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WORSHIP AND THE TRUE CHRISTIAN SABBATH

Is the Christian Sabbath Saturday or Sunday?

The answer is neither — and both.

The true Sabbath is "Today," as the writer to the Hebrews explained:

Seeing therefore it remaineth that some should enter thereinto, and they to whom the good tidings were before preached failed to enter in because of disobedience, he again defineth a certain day, Today, saying in David so long a time afterward (even as hath been said before), Today if ye shall hear his voice, Harden not your hearts. For if Joshua had given them rest, he would not have spoken afterward of another day. There remaineth therefore a sabbath rest for the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest hath himself also rested from his works, as God did from his. Let us therefore give diligence to enter into that rest, that no man fall after the same example of disobedience. Hebrews 4:6-11 (ASV).

In this passage the writer quite clearly states seven important truths about the Sabbath:

  1. The day for the Sabbath-rest is always "Today."
  2. The true Sabbath-rest was something the Jews did not receive when they received the Law.
  3. The true Sabbath-rest may be entered by the people of God today.
  4. God entered His Sabbath-rest by resting from His own work.
  5. Likewise, we enter God's rest by resting from our own work.
  6. We must labor to enter into God's rest.
  7. When we fall from God's rest, we follow Israel's example of disobedience.

I will discuss each of these six topics in the order they are stated in the passage.

The day for the Sabbath-rest is always "Today"

The writer to the Hebrews declares five separate times that the time to hear God's voice, respond to it and enter into His rest is "Today." In three of these instances, the writer directly quotes King David:

Today if ye shall hear his voice, Harden not your hearts.

Psalm 95:7-8, as quoted in Hebrews 3:7-8, 3:15 and 4:7. The first of these quotations is part of a much longer quotation explaining that Israel did not enter God's rest, but wandered for forty years in the wilderness, because they rebelled and hardened their hearts against Him. Hebrews 3:7-11. God follows this with an admonition to see to it that none of us has a similarly sinful, unbelieving heart, but, instead, to "exhort one another day by day, as long as it is called Today," so that none of us may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness. Hebrews 3:12-13. The writer then repeats the quotation from Psalm 95 to reinforce his point that "Today" is the time to share in Christ, hear His voice, and not provoke Him by hardening our hearts. Hebrews 3:14-15. The word "Today" is then used twice in Hebrews 4:7. The first usage of the word in this verse states that God "defines" the "certain day" on which we are to enter into His rest as being "Today." The verse then once again quotes Psalm 95 as establishing that "Today" is the day. The Greek word, semeron, translated as "today" throughout this passage, clearly refers to now, the present day, the present time, not some other or future time.

Throughout the larger passage, it is clear that the blessing into which we are to enter "today," from which a hard, unbelieving, sinful heart will bar us, is God's rest. See, Hebrews 3:11, 3:18, 4:3 and 4:9-11. Moreover, the writer twice identifies this rest with the Sabbath. First, God's rest, into which we are to enter, is compared with the first Sabbath in verse 4:4:

For he hath said somewhere of the seventh [day] on this wise, And God rested on the seventh day from all his works…

Then, in verse 4:9, the "rest" which remains for the people of God is called a "Sabbath-rest" (Greek, sabbatismos), thus making the comparison between the Sabbath and God's rest for us explicit. However, as already noted, the context of these references to the Sabbath in this passage repeatedly stresses that the day we are to enter into this Sabbath-rest is "Today." It is not Saturday, Sunday or "eternity future," it is "Today."

This emphasis on entering into God's rest "Today" should not be surprising, in light of God's self-existence and eternity. God exists only in the present, as His Name, "I am," declares. Exodus 3:14. God has no past and no future; for Him all things are present, even the things we perceive as past or future. "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob." Exodus 3:6, 15; Luke 22:37. "Now He is not the God of the dead, but of the living: for all live unto Him." Luke 22:38 (ASV). It only follows that, God, who exists "Today," should repeatedly insist that, if we are to enter rest with Him, we must do so "Today."

The Jews did not receive the true Sabbath-rest in the Law

Although the Law of Moses contains detailed regulations concerning the observance of the Sabbath, the Sabbath observances prescribed therein are only a picture of the true Sabbath, not the underlying reality. Hebrews 10:1. This is evident even from the words of the Third Commandment, as originally stated on Mount Sinai:

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work; but the seventh day is a sabbath unto Jehovah thy God: [in it] thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy man-servant, nor thy maid-servant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: for in six days Jehovah made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore Jehovah blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

Exodus 20:8-11 (ASV).

Thus, the Sabbath observance given to Moses was only a picture and a reminder of God's rest on the seventh day, not that rest itself. God's work has been finished since the creation of the world. Hebrews 1:3. God entered His rest on the seventh day of creation, as we understand time, and now rests. Hebrews 1:4. God gave the Sabbath observance to Moses, its violation was a capital offense, and the Law of the Sabbath was strictly enforced in Moses' day. See, Numbers 15:32-36. Nevertheless, God's people Israel did not enter His rest in the days of Moses or Joshua:

For if Joshua had given them rest, he would not have spoken afterward of another day.

Hebrews 1:8 (ASV). Indeed, even in David's day Israel had not entered God's rest, as David had to exhort the people to hear God's voice and enter His rest. See, Hebrews 3:7-11, quoting Psalm 95:7-11. The Sabbath observance, thus, was not the underlying reality of God's rest, and the strict observance of this earthly Sabbath did not, in itself, bring the worshipper into the true heavenly Sabbath. It was only a picture, not the reality.

The true Sabbath-rest may be entered by the people of God today.

We may enter God's rest today. This is the clear implication of Hebrews 3:8-4:12, which, as already noted, repeatedly quotes David's commentary on Israel's rebellion in the desert (Psalm 95:7-8 with Hebrews 3:8-10). This rebellion occurred when God led the people from Sinai to the edge of the promised land, and through Moses commanded them to go in and possess the land—Today—but they refused. Numbers 13:26-14:12; Deuteronomy 1:19-32. In spite of all the wonders they had quite recently seen God perform, they believed the fear aroused the spies' report of giants in the land and refused to believe that God would give them the land as He had promised. As a result, God became angry and swore that none of that generation would enter the land except Caleb and Joshua, the spies who had believed Him and given a good report. Numbers 14:30; Deuteronomy 1:34-39. He told them that they would wander in the desert for forty years, one year for every day their unbelieving spies were in the promised land, until that whole generation had died in the desert. Numbers 14:32-35. God then told the people to turn around and head back into the desert. Deuteronomy 1:40.

However, the next day the people went through the motions of repentance, and subsequently tried to go into the land on their own. God warned them that His power would not go with them and that they would be defeated if they tried to go up. Nevertheless, they one again "rebelled against the Lord's command," arrogantly went up and were defeated. Numbers 14:39-44; Deuteronomy 1:41-46. When God invited them to enter His rest, the invitation was only good "today" — it was withdrawn when refused. That generation could only enter in "today." Forty years later, their children entered in, but the first generation to reach the promised land never entered it.

Similarly, we have a promise of entering into His rest. Hebrews 4:1, 9. Those who have believed the word preached to them enter, present tense, into that rest. Hebrews 4:3. Those who remain outside do so because of unbelief (Hebrews 3:19) that leads to disobedience (Hebrews 4:6, 11) — just like the people of Israel in the wilderness, some refuse to believe God and enter in. But their disobedience does not change the fact that God is commanding them to enter and to enter "today."

Other portions of the New Testament also indicates that the time to enter God's rest is today, not tomorrow or eternity future. For example, when the lawyers challenged Jesus because His disciples plucked heads of grain to eat on the Sabbath, Jesus reminded them that David and his men had eaten consecrated bread reserved for the priests, and used this as a precedent to say that "the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath." Mark 2:27. The rest represented by the Sabbath was prepared for us and is here today; otherwise, if it referred only to some future reward, it could not be pled in justification of an apparent present-time violation of the Law of the weekly Sabbath observance. Compare, Numbers 15:32-36, in which a man was stoned for gathering sticks on the Sabbath. Similarly, in Matthew 11:28, Jesus invites all who are weary and heavy-laden to come to Him and promises that those who come to Him will find rest. Thus, whatever God's rest is, it is something that is available today. It is not limited to Heaven.

God entered His rest by ceasing from His own work

Though this may, at first glance, appear to be an oversimplification, God entered into His rest by ceasing from His work:

And the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it; because that in it he rested from all his work which God had created and made.

Genesis 2:1-3. The same point is made in Exodus 20:11, which bases the command to observe the Sabbath on the observation that God made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days and rested on the seventh day. The writer to the Hebrews also twice reaffirms that God rested from all His works on the seventh day. Hebrews 4: 4, 10. But Hebrews goes a little father than this, stating that, when God rested, all of His work was done and the rest we are invited to enter was complete:

For we who have believed do enter into that rest; even as he hath said, As I sware in my wrath, They shall not enter into my rest: although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he hath said somewhere of the seventh day on this wise, And God rested on the seventh day from all his works; and in this place again, They shall not enter into my rest.

Hebrews 4:3-5. Yes, the events we see unfolding around us now, the work we see God doing in the world today, is only the visible manifestation or outworking of work God completed from the foundation of the world. Compare, e.g., Acts 17:25-26; Ephesians 1:4-10. Without here attempting a complete explanation of the subject of predestination and foreknowledge, it should suffice to affirm, as the Scriptures clearly do, that God is above time, present simultaneously at all times just as He is present simultaneously at all places. Matthew 22:31-32; John 8:56-58. Since He presently exists both now and on all seven days of creation, He is certainly able to have completed His response to everything we would do today during the first six days of creation, and Hebrews 4:3 affirms that He did so. See, also, Romans 8:28-30, which first affirms that all things work together — that is, are woven together as a rope is woven together, in present tense — for the good of those who love God and are called by His purpose, and then states our predestination, calling, justification and glorification as completed past events. Indeed, God even dealt with sin while He was creating the heavens and the earth: Jesus Christ is "the Lamb slain from the creation of the world." Revelation 13:8. God finished all His work in the first six days of creation, and rested the seventh day. He is still resting in the work He has completed, and invites us to join Him in that rest.

We enter God's rest by ceasing from our own work

We enter God's rest by resting from our own works, just as God did from His. Hebrews 4:10. As Isaiah said,

If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, [and] the holy of Jehovah honorable; and shalt honor it, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking [thine own] words: then shalt thou delight thyself in Jehovah; and I will make thee to ride upon the high places of the earth; and I will feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of Jehovah hath spoken it.

Isaiah 58:13-14 (ASV). Likewise, Jesus himself said:

Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Matthew 11:28-30 (ASV). Entering into God's rest consists of laying down our own heavy load, ceasing from our own works, pleasures and words, coming to Jesus and taking up his light yoke and easy burden. The time to enter God's rest is always now, today.

We must labor to enter God's rest

Since entering God's rest requires ceasing from my own works, it may at first appear surprising that we must "labor" or "give diligence" to enter into that rest, as Hebrews 4:11 affirms. But recall that, when we come to Jesus, we do not just drop our own burdens. We take up His yoke, which is easy, and He shares His light burden with us. In taking up His yoke, we find rest for our souls. Matthew 11:28-30. We go from doing our own works, to doing His work alongside Him. There is work to do.

But what is that work? First of all, it is to believe Him. When the people asked what they must do that they might "work the works of God," Jesus replied, "This is the work of God, that you believe on Him whom He hath sent." John 6:28-29. But if we believe Him, we will love each other, as he commanded. John 13:34-35; John 14:10-15, 21-24; I John 2:3-11. If we love each other, our love will show in our actions, showing compassion to each other, giving of ourselves, our goods and even our lives to care for each others' needs. James 2:8-20; I John 3:14-18. Such compassion, showing the work of God in our lives, was indeed a part of the lesson of the Old Testament Sabbath observance, as Isaiah explained:

Is not this the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy healing shall spring forth speedily; and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of Jehovah shall by thy rearward. Then shalt thou call, and Jehovah will answer; thou shalt cry, and he will say, Here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking wickedly; and if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul: then shall thy light rise in darkness, and thine obscurity be as the noonday; and Jehovah will guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in dry places, and make strong thy bones; and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.

Isaiah 58:6-11 (ASV). So, we must labor to enter into God's rest. We must be diligent to believe Him, cease from our own works, and let Him work His works through us. In contrast to our own works, which are focused on ourselves, God's works are works of compassion, focused on others. And they are works He directs and performs with us, not works we direct ourselves. It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. Matthew 12:12.

When we fall from God's rest, we follow Israel's example of disobedience

Hebrews 4:11 not only instructs us to labor diligently to enter into God's rest, it also warns us that, if we do not enter in, we will instead "fall by following the same example of disobedience," that is, we will fall in the same way Israel did when they rebelled in the desert. (That Israel's rebellion is the "example of disobedience" in view in this verse can be clearly seen from the many references to this historical incident in the context starting at chapter 3, verse 7). The Greek word translated "disobedience" here in the ASV and NASB, but translated "unbelief" in the KJV, is instructive. It is apeitheia, from the particle a-, "not" and the verb peithoo, meaning, generally, "to persuade" or "to believe." Its primary meaning is a state of being obstinate, stubborn or impossible to persuade. It describes a person who simply will not listen. It is similar to the word from which the English word "apathy" is derived. As applied to Israel at Kadesh Barnea in the desert, it can properly be translated "disobedience" in this sense: their refusal to be persuaded of the integrity of God's promise led to an obstinate refusal to act on that promise by obeying His command to enter the land. Instead, they were persuaded to believe their fears. They would not go in. Because they would not be persuaded, they would not act. Their apathy manifested both unbelief and disobedience, and both are reflected in the word the writer to the Hebrews uses to describe it, here and in verses 3:18 and 4:6. The same is true of us, when we will not be persuaded to enter into God's rest.

The writer warns also of the process which leads to a refusal to enter in. The process starts with a heart of unbelief — in this verse, merely the absence of conviction (apistis) rather than obstinate refusal to believe — which separates the heart from God. Hebrews 3:12. It separates itself from God because it is fundamentally unsound; it is too lazy, too slothful (too poneros, here translated "wicked") to walk with Him. Between the Red Sea and Kadesh Barnea, Israel frequently manifested this fundamental laziness of heart. For instance, when Moses tarried only forty days in God's presence on Mount Sinai, the people gave him up for dead, made their own gods and proclaimed a drunken orgy in worship of them. Exodus 32. Though God had provided for them without fail, sending them manna ("the bread of angels") to eat, they grumbled against Him at Taberah, complaining about their hardships until He sent His fire among them and they repented. Numbers 11:1-3. But then they grumbled against Him again because the manna did not taste as good as the meat, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic they remembered in Egypt. They convinced themselves they had been better off in captivity in Egypt than they were now that they were walking with God. So God sent them quail to eat, along with a plague that killed the people who had craved food God had not provided. Numbers 11. It is this lazy, wicked heart that would rather have its own pleasures than wait for God that we are warned against in Hebrews 3:12. But it is only the beginning of the process.

Because we collectively tend to have a lazy heart that separates itself from God, Hebrews 3:13 instructs us to encourage each other "Today," to keep each other from becoming hardened by sin's deceitfulness. Sin deceives us, first by convincing us that we would be better off away from God, that He has brought our hardships upon us and denied us the pleasures we crave, as was just discussed. Sin then hardens us to God's voice, deceiving us into rejecting God's authority in favor of the voices of people we appoint to speak for Him. This recognition of false spokesmen for God who would tell then what they wanted to hear is what Israel did with Aaron in Exodus 32, in the matter of Aaron and Miriam in Numbers 12, and repeatedly thereafter throughout their history. See, e.g., Numbers 16 (Korah, Dathan and Abiram); Jeremiah 5:31; Jeremiah 8:4-12; 2 Peter 2:1-3, 17-22. The next step after becoming hard to God's voice, then, is the "rebellion" against it, apeitheia, the stubborn refusal to believe and act upon what God says. Hebrews 3:16-18. But this hardened, stubborn refusal to believe does not grow up instantly. It starts with a lack of conviction (apistis) that what God says is right, which grows into total apathy toward God. This is the "example of disobedience" we are to avoid, and to encourage each other to avoid. Instead, we are to enter into His rest today, at His invitation.

Conclusion

The true Sabbath is not Saturday or Sunday. It is not one day out of every week reserved for total rest, and it is not, as many churches teach, one day out of every week reserved exclusively for organized church activities. Instead, it is every day. It is God's invitation to cease from our own works and enter into His rest. It is always today.

Ian Johnson
Please do email me!
ian4christ41@yahoo.com

© 2004 Ian Johnson

Related Pages

God is, describing His self-existence and eternity.

Jesus is the Son of Man, and Lord of the Sabbath.

Some additional consequences of refusal

Legalism, inability to understand God, bondage and destruction are the natural consequences of refusal to enter into God's rest:

But he will speak to this nation with stammering lips and in another language; to whom he said, "This is the resting place. Give rest to weary;" and "This is the refreshing;" yet they would not hear. Therefore the word of Yahweh will be to them precept on precept, precept on precept; line on line, line on line; here a little, there a little; that they may go, fall backward, be broken, be snared, and be taken.

Isaiah 28:11-13 (WEB).

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