Observing the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments, which are set in stone and unchanging. The Sabbath Day is the day that belongs to God (Gen 2:1ff; Ex 20:8ff; Deut 5:13ff).
Like the other commandments, it is binding on us. In fact, the degree it binds us is more significant than how it bound the people of Israel. By commanding the Israelites to keep the Sabbath, God gave them opportunities to reflect upon His creative power, His purpose for them (cf. Gen 2:1ff; Ex 20:8ff), and His deliverance (Deut 5:13ff).
Of course, these opportunities are also available to us today, and keeping the Sabbath in our time also ushers us into the rest of God—from the seventh day Sabbath's rest to the eventual eternal rest.
For He has spoken in a certain place of the seventh day in this way:
'And God rested on the seventh day from all His works'... There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. For he who entered His rest has Himself also ceased from his works as God did from His. (Heb 4:4, 9-10)
Without a doubt, Sabbath observance has a direct bearing on our salvation.
In the Gospels, Jesus teaches that we must keep God's commandments not only in the literal sense but also from within our hearts (Mt 5). Therefore, at the outset, before we can understand the true essence of Sabbath observance, we have to comply with the letter of the commandment: "Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the day of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work" (Ex 20:8ff; Deut 5:13ff).
The command "you shall do no work" served to restrain God's chosen people from laboring on the Sabbath. This ensured that they would keep the Sabbath as God had intended. However, the Old Testament Scriptures do not sufficiently elaborate this commandment in a way that enables us to deal with it in the context of the new millennium (Ex 20:10). Therefore, we can illustrate only the principles of Sabbath observance.
The Israelites' Sabbath Observance
When God gave the Israelites this command, they were still wanderers in the wilderness. He first issued it in the form of "staying at home," which meant "staying in one's tents" as opposed to leaving home to gather manna just like on any other day of the week:
Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is the Sabbath, there will be none... See! For the Lord has given you the Sabbath; therefore He gives you the six days. Let every man remain in his place... (Ex 16:26, 29)
It is clear that the gathering of manna outside one's dwelling place amounted to "doing work"-that is, it was the same kind of labor as was done on the other six days of the week. So God clearly stipulated that if the Israelites worked on the seventh day, they would be profaning the Sabbath, and thus, severe consequences would befall them (Ex 31:14).
Once the Israelites settled and became farmers, they had to stop all forms of farming on the seventh day in order to keep with the essence of the Sabbath. Likewise, after they began to develop into a nation, gathering wood (Num 15:32-36), burden-bearing (Jer 17:21-27), traveling (Ex 16:29), and trading (Amos 8:5) were all forbidden on the Sabbath. To prevent business dealings, Nehemiah ordered the gates of the city to be closed on the Sabbath (Neh 10:31; 13:15,19). All of these are examples of the types of "works of labor" that the Israelites could do on the first six days of the week but not on the seventh.
In spite of the prohibition to do work on the Sabbath, there were some activities that were lawful and permissible. These included attending dedication feasts (1 Kgs 8:65; 2 Chr 7:8) and marriage feasts (Jud 14:12-18), visiting a man of God (2 Kgs 4:23), changing the temple guards (2 Kgs 1:5-9), preparing the showbread (1 Chr 9:32), and leaving the East gate open (Ezek 46:1-3).
More specifically, the Israelites celebrated the Sabbath (Ex 31:16) by gathering together in holy convocation (Lev 23:3) to make offerings (Num 28:9-10), and by providing new showbread in the holy place (Lev 24:8). It was a day of gladness (Num 10:10; Is 58:13). Though such celebration may have amounted to "work," it was permissible on Sabbaths.
Jesus' Sabbath Observance
When Jesus came into this world, He brought to light the meaning of Sabbath observance by declaring Himself the Lord of the Sabbath (Mk 2:28) and by declaring that the Sabbath is made for man and not man for the Sabbath.
Moreover, the command "to rest from all works" does not negate His activities (works) in accomplishing His salvation plan on any Sabbath day. Jesus said, "My Father is working until now and I am working" (Jn 5:17; cf. Jn 9:4). If God had rested after His creation, how could He have been working until now? Surely, God does not stop sustaining the universe, giving life, and judging on the Sabbath. Rather, He rested from His work of creation, the work of the six days, as an example for us to follow.
Many times when Jesus performed healing on the Sabbath, He took the opportunity to rectify the common perception of placing sacrifices above the need to keep God's word: "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice" (Mt 12:7; cf. Hos 6:6). Mercy should take precedence over sacrifice. Life is precious in His sight. Even though the Torah is silent about Sabbath healing, to do good and to save lives on the Sabbath are pleasing in His eyes (Mt 12:12; Mk 3:4).
From His reply to the people who accused him of being possessed by a demon, Jesus made it obvious that even the Law of Moses provided a level of tolerance to certain works done on the Sabbath, such as circumcision (Jn 7:21ff). Certainly, Jesus did not intend to change the Law as He desired. His ministry of healing (Jn 5:1-11; Mt 12:9-14) and joining in feasting (Lk 14:1) merely demonstrated the types of work that are permissible on the Sabbath. Any work done on the Sabbath at the command of God (Jn 5:8), that glorifies Him (cf. Jn 5:8ff) and is good in His sight, is therefore acceptable (Mk 3:1ff).
Jesus, however, never advocated that we can do the work of labor on the Sabbath, just as we do it on any other day. Once, Jesus permitted His disciples to pluck and eat ears of corn, to satisfy their basic need (Mt 12:1ff), but if we think about it, the act of plucking and eating do not amount to more "work" than that of placing manna into one's mouth to eat on the seventh day, as the Israelites did in Exodus 16.
Sabbath Observance Today
Though the command "you shall do no work" is clear, it is difficult to define the work of labor, since it varies from one generation to another, from one community to another, as well as from one person to another. If we were to keep defining works of labor in every aspect of life, then outlining exactly what is permissible could become an impossible task. This is precisely the situation that the Scribes and Pharisees placed themselves in.
Isaiah, being moved by the Spirit, saw the crux of the matter concerning Sabbath observance. He taught, from a spiritual dimension, that no man should seek self-pleasure and must desist from his own ways on the Sabbath:
If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable, and shall honor Him, not doing your own ways, nor finding your own pleasure, nor speaking your own words, 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)
When our hearts are with God, then our observance of the Sabbath will be in line with what God requires of us. In considering Isaiah's message, we can clearly see that our hearts control what we should and should not do on the Sabbath. In turn, the work we do will affect our observance of the Sabbath.
In a nutshell, the phrase "you shall do no work" defines the work of the world, involving the labor of the six days, which we can choose not to do on the seventh day. The difference between the types of work is clearly a distinction between personal matters, matters of necessity, and religious concerns. Even so, God provides a degree of tolerance that enables us to satisfy basic human needs on the Sabbath.
He places the meaning of Sabbath observance on the denial and renunciation of natural desires, such as making money, any form of pleasure-seeking activities (e.g., watching a movie), and the like. It is a day of complete dedication to serving (Jn 7:23; Mt 12:5), worshiping, and loving God (Is 56:2, 58:13f; Eze 20:12,21), as well as helping others in their physical and spiritual needs.
The Sabbath belongs to God. The purpose of refraining from work on the seventh day is to concentrate on entering into God's rest, to do good work and save lives, and, what is most important, to improve one's spirituality by assembling together (cf. Lev 23:3).