[Heb., yohm hash-shab-bathʹ, from verb sha·vathʹ, to rest, desist from exertion; Gr., he he·meʹra tou sab·baʹtou, the day of complete cessation, making to cease].
The history of a weekly twenty-four-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 seventh day, the seventh year, the fiftieth year (Jubilee year), Nisan 14 (Passover), Nisan 15 and 16, 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. (Num. 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 denoting completeness. (Gen. 4:15, 23, 24; 21:28-32; 26:32, 33, NW, 1953, ftn.) The Hebrew word “to swear,” (sha·vaʽʹ) is related to the word meaning “seven.”
The sabbath was celebrated as a sacred day (Deut. 5:12), a day of rest and rejoicing for all—Israelites, servants, alien residents and animals—ceasing from all labors. (Isa. 58:13, 14; Hos. 2:11; Ex. 20:10; 34:21; Deut. 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.” (Num. 28:9, 10) The showbread was renewed in the sanctuary and a new division of priests took up their duties. (Lev. 24:5-9; 1 Chron. 9:32; 2 Chron. 23:4) Priestly duties were not curtailed on the sabbath (Matt. 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.—John 7:22; Lev. 12:2, 3.
There was a distinction in requirements for the regular weekly sabbath day and the sabbaths or “holy conventions” that were connected with the festivals. (Lev. 23:2) On weekly sabbaths no work whatsoever could be done (except in the sanctuary), laborious or otherwise. Even gathering wood or lighting a fire was prohibited. (Num. 15:32-36; Ex. 35:3) The Day of Atonement was likewise a time of rest from all sorts of work. (Lev. 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; Lev. 23:7, 8, 21, 35, 36.
Sometimes two legal sabbaths would fall on the same twenty-four-hour period and this was called a “great” sabbath, such as when Nisan 15 (a sabbath day) coincided with the regular sabbath.—John 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 importantly, 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. (Deut. 6:4-9) The sabbath was customarily occupied in taking in knowledge of God and attending to spiritual needs, as 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.” (2 Ki. 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.—Deut. 33:8, 10; Lev. 10:11.
It was important for individual Israelites to remember to keep the sabbath because its violation was regarded as rebellion against Jehovah and was punished by death. (Ex. 31:14, 15; Num. 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 seventy years to make up for the sabbaths violated.—Lev. 26:31-35; 2 Chron. 36:20, 21.
RABBINICAL 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 thirty-nine, 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, rather than having the sabbath serve men to the honor of God. (Matt. 15:3, 6; 23:2-4; Mark 2:27) When Jesus’ disciples picked grain and rubbed it in their hands to eat, they evidently were accused on two counts, namely, of harvesting and of threshing on the sabbath. (Luke 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. (Matt. 12:12) However, the inspired Christian writings state that “Christ is the end of the Law” (Rom. 10:4), which results in Christians’ being “discharged from the Law.” (Rom. 7:6) Neither Jesus nor his disciples made any distinction between so-called “moral” and “ceremonial” laws. They quoted from and considered the other parts of the Law as well as the Ten Commandments as equally binding on those under the Law. (Matt. 5:21-48; 22:37-40; Rom. 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. (Rom. 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.”—Gal. 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. Tertullian, a Christian writer near the beginning of the third century, commented: “We have nothing to do with the sabbaths, new moons, and feasts in which God at one time took pleasure.” (De Idolatria c. 4 sec. 4; c. 14) 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. According to the decree, the choice of the first day of the week by Constantine was, at least in part, prompted by hatred for the Jews and their identity: “Let us have nothing in common with the most hostile rabble of the Jews.”
GOD’S GREAT REST DAY
The apostle Paul shows in Hebrews, chapters 3 and 4, that God’s own rest or sabbath, referred to at Genesis 2:2, 3, and Psalm 95:7-11, is one of unbroken continuity into which the Jews in the wilderness could not enter because of lack of faith and disobedience. (Heb. 3:18, 19; Num. 14:28-35) Those who did enter the Promised Land under Joshua experienced a rest, but not the full rest enjoyed under the Messiah. It was only typical or a shadow of the reality. (Heb. 4:8; 1 Cor. 10:11; Heb. 10:1) Therefore, Paul continues, a sabbath (which in his day had been in existence over 4,000 years and now, at this point in the twentieth century, nearly 6,000 years) remains “for the people of God” (Heb. 4:9) who are obedient and exercise faith in Christ, thereby enjoying the real sabbath—rest from their own selfish works or works of self-justification. (Compare Romans 9:31, 32; 10:3; Hebrews 6:1; 9:14.) Men were entering into God’s sabbath in Paul’s day and the opportunity remains open until now.—Heb. 4:3, 6, 10.
In 1626, Henry Ainsworth in Annotations upon the First Booke of Moses Called Genesis expressed a belief he attributed to rabbinical commentaries, that Genesis 2:2, 3 refers to a 7,000-year sabbath. This great rest day of God ends a creative “week” of “days,” each of which days were thousands of years long. God ‘rested’ or desisted from creative works toward the visible universe, as described in Genesis 1:1 to 2:4. This seventh day is not spoken of as ending, as are the previous six creative “days.” Why, then, did Jesus say, “My Father has kept working until now, and I keep working”? (John 5:17) God has not created any new earthly things, but he has performed his good purposes toward his people and toward the earth. The “new creation,” a spiritual work, has been brought forth by him, and perhaps other things, in a spiritual way, unknown to mankind.—2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15.
THE THOUSAND-YEAR SABBATH
Following the sabbatical pattern of sanctifying the seventh part would make the last 1,000 years of God’s 7,000-year rest a grand sabbath day or a sabbath within the 7,000-year sabbath. Interestingly, Revelation 20:1-6 says that Satan is bound “for a thousand years” so that the nations of the earth will not be misled while Christ Jesus, who was the “Lord of the sabbath” while on earth and is such now in heaven, reigns as the King. What rest! The miraculous works he performed on earth during his first presence, many of them on the sabbath, evidently show what he will do as “Lord of the sabbath” to raise mankind to spiritual and physical perfection. (2 Pet. 3:8; Matt. 12:8; 1 Cor. 15:25-28; Luke 13:10-17; Rev. 21:1-4) Thus the literal sabbath day is “a shadow of the things to come, but the reality belongs to the Christ.”—Col. 2:16, 17.