“the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yahweh.” The word “Sabbath,” shabbat (#07676 שַׁבָּת) almost certainly comes from a Hebrew word for “rest, cease, stop,” shabbaton (#07677 שַׁבָּתוֹן), and both words appear in Exodus 16:23: “Tomorrow is to be a day of rest [shabbaton], a holy Sabbath [shabbat]” (NIV84); “Tomorrow is a time of cessation from work, a holy Sabbath” (NET). Some English versions use the word “sabbath” twice (cp. NASB: “Tomorrow is a sabbath observance, a holy sabbath”) but having “sabbath” twice is more confusing than clarifying because although the Hebrew words are related, they are different, and furthermore, the Sabbath as a regular institution and day of rest for Israel had not been established yet.
When God created the world as we know it, He rested on the seventh day, which was a Saturday. In biblical reckoning of time, Sunday is the first day of the week and Saturday is the seventh, which is why the Jewish Sabbath is on Saturday. The origin and inculcation of the seven-day week in ancient cultures has been lost in history, but there is little doubt that it came from God and was passed from Adam and Eve to their descendants, even though some cultures abandoned it. Adam lived more than 900 years and would have passed on the information about creation to his descendants.
Evidence that God established the seven-day week comes from the fact that it does not seem to come from anywhere else and it is humanitarian in its effect—as it was originally given by God it was a blessing to people. The seven-day week is not tied to the planets or planetary motion, or the motion or phases of the moon, or from a solar or sidereal year (a sidereal year is a year based on the motion of the stars). Furthermore, it is the nature and tendency of rulers to overwork the people they rule, and thus the very nature of the Hebrew Sabbath is against the natural inclination of all but the most godly of rulers. There is no good reason to reject what the Bible clearly states: the Sabbath came from God.
Although the word “sabbath” is not used in Genesis chapter 2 (Gen. 2:2 uses shavath, #07673 שָׁבַת, a closely related word), God gives the fact that He “stopped” working and “rested” on the seventh day of creation as the reason for His choosing the seventh day as the day the people of Israel were to cease from working (Gen. 2:1-3; Exod. 20:11). Nevertheless, there is no biblical account of anyone recognizing a weekly day of rest until after the Exodus, when God commanded it for Israel. So even if it was known that God rested on the seventh day of creation, that information did not influence how people behaved in their daily lives. Exodus 16:23 is when God introduced the idea that the seventh day, Saturday, was to be a regular day of rest for His people.
As we examine God’s commanding a regular Saturday Sabbath for Israel, it is helpful to see at least three different important aspects. The Sabbath was not a regular institution for the people of God until God commanded it for Israel; it was specifically given to Israel; and it was given to Israel to help them remember the harsh slavery they were subjected to in Egypt, which did not have any regular rest days, and thus ostensibly so they would not treat anyone as they were treated in Egypt.
The regular Saturday Sabbath was not observed by anyone in the Bible before God gave it to Israel after the Exodus. This should speak very loudly to people who assert it is the will of God for everyone to keep the Sabbath today. Conservative scholars agree that Adam and Eve were created about 4,000 BC, and the Exodus was about 1,450 BC. That means that God did not give any commands concerning a Sabbath or day of rest for the first 2,500 years of human life on earth—more than half of the time of the Old Testament. This shows that people having a regular day of rest was not of great concern for God in contrast to other things about which God did give specific commands. People knew the difference between good and evil at the time of the Fall, and God expected people to do good (Gen. 3:22). God gave commands about sacrifices and offerings as early as Cain and Abel (Gen. 4:3-7). People knew about “clean” and “unclean” animals before Noah’s Flood (Gen. 7:2), and God commanded people not to eat blood right after the Flood (Gen. 9:4). Furthermore, it was right after the Flood that God said that people had the right and responsibility to punish criminals (Gen. 9:6). But in that entire 2,500-year period, God never said a word about keeping a regular day of rest. It was only after the Exodus that He commanded Israel to observe a regular day of rest, and that command was one of the Ten Commandments, part of the Law of Moses.
The fact that the Sabbath was not a regular day of rest until after the Exodus explains what we see in the text in Exodus 16. For one thing, it explains why God introduces the day of rest the way He does. It is quite obvious in the text that God did not expect the people to be already keeping the Sabbath. For example, He did not say, “Hey, tomorrow is the Sabbath, so you need to prepare the manna for two days just like you do your regular food, remember, no cooking on the Sabbath!” Instead, God explains the Sabbath by saying, “Tomorrow is a day of rest,” and then He calls it “a holy Sabbath.” Also, that the people were not used to keeping a Sabbath explains why even though God told them it was a day of rest and that manna would not appear on the ground, “some of the people went out to gather” (Exod. 16:27). God got upset with the people for that, but nothing like what happened some years later, after the Sabbath had been firmly established as one of the Ten Commandments. Years after the Sabbath was established as one of the Ten Commandments, a man who gathered wood on Sabbath day was stoned to death (Num. 15:32-36).
Another thing about the Sabbath is that it was given specifically to Israel. God introduced it to Israel when He first gave manna (Exod. 16:23-30), but at that time there is no indication that the people understood that the Sabbath was to be a perpetual ordinance, nor is there any indication the Israelites knew anything about the extent of it, for example, that it even applied to a stranger who was in Israel (Exod. 20:10).
Although God said He chose the seventh day of the week to be the Sabbath because that was when He rested from His work, He did not explain why He decided that Israel should keep the Sabbath until He explained it in Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy 5:15 God said that He gave the Sabbath so that Israel would remember that they were slaves in Egypt and God delivered them, “therefore Yahweh your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” So Deuteronomy 5:15 makes it clear that God did not command people to keep the Sabbath Day before the Exodus. It also makes it clear that the Sabbath was commanded to “you,” Israel, and furthermore, it makes it clear that part of the purpose of the Sabbath was so Israel would remember that it was Yahweh who delivered them from slavery so they, and their families, servants, and visitors, could enjoy a day of rest rather than constantly be working as they likely had been doing as slaves in Egypt.
Once we understand the Sabbath, including when and to whom it was given, we are in a better position to understand the Sabbath and the Christian Church. The regular seventh-day Sabbath was part of the Mosaic Law and was given to the Jews. It was not a “universal” regulation given to all people, nor is there any indication it was to extend beyond the time Jesus fulfilled the Law. There is no verse in the writings to the Christian Church (Acts-Jude) that indicates a Christian has an obligation to keep the Sabbath. In fact, the argument from silence on this point is shouting very loudly, because no Christian in Acts or the New Testament epistles is ever said to have kept the Sabbath. On the Sabbath day, Paul and others went into synagogues and places where people were worshiping, but that is because that is when and where the people they wanted to speak to were gathered; there is no statement about Paul or others going to the synagogue in order to keep the regulations of the Sabbath. For example, there is no statement in Acts or the Epistles that Paul did not travel on the Sabbath day, when Jewish Sabbath law would have limited him to only going about two-thirds of a mile. Furthermore, in the great church council in Acts 15, men of the Pharisees claimed that Gentile Christians needed to be circumcised and “keep the Law of Moses” (Acts 15:5), but even Peter said that was not the case (Acts 15:6-11). The conclusion of the council was that the Gentiles should abstain from idols, sexual immorality, and defiled meat and blood, but not a word was said about them keeping the Sabbath (Acts 15:24-29). This is very important when we realize that as Gentiles in the Roman world, they would have partaken of all of those activities; idols, sex, and defiled meat, and also would not have kept the Sabbath. So if there was a need for believers to keep the Sabbath it seems it would have been mentioned, but the fact that it is not mentioned fits with what the New Testament Epistles say about the regulations of the Law and specifically the Sabbath.
In Colossians 2:16-17, Paul wrote to the Church at Colosse and told them not to let anyone judge them about what they ate and drank or with respect to special days or the Sabbath, and he pointed out that those things were a “shadow” of the things to come but the reality was Christ. So the Sabbath was a shadow that pointed to the reality of the “Sabbath-rest” that we all have in Christ, of which the best is yet to come.
Occasionally people who think God still commands believers to keep the Sabbath assert that the word “Sabbath” in Colossians does not refer to the Jewish Sabbath, but it does. The Greek word is sabbaton (#4521 σάββατον), and it is the same word that is used for the Jewish Sabbath in the Septuagint and the New Testament to refer to the Sabbath. In fact, in the New Testament the word sabbaton occurs almost 70 times and it is only used two ways: firstly, for the weekly Sabbath or a special Sabbath, and secondly in its idiomatic use to mean “a week,” and it is only used to refer to a week about a dozen times, and in the majority of those uses “sabbath” is plural, “sabbaths” (cp. Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:2; Acts 20:7). There is no place in the New Testament where sabbaton is used of some kind of general “rest.” Thus there is no lexical or contextual reason to say that in Colossians 2 the word “Sabbath” does not include referring to the regular weekly Sabbath.
Can a person keep the Sabbath or a special day if they want to? Certainly. Paul wrote, “One person judges one day to be above another day, while another judges every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5).
Despite the fact that Christians do not need to keep the Sabbath Day, the Sabbath contains many important lessons and principles. One is that people do need to rest. God rested, and studies show that it is healthy for people to regularly take some time to rest and disengage from the pressures of life. Another lesson is that it is not good or godly to expect people to work every day without a day of rest. People are not slaves to the “god of production.” Having a regular time to dedicate to God and family is the heart of our Father God, and the Sabbath made sure that happened.