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Observing the Sabbath

by Jeffrey W. Hamilton

The first mention of the Sabbath day appears in Exodus 16. It is true that God rested on the seventh day after creating the world in six days. However, in the nearly 3,000 year record which was given in Genesis there is no mention of mankind observing a Sabbath day. In fact, we find in Exodus 16 that Moses had to explain to the children of Israel exactly what the Sabbath day was and how they were to keep it. Even after the explanation, some of them still violated the law. This was not a continuance of a long time observance, but a brand-new law that many did not understand.

The next mention of the Sabbath comes shortly thereafter in Exodus 20 as a part of the Ten Commandments. Actually, the Ten Commandments were just the beginning of a long series of laws which starts in Exodus 20 and runs through Exodus 23. These were written down by Moses as recorded in Exodus 24:3-4, accepted by the people, who then entered into the covenant with God in Exodus 24:7-8. (See also Hebrews 9:18-20.)

It is important to note that this covenant, including the Ten Commandments, was not given to the whole world. In speaking of the Sabbath in particular, God said it was to be sign between Him and the children of Israel for the duration of their generations (Exodus 31:12-17). God chose Israel alone to receive His laws and he gave them His Sabbaths (Ezekiel 20:5-6, 10-12). Notice that the Israelites did not have the Sabbath before God gave the Sabbaths to them. Perhaps Moses put it the most bluntly in Deuteronomy 4:8 when he introduced the second reading of the law. He said, "Or what great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today?"

The Sabbath did more than just commemorate God's day of rest after the creation. In Deuteronomy 5:15 Moses stated that it was also a time for the Israelites to remember their slavery in Egypt. No other nation was in bondage in Egypt. To no other nation could this memorial apply.

In fact, the most telling statement showing that the Ten Commandments did not exist before they were delivered by God at Mount Sinai is in Deuteronomy 5:1-5. "Then Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, "Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the ordinances which I am speaking today in your hearing, that you may learn them and observe them carefully. The LORD our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. The LORD did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, with all those of us alive here today. The LORD spoke to you face to face at the mountain from the midst of the fire, while I was standing between LORD and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the LORD; for you were afraid because of the fire and did not go up the mountain." Moses then proceeded to recite the Ten Commandments. Moses said that their ancestors did not have this law. Abraham did not have the Ten Commandments. This was something new and unique to the Israelite nation.

The Bible not only records the beginning of the Sabbath and the nation to whom it was given, the Bible also records the ending of the Sabbath. Jeremiah prophesied that the law given at Mount Sinai would end and be replaced by a different Law (Jeremiah 31:31-32). Later, Paul states that Christians have died to the Law (Romans 7:4-7). I would like you to notice what Law Paul to which is referring. He illustrates his argument with the commandment "Thou shalt not covet". This is the tenth commandment in the Ten Commandments. This is the law to which Christians have died. In another letter, Paul said "When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him. Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day -- things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ." (Colossians 2:13-17). The festivals, new moon observances, and the Sabbath are all parts of the Law delivered by Moses. These shadowy things were canceled by the death of Jesus upon the cross to be replaced by the reality of Christ's Law.

Paul stated that when a person tries to live by the old Law of Moses, they place themselves under a curse.

For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them." (Galatians 3:10-26)

We learn from Paul that no one is justified by the Law. In fact, those who attempt to live under that Law are under a curse. We also know which Law Paul had in mind because he said it came about 430 years after the last ratification of the promises originally made to Abraham. This refers to the Laws given on Mount Sinai, which include the Ten Commandments. As Christians, we are no longer under the tutelage of the Laws given by God at Mount Sinai.

Paul continues his argument in Galatians 4:21-26

Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother.

Paul draws an allegory from the events surrounding Hagar and Sarah. Hagar represents those the covenant given at Mount Sinai. Sarah represents the new covenant given by Christ. Paul bluntly tells us to cast out the old covenant represent by the bondwoman Hagar.

But what does the Scripture say? "Cast out the bondwoman and her son, For the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman." So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman. (Galatians 4:30-31)

Some ask why nine of the Ten Commandments are kept today, but not the commandment regarding the Sabbath. The answer is very simple. Christ's Law contains commandments similar to the Ten Commandments. For example, lying is wrong because of what Paul recorded in Ephesians 4:25. Adultery is wrong because of the statement in Hebrews 13:4. Idol worship is wrong because of the statement in I Corinthians 10:7. We follow these commandments because they are a part of Christ's new covenant - not because they happened to be in Moses' old covenant. Interestingly, the commandment for observing the Sabbath is the only one of the Ten Commandments which is not found in the new Law. We do not observe the Sabbath because it was not commanded of Christians in Christ's new covenant.