Sabbath: The Shadow of True Rest

The Sabbath was instituted by God from Mount Sinai to teach Israel specific spiritual truths about the work of Christ. Thus, according to the scriptures, the Sabbath was a temporary shadow of a greater reality in Jesus. In Nehemiah 9:13-14, notice what the Levites say concerning the Sabbath: “You came down also on Mount Sinai, And spoke with them from heaven, And gave them just ordinances and true laws, Good statutes and commandments. You made known to them Your holy Sabbath, And commanded them precepts, statutes and laws, By the hand of Moses Your servant. The Sabbath was made known to them when the law was given on Sinai, not before, as some have supposed. Further, there is no evidence that anyone observed the Sabbath before it was taught to Israel at Sinai; yet, aside from Nehemiah 9, there is other evidence against the view that the Sabbath was a command that had been since the beginning of mankind. In Deuteronomy 5:2-4, Moses introduces the ten commandments (the Sabbath included), stating that “The LORD did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us”. According to Moses, the Sabbath was not known by anyone before Sinai; not to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob.

Another misconception about the Sabbath is that it is separate from the Law of Moses, so that, even if the Law of Moses ceased, the Sabbath keeps going. This is not what the scriptures teach. The Apostle Paul identified the Sabbath as part of the “handwriting of requirements” that were “nailed to the cross”: “having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.  (15)  Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.  (16)  So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, (17)  which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.” (Colossians 2:14-17). Looking further at this passage, we find that Paul encourages the church to not allow the Judiazers to judge (condemn) them in their refusal to observe the Law of Moses, in which he includes “sabbaths”. He had just stated that these things were nailed to the cross, meaning they were put away the same day that Christ was crucified. Then Paul makes another striking point concerning dead laws like the sabbath, he states that they “are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.” This is a fascinating word picture. The term “shadow” in the original Greek is skia, defined as a shade caused by the interception of light; an image cast by an obit and representing the form of that object; a sketch, an outline. And the word “substance” is soma in the original, and is defined as a body; that which casts a shadow as distinguished from the shadow itself. So, the Sabbath gave Israel a rough and blurred sketch of Christ and the work which He would accomplish once and for all. By the Sabbath, God allowed Israel to experience on a short-term (one day a week) and physical way that He would provide a greater rest for His children in Christ.

God had taught Moses concerning the reason behind the Sabbath: “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.” (Exodus 20:11). The term Sabbath comes from the idea of ceasing; thus it is a ceasing from the work of the week. God demonstrated this first in the work of creation, accomplishing His task in six days, and ceasing on the seventh. God taught this order as a picture of Christ and salvation, whether it be the Israelites’ work week or His creation of all things. God, after creation, used the number seven throughout the biblical message to symbolize that He accomplishes whatever work He does. And if He has promised to do any particular task, the number seven should flash before our eyes as a figure that God will most certainly accomplish what He had promised. A good example of this is found in Daniel 9:24-27 when Daniel prayed for the future of God’s people. God’s response was that “seventy weeks are determined for your people and for your holy city”. The Hebrew for “seventy weeks” is actually “seventy sevens”. The text refers to all the things that God had determined to accomplish concerning the Jews. In this text, God explains how Jerusalem would be rebuilt again after the Babylonian captivity; how the Christ would come, but be cut off; and how Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed. In this destruction, the Jewish nation would be put away by Christ, and the kingdom of God would be restored to people professing godliness (Matthew 21:43-45). So, the text of Daniel 9 is an excellent example of how God uses the symbolic number seven to speak concerning the tasks that He either has or will accomplish.

And ultimately what did Christ accomplish? Eternal salvation for all who believe His word. Christ is the true substance of the Sabbath for what He accomplished on the cross. His sacrifice was for our salvation. His death was to bring us rest. Not the little physical rest that the Sabbath provided, for that was a mere shadow, but the great spiritual and eternal rest that Christ provides through His death. The Sabbath was a physical demonstration (as with everything in the old law) of the spiritual realities that Christ would accomplish on our behalf. Sinners to cease from sin. Sinners who are weary and heavily burdened by sin would find rest for their souls in Christ. This is what Jesus taught in Matthew 11:28-30.

In the New Testament, the Hebrew writer brings us all the way back to the creation of the world when he speaks of God’s rest. When the Israelites rebelled against God in the wilderness, God said, “SO I SWORE IN MY WRATH, ‘THEY SHALL NOT ENTER MY REST.” (Hebrews 3:11). He is referring to the land of promise (Canaan), but it is evident by God calling it “My rest” that, like the Sabbath day, the land of Canaan was intended to be a shadow of God’s rest (Hebrews 4:3-5) which He provides for us in Christ. The spiritual city of God is the true promised land (Hebrews 11:10; 12:22) and Jesus has already given us true rest from our sins (Romans 8:1-2). So, the very idea of the Sabbath day taught and foreshadowed the eternal rest from sins that is accomplished in Christ. And we don’t go back to the shadow when we have the substance. The new testament church is not to look back in order to revive the Sabbath day but must follow the pattern which the Holy Spirit guided the church: to come together on the first day of the week to worship, to partake of the Lord’s Supper, and to give to the work of the church (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2).

Article by Tanner Campbell