A day set apart by God for rest from regular labors; the Sabbath was given by Jehovah as a sign between him and the sons of Israel. (Ex 31:16, 17) The Hebrew expression yohm hash·shab·bathʹ is drawn from the verb sha·vathʹ, meaning “rest, cease.” (Ge 2:2; 8:22) In Greek, he he·meʹra tou sab·baʹtou means “sabbath day.”
The history of a weekly 24-hour sabbath observance begins with the nation of Israel in the wilderness in the second month after their Exodus from Egypt in 1513 B.C.E. (Ex 16:1) Jehovah had told Moses that the miraculous provision of the manna would be double on the sixth day. When this proved true, the chieftains of the assembly reported the matter to Moses and then the arrangement for the weekly Sabbath was announced. (Ex 16:22, 23) That Israel was obligated from that time forward is shown by Jehovah’s words at Exodus 16:28, 29.
The weekly Sabbath was made an integral part of a system of sabbaths when the Law covenant was formally inaugurated at Mount Sinai a short time later. (Ex 19:1; 20:8-10; 24:5-8) This sabbatical system was composed of many types of sabbaths: the 7th day, the 7th year, the 50th year (Jubilee year), Nisan 14 (Passover), Nisan 15, Nisan 21, Sivan 6 (Pentecost), Ethanim 1, Ethanim 10 (Atonement Day), Ethanim 15, and Ethanim 22.
That the Sabbath was not enjoined upon any of God’s servants until after the Exodus is evident from the testimony of Deuteronomy 5:2, 3 and Exodus 31:16, 17: “It was not with our forefathers that Jehovah concluded this covenant, but with us.” “The sons of Israel must keep the sabbath . . . during their generations. . . . Between me and the sons of Israel it is a sign to time indefinite.” If Israel had already been observing the Sabbath, it could not have served as a reminder of their deliverance from Egypt by Jehovah, as shown at Deuteronomy 5:15. The fact that some of the Israelites went out to pick up manna on the seventh day, in spite of direct instruction to the contrary, indicates that Sabbath observance was something new. (Ex 16:11-30) That there was uncertainty in handling the case of the first recorded Sabbath breaker after the Law had been given at Sinai also shows that the Sabbath had only recently been instituted. (Nu 15:32-36) While in Egypt the Israelites, being slaves, could not have kept the Sabbath even if they had been under such law at the time. Pharaoh complained that Moses was interfering even when he asked for a three-day period to make a sacrifice to God. How much more so if the Israelites had tried to rest one day out of every seven. (Ex 5:1-5) While it is true that the patriarchs apparently measured time in a week of seven days, there is no evidence that any distinction was made as to the seventh day. Seven was prominent, however, as a number that often denoted completeness. (Ge 4:15, 23, 24; 21:28-32) The Hebrew word “swear” (sha·vaʽʹ) is evidently from the same root as the word meaning “seven.”
The Sabbath was celebrated as a sacred day (De 5:12), a day of rest and rejoicing for all—Israelites, servants, alien residents, and animals—ceasing from all labors. (Isa 58:13, 14; Ho 2:11; Ex 20:10; 34:21; De 5:12-15; Jer 17:21, 24) A special burnt offering, along with grain and drink offerings, was made, in addition to the regular daily “constant burnt offering.” (Nu 28:9, 10) The showbread was renewed in the sanctuary, and a new division of priests took up their duties. (Le 24:5-9; 1Ch 9:32; 2Ch 23:4) Priestly duties were not curtailed on the Sabbath (Mt 12:5), and infants were even circumcised on the Sabbath if that happened to be their eighth day of life. In later times the Jews had a saying, “There is no sabbath in the sanctuary,” meaning that the priestly duties went right on.—Joh 7:22; Le 12:2, 3; The Temple, by A. Edersheim, 1874, p. 152.
According to rabbinic sources, in the time when Jesus was on earth three trumpet blasts at about the ninth hour, or three o’clock, on Friday afternoon announced the Sabbath day’s approach. At this, all work and business were to cease, the Sabbath lamp was lit, and festive garments were put on. Then three more blasts indicated that Sabbath had actually begun. The outgoing division of priests offered the morning sacrifice on the Sabbath and the incoming division offered the evening sacrifice, both spending Sabbath in the sanctuary. Each one of the divisions would give to the high priest half of its portion of the bread. It was eaten during the Sabbath in the temple itself by the priests who were in a state of cleanness. The heads of the families of the incoming division determined by lot which of the families were to serve on each special day of their week of ministry and who were to discharge the priestly functions on the Sabbath.—Le 24:8, 9; Mr 2:26, 27; The Temple, pp. 151, 152, 156-158.
There was a distinction in requirements for the regular weekly Sabbath and the Sabbaths or “holy conventions” that were connected with the festivals. (Le 23:2) Generally speaking, the weekly Sabbath was more restrictive; no work, laborious or otherwise, could be done (except in the sanctuary). Even gathering wood or lighting a fire was prohibited. (Nu 15:32-36; Ex 35:3) Travel was also restricted, this apparently being based on Exodus 16:29. The Day of Atonement was likewise a time of rest from all sorts of work. (Le 16:29-31; 23:28-31) However, on the holy convention days of the festivals no laborious work, trade, or business activities could be engaged in, but cooking, festival preparations, and so forth, were allowed.—Ex 12:16; Le 23:7, 8, 21, 35, 36.
Sometimes two legal Sabbaths would fall on the same 24-hour period, and this was called a “great” Sabbath, such as when Nisan 15 (a sabbath day) coincided with the regular Sabbath.—Joh 19:31.
Benefits and Importance of the Sabbath. The desisting from all labor and observing other God-given Sabbath requirements not only gave rest to the body but, more important, provided opportunity for the individual to demonstrate his faith and obedience through Sabbath observance. It gave parents the opportunity to inculcate God’s laws and commandments in the minds and hearts of their children. (De 6:4-9) The Sabbath was customarily occupied with taking in knowledge of God and attending to spiritual needs, as is indicated by the reply of the Shunammite woman’s husband when she requested permission to go to see Elisha, the man of God: “Why are you going to him today? It is not a new moon nor a sabbath.” (2Ki 4:22, 23) And the Levites who were scattered throughout the land doubtless took advantage of the Sabbath to teach the Law to the people of Israel.—De 33:8, 10; Le 10:11.
It was important for individual Israelites to remember to keep the Sabbath because violation was regarded as rebellion against Jehovah and was punished by death. (Ex 31:14, 15; Nu 15:32-36) The same principle applied to the nation. Their observing the entire sabbath system, days and years, in a wholehearted way was a vital factor to their continued existence as a nation on their God-given land. Their failure to honor the Sabbath laws contributed largely to their downfall and the desolation of the land of Judah for 70 years to make up for the Sabbaths violated.—Le 26:31-35; 2Ch 36:20, 21.
Rabbinic Sabbath Restrictions. The Sabbath was originally intended to be a joyous, spiritually upbuilding time. But in their zeal to distinguish themselves from the Gentiles as much as possible, the Jewish religious leaders, especially after the return from Babylonian exile, gradually made it a burdensome thing by greatly increasing the Sabbath restrictions to 39, with innumerable lesser restrictions. These, when compiled, filled two large volumes. For example, catching a flea was forbidden as hunting. A sufferer could not be given relief unless death threatened. A bone could not be set, nor a sprain bandaged. The true purpose of the Sabbath was made void by these Jewish religious leaders, for they made the people slaves to tradition, instead of having the Sabbath serve men to the honor of God. (Mt 15:3, 6; 23:2-4; Mr 2:27) When Jesus’ disciples picked grain and rubbed it in their hands to eat, they evidently were accused on two counts, namely, harvesting and threshing on the Sabbath. (Lu 6:1, 2) The rabbis had a saying: “The sins of everyone who strictly observes every law of the Sabbath, though he be an idol worshiper, are forgiven.”
Not Enjoined on Christians. Jesus, being a Jew under the Law, observed the Sabbath as God’s Word (not the Pharisees) directed. He knew it was lawful to do fine things on the Sabbath. (Mt 12:12) However, the inspired Christian writings state that “Christ is the end of the Law” (Ro 10:4), which results in Christians’ being “discharged from the Law.” (Ro 7:6) Neither Jesus nor his disciples made any distinction between so-called moral and ceremonial laws. They quoted from the other parts of the Law as well as from the Ten Commandments and considered all of it equally binding on those under the Law. (Mt 5:21-48; 22:37-40; Ro 13:8-10; Jas 2:10, 11) The Scriptures plainly state that Christ’s sacrifice “abolished . . . the Law of commandments consisting in decrees” and that God “blotted out the handwritten document against us, which consisted of decrees . . . and He has taken it out of the way by nailing it to the torture stake.” It was the complete Mosaic Law that was “abolished,” “blotted out,” taken “out of the way.” (Eph 2:13-15; Col 2:13, 14) Consequently, the whole system of Sabbaths, be they days or years, was brought to its end with the rest of the Law by the sacrifice of Christ Jesus. This explains why Christians can esteem “one day as all others,” whether it be a sabbath or any other day, with no fear of judgment by another. (Ro 14:4-6; Col 2:16) Paul made the following expression concerning those scrupulously observing “days and months and seasons and years”: “I fear for you, that somehow I have toiled to no purpose respecting you.”—Ga 4:10, 11.
After Jesus’ death, his apostles at no time commanded Sabbath observance. The Sabbath was not included as a Christian requirement at Acts 15:28, 29, or later. Nor did they institute a new sabbath, a “day of the Lord.” Even though Jesus was resurrected on the day now called Sunday, nowhere does the Bible indicate that this day of his resurrection should be commemorated as a “new” sabbath or in any other way. First Corinthians 16:2 and Acts 20:7 have been appealed to by some as a basis for observing Sunday as a sabbath. However, the former text merely indicates that Paul instructed Christians to lay aside in their homes for their needy brothers at Jerusalem a certain amount each first day of the week. The money was not to be turned in at their place of meeting but was to be retained until Paul’s arrival. As for the latter text, it was only logical that Paul would meet with the brothers in Troas on the first day of the week, since he was leaving the very next day.
From the foregoing it is clear that literal observance of Sabbath days and years was not a part of first-century Christianity. It was not until 321 C.E. that Constantine decreed Sunday (Latin: dies Solis, an old title associated with astrology and sun worship, not Sabbatum [Sabbath] or dies Domini [Lord’s day]) to be a day of rest for all but the farmers.
Entering Into God’s Rest. According to Genesis 2:2, 3, following the sixth creative day, or period, God “proceeded to rest on the seventh day,” desisting from creative works with respect to the earth, as described in Genesis chapter 1.
The apostle Paul shows in Hebrews, chapters 3 and 4, that the Jews in the wilderness failed to enter into God’s rest, or sabbath, because of disobedience and lack of faith. (Heb 3:18, 19; Ps 95:7-11; Nu 14:28-35) Those who did enter the Promised Land under Joshua experienced a rest, but not the full rest to be enjoyed under the Messiah. It was only typical, or a shadow of the reality. (Jos 21:44; Heb 4:8; 10:1) However, Paul explains, “there remains a sabbath resting for the people of God.” (Heb 4:9) Those who are obedient and exercise faith in Christ thereby enjoy “a sabbath resting” from their “own works,” works by means of which they formerly sought to prove themselves righteous. (Compare Ro 10:3.) Thus Paul shows that God’s sabbath, or rest, was still continuing in his day and Christians were entering into it, indicating that God’s rest day is thousands of years long.—Heb 4:3, 6, 10.
“Lord of the Sabbath.” While on earth, Jesus Christ referred to himself as “Lord of the sabbath.” (Mt 12:8) The literal Sabbath day, which was meant to bring the Israelites relief from their labors, was “a shadow of the things to come, but the reality belongs to the Christ.” (Col 2:16, 17) In connection with those “things to come,” there is a sabbath of which Jesus is to be the Lord. As Lord of lords, Christ will rule all the earth for a thousand years. (Re 19:16; 20:6) During his earthly ministry, Jesus performed some of his most outstanding miraculous works on the Sabbath. (Lu 13:10-13; Joh 5:5-9; 9:1-14) This evidently shows the kind of relief that he will bring as he raises mankind to spiritual and physical perfection during his coming Millennial Rule, which thus will be like a period of sabbath rest for the earth and mankind.—Re 21:1-4.