Made for Man: Understanding the Grace Behind the Weekly Sabbath
The weekly Sabbath is quite a misunderstood subject that is attended by diverse and conflicting opinions and practices.
Some reckon that the Sabbath is of the law and not binding on Christians, who now observe instead “the Lord’s Day” to commemorate Christ’s resurrection. Others see the fourth commandment as binding but that the Christian Sabbath is now on Sunday.
A seemingly less legalistic approach is to rest one day in seven, so any day can be a self-proclaimed Sabbath according to one’s convenience.
Similar to this contingent Sabbath concept is to coincide the weekly worship with the official rest-day of the geo-political locality—so it is Sunday for most of the world, Friday for Arab or Muslim countries, and Saturday by default for those living in Israel.
How should a Christian who is serious about the word of God, seeking to please Him in all things, respond to all this?
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ statement, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath,”1 is often quoted by proponents of a lax attitude towards the Sabbath, but few bother to explain the phrase “made for man.”
Besides noting that man is not to be burdened and fettered by rabbinic excesses with regard to the Sabbath, do we know what God intended “for man” by setting aside a special day each week for him?
LAW AND GRACE
Jesus’ corrective statement on the Sabbath is two-fold: first, “the Sabbath was made for man” and, second, “not man for the Sabbath.” The positive part comes first, affirming the beneficiary of the Sabbath, followed by a negation of legalistic restrictions.
Unfortunately, faulty hermeneutics has underscored the second over the first; hence, we often hear “Don’t let others judge you concerning the Sabbath,” “It doesn’t matter which day is Sabbath,” and “Sabbath is not for Christians, we are free from the bondage of the law.”
This is really missing the point—that God, out of His gracious providence, made the Sabbath right after the sixth day of creation so that man could be blessed and refreshed.
By now it should be clear that Jesus’ remark does not apply only to New Testament Christians. Since the very beginning, the Sabbath was instituted for the benefit of mankind, from the first humans to the present elect, as long as we have a relationship with God.
To the covenant people under the law, the Sabbath was linked to their liberation from Egyptian bondage:
“‘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.’” (Deut 5:15)
The weekly rest provided a welcome respite from daily toil and realigned the faithful community in fellowship with their Creator—a reversal of Egypt and reminiscent of Eden.
The Sabbath is therefore of grace, not of law. In fact, grace underlies all of God’s interactions with men, and we have to recognize this before we can make any sense out of the otherwise tedious statutes, rituals, and ordinances of Mosaic law.
Jesus was not injecting something new into the Sabbath by His response to the Jewish leaders but was merely teasing out unwarranted elements added to the Torah that worked against the Sabbath grace God intended for men of all time.
Paul explained that after Christ had fulfilled the requirements of the law by His death, Mosaic law would no longer be applicable. But we have to distinguish grace from law—from the veil of transitory Torah requirements.
Just as we distinguish between the grace of forgiveness and animal sacrifices, we distinguish the grace of Sabbath rest from its related legal requirements.
Under the new covenant, while the sin offering is done away with, remission of sins remains; likewise, while animal offerings and Mosaic prohibitions associated with the Sabbath are abolished, the Sabbath rest remains as a grace for us the redeemed, the new creation.
Unfortunately, many have done away with the Sabbath itself in the name of Christ, throwing away the baby with the bath water.
COVENANT OF GRACE
There are those who are wont to differentiate between “Sabbath of law” and “Sabbath of grace.” This would be analogous to saying there is atonement of law and atonement of grace, but we know atonement is by grace, not law.
To be biblically sound, we should say that the Sabbath is a grace enjoyed even by those under the law, just as atonement is through Christ alone but available to those under the law.2
The difference is, Sabbath observed under the law involves sacrifices and Mosaic legalities, which have been abolished through the cross (Col 2:14). What remains is grace, the basis of our covenantal relationship with God.
What does the Sabbath have to do with grace? According to the Torah, the weekly Sabbath is a double celebration of creation3 and deliverance.4 In Christ, we are a new creation,5 redeemed from the bondage of sin,6 so the Sabbath is elevated to a higher, spiritual plane—a celebration of our salvation, our new birth.
Why is it necessary to crystallize salvation or grace into a weekly observance? Isn’t a weekly rest superfluous, since in Jesus we have already received the promised rest?
The rest in Jesus is the inward, unbroken serenity amidst life’s tempest. Though the invitation is to all “who labor and are heavy laden,” Jesus says to “Take My yoke upon you,” a reminder of the continuance of earthly toil; with His easy yoke, you will find rest “‘for your souls.’”7
Nevertheless, the grace of God extends to our fragile frame burdened by the reality of labor, sickness, and pain, so He ordains one day each week during which we put aside our physical work for worship and reflection.
Just like the physical emblems of the Lord’s table, the weekly Sabbath stems from the love of He who understands our need for an outward physical experience of His inward spiritual grace.
Not until we shed our fleshly robe will we fully receive the promised rest (Rev 14:13); therefore, while “a promise remains of entering His rest” (Heb 4:1), the weekly Sabbath remains an anticipation and foretaste of that blessed state (Heb 4:9, 11).
Sabbath observance is also a covenantal expression not only for the nation of Israel but for all nations. Here is an interesting passage from the prophet Isaiah:
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
“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…
For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isa 56:1-7)
The messianic ring of this passage is obvious: “My salvation is about to come, and My righteousness to be revealed,” anticipating an influx of Gentiles into the congregation of the LORD, until God’s house becomes “a house of prayer for all nations.”
The unmistakable message is that during this new covenantal period, the Sabbath will be a visible expression of the covenantal relationship: “Everyone who keeps from defiling the Sabbath, and holds fast My covenant.”
Here the Sabbath is not “an Old Testament thing,” but it is for the covenant people of the Messiah, the New Testament Christians in Christ who hail from all nations.
Notice also that the Sabbath is linked to moral behavior and not ceremonial conduct as evidenced by verse six (“who keeps from defiling the Sabbath, and keeps his hand from doing any evil”). So while the ceremonial law is abolished in Christ, the Sabbath, as part of the moral code, remains.
The apostle John caught a glimpse of the eschatological church, and there was the ark of the covenant, the wooden chest housing the moral code, including the Sabbath commandment, written by the very finger of God (Rev 11:19).8
It is comforting to know that covering the ark is the mercy seat, the throne of grace, now sprinkled with the blood of the new covenant (Heb 12:24), toward which we can freely approach and receive mercy in time of need (Heb 4:16).
SIGN OF SANCTIFICATION
Besides being an emblem of a covenantal relationship, the Sabbath is also a sign of sanctification.
The weekly Sabbath is mentioned in Ezekiel’s description of worship during the messianic age (Ezek 46:1, 4, 12). Earlier on, the LORD had told him that the Sabbath was a sign between God and the people He sanctified (Ezek 20:12, 20). As a day sanctified from creation, the Sabbath has a sanctifying effect on those who keep it holy.
As Christians, we conduct ourselves uprightly in our daily lives, choosing good and eschewing evil. Sabbath-keeping sharpens our senses in that our choices are not merely between good and evil but between sacred and secular.
Keeping the Sabbath holy is to free it from mundane work; we order our lives each week, planning ahead to complete our mundane tasks in six days:
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work.” (Ex 20:8, 9)
Thus, Sabbath is consecrated, separated for a holy purpose, without any distracting chore from the household or workplace occupying its sacred hours.
Observing the sacred rest might appear to be restrictive and burdensome. Herein lies a great irony—rest becomes a burden. While those living below the poverty line or residing in oppressive societies yearn for elusive rest, many in affluent countries voluntarily enslave themselves to their work.
Unless we have our vocations in essential services like hospitals, telecommunications, or public transportation, working on the Sabbath is a bad choice.
The majority of us do not really need more than six days to make a decent living or to keep our houses habitable. Even personal errands like banking and marketing can be easily handled with modern conveniences like the internet and supermarkets or through efficient use of our lunchtimes during weekdays.
Of course, we commit no sacrilege if we have tried our best but cannot avoid borrowing Sabbath hours to do some of these things—we are under grace, not law—but all too often, we abuse this liberty. We rob ourselves of a twenty-four-hour Sabbath, either because we overtax ourselves by aspiring too much, by desiring too much, or simply because we want to do things our way.
So it boils down to attitude—whether we love God enough to do things His way, and whether we enjoy spending time with Him alone, like how we dedicate special moments for the ones we love. If so, we will find God’s commandments not at all burdensome (1 Jn 5:3), and we ultimately stand to gain.
“If you…call the Sabbath a delight,
The holy day of the LORD honorable,
And shall honor Him, not doing your own ways…
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.” (Isa 58:13, 14)
CONCLUSION: FROM CREATION TO ETERNITY
The weekly Sabbath was instituted during creation week (Gen 2:2, 3), intended for us to remember our Creator (Ex 20:8-11) throughout our temporal existence, as an enjoyment as much as an enjoinment, until we are ushered into the grand Sabbath of eternal rest. There, we rest from our labors and our works follow us (Rev 14:13); and within the walls of our Father’s house, we have a place and a name, an everlasting name that shall not be cut off (Isa 56:5).
1. Mk 2:27
2. Heb 9:15
3. Ex 20:11
4. Deut 5:15
5. 2 Cor 5:17
6. Jn 8:34-36; Rom 6:14
7. Mt 11:28-30
8. In apocalyptic language, the heavenly temple refers to the church; see also Heb 12:22, 23
9. See Heb 5:14