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 (The Doctrine of Sabbath)
Chapter 1: The Origin of the Sabbath
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Chapter 1: The Origin of the Sabbath

1.1         God establishes the Sabbath at creation

To trace the origin of the Sabbath is not a complicated matter. All we need to do is to look in the Bible—the inspired word of God—with faith. It is there, within the opening pages, that we learn of God’s creation work, culminating in His establishment of this special day. 

God created the heavens and the earth in six days by the power of His command. The Bible notes, “Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good. So the evening and the morning were the sixth day” (Gen 1:31). However, there was one more element in the divine plan—something that would render it perfect and complete. On the seventh day, God rested; He blessed the day and made it holy.

Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished. 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 2:1–3

The Sabbath marked the end of His glorious creation work and, indeed, was the pinnacle of the entire process. It had all the sense of a celebration—a time when God took delight in all that He had accomplished. Moreover, in His company was a throng of heavenly hosts who praised His work with a joyful chorus (Job 38:4–7).

1.2         Its significance 

The Sabbath was special on account of the fact that God set it apart from the other days of the week through His actions of resting, sanctification and blessing.

On the surface, God’s resting is perhaps the most intriguing, for it is seemingly incongruous with His omnipotent nature (Isa 40:28). However, when we piece together the biblical picture, we realize that this action was never intended to be for His own benefit; it was for man’s. God’s inauguration of a seventh day rest was ultimately meant to be a gift to man, a gracious invitation to enter into a rest that He first enjoyed. Hence, when Jesus later came to the world, He reinforced this point by teaching that the Sabbath was made for man (Mk 2:27–28).

God’s next action was to bless the Sabbath day. It is perhaps easier for us to comprehend His blessing of the creatures He had created, including man (Gen 1:22, 28), but what did His blessing of the seventh day mean? The answer is revealed in the Book of Isaiah, which speaks of special blessings for the people who honour this day (Isa 56:2–5; 58:13–14). This leads us to understand that when God blessed the Sabbath, He intended for that blessing to come upon those who enter into it. Pertinently, He chose only to bless this particular day of the week, indicating there is no equivalent blessing for those who choose to uphold another.    

Finally, God sanctified the Sabbath day and, in doing so, showed that it belonged to Him (Ex 31:13; Lev 23:3; Deut 5:14; Isa 56:4). It proved to be the start of an on-going lesson on the concepts of holy and profane: things set apart for Him versus the mundane. Later, God developed the lesson further when He told the Israelites, “Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you” (Ex 31:13). From that point, the Sabbath became an important sign, reminding God’s people that they were a holy nation, chosen by Him and set apart for His glory.     

1.3         The term Sabbath

1.3.1      Its occurrence in the Old and New Testaments

Despite recounting the origin of the day, the Book of Genesis makes no specific mention of the term “Sabbath”. The latter first appears in Exodus 16, which records God’s instructions through Moses for the Israelites to observe the day at the start of their wilderness journey: “Then he said to them, ‘This is what the Lord has said: “Tomorrow is a Sabbath rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord. Bake what you will bake today, and boil what you will boil; and lay up for yourselves all that remains, to be kept until morning” ’ ” (Ex 16:23).

Later, God addresses the matter of the Sabbath again when He delivers the Fourth Commandment on Mount Sinai:

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 manservant, nor your maidservant, 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          

In both these passages, the Hebrew word Shabbath[1] is used. It derives from the root shabath[2], meaning “to cease” or “to rest”, first  seen in Genesis 2:3: “Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.”

In the New Testament, the writers use the Greek words sabbaton[3] (singular) e.g. Lk 4:16, Mt 12:8, and sabbata[4] (plural) e.g. Acts 17:2. In the Book of Hebrews, we also come across the word sabbatismos[5] which refers specifically to the future heavenly rest (Heb 4:9).

1.3.2      Its meaning

The Bible is clear that the Sabbath entails a cessation of work. As mentioned previously, the Book of Genesis shows that God set the precedent: after creating the universe, He “ended His work which He had done, and rested on the seventh day” (Gen 2:2). Moreover, because He did this, He would require man to follow His example: “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…” (Ex 20:9–10). From the exodus period onwards, God helpfully defined the nature of that “work” for the Israelites through various regulations. 

1.3.3      The naming of the days of the week

In the Greek language of the New Testament, the days of the week are given in reference to the Sabbath. Hence, Sunday is literally “the first of the Sabbath”, i.e. “the first day after the Sabbath” e.g. Mk 16:9 (cf. Mt 28:1; Lk 24:1; Jn 20:1; Acts 20:7). Friday, aside from being the “Day of Preparation” e.g. Mt 27:62; Mk 15:42; Lk 23:54, is also called “the day before the Sabbath” (Greek, prosabbaton[6]) e.g. Mk 15:42. 

In the Christian writings of the time, the names for the days of the week would have been as follows: 

     Mia ton sabbaton (“First of the Sabbath/week”)—the first day of the week (Sunday). 

     Deutera (“Second”)—the second day of the week (Monday).

     Trite (“Third”)—the third day of the week (Tuesday).

     Tetarte (“Fourth”)—the fourth day of the week (Wednesday).

     Pempte (“Fifth”)—the fifth day of the week (Thursday).

     Paraskeue (“Preparation”)—the sixth day of the week (Friday).

     Sabbaton (“Sabbath”)—the seventh day of the week (Saturday).

However, from the latter half of the first century AD, writers began referring to the first day of the week as Kyriake Hemera (“Lord’s Day”), which was later rendered simply, Kyriake (“Lord’s”).

Eviator Zerubavel, a sociologist, notes:

The rest of the days of the week were originally also named by the Church in accordance with their temporal distance from the preceding Sabbath, following the Hebrew practice. Monday was thus designated as the “second day after the Sabbath” (Secunda Sabbati, in Latin), Tuesday as “the third day after the Sabbath” (Tertia Sabbati), and so on. (This archaic nomenclature is still preserved, at least in part, in Armenian, Greek, Portuguese, and Icelandic).

            Eviator Zerubavel, The Seven Day Circle 

Significantly, in tandem with the spread of the gospel, Christians in many countries began adopting the word “Sabbath” for the seventh day, such that it became ingrained in their languages. Examples include:




     Polish, Czech, Slovak, Slovene—Sobota






1.4         The Sabbath existed before the Mosaic Law

An important point highlighted by the Book of Genesis is that God ordained the Sabbath at the end of the creation week—two thousand years before He chose Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, and two and a half thousand years before He delivered the Law at Sinai. Also, we note that Moses led the people to observe the Sabbath not long after their departure from Egypt, before their arrival at Mount Sinai (see Ex 16:23–30). Together, these facts reveal that the Sabbath predates both the emergence of the Jewish race and the era of the Mosaic Law.

Nevertheless, because the Bible does not record specifically that God’s people observed the Sabbath prior to the exodus, some biblical commentators have concluded that Sabbath-keeping was neither known nor practised before then. However, one can argue that there is, in fact, evidence within the Bible, albeit indirect, indicating that Sabbath-keeping was a possibility, at the very least.             

One interesting piece of evidence is the existence of the seven-day cycle. In Genesis, it is clear that God established it at the time of creation. Indeed, there is no other plausible explanation: it tallies neither with the lunar cycle nor any other natural cycle; and, outside of Scripture, has all the appearance of a completely arbitrary marker of time. After creation week, the seven-day cycle became the established way of reckoning time, as the Bible repeatedly documents its use by the people of God, including Noah (Gen 7:4, 10; 8:10, 12); Job and his friends (Job 2:13); Jacob and Laban (Gen 29:27–28; 31:23); Joseph (Gen 50:10); Moses (Ex 7:25; 12:15, 18, 19; 13:6, 7; 22:30; 23:15; 29:30, 35, 37; 34:18). This evidence is particularly compelling, for a seven-day cycle presupposes the existence of a significant day—the Sabbath day—to provide demarcation.

A second piece of evidence is the direct and indirect biblical references to God’s commandments prior to the era of the Mosaic Law. Sometimes, we overlook the fact that God issued commandments to His people before that historical juncture, but the Bible reminds us otherwise. In Genesis 26:5, for example, God says, “Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.” The charge, commandments and statutes that He gave to Abraham would have defined what worshipping the one true God entailed, including the requirement for offerings—a matter that was known even in the time of Cain and Abel (Gen 4:3–4). They must therefore have been the basis for the Bible’s assessment of those who were able to walk successfully with God during their lives (Gen 5:22; 6:9) and whose characters warranted a description of “just”, “perfect”, “blameless” and “upright” (see Gen 6:9; Job 1:1). If we follow this line of thinking, we are naturally led to infer that God, who ordained the Sabbath at creation, must surely have spoken to those whom He loved about this monumental event and possibly even given instructions for its observance. This would be a more logical position than assuming that He waited 2000 years to do so.         

Certainly, the afore-mentioned points do not constitute definitive proof that the people of God observed the Sabbath prior to the exodus. Nevertheless, they do indicate that it was more of a possibility than an impossibility.

1.5         Conclusion

From the Bible, we can trace the institution of the Sabbath to the time of creation. It records that God created the heavens and the earth in six days and rested on the seventh. He blessed this day and sanctified it. The Sabbath was part of the divine plan from the beginning of time; it predates both God’s calling of the Jewish nation and His institution of the Law at Sinai. Thousands of years later, and in tandem with the spread of the gospel, Sabbath-keeping became a way of life for God’s people around the world, such that the very term “Sabbath” became ingrained in many languages and cultures.


© January 2012 True Jesus Church.

[1]      Strong’s reference no. H7676.

[2]      Strong’s reference no. H7673.

[3]      Strong’s reference no. G4521

[4]      Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words: “The doubled b has an intensive force, implying a complete cessation or a making to cease...”

[5]      Strong’s reference no. G4520

[6]      Strong’s reference no. G4315

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