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
“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.
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
As Christians, we understand
our rest is found in Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath, the author of our
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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?
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,
I was alive once without the law, but when the
commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to
bring life, I found to bring death. (Rom 7:9, 10)
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.
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,
But when the fullness of the time had come, God
sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who
were under the law… (Gal 4:4, 5)
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.
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
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
Just as all other principles of
God’s Ten Commandments remain relevant today, the principle of the Sabbath is
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
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
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
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
Ex 20:8; Deut 5:12
Rom 4:17; Heb 11:3
Ex 31:13, 17; Ezek 20:12, 20
1 Pet 2:9, 10
Heb 4:4, 10
Heb 4:8, 9
Mt 11:28, 12:8; Heb 5:9, 12:2
Heb 3:7, 13-15, 4:7, 11
11. Ps 8:4, 103:14
Jn 3:16, 5:17
5:29; 1 Pet 3:20, 21
Ex 16:4, 5, 22-28; Neh 13:17, 18
28:1, 2, 9, 13, 15; Isa 58:13, 14
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).
20:13, 14, 20-22, 36:20-23
18:5; Neh 9:29; Ezek 20:11, 13, 21; Rom 10:5; Gal 3:12
Mt 28:1, at the end or close of sabbaths.
12:1-14; Mk 2:23-3:6; Lk 6:1-11, 13:10-17
Mt 23:4; Lk 11:46
15:11; Rom 3:20
8:5, 10:11; Col 2:16, 17
12:8; Mk 2:28; Lk 6:5
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
23:56; Mt 24:20; Acts 13:14, 16:13, 17:2, 18:4