The Sabbath and Sanctification
In the companion document, "The Sabbath and Creation," we discuss the three-dimensional significance of the Sabbath: Creation, Deliverance and Sanctification. Let’s take a closer look at that, starting with the Creation of the Sabbath itself.*
Notice the three things God did on the seventh day of Creation week:
And by the seventh day God completed His work which He had done; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made (Genesis 2:2, 3).
- The Hebrew root word used here means "to cease, to desist, to rest." God did not need rest because He was tired from the work of Creation.
- Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth does not become weary or tired (Isaiah 40:28).
- God stopped working because His creation was perfect and complete. He needed to add nothing more. But He didn’t withdraw from His creation, leaving it to run itself.
- Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and Thy dominion endures throughout all generations. The Lord sustains all who fall, and raises up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to Thee, and Thou dost give them their food in due time. Thou dost open Thy hand, and dost satisfy the desire of every living thing (Psalm 145:13-16).
- This is the third time the word "blessed" is used in the Creation story. On the fifth day God blessed the creatures of the air and the sea (Gen. 1:22); then on the sixth day He blessed Adam and Eve—and through them all the creatures of the earth (Gen. 1:28).
- In both cases His blessing was not simply a kind sentiment, but a declaration of His dynamic will. He pronounced specific benefits, and His words had creative power. By blessing the seventh day He exalted it above all other days, investing it with a unique quality that is identified in the next words of the verse.
- This reveals the specific nature of the blessing God pronounced on the seventh day: He sanctified it, hallowed it, by consecrating it to a sacred purpose. He established it as commemoration of His completed work. This was His very first act of sanctification in the history of our world.
- In ancient Hebrew thought this word was part of the marriage ceremony. When a man committed himself to marry a woman he sanctified her to himself. So God sanctified the Sabbath to Himself, making it His own.
- This is how God inaugurated the weekly cycle, setting the rhythm of life for the human race. In His grand design the seventh day was the apex of the week when His children could experience holy time, God’s time, rejoicing in the blessings of His creative power. This was to become a perpetual celebration of God’s completed work, renewed every week into the ceaseless ages of eternity.
- "For just as the new heavens and the new earth which I make will endure before Me," declares the Lord, "so your offspring and your name will endure. And it shall be from new moon to new moon and from sabbath to sabbath, all mankind will come to bow down before Me," says the Lord (Isaiah 66:22, 23).
Here is how Moses introduced the second dimension of the Sabbath’s significance:
And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day (Deuteronomy 5:15).
In this chapter Moses repeats the Ten Commandments to the children of Israel. Here he teaches them—and us—that the Sabbath stands not only for something God did long ago. It also has relevance to the work of God in their/our own lives. Notice the two key points he makes:
- You were a slave
- In Egypt the Israelites were slave laborers. They were subjected to the will of their masters, forced into the unbroken drudgery of servile tasks and exhausted by the endless demands of their Egyptian lords.
- For us the bondage of the Israelites is symbolic of spiritual slavery. We are all sinners and, therefore, slaves to sin.
- Jesus answered them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin" (John 8:34).
- Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness (Romans 6:16)?
- God brought you out
- Beaten down and crushed under the heel of Pharaoh and his "department of labor," the children of Israel had succumbed to their dire circumstances. Their life was a living death. Fear and fatigue had worn down their will to resist. They could wish for freedom, but they had no spirit for rebellion. It was while they were in this helpless, hopeless condition that God delivered them. Their liberty from bondage was entirely His doing.
- Spiritually dead in our sins, we are helpless to save ourselves. Our only hope is for God to bring us out of our bondage and free us. He has already done this through Christ, whose death redeemed us—purchased our freedom.
- For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6).
- But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ… (Ephesians 2:4, 5)
It’s important to note that the Sabbath commemorated God’s finished work of creation and His finished work of redemption for the children of Israel. Both aspects of His work left nothing undone. The Creator made a complete work of creating our world, and He made Israel completely free from Egyptian bondage.
Today we share in the benefits of God’s completed work of both creation and redemption. We observe the Sabbath in honor of our Creator and Redeemer, Jesus Christ, whose sacrifice at Calvary was more than sufficient to purchase our salvation.
By His divine power our God has made us and redeemed us; now His work on our behalf continues in the transforming ministry of sanctification.
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel, saying, 'You shall surely observe My sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you’" (Exodus 31:12, 13).
The message of these verses is repeated in Ezekiel 20:12, 20.
- Observe my Sabbaths
- The children of Israel received explicit instructions about how to "keep" or "observe" God’s Sabbaths: with "complete rest" (Exodus 31:15). There had been no Sabbath for them in Egypt. Now that they had been delivered, working on the Sabbath would have been like going back to that old bondage—as if God had not delivered them. In observing the Sabbath they experienced the reality of God’s completed work: His creation and His deliverance.
- While resting from physical labor every seventh day is important, that is not the exclusive aim of the Sabbath. By trusting in Jesus Christ as our Savior we can experience the spiritual rest that makes the Sabbath truly meaningful in our lives.
- Without trusting in His sacrifice as the means of our salvation from sin, we cannot truly observe the Sabbath. Why? Because we can find no spiritual rest in trusting our own efforts to save ourselves. That means living in bondage just as surely as the Israelites were in bondage in Egypt. Worse, if we rely on our own desperate attempts to earn our freedom we will be rebelling against God’s plan to save us.
- A sign between Me and you
- A sign (mark, token) is visible evidence of something that is either invisible by nature or is, at least, invisible for the moment. A wedding ring on a woman’s hand is taken as evidence that she has a husband, even though he may be a thousand miles away. Keeping the Sabbath is evidence of a relationship between man and God, even though the divine side of that relationship is invisible to human eyes.
- I am the Lord who sanctifies you
- In the beginning we see God as the Creator. In the deliverance of Israel from Egypt we see Him as the Redeemer. Now He declares Himself to be the Sanctifier, the One who make His people holy. What He did for the Sabbath at the end of Creation week He also does for His people. He betroths Himself to them, making them one with Himself. Once again the focus is on His work.
Sabbath observance goes beyond abstaining from work in recognition of God’s rest at the end of Creation week. To truly keep the Sabbath is also to:
- treasure it as the cherished token of God’s commitment to sanctify us, to make us holy, to make us His own;
- consciously and intentionally experience the reality of His saving, transforming power.
- For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13).
- God who is at work
- We cannot transform ourselves any more than a leopard can change its spots. It would be futile to try. We might succeed in making some slight improvement in our outward appearance—put on a better façade—but that would only conceal the truth about our nature. Worse yet, for us to work at changing ourselves would be to reject God’s plan for our transformation.
- To will
- God’s work in us goes beyond our desires, our wants, our needs, right to the core of our being—to our will, our spiritual heart. That’s the force that steers the course of our thoughts, words, and actions. Real transformation happens there. Solomon, at the dedication of the temple, prayed: <
- "May the Lord our God be with us…that He may incline our hearts to Himself…" (1 Kings 8:57, 58).
- By inclining our hearts to Himself, God makes us willing to do His will.
- To work
- God does not stop at giving us the will to do His will; He provides the power necessary to convert will to action. Paul knew how this works:
- I can do all things through Him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13).
- …He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, in order that by them you might become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust (2 Peter 1:3, 4).
- Partakers of the divine nature
- The energy that transforms our will and motivates our work comes from the One who, by His very nature, is perfectly righteous and holy. The One who sanctifies us—who makes us holy and makes us His own—imparts to us His own divine nature.
- The Sabbath tells us that God is our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. We experience Sabbath rest when we give up our striving to change ourselves and to secure salvation by our own efforts. This rest is only possible when we rely completely on what God does in us and for us. The Sabbath is not about our work; it is about God’s work.
- There remains therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His (Hebrews 4:9, 10).
- The Israelite generation that received the Sabbath commandment at Sinai died in the wilderness without ever entering the land of Canaan. This was due to unbelief—their failure to trust God’s promises of victory (Hebrews 3:14-19).
- Joshua eventually led the next generation into the Promised Land where they had physical rest from their wandering, nomadic life. But God wanted to give them spiritual rest as well. That’s what He wants for us, too: a true "Sabbath" life—resting from our attempts to make ourselves holy and acceptable to Him, and resting in His promise to sanctify us, to consecrate us, to make us His own.
- Hebrews 3 and 4 show that the connection between the Sabbath and God’s work on our behalf is as valid for New Testament Christians as it was for Old Testament Israel. Through this epistle the Holy Spirit urges first-century Jewish converts to Christianity to experience the spiritual rest that can be found only in a life of dependent trust and complete reliance on God for their salvation. The seventh-day Sabbath remains as the continuing sign of that experience—and as a perpetual memorial to the God who sanctifies.
* Genesis 2:2, 3 is our primary source for the origin of the Sabbath, even though the word "Sabbath" does not occur there. There is broad scholarly support for interpreting this account as an explicit reference to the origin of the Sabbath. For example, The Interpreter’s Bible, in its commentary on these verses, states, "Here the priestly writer lifts the ordinances of Judaism to a universal validity when he records the Sabbath as part of the primal constitution of nature as it comes from the hands of God." The exegesis on the last part of verse 3 says, "It invests the Sabbath with all the reality of creation itself, and represents its observance as a fundamental law of the world order." (The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. I (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1952), pp. 488, 489.)