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 (The Doctrine of Sabbath)
Chapter 3: The Introduction of Sabbath Regulations
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CHAPTER 3: The Introduction of Sabbath Regulations

3.1         The purpose of the regulations

Starting from the time of the exodus, God gave the Israelites a number of regulations that stipulated the practicalities of Sabbath-keeping. These were additional to the Fourth Commandment and served to promote the sanctity of the day and to reinforce the requirement to rest. God delivered some of the regulations at Sinai as part of the Mosaic Law and gave others prior to, as well as after, this event. 

As we learn about these regulations, a picture emerges of a heavenly Father patiently teaching His young children the basic principles. In hindsight, we realize that His intention was to prepare them for a time of maturity and grace through faith in Jesus Christ. His will was that they would, by that time, grasp the true spirit of the Sabbath without the need for the detail of the written Law (Gal 3:23).  

3.2         The Old Testament regulations

3.2.1      No cooking

Not long after leaving Egypt, God gave Moses the first Sabbath regulation, which related to the preparation and cooking of food. The Book of Exodus records, “Then [Moses] 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). In other words, Friday was to be a day of readiness—a time for the people to prepare their meals ahead of the Sabbath. In this way, the people could enjoy the holy day in a carefree manner.

3.2.2      Remaining at home

During the wilderness journey, God arranged for the people to gather manna for six days and to rest on the seventh. On the sixth day, He instructed them to collect a double portion, for no manna would fall on the following day. Nevertheless, some people persisted in venturing out on the Sabbath, thereby provoking God to anger: “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My laws? See! For the Lord has given you the Sabbath; therefore He gives you on the sixth day bread for two days. Let every man remain in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day’ ” (Ex 16:28–29). God’s requirement was simple: the people could attend to their daily needs over the course of six days, but they were to rest in their tents on the seventh. However, it was evident that some people had difficulty obeying even this basic rule.

3.2.3      No kindling of fire

Another stipulation during the exodus period related to the making of fires: “You shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations on the Sabbath day” (Ex 35:3). There are two possible reasons why it equated to work. Firstly, it involved the gathering of firewood, a task that would have been time-consuming and arduous in the harsh environment of the wilderness. Secondly, a primary purpose of kindling fire was to cook meals, an equally labour-intensive chore. It was God’s good wish for the people to rest completely on the seventh day, unfettered by their usual work routines.

3.2.4      Setting out the showbread

Along with giving instructions for the building of the tabernacle, God told Moses to make a table of acacia wood, overlaid with gold, to place inside the holy place (Ex 25:23–30; 40:22–23). This was for the showbread:

“And you shall take fine flour and bake twelve cakes with it. Two-tenths of an ephah shall be in each cake. You shall set them in two rows, six in a row, on the pure table before the Lord. And you shall put pure frankincense on each row, that it may be on the bread for a memorial, an offering made by fire to the Lord. Every Sabbath [Aaron] shall set it in order before the Lord continually, being taken from the children of Israel by an everlasting covenant.”

            Leviticus 24:5–8

Another name for the showbread was the “bread of the Presence” (Ex 25:30, RSV)—literally, bread set out in the presence of God. It was to be made with the finest flour offered up by the people. On each Sabbath day, fresh showbread was to be set out on the table, while the previous batch was to be eaten by Aaron and his sons in a holy place (Lev 24:9). In this way, the showbread would be an offering pleasing to God and an important symbol of communion between God and man, and between man and man.

3.2.5      Burnt and drink offerings

God instructed the priests to make a special burnt offering and drink offering on the Sabbath, in addition to the daily sacrifices (see Num 28:3–8): “And on the Sabbath day two lambs in their first year, without blemish, and two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour as a grain offering, mixed with oil, with its drink offering—this is the burnt offering for every Sabbath, besides the regular burnt offering with its drink offering” (Num 28:9–10). This doubling of offerings emphasized the special nature of the day.

3.2.6      No ploughing or harvesting

Prior to their entry into Canaan, God commanded the people, “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; in plowing time and in harvest you shall rest” (Ex 34:21). Life for the Israelites would change upon their arrival in the promised land: they would finally be able to settle down and farm the land. Nevertheless, God made it clear that, even during the two most crucial and busy times in the agricultural calendar—the seasons of ploughing and harvesting—the people were not to neglect the holy Sabbath.

3.2.7      No burden-bearing and trading

Later on, during the ministry of the prophet Jeremiah (circa 627–580 BC), God stipulated a prohibition relating to the carrying of burdens. “Thus says the Lord: ‘Take heed to yourselves, and bear no burden on the Sabbath day, nor bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem; nor carry a burden out of your houses on the Sabbath day, nor do any work, but hallow the Sabbath day, as I commanded your fathers’ ” (Jer 17:21–22).

This prohibition was linked to trading, for we learn that the Jews had been doing business with the merchants coming into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. It led to God issuing this severe warning through Jeremiah: “But if you will not heed Me to hallow the Sabbath day, such as not carrying a burden when entering the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched” (Jer 17:27).

It was unfortunate that the people chose not to heed God’s words, for the judgment was realized in 586 BC, whereby the city of Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by the Babylonians. Later on, a new generation of Jews began making the same mistake when they returned from exile. Nehemiah responded swiftly by reinstating the Sabbath rest in order to prevent further judgment coming upon the nation (Neh 10:31; 13:15–21).

3.3         Penalty for breaking the Sabbath

God’s requirement was for His people to stop all routine work and to rest on the Sabbath. He set out this principle clearly in the Fourth Commandment (Ex 20:10; Deut 5:14). However, because of the wayward nature of some, He had to stipulate a severe judgment—the death penalty—to deter wilful transgression:

“You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.” 

            Exodus 31:14–17

In the Book of Numbers, we learn of an unfortunate occasion where this judgment had to be enacted. It records how, during the course of the wilderness journey, a man was caught collecting sticks one Sabbath day and was brought before Moses.


Now while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron, and to all the congregation. They put him under guard, because it had not been explained what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” So, as the Lord commanded Moses, all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him with stones, and he died.

Numbers 15:32–36

From this incident, we gain some important insights. Firstly, we see that God required the seventh day rest to be observed in an absolutely faithful manner, and His nature was such that He could not overlook a deliberate act of sin. Secondly, the severity of the punishment was undoubtedly meant to deter the spread of insubordination. Thirdly, we come to understand God’s capacity to dispense kindness and severity in equal measure, bringing to mind the sober warning of the apostle Paul: “Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off” (Rom 11:22).

3.4         Conclusion

Starting from the time of the exodus, God gave the Israelites a number of Sabbath regulations to promote the sanctity of the day and to reinforce the requirement to rest. However, it is debatable whether He meant all of them to be implemented for the duration of the Old Testament period. This is because some of the regulations appeared to be circumstance and time-specific. There were those, for example, that seemed to be targeted at the nomadic period, and others, to the settlement period. However, there were some regulations that were obviously of a more enduring nature, such as those to do with the showbread and the offerings. These would have been implemented for as long as there was a physical temple in which the people could worship. Nevertheless, once Jesus Christ died, resurrected and established His spiritual temple—the church (Eph 2:19–22; Heb 8:2, 5)—even these ceremonial practices became unnecessary. This was because, by that time, the shadow had passed, to be replaced by the true substance (Heb 10:1).   


© January 2012 True Jesus Church.

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