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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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).
2 Cor 5:17
Jn 8:34-36; Rom 6:14
In apocalyptic language, the heavenly temple
refers to the church; see also Heb 12:22, 23
See Heb 5:14