SABBATH | 21st Century Church of Christ


The Sabbath: An In-depth Look at God's Day of Rest


The concept of the Sabbath was modified over time. In the Old Testament, Sabbath began as a holy day for God, which included cessation from secular work. During the Intertestamental period, the Sabbath gained a legalistic tone, and came to include detailed aspects of observance. During the New Testament era, Jesus addressed and clarified the meaning of the Sabbath.

Old Testament

The word “Sabbath” (שַׁבָּת, shabbath), which means “cease,” “rest,” “complete rest,” or “desist,” is found in every section of the biblical texts. Forms of the word שַׁבָּת (shabbath) occur 104 times in the Old Testament. Roughly 40 percent of the occurrences are in the Pentateuch, another 40 percent occur in the Prophetic Books, and the remaining 20 percent occur in the Wisdom literature and historical books. Wisdom literature contains only two references to Sabbath (Psa 92:1; Lam 2:6). The texts associated with the priesthood contain the most references to the Sabbath. The noun שַׁבָּת (shabbath) is thought to be derived from the verb שָׁבַת (shavath), meaning “to rest.”

References in the Pentateuch

While the word Sabbath does not occur in Genesis, the concept is shown in the creation account of Gen 1:1–2:4a, where God creates the world and all living things in six days and rests (שָׁבַת, shavath) on the seventh. Exodus 20:11 clarifies that the seventh day is meant to be the Sabbath day. The Decalogue characterizes the Sabbath as a day that:

 •   is holy and blessed

 •   should be remembered and kept holy

 •   belongs to the Lord

 •   requires abstinence from work for all people (Jews and Gentiles alike) and animals

The text implies that God rested on the seventh day of creation, and therefore humankind should follow His example (imitatio Dei) and rest on the seventh day (see also Deut 5:12–15).

Exodus 16 includes a discussion of the Sabbath day in the narrative of the Israelites wandering in the Sinai desert. Moses instructs the people to collect two days worth of manna on the sixth day, reserving half for the seventh day, which is a day of rest and a holy day to the Lord. When some of the people do not listen and attempt to collect manna on the seventh day, God asks Moses (regarding the people): “How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My instructions?” This passage demonstrates that:

 •   the Sabbath day is a commandment of the Lord (Exod 20)

 •   the people need to rely upon the word of God, not their own understanding

Although this passage is the first in the biblical text to mention the Sabbath, Childs and Buber note that the text assumes the audience knew the concept, and the lesson concerns something that was already in existence.

Other references in Exodus clarify that:

 •   The Sabbath should continue even during the harvest and planting seasons (Exod 34:21).

 •   The Sabbath is a sign between the Lord and humankind that God is the source of sanctification (Exod 31:13).

 •   The penalty for working on the Sabbath is death (Exod 31:14–15; 35:2).

 •   The Sabbath is a perpetual covenant (Exod 31:13, 16).

Leviticus mentions the Sabbath 24 times (the most frequent of any biblical book). These references stress:

 •   rest on the Sabbath day (Lev 16:31; 23:2, 32)

 •   humility toward God (Lev 16:31, 32)

 •   the permanence of the Sabbath, which endures upon everyone for all generations (Lev 16:31; 19:3; 23:2; 24:8)

 •   that Sabbath is a holy convocation (Lev 23:2)

 •   the Sabbath must be kept from evening to evening (Lev 23:32)

 •   the Sabbath endures upon land as well as people (Lev 25:2–6; 26:34)

The references to the Sabbath day in the Pentateuch emphasize similar features, including the importance of rest, humility towards God, the holiness of the day, care for the needy, permanence of the statute, and consequences for disobedience. Further references in the Pentateuch tie the observance of the Sabbath to creation (the day God rested) and the exodus (the redemption of Israel from slavery in Egypt). In addition, the Sabbath is a sign of the everlasting covenant between God and Israel.

References in the Historical Books

The historical books of Kings, Chronicles, and Nehemiah mention the Sabbath. References to the Sabbath in the historical books assume knowledge of the Pentateuch and emphasize the prohibition against working or performing commerce on the Sabbath. The priest and the king now play a role in the Sabbath observance, with the king providing sacrifices for the burnt offering, the priest performing sacrifices in the temple including a meal, and the duration of the observance is clarified from evening to evening.

 •   Second Kings 4:23 specifies that travel to visit a “man of God” was not restricted on the new moon or the Sabbath.

 •   Second Kings 11:4–12 (2 Chr 23:4–11) demonstrates that national defense and the defense of the king are allowable on the Sabbath.

 •   Second Kings 16:17–18 associates the Sabbath with a “covered way” or “canopy.” In this passage, the canopy which was built for the Sabbath is removed during the reign of Ahaz (circa 735–715 BC).

First and Second Chronicles provide details on the practices involved in the Sabbath observations. Passages such as 1 Chr 23:31; 2 Chr 2:4; 8:13; 31:3 indicate that the celebration of the Sabbath day includes a burnt offering, a portion of which is contributed by the king (2 Chr 31:3). These passages also associate the celebration of the Sabbath with the tent of meeting, temple of the Lord, a meal with bread, the burning of incense, covenant, redemption, and the land.

 •   First Chronicles 9:32 identifies rows of bread as part of a Sabbath meal.

 •   Second Chronicles 2:4 and 31:3 specify that the burnt offerings are given both morning and evening and are a lasting obligation upon Israel.

 •   Second Chronicles 36:21 describes the abandonment of the land of Judah during the Babylonian exile as a Sabbath rest for the land.

The events described in Nehemiah likely occur in the fifth century BC after some Israelites have returned to Judah from exile in Babylon. Apparently, many people had abandoned the celebration of the Sabbath and many of God’s ordinances. The passages in Nehemiah stress the importance of the Sabbath celebration (9:14). Nehemiah 10:31 reiterates a prohibition against commerce on the Sabbath as well as the sabbatical rest for the land and the remission of debts every seven years. Nehemiah 13:15–22 specifies the prohibition against commerce includes:

 •   treading wine

 •   loading

 •   transporting

 •   selling grain, grapes, or figs

 •   buying goods from foreigners.

These acts are said to “profane the Sabbath” and were part of the reason for God’s prior judgment upon Judah.

References in the Wisdom Literature

The Sabbath is mentioned twice in Wisdom texts. Psalm 92:1 identifies itself as “a song for the Sabbath.” The song is joyous, giving thanks to the Lord and declaring His lovingkindness in the morning and His faithfulness in the afternoon. The association of the song with the Sabbath highlights the intent of the day is much more than a legalistic restriction of activity; it is a joyous occasion reflecting on the many blessings the Lord has given. In contrast, Lam 2:6 highlights the judgment of the Lord that separated the people of Judah and Israel from celebrating the Sabbath. The passage shows that the inability to celebrate the Sabbath, and its restrictions, is painful for the people.

References in the Prophets

The prophetic texts provide a primarily negative view of the Sabbath observance in the later years of the divided monarchy. They utilize the Sabbath as an example for how the Israelites “ritualized” the ceremonies God commanded, losing the inner meaning of the event. God expresses that observing the Sabbath (among other festivals, rituals, and offerings) is detestable when conducted for the wrong reasons (Isa 1:13; Ezek 22:8, 26, 23:38).

 •   Ezekiel 20:12–24 details that profaning (perhaps meaning secularizing) the Sabbath occurred as early as the period of the exodus, and is not unique to the time of the prophets. Profaning the Sabbath brings about God’s wrath.

 •   Jeremiah 17:21 echoes this negative tone, warning that ignoring the Sabbath will lead to the destruction of Jerusalem.

 •   Hosea 2:11 specifies that one consequence of Israel’s disobedience will be the discontinuation of Israel’s celebrations.

 •   Amos 8:5 details that the Israelites were eager for the Sabbath to end so they might engage in commerce.

The prophetic texts also contain positive references to the Sabbath.

 •   Isaiah 56:1–4 illustrates that a person (applying to Israelites and non-Israelites) who preserves justice and does righteousness is blessed and will not profane the Sabbath.

 •   Isaiah 58:13 and 66:23 emphasize that Sabbath observance includes a voluntary abstinence from personal pleasures in order to follow God’s will.

 •   Ezekiel 20:12, 20 stresses that the Sabbath is a sign of the covenant between God and Israel.

As with the historical books, the prophetic texts highlight abstinence from work on the Sabbath and a call to keep the day holy (Jer 17:21–27). They also provide additional details on Sabbath observance during this period:

 •   Ezekiel 44:24 assigns the priests as responsible for keeping the Sabbath holy.

 •   Ezekiel 45:17 indicates that the prince is responsible for providing the burnt offerings, drink offerings, and grain offerings associated with the Sabbath.

 •   Ezekiel 46:1–12 clarifies that the gate to the temple will remain open on the Sabbath and closed the other days. The prince will bring the burnt offering (comprised of six unblemished lambs and one unblemished ram) to the threshold of the gate, giving his burnt offering and peace offering to the priests. The prince and the people will then worship at the opening of the gate.

Intertestamental Period

Intertestamental writings detailed Sabbath restrictions and recorded military losses resulting from Sabbath observance. The Damascus Document, dating to the first century BC, outlines several limits to activity on the Sabbath including:

 •   walking farther than 1000 cubits

 •   drinking outside the camp

 •   drawing water into any vessel

 •   wearing perfume

 •   opening a sealed vessel

 •   assisting an animal to give birth or helping an animal out of a pit

 •   having sexual relations

The book of Jubilees (second century BC) adds further prohibitions:

 •   plowing a field

 •   starting a fire

 •   riding an animal

 •   riding in a boat

 •   killing anything

 •   making war

Jubilees 2:30 alters the extent of Sabbath requirement, limiting its observance to just the Israelites instead of all people in the promised land. Fragment 5 of the work of Aristobulus associates the Sabbath with a sevenfold structure in the cosmos and to wisdom.

The prohibition against making war on the Sabbath led to several military losses:

 •   Josephus records that Ptolemy I Soter (323–283/2 BC) captured Jerusalem when the Israelites refused to fight on the Sabbath (Antiquities 12.1.1).

 •   Second Maccabees 5:25–6 states that Apollonius waited until the Sabbath day to assault the city of Jerusalem because the people would not fight on the Sabbath (168 BC).

However, 1 Macc 2:38 reverses this practice, as Mattathias declares that the Israelites need to defend themselves on the Sabbath. By the end of the Roman period, the Jews not only defended themselves on the Sabbath but engaged in offensive attacks.

New Testament

Each section of the New Testament text mentions the Sabbath. In the Gospels, Jesus teaches regarding Sabbath observance. The authors of Acts and the letters further clarify the meaning behind Sabbath observance.


As Jesus begins His ministry, He enters the synagogue on the Sabbath and begins to teach with authority (Mark 1:21; 6:2; Luke 4:16, 31; 13:10). Luke 4:16 adds that it was Jesus’ normal custom to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath, showing that Jesus followed the customs outlined in the historical books and the prophets (compare Mark 3:1; Luke 4:44; 13:10). John 7:22–23 records that circumcisions were performed on the Sabbath day.

Matthew 12:1–12; Mark 2:23–3:6; Luke 6:1–9 record Jesus and His disciples traveling, eating, and Jesus performing healing miracles on the Sabbath. In addition, Luke 13:14; 14:1–6; John 5:1–18; 7:22–23; 9:1–41 record healings conducted on the Sabbath day. The Pharisees observe the acts and confront Jesus about breaking Sabbath law (halakhah). Jesus responds that David was allowed to break the Sabbath when he ate bread in the House of God, and that the priests break the Sabbath rules every Sabbath by conducting the burnt and peace offerings. He also argues that anyone would save their animal if the animal was in danger. Jesus responds that because a person is of much greater value than an animal it is acceptable to do good deeds (i.e. healing) on the Sabbath.

In Mark 2:27, Jesus utters the phrase “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.” The phrase brings two primary points into focus:

 1.   The Sabbath regulations, as interpreted by the Pharisees, had lost the intent of the Sabbath prescribed in the Old Testament. Therefore, the rules they observed were human made, not God made, and able to be broken.

 2.   The Sabbath proclaimed at creation was intended to serve mankind as a holy day, giving blessing, and observing God’s rest/restoration.

Nothing of Jesus’ or His disciples’ actions were contrary to the purpose and intent of the Sabbath observance. As such, Jesus was not rewriting the law, but fulfilling and clarifying the original law as described in the Pentateuch, Historical Books, and the Prophets.

In Matt 28:1; Mark 16:1; Luke 23:56, Mary Magdalene and Mary (Jesus’ mother) discover the risen Jesus at sunrise just as the Sabbath is ending. In addition, John 19:31 describes the need to remove Jesus’ body from the cross before the beginning of the Sabbath observance, which also impacted the preparation of spices and perfumes for the body.

Acts and Epistles

The book of Acts preserves nine occurrences of the word Sabbath. The text mentions the Sabbath as a day for religious gathering/teaching and associates it with the formation of churches in Antioch (Acts 13:13–52); Philippi (Acts 16:11–15); Thessalonica (Acts 17:1–9); and Corinth (Acts 18:1–4).

The Letters contain two occurrences of the term “Sabbath.” In Col 2:16, Paul argues that people should not be judged based upon their observance of various ritual acts, including eating and observance of festivals and the Sabbath. He labels these as “shadows” which were fulfilled by Christ. The meaning of the passage is debated; however, the text discusses misperception that performance of ritual was a pathway to salvation (Judaizing) and asceticism. This context demonstrates that Paul is not abolishing the Sabbath concept, but instating a lack of condemnation for failing to observe an ascetical form of self-denial. He is also arguing against the idea that Sabbath observance plays a role in salvation (through works).

Hebrews 4:9 refers to a Sabbath-rest that remains in effect. The author of Hebrews anticipates an eschatological fulfillment for the people of God in the period inaugurated with the appearance of Jesus (Heb 4:3–13). The eschatological context points to a present and future reality. Hebrews 4:3 indicates that presently, people who believe are able to enter into Sabbath rest. Additionally, Heb 4:11 points to a future rest for those who are obedient. The passage emphasizes the Old Testament principles that God’s Sabbath is based on abstinence from work (Heb 4:10), rest (Heb 4:3), tied to creations (Heb 4:4), and a call for obedience (Heb 4:6).

Bryan C. Babcock, “Sabbath,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).