How and why did the Sabbath day originate? Who created it, and when? When is the Sabbath to be observed, and does it matter? Who is expected to keep it?
Despite the misconceptions many have, the Bible is quite clear on these important questions. You need to understand the answers!
"And on the seventh day God ended His work . . . 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" (Genesis 2:2-3).
When we think of the Sabbath, we often think of the Ten Commandments, which God revealed when the ancient Israelites left Egypt under the leadership of Moses. The events of that period of Israel's history—the Exodus—were extraordinary. The plagues on Egypt, the death of all Egypt's firstborn, the parting of the Red Sea, manna coming from heaven for food in the desert and God giving Moses the Ten Commandments on stone tablets were all miraculous occurrences.
These events were dramatic testimony to the birth of a new nation. And in the midst of these incredible beginnings, God told His new nation to remember something. "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy," He commanded His people (Exodus 20:8).
He pointed them back to His role as Creator, reminding them that "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" (verse 11).
The Sabbath commandment had an important spiritual purpose. It pointed God's people to Him as the supreme Maker of all things. It was a required weekly remembrance that a higher power and authority is at work in our lives and the lives of all humanity. God intended that the Sabbath be observed as a reminder of that fact.
God revealed the Sabbath day by miracles
The significance of the Sabbath was evident before God gave the Ten Commandments to the nation of Israel. For example, a few weeks earlier, after the crossing of the Red Sea, when the Israelites witnessed the destruction of Pharaoh's armies, Israel entered the vast desert wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula. Within a few days the Israelites' food supplies, brought with them from Egypt, were exhausted. "You have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger," they cried to Moses (Exodus 16:3).
However, God was already a step ahead of them. He promised to send manna, a miraculous substance to nourish and sustain them for as long as they were in the wilderness (verses 4, 15-18).
But God imposed a condition. He would provide the manna only six days out of every seven. On the sixth day there would be twice as much as usual, but none on the seventh day (verses 5, 22). Moses explained to the people what God had told him: "Tomorrow is a Sabbath rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord . . . Lay up for yourselves all that remains, to be kept until morning . . . Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is the Sabbath, there will be none" (verses 23, 26). But some didn't listen and "went out on the seventh day to gather, but they found none" (verse 27).
What was God's reaction? He said: "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" (verses 28-29).
Here, several weeks before He spoke the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, God said the Israelites were refusing to keep His commandments and laws! He also said, "The Lord has given you the Sabbath." He didn't say "is giving" or "will give"; He had already given them the Sabbath, to be observed every seventh day!
When God commanded Israel, "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" (Exodus 20:8), and told the Israelites they were refusing to keep His commandments and laws by violating the Sabbath before they arrived at Mount Sinai (Exodus 16:28), He pointed them back to the original creation week.
God set apart the Sabbath day
In the book of Genesis we read of God creating the earth, then filling it with plants and animals and forming it into a dazzlingly beautiful home for the first man and woman, Adam and Eve. Here we read of the real origin of the Sabbath: "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" (Genesis 2:2-3).
This day was different from the other days of creation week. God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it. The word sanctify means to set apart as holy. God specifically set apart the seventh day, making it holy. We read three times in these two verses that God did not work on this day. The emphasis is that this was His day of rest. It was God's Sabbath rest.
Some people dispute this interpretation, saying this was not the origin of the commanded day of rest, noting that the word Sabbath isn't mentioned here. However, the Hebrew word translated "rested" is a form of shabath, the root word for "Sabbath." Shabath means to cease, or rest, and it is from this that the Sabbath gets its meaning as "a day of rest." To paraphrase the account in Genesis 2, "God sabbathed on the seventh day from all His work." The Hebrew language is clear and unambiguous in its intent.
God made the Sabbath for humankind
Remarkably, some will still argue that this doesn't prove the Sabbath existed from creation week, maintaining that it wasn't instituted until given to Israel at Mount Sinai and that it was meant for the physical nation of Israel alone—and for only a limited time.
However, Jesus Christ Himself dispelled this notion. "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath," He explained to some who completely misunderstood its intent and purpose (Mark 2:27).
He clarified the great underlying principle of the Sabbath day that so many have missed through the centuries: The Sabbath, far from enforcing a tiresome bondage or sanctioning a list of forbidden activities, is something God made for man! It was sanctified—made holy—when mankind was made, with God creating Adam and Eve on the sixth day of creation week and then creating the Sabbath on the following day by setting that day apart (Genesis 1:26-31; 2:1-3).
To Jesus Christ the Sabbath was positive and beneficial, not the oppressive burden some religious leaders had made of it in His day. Notice His choice of words. The Sabbath wasn't something just for the nation of Israel; He said it was made for man —for all humanity —and observing it wasn't a meaningless practice forced on people to bring only hardship and difficulty.
The seventh day was made for man, created expressly for mankind's benefit and well-being! Several other translations bear this out: "The Sabbath was made for the good of human beings," says the Good News Bible. "The Sabbath was made for the sake of man," reads the New English Bible. The Williams New Testament says, "The sabbath was made to serve man." And the New Living Translation reads, "The Sabbath was made to benefit people."
Jesus understood the purpose of God's law, including the Sabbath—that God intended it to be a blessing and benefit to mankind. God, speaking through Moses, had earlier told Israel to "love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments."
Why? "That you may live and multiply; and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you go to possess" (Deuteronomy 30:16).
Moses, after leading Israel for 40 years through the wilderness, summed up the Israelites' experiences just before they entered the Promised Land. He understood how wonderful the law was that they had received from God and how it was unique. "Surely I have taught you statutes and judgments, just as the Lord my God commanded me . . . ," he told them. "Therefore be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people' . . . What great nation is there that has such statutes and righteous judgments as are in all this law which I set before you this day?" (Deuteronomy 4:5-8).
A blessing for all who choose to obey
God clearly intended the Sabbath to be a blessing to those who would use it as He intended. The actual instructions God gave regarding the day were brief but give valuable insight into its intent. Let's look at some of these instructions.
"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" (Exodus 20:8-11).
On the Sabbath, we see that all members of a household were to rest from labor—even servants, guests and animals. All were to rest every seventh day from their normal, routine work. All family and household members were specifically listed, including parents, sons, daughters, servants and guests. If none did normal work on the Sabbath, presumably everyone would spend much of the day with other family members as a family or household.
The command to observe the Sabbath in all households is reinforced in Leviticus 23, where God lists the required religious observances He instituted—His feasts or festivals. He also makes it clear that the Sabbath is His holy time, not that of Moses or Israel: "And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 'Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: "The feasts of the Lord, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, these are My feasts. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work on it; it is the Sabbath of the Lord in all your dwellings"'" (verses 1-3).
The Sabbath was not just a religious ritual for the tabernacle; it was an observance for every individual home throughout the nation.
A reminder of deliverance from slavery
We can find more details of God's intent where the Ten Commandments are reiterated in Deuteronomy 5:12-15: "Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 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 ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day."
In this listing of the Commandments, another aspect of observing the Sabbath is added for God's people—remembering that they had been slaves in Egypt and that "the Lord your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand."
The Sabbath was a weekly reminder of Israel's humble origins as slaves in Egypt and that God, by mighty miracles, had delivered His people into freedom and established them as a nation. Now that He had given them rest from their slavery, everyone throughout the nation was to rest and be refreshed on the Sabbath, and servants were specifically included in that command. As God had given the Israelites rest, they, too, were commanded to allow their servants to rest, an additional reminder of the blessing the Sabbath was to provide for everyone.
The Israelites were specifically told to remember those events in connection with the Sabbath. God, through Moses, frequently reminded the Israelites how far they had come and how He had miraculously intervened for them on many occasions.
In like manner, the Sabbath is an important reminder for Christians today of our deliverance and liberation. Through God's mercy and Jesus Christ's sacrifice, Christians are delivered from spiritual slavery to sin and death, set free now to serve God (Romans 6:16-23; 2 Peter 2:19).
God repeatedly warned His people to never forget what He did for them: "Only take heed to yourself . . . lest you forget the things your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. And teach them to your children and your grandchildren" (Deuteronomy 4:9). "Beware, lest you forget the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage" (Deuteronomy 6:12). "[Beware] when your heart is lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage" (Deuteronomy 8:14).
A time for religious instruction, teaching and joy
Notice that God also told the Israelites to teach their children His laws and ways. Immediately after repeating the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5, God instructed the Israelites: "These words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up" (Deuteronomy 6:6-7).
The Sabbath, then, was intended to be a time for religious instruction, for teaching and learning of God's wondrous acts and laws. Work was prohibited and God's great miracles were to be remembered on this day. As Smith's Bible Dictionary summarizes, "Thus the spirit of the Sabbath was joy, refreshment and mercy, arising from remembrance of God's goodness as Creator and as the Deliverer from bondage . . . On this day the people were accustomed to . . . give to their children that instruction in the truths recalled to memory by the day which is so repeatedly enjoined as the duty of parents; it was 'the Sabbath of Jehovah' not only in the sanctuary, but 'in all their dwellings'" (1884, "Sabbath").
Observed this way, the Sabbath truly would be the blessing and delight God intended, a day of rest and refreshment with one's Creator—learning, contemplating and practicing His laws and ways.