Be Diligent to Enter into that Rest
Jason Hsu—Baldwin Park, California, USA
Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience. (Heb 4:11)
Two distinct terms are used in church to describe the Sabbath: (1) Sabbath under grace and (2) Sabbath under law. Although neither term is found in the Bible, the concepts behind them are explained.
“Sabbath under grace” and “Sabbath under law” both underscore the continuing importance of Sabbath observance. At the same time, these terms also raise difficult questions for Sabbath observance. Should Christians today observe the Sabbath under the regulations set forth in the Mosaic law, under grace, or not at all?
For many Christians, the Sabbath is now defunct—a mere shadow of the substance found in Christ. Others believe the Sabbath was only given to the Jews. Although God did not specifically command His people to observe the Sabbath until Moses, God had already established the Sabbath long before that time. As part of God’s creation, we are all, in some sense, called to enter into His rest.
From the Decalogue, we understand that God gave the Sabbath to His covenant people to remember both His creation and His redemption.1
As Creator, God called what did not exist into existence.2 As Redeemer, God called a nation of slaves out of Egypt to be His own special treasure and people.3 The Sabbath, therefore, serves as an important sign between God and His people.4
He who sanctifies the Sabbath is also He who sanctifies His people.
THE SABBATH IS STILL RELEVANT TODAY
Today, the church is the sanctified people of God.5 While the church does not observe the Sabbath legalistically, Sabbath under grace is not unimportant or defunct in the New Testament. As the New Testament author of Hebrews encourages us, we must be diligent to enter into that rest signified by the Sabbath.6
Joshua led God’s people into the promised land, but he could not fully realize God’s promise of rest for His people. So the author of Hebrews speaks of yet another rest that remains for God’s people.7
As Christians, we understand our rest is found in Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath, the author of our salvation.8
Although we are under the promise of a better covenant in Christ, we do not forsake the principle of observing the Sabbath. If we are to lay hold of God’s promise of eternal rest in the world to come, we must grasp the Sabbath’s significance for our present lives. And so the exhortation is given: “[B]e diligent to enter that rest” while we still can, while it is still called “today.”9
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE SABBATH
History is an important teacher. Our past holds our victories, our mistakes, our experiences. By studying history, we can gain invaluable insights into the present and guidance for the future.
Human history is also Sabbath history, for Sabbath history spans the entire course of human history from the creation until the present. And it will continue until God brings all things to completion.
History is also the story of God’s divine work in the world. For, by the grace of God, human history is the story of God’s redemption.
Since creation, the Sabbath has been a constant and weekly reality. The reality of the Sabbath is not dependent upon whether or not we are aware, observe, or understand its significance. Just as our failure to recognize God’s existence has no direct bearing on Him, our ignorance of the Sabbath has no power to negate its reality, holiness, or significance.
Whether or not we realize that we are all a part of God’s creation and history, we must all come face to face with the end of our labor—the reality of the Sabbath. The question each of us should grapple with is whether or not we will be diligent to enter into the promise of rest contained within the Sabbath. What legacy will we leave behind for the next generation?
Sabbath history begins in Genesis with the origin of man. The Sabbath was instituted by God after He finished His work of creation.10 But it was God, not man, who kept the Sabbath first. Therefore, God is not only the source of creation, He is also the source of the promise of rest.
Man, of course, needs rest; God does not. God neither faints nor is weary. Yet, on the seventh day, God ceased from all His labor and rested. A seemingly innocent act of God can teach us a great deal about God’s thoughts toward His creation: God is very mindful of man.11
The truth is, it was God, not man, who was first to remember on the Sabbath. If God did not remember His creation, in particular man, the supreme object of His love, there would be no Sabbath.
Yet, after God ceased from His work of creation, there is a long period of silence from Adam onward about the Sabbath and its observance.
The Promise of Rest in Noah
The promise of rest is what all creation and human history are moving towards. Through Noah, God once again imparted this important promise to humankind.
During Noah’s time, God was determined to destroy the whole world with a flood; all creation would be destroyed. Noah, however, found favor in God’s eyes, and God made a covenant with him.
After the flood, God promised Noah that, while the earth remains, His providential care for His creation would never cease.12 This is not the picture of divine rest but divine care. God’s unceasing care over His creation simply confirms His unceasing love toward His creation.13
Noah’s story, however, touches upon Sabbath, law, and grace on another level, for Noah’s story is one of God’s justice and mercy. God exercises His judgment over a wicked generation and, through water, destroys all flesh. At the same time, Noah’s story is a story about God’s grace, for in Noah we find the promise of redemption and comfort.14
Noah’s story not only testifies to the fallen nature of God’s creation, it also testifies to a God who desires to redeem it. Noah then becomes an archetype of mankind’s hope for comfort and rest, the hope that one day we might all be free from the futility and corruption that binds all of creation.15 In Noah’s salvation through the flood, we see a wonderful prefiguration of how we, too, may be saved through water—through the grace of water baptism.16
Let no one misunderstand: from the beginning, the Sabbath has always been a sign of the completion of God’s work, not our work, in creation and history. But by remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy, God simply wants us to remember His work.
Therefore, Noah’s story is significant to Sabbath history because it embodies God’s promise of rest for His people.
The Time of Moses
After Noah, the promise of entering God’s rest reappears with Moses. Through Moses, the teachings of the Sabbath for God’s people once again come into prominence.
God called His people out of Egypt to be a special treasure and holy nation. He led Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land that He had promised to them.
The Bible says, “Out of Egypt, I called My son” (Hos 11:1).17 God led Israel in the wilderness, allowing His people to hunger and feeding them with manna; He did all of this so that they would know man does not live by bread alone.18
When God provided manna in the wilderness, He commanded the Israelites to gather twice the amount of manna on the sixth day so that they could rest on the Sabbath. God was testing His people to see if they truly trusted in Him and would obey His commandment.
True faith meant God’s people would find their rest in Him and keep the Sabbath day holy. Unfortunately, God’s people often failed, disobeying God’s command to keep the Sabbath day holy.19
God provided for all of His people’s needs in the wilderness. Yet, God’s blessings to His people also demanded their obedience.20 The Bible says, “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts” (Heb 4:7).
To truly rest and trust in the Lord alone is not as easy as it may sound. The reason why many people today cannot rest on the Sabbath is precisely for this reason: they cannot find their rest in the Lord. True faith, however, not only entails simple belief but also obedience. And obedience implicates law.
Sabbath Under Law
In the wilderness, God revealed very specific instructions or commands to His people concerning the Sabbath and how to observe it. “Sabbath under law” now comes into full view during Moses’ time: the command to keep the Sabbath was memorialized in the Ten Commandments, written with God’s own finger on stone tablets delivered to Moses on Mt Sinai.21
The command to keep the Sabbath day holy was given upon penalty of death.22 So for the Talmudic teachers of the law, the Sabbath was equal in importance to all the precepts of the Torah combined.
Being of such monumental importance, Sabbath observance developed under very strict regulations through the teachers of the law. This was to build a fence around the Sabbath and protect its sanctity among the people.
Jewish law sets forth thirty-nine principle labors forbidden on the Sabbath, with subcategories underneath. Many of these labors were inferred from the work necessary to complete the construction of the tabernacle.
In Numbers 15:32-36, a man was put to death for “gathering sticks” on the Sabbath. Some may find capital punishment unnecessarily severe, but we must understand the seriousness of the penalty for breaking the Sabbath (under the law) in light of God’s absolute holiness and His command for His people to be holy.23
To understand Sabbath, we must understand holiness. In the Ten Commandments, the word “holy” appears only in connection with “Sabbath.” When God’s people defiled the Sabbath, they not only profaned the Sabbath, they profaned God’s holy name and character.
The Sabbath, then, ultimately concerns God’s people clearly understanding God’s holiness and their own holiness as well. How important is this understanding? From God’s command to observe the Sabbath, we know God considered it a matter of life and death.
So for God’s people today, to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy is vitally significant. Although it is unlikely we would ever risk losing our physical life for breaking the Sabbath today, we cannot afford to take Sabbath observance lightly. We often notice that those who drift away from God fail to honor the Sabbath.
The failure to honor the Sabbath puts our spiritual life at risk. It confirms we no longer remember Him who created and redeemed us, and we do not have a habit of doing so. Isn’t this a matter of life and death?
NEED FOR A SABBATH UNDER GRACE
Under the law, we know our flesh and human weaknesses more often than not prevail over God’s commandments. All too often, we become the breakers and not the keepers of God’s law.
The apostle Paul said,
A command such as, “Let every man remain in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day,” if interpreted literally, would be too severe a burden.25
Therefore, we find in the history, development, and interpretation of God’s command to observe the Sabbath that additional regulations had to be developed to ease the burden of keeping the Sabbath under law.
Regulations like the “Sabbath limit,” the distance a Jew was allowed to travel on the Sabbath, were not developed to add additional burdens on the Sabbath but to ease them.
From the need to ease Sabbath restrictions under the law, we begin to see the limitations of a strict interpretation of the Sabbath under law. And the failure of God’s people to keep the Sabbath under law exposes the weakness of the law.
RESTING IN CHRIST’S WORK
Prophet Habakkuk complained that the law was powerless until he realized, “The just shall live by faith.”26 Under the law, we live by what we have done.27 But for man to truly cease from his labor and find rest, he must find rest in Christ’s work. Even though Sabbath under law was given by God, the promise of rest, found in the Sabbath, could not be fulfilled apart from Christ.28
The apostle Paul wrote, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom 10:4). “End of the law” here does not mean God’s law is now null and void. Rather, it more likely refers to completion, meaning Christ completes the law for righteousness to those who have faith in Him. He completes the Sabbaths.29
The Bible says,
For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh. (Rom 8:3)
The weakness of the law, then, lies not in the law itself, but in us.
THE OVERRIDING PRINCIPLE OF THE LAW
The principles laid out in God’s law are not weak, unimportant, or profane. The Bible clearly teaches us that the law is holy and the commandment holy, just, and good.30 Therefore, it’s foolish for Christians to denigrate or speak evil of the law given by God.31
The Bible says, “Love never fails” (1 Cor 13:8). Against love there is no law.32 And all the law may be summarized in one word: “love.”33 Therefore, love is the overriding principle of the law that cannot be abolished.
But it is in this small word, love, that we find perhaps the most important distinction between Sabbath under grace and Sabbath under law. The Sabbath loses its original significance and meaning if only taken as a bare collection of regulations to bind men down. God did not establish the Sabbath to bring man to his knees by the sheer weight of it but to express His love and remembrance of man. The Sabbath was made for man.34
This was the central dispute between Jesus and the teachers of the law over the Sabbath, particularly over what was lawful to do on the Sabbath.35 God’s commandments, not to mention the Sabbath itself, were not given to burden men down with regulations.36 Therefore, Jesus told us, “[I]t is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Mt 12:12), and this included works of healing, compassion, and love.
Sabbath observance, even under the Mosaic law, if kept within the love of God and man, still serves the Sabbath’s original purpose. For the Sabbath was a reminder to God’s people of how much God loved both His creation and His people. In this sense, there’s no need to rigidly demarcate Sabbath “under law” and “under grace.” God’s Sabbath is simply the Sabbath.
For many Jews, Sabbath under law is the same as Sabbath under grace. To them, the Sabbath is simply a wonderful opportunity, given by God, to enjoy His blessings. At that point, the Sabbath no longer becomes a burden of the law but a means of God’s grace.
If we properly understand the Sabbath and its significance to our lives, we will understand how deeply God cares for humankind and His creation. God places such a high value upon it. If we understood this, we would not set aside the Sabbath so easily. We would not forget to remember and value what God Himself remembered. We would not fail to sanctify and bless what God Himself sanctified and blessed.
It is true that, in Christ, we are not saved by the works of the law.37 But this does not mean we can therefore live a lawless life without care. The council in Jerusalem determined gentile converts were no longer bound to observe the ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic law, except for a few specified enumerations.38 However, the principle of Sabbath observance, under God’s grace, still remains relevant even for today.
Just as all other principles of God’s Ten Commandments remain relevant today, the principle of the Sabbath is still relevant.
The law truly contained many shadows of the good things to come in Christ; these shadows included various animal sacrifices, dietary laws, festivals, new moons, and sabbaths prescribed under the Mosaic law.39 The fact that Christ came to fulfill the law, however, does not mean Christ came to abolish the Sabbath or even the principles of the law. God Himself established Sabbath from the beginning and wrote down the command with His own finger.
We must not misinterpret Christ’s work of completing the law. If anything, after Christ came, He established and confirmed the truth and principle of the Sabbath for God’s people.
Jesus Himself said He is Lord of the Sabbath.40 Jesus is not Lord over something non-existent; Jesus will not rule over things of no value.
It is vital to understand, then, that the law is not voided by faith.41 Jesus never taught His disciples to forsake the principles of God’s law.42 Jesus never abolished the principle of the Sabbath, and He never taught His disciples to do so.43 Jesus’ own disciples continued to observe the principle of the Sabbath, and Jesus Himself anticipated Sabbath observance by His followers.44 Even until the very end, when all flesh will worship the Lord, the Sabbath still remains.45
Today, we must understand that, far from being irrelevant or abolished, the Sabbath is confirmed under the new covenant. Through Christ, God’s promise of rest for His people is fulfilled. This promise is signified in the Sabbath, and this is something we should not carelessly abandon.
Instead, we must be all the more diligent to enter into that weekly Sabbath rest. When we do so, we testify that we understand we are a holy and sanctified people of God. We witness that we hear His voice and our hearts are not hardened. We make known we are those who diligently seek to enter into the promise of eternal rest.
May the Lord continue to guide each of us from one Sabbath to another, till all flesh comes to worship the Lord, till we reach the end of our journey. Until then, let us be diligent to enter that rest, that we may receive the promise of Him who loved us from the beginning. Amen.
3. Ex 19:4-6
10. Gen 2:1-3
12. Gen 8:22
14. Gen 5:29
15. Rom 8:20-22
17. Mt 2:15
18. Deut 8:3
21. Ex 31:13-18
22. See Ex 35:1-3. Although the penalty set forth is capital punishment, which was indeed carried out (Num 15:32-36), the interpretation of Jewish law took into account “intentionality” and mitigated the penalty accordingly (cf. Num 15:27-31). The death penalty was only given in cases of presumptuous violations. Yet, even during Jesus’ time, this was still apparently being enforced (Jn 5:18).
23. Lev 19:2
25. See Ex 16:29
28. Cf. Rom 3:21-22
29. Cf. Mt 28:1, at the end or close of sabbaths.
30. Rom 7:12
33. Gal 5:13-15
34. Mk 2:27
41. Rom 3:31
42. Mt 23:2-3
43. Passages such as Romans 14:5, 6 and Galatians 4:10 don’t confirm Christ abolished the Sabbath; however, they do contain important teachings about how observing holy and sacred days, fulfilled in Christ, must not become ritualistic “shows” apart from Christ.