tend to think, and given the way that the agricultural productivity of a great deal of land has been harmed over the millennia through the overuse of land, the rest of land is something that is of vital importance when we consider the well-being of people. As we will note a little bit later, this aspect of the Sabbath rest is something that Israel forgot and it is something that became a part of their own judgment by God.
Let us also look briefly at Leviticus 25:39-43, which reminds us of the aspects of Sabbath freedom that related to slavery for Israelites and other believers. Leviticus 25:39-43 reads: “‘And if one of your brethren who dwells by you becomes poor, and sells himself to you, you shall not compel him to serve as a slave. As a hired servant and a sojourner he shall be with you, and shall serve you until the Year of Jubilee. And then he shall depart from you—he and his children with him—and shall return to his own family. He shall return to the possession of his fathers. For they are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. You shall not rule over him with rigor, but you shall fear your God.”
Here we see that there were strict limitations that were placed on the service owed by Israelites, and that the people of Israel were not to be permanent slaves, but were set free at the jubilee (if they were not freed at the normal Sabbath year) to return to their land, and not to be permanently exploited by wealthier elites. It is to the regret and shame of Israel that they did not obey these commandments about the Sabbath and that their disobedience became an aspect of divine judgment that came upon the land of Judah.
The author of 2 Chronicles makes a clear connection between the refusal of the people of Judah to obey God’s laws about the Sabbath and other commandments and to respect the warning of the prophets God sent to the judgment that came upon them in Babylonian exile. We find this written, for example, in 2 Chronicles 36:15-21. 2 Chronicles 36:15-21 reads: “And the Lord God of their fathers sent warnings to them by His messengers, rising up early and sending them, because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place. But they mocked the messengers of God, despised His words, and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against His people, till there was no remedy. Therefore He brought against them the king of the Chaldeans, who killed their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion on young man or virgin, on the aged or the weak; He gave them all into his hand. And all the articles from the house of God, great and small, the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king and of his leaders, all these he took to Babylon. Then they burned the house of God, broke down the wall of Jerusalem, burned all its palaces with fire, and destroyed all its precious possessions. And those who escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon, where they became servants to him and his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her Sabbaths. As long as she lay desolate she kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.”
Here we see that God first sent prophets to warn Judah to obey, and when those prophets were ignored and scoffed at, that God sent judgment upon Judah, with the point that as long as Judah was desolate in captivity that the land kept the Sabbath, to fulfill all the land Sabbaths that the people of Judah had refused to obey, which amounted to seventy years.
We see in Jeremiah, already referred to above, that just as the people and rulers of Judah rejected the land Sabbath and it contributed to their judgment by God, so too did they fail to free their Israelite servants, which also brought judgment upon them. We see this most notably in Jeremiah 34:8-22, which gives the story of the treachery of Zedekiah and Judah’s leadership in refusing to free slaves, with results that ought to be rather chilling to us today as we reflect upon exploitation and oppression in our own contemporary society. Jeremiah 34:8-22 reads: “This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people who were at Jerusalem to proclaim liberty to them: that every man should set free his male and female slave—a Hebrew man or woman—that no one should keep a Jewish brother in bondage. Now when all the princes and all the people, who had entered into the covenant, heard that everyone should set free his male and female slaves, that no one should keep them in bondage anymore, they obeyed and let them go. But afterward they changed their minds and made the male and female slaves return, whom they had set free, and brought them into subjection as male and female slaves. Therefore the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: ‘I made a covenant with your fathers in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, saying, “At the end of seven years let every man set free his Hebrew brother, who has been sold to him; and when he has served you six years, you shall let him go free from you.” But your fathers did not obey Me nor incline their ear. Then you recently turned and did what was right in My sight—every man proclaiming liberty to his neighbor; and you made a covenant before Me in the house which is called by My name. Then you turned around and profaned My name, and every one of you brought back his male and female slaves, whom you had set at liberty, at their pleasure, and brought them back into subjection, to be your male and female slaves.’ “Therefore thus says the Lord: ‘You have not obeyed Me in proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother and every one to his neighbor. Behold, I proclaim liberty to you,’ says the Lord—‘to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine! And I will deliver you to trouble among all the kingdoms of the earth. And I will give the men who have transgressed My covenant, who have not performed the words of the covenant which they made before Me, when they cut the calf in two and passed between the parts of it—the princes of Judah, the princes of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf— I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their life. Their dead bodies shall be for meat for the birds of the heaven and the beasts of the earth. And I will give Zedekiah king of Judah and his princes into the hand of their enemies, into the hand of those who seek their life, and into the hand of the king of Babylon’s army which has gone back from you. Behold, I will command,’ says the Lord, ‘and cause them to return to this city. They will fight against it and take it and burn it with fire; and I will make the cities of Judah a desolation without inhabitant.’ ”’
What we see here is that a failure to observe the Sabbath as it related to freeing Israelite bondservants on the Sabbath year was directly connected to national judgment. Those who sought to exploit and take advantage of others were given freedom from divine protection and freedom to suffer violence by the sword, pestilence and disease, as well as famine. We see these same freedoms enjoyed by our contemporary society at present or threatened in the near future. We too have rejected God’s Sabbath principles not only as they related to the Sabbath and Holy Days but also when it comes to freedom from debt and oppression and the rest of the land and its people to honor God, and we too will face the consequences for our hardness of heart and the desire of our leaders to take advantage of and oppress others.
When we turn to the book of Isaiah, we see the expansion of the Sabbath spoken of as well in ways that we might not expect. Isaiah 56:1-8, for example, speaks of the expansion of God’s blessings to foreigners and eunuchs, people who tended to be excluded from fully identifying with Israel and Judah. Isaiah 56:1-8 reminds us the following: “Thus says the Lord: “Keep justice, and do righteousness, for My salvation is about to come, and My righteousness to be revealed. Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who lays hold on it; who keeps from defiling the Sabbath, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.” Do not let the son of the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord speak, saying, “The Lord has utterly separated me from His people”; nor let the eunuch say, “Here I am, a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: “To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, and choose what pleases Me, and hold fast My covenant, even to them I will give in My house and within My walls a place and a name better than that of sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. “Also the sons of the foreigner who join themselves to the Lord, to serve Him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be His servants—Everyone who keeps from defiling the Sabbath, and holds fast My covenant—Even them I will bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on My altar; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, says, “Yet I will gather to him others besides those who are gathered to him.””
Here we see that God specifically told those who were not considered fully part of Israel–those whose status as eunuchs prevented them from having children and those whose foreign background made them outsiders among His people–that their obedience to God’s laws and ways and especially their honoring of the Sabbath, would bring them into a full belonging with God’s people, to receive all of the blessings that would follow from that identity. The Sabbath has never been about the Jews or the Israelites but about the relationship between God and all who follow Him, regardless of their background or status. All who join themselves to the Eternal in obedience and loyalty will be gathered to Him as part of His people to partake in the blessings that He gives to His children.
Only a couple of chapters, though, we are reminded that not all expansions of the Sabbath are equally welcome, and this is something we ought to take to heart. Let us read Isaiah 58 in its entirety, as it helps to place the Sabbath and the additional fasts that have been kept by tradition by Jews for centuries in a larger context about what the Sabbath means. Isaiah 58 reads: ““Cry aloud, spare not; lift up your voice like a trumpet; tell My people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek Me daily, and delight to know My ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and did not forsake the ordinance of their God. They ask of Me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching God. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?’ “In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, and exploit all your laborers. Indeed you fast for strife and debate, and to strike with the fist of wickedness. You will not fast as you do this day, to make your voice heard on high. Is it a fast that I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? “Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ “If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you extend your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall dawn in the darkness, and your darkness shall be as the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your soul in drought, and strengthen your bones; you shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. Those from among you shall build the old waste places; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; and you shall be called the Repairer of the Breach, The Restorer of Streets to Dwell In. “If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on My holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable, and shall honor Him, not doing your own ways, nor finding your own pleasure, nor speaking your own words, then you shall delight yourself in the Lord; and I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth, and feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father. The mouth of the Lord has spoken.””
There is a lot going on in this chapter, but for our purposes today it is important to note that God was not pleased with people who went through the motions when it came to observing the Sabbath or fasting if they failed to understand and grasp and live out the purposes of fasting and the Sabbath. The point of the Sabbath was to honor God, not to be trampled on for our own private and personal pleasures. Those who claimed to honor the Sabbath have not always actually honored God in their behavior. Similarly, the point of fasting was to humble ourselves before God and seek the well-being of other people, and those who fasted while taking advantage of and exploiting others were acting in an ungodly way that brought upon themselves the wrath and displeasure of a God who cares deeply about matters of mercy and justice. One cannot be unjust and tyrannical and be a true servant and follower of God, and that is a lesson that applies for us as much as it did for ancient Israel in the time of Isaiah.
When we expand the Sabbath not only backwards to look at God’s work in creating the earth and delivering Israel from slavery, but also forward to look at the millennial rest and the new heavens and new earth that God will provide for those faithful followers who remain obedient to God until death, we recognize that the Sabbath has a lot of layers to it. One of the writings that engages in these layers of the Sabbath rest is Psalm 95. We will read this psalm in its entirety, as it opens with a look back at the creation of God but looks forward to the millennial rest of God. Psalm 95 reads: “Oh come, let us sing to the Lord! Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving; let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms. For the Lord is the great God, and the great King above all gods. In His hand are the deep places of the earth; the heights of the hills are His also. The sea is His, for He made it; and His hands formed the dry land. Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord our Maker. For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand. Today, if you will hear His voice: “Do not harden your hearts, as in the rebellion, as in the day of trial in the wilderness, When your fathers tested Me; they tried Me, though they saw My work. For forty years I was grieved with that generation, and said, ‘It is a people who go astray in their hearts, and they do not know My ways.’ So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest.’ ””
God owns the universe because He created it. We are reminded as this psalm begins of the work that God undertook in creation, in making a suitable place for human beings to inhabit. We are then reminded of our own identity as God’s people, those who have been called to obey Him and to walk in faith. The psalm then ends ominously, with a reminder of the fate of rebellious ancient Israel in the wilderness, whose refusal to walk in God’s ways led God to deny them entrance into His rest. When we think of Israel’s rebellions, we tend to focus on the fact that they were denied entrance into the promised land because of their refusal to have faith in God, but here God reminds us through the psalmist that the stakes were far greater. The people of Israel, through their rebellion, missed out on the chance to enter into God’s millennial rest, and not only the rest of the promised land.
And it is this millennial rest that the author of Hebrews points to when he connects the Sabbath for New Testament believers to the rest that remains to come for believers. An extended commentary of Psalm 95 forms much of Hebrews chapters 3 and 4, and it is to this commentary that we will turn, as the author of Hebrews connects the Sabbath to the millennium, and the life of the Christian believer with the warning of what happened to the people of Israel in the wilderness. Let us see the first part of this commentary in Hebrews 3:4-19. Hebrews 3:4-19 reads: “For every house is built by someone, but He who built all things is God. And Moses indeed was faithful in all His house as a servant, for a testimony of those things which would be spoken afterward, but Christ as a Son over His own house, whose house we are if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm to the end. Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says: “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, in the day of trial in the wilderness, where your fathers tested Me, tried Me, and saw My works forty years. Therefore I was angry with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart, and they have not known My ways.’ So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest.’ ” Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called “Today,” lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end, while it is said: “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” For who, having heard, rebelled? Indeed, was it not all who came out of Egypt, led by Moses? Now with whom was He angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.”
Let us note in this passage that we begin with a recognition of God as the Creator of all things, which is the basis of the Sabbath day and the importance of us remembering and honoring it. After recognizing God as Creator, we are then reminded of Israel’s rebellion and their inability to enter into God’s rest because of the hardness of their hearts and their unbelief, despite having seen God’s miraculous care of Israel in deliverance from slavery, in the provision of daily food and water, and in God’s generosity in providing them with laws and a godly structure to their lives. None of this was enough to lead them to have faith and obedience in God. The author of Hebrews reminds us that we ought to learn from this bad example and exhort each other daily so that we can avoid having a heart that is hardened through the deceitfulness of sin, which would lead us to the same evil fate as the Israelites suffered in being denied entry into the rest of God because of unbelief.
Continuing in his commentary of Psalm 95, the author of Hebrews then spends most of chapter 4 of Hebrews in connecting the observance of the Sabbath with larger ideas of rest as well as the reality of divine judgment for all humanity, including we ourselves. Let us continue looking at Hebrews 4:1-16. Hebrews 4:1-16 reads: “Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it. For we who have believed do enter that rest, as He has said: “So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest,’ ” although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. For He has spoken in a certain place of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all His works”; and again in this place: “They shall not enter My rest.” Since therefore it remains that some must enter it, and those to whom it was first preached did not enter because of disobedience, again He designates a certain day, saying in David, “Today,” after such a long time, as it has been said: “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” For if Joshua had given them rest, then He would not afterward have spoken of another day. There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His. Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience. For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account. Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Again, as we have noted before, a lot is going on in this chapter. We begin with the author of Hebrews stating that there remains a promise of entering His rest, since it is obvious if we look around us that we have not yet entered the rest and peace of His eternal kingdom. Here again the author points to the rest of Creation and God’s own rest from His labors of Creation, and then points out again that the people of Israel who were first offered the millennial rest did not enter into that rest because of their disobedience, and after centuries, during the time of David this offer was again mentioned in Psalm 95. If Israel had entered into the millennial rest during the time of Joshua there would be no need again to speak of another rest centuries later. And it is this promise of a future rest that is yet to come that leads the author of Hebrews to remind us that there remains an observance of the Sabbath because there is still something to which the Sabbath is pointing, that eternal rest in the Kingdom of God, that we have not yet reached. After this reminder, we are told to be diligent again to enter that future rest, and to avoid the disobedience practiced by ancient Israel. This is followed by a reminder that all beings are accountable to judgment by God, and we are then reminded of the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ that we receive in time of need.
Having said all of this, let us note that so far we have seen that the Sabbath is temporally bounded, either pointing back towards creation or forwards to the establishment of God’s eternal rest for a redeemed humanity. Understanding this can help us to make sense of what Paul says in Colossians 2:16-17. These verses have often been misapplied as a statement against the Sabbath, but in reality they affirm what is written in Hebrews 4 that we have just read. Colossians 2:16-17 reads: “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ. ” The Sabbath is indeed a shadow, in that it reflects God’s acts in creation in the past, or the millennial rest and the establishment of the new heavens and new earth yet to come. But rather than diminishing the Sabbath by pointing out that it is a shadow, the Sabbath is made more important by tying it to both history and prophecy, and by reflecting upon the way in which the Sabbath is a demonstration both of God’s justice and His mercy towards His creation.
We are reminded at the end of the Bible, though, that the sun that helps determines our times and seasons will not always exist for us. Revelation 22:1-5 gives us a picture of the new Jerusalem. And Revelation 22:1-5 reads: “And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him. They shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. There shall be no night there: They need no lamp nor light of the sun, for the Lord God gives them light. And they shall reign forever and ever.” In a world where there is no death, no sorrow, no memory of sin, no light or lamp of the sun, and no division of time into day or night, it is unclear what sort of division of time will exist in the world to come, and it is not my interest to speculate in our observance of the Sabbath in a time when all who remain alive will have been given eternal life and will be at peace and at rest with God and each other. We will leave that blessed reality to be enjoyed and understood when it comes, and when we have more information about such matters than we have been given at present.
In the meantime, though, let us conclude for today. The Sabbath has always been bounded by time, whether when we look back to God’s rest after having finished the work of Creation, or in the future when God and His Family are at rest when we have entered into His kingdom for all eternity. Our observance of the Sabbath has always been connected with honoring God and what He has made holy and set apart, and also in our mercy and generosity towards other people. The Sabbath has always been connected with both God’s justice and God’s mercy, with the reminder that we are accountable to God for how we treat God’s Sabbath and also the people whom God has created in His image, and even the plants and the land that God has given us, and that God wants us to be merciful to others as He has been merciful to us. The Sabbath is a shadow of what has been and what is to come, and because of that, because it still points to a future rest that we have not yet entered into, there remains a Sabbath observance for God’s people. May we all enter into God’s promised rest, and not be denied entry due to disobedience and unbelief.