By Dr. Mark Scott
A certain workaholic said, “Thank God it’s Monday.” But even the most aggressive workaholic needs rest. Out of eternity God carved time and made days, weeks, months, seasons, and years. Habit is a great liberator—learning the rhythms of God gives proper pacing to our lives.
One sacred tradition that God gave his people was the Sabbath. In the Bible Sabbath is a word of many nuances. It can refer to the seventh day of the week, the Sabbath day (Exodus 20:8). It can refer to the idea of rest (v. 10). It can refer to the promised land of Israel (Hebrews 3:11) and to Heaven itself (4:6-11). It can even refer to our salvation (v. 3).
Remember the Rhythm
Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 contain the 10 famous words/commandments that God gave his people through Moses. That this Decalogue distinguished Israel from other nations for 1,400 years is nothing short of amazing. Israel knew that they belonged to God because he gave them his law. This constitutional literature gave Israel precepts by which to live. But behind the precepts were God’s principles of how he wanted his people to live. And behind the principles was none other than the person of God.
The fourth commandment stands as a bridge between the two halves of the Decalogue. The first three commandments deal with our vertical relationship with God. Commandments five through ten deal with our relationships with others. In the middle is the command to rest.
Work and rest seem to be a God-inspired rhythm. God is not kidding about this commandment. Notice the language: Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, and on it you shall not do any work. Also he said, You must observe my Sabbaths, and observe the Sabbath, and the Israelites are to observe the Sabbath.
The proper rhythm to resting is working. In this Sabbath command there is also the command to work: Six days you shall labor and do all your work. This work/rest rhythm is extensive. It applied to moms, dads, children, servants, foreigners, and animals. (Yes, even animals should learn the rhythms of God and know that their owners are Yahweh worshippers.) This work/rest rhythm is based on creation. He rested on the seventh day.
Finally the work/rest rhythm is blessed by God and set apart for him. Jesus knew this well. He was extremely busy in his ministry, but even he had time to rest (Matthew 14:13) and one of his titles is, “Lord of the Sabbath” (12:8).
Follow the Command
Our second printed text comes later in the book of Exodus, bracketed by the stories of Bezalel and Oholiab being designated to build the tabernacle and the idolatry with the golden calf. Maybe the Sabbath day is a good sanity check on our exclusive worship of God and putting aside false gods.
Three reasons are given for why Israel was to follow the Sabbath command. First, following the Sabbath command was a sign. Resting every seven days demonstrated Israel’s unique relationship with God. Only God could save Israel. Only God could make Israel holy. Obeying this command underlined that salvific relationship.
Second, following the Sabbath command averted God’s punishment. The penalty for disobedience was severe—death. Twice in our text punishment by death is mentioned as a penalty. Another expression is cut off from their people. Does this give anyone pause? The classic example is Numbers 15:32-36: A man was gathering sticks on the Sabbath. He was caught, incarcerated, and stoned to death. That of course sounds incredibly harsh but may be not unlike Acts 5:1-11 (Ananias and Sapphira lying to the Holy Spirit). God did not intend to do this to everyone who lies, but he could not afford to allow the early church’s growth to be nipped in the bud by this moral compromise. How could Israel be a blessing to the nations if they disobeyed one of their primal commands?
Third, following the Sabbath command was a mark of the covenant. Israel was to keep this as a lasting covenant (a long time or until God changed it). This elevated the Sabbath command to things like keeping the feasts, circumcision, and obeying the law.
Before sin entered the world, God commanded Adam and Eve to work (Genesis 2:15). When sin fractured creation that work became laborious (3:17-19). Sabbath is a brief respite to remind us that God will one day bring us to the full rest of his salvation.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College and has held preaching ministries in Missouri, Illinois, and Colorado.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2012, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.