In Exodus we read this:
Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. (Exodus 31:15)
Of all the Old Testament laws, this one possibly seems the harshest because working on a particular day doesn't seem like a wicked thing to do; and yet it incurs the harshest penalty of all. We might be able to understand the death penalty for murder, but for working on a particular day; it just doesn't seem right. Surely the punishment must fit the crime, and so if the punishment is death, then perhaps this crime must be far more significant than we realise?
The law regarding the Sabbath is important enough to have made the "short list"; that is, it's one of the ten commandments. And it's given more detail than any of the others. Let's see if we can get some idea of the purpose of the Sabbath...
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)
Here in Exodus God tells us that there is a Sabbath because God rested after six days of creation. Deuteronomy reiterates the ten commandments, but when we come to this one in Deuteronomy it differs slightly, saying...
You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5:15)
The way I see it is this; the Sabbath day is “to the Lord”, as opposed to being about “your work”. The Sabbath was not only about ceasing work yourself; but letting those who work for you, including even your livestock, rest. The scope of this rest is, in that sense, “all of creation”, and included God Himself who rested on the seventh day. Paul describes the Sabbaths as “a shadow of the things to come” (Colossians 2:17). That is, after God had created the world, there was rest for God and all creation. The fall changed that, and God cursed the ground so that we should labour for our food. The fall is also the reason why people are put into slavery, like the Israelites were by the Egyptians. But God’s plan is to restore creation to that former state, and there should be rest once more. So the Sabbath is a gift to mankind; a day in which we have some respite from the curse and can get a taste of what a redeemed world might be like. The Sabbath is associated with the end of Israel’s slavery as it is representative of the redemption of man by God, and the end of man’s slavery to the fallen world we live in. The future restoration by God of this state of rest was, and is, the object of our faith. It’s what “Christian hope” is in. To break the Sabbath is really to deny an essential point of faith. And we see in Hebrews 11 that this was the hope of all of the Old Testament people of faith; that they would one day “rise again to a better life” (Hebrews 11:35), and “receive what was promised” (Hebrews 11:39). What was it that was promised? It was the “promise of entering His rest” (Hebrews 4:1).
So why was Sabbath breaking worthy of death? Much in the same way that idolatry was punishable by death because it demonstrated that a person was not a follower of God, Sabbath breaking demonstrated that a person was not a follower of God; and there is no sin greater than to rebel against God, such that it was worthy of the greatest deterrent - the death penalty. One passage that shocks a lot of people, more than the passages which simply pronounce the death penalty for Sabbath breakers, is the passage which gives us an actual example of someone who was put to death for breaking the Sabbath. In Numbers 15 we read about a man who was found “gathering sticks” on the Sabbath, and so he was put to death. But let’s look at the context and details of this passage. Earlier in the chapter we read about how, when a person sins unintentionally, they will be forgiven. When they find this man doing some kind of work on the Sabbath they don’t immediately seize him and stone him. They go to Moses to see what they should do. You see, they wanted to know whether this man was working on the Sabbath to intentionally defy God, or was it unintentional? God Himself judges because God knew the man’s intentions. This is why he was put to death; because it was an intentional rebellion against God. In the Book of Matthew, on the other hand, the Pharisees had lost sight of this and would come down hard on anything that so much as looked like work on the Sabbath, regardless of the intention behind it. And so Jesus and His disciples were often rebuked for doing what looked like work on the Sabbath. Jesus went to heal a man on the Sabbath, for example, and they rebuked Him. But Jesus rightly said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:11-12). There is no prohibition in the Sabbath law from doing what we might call “the Lord’s work” of being kind and caring toward others.
One question remains... If the Sabbath was so important in the Old Testament, why don’t Christians observe it today? I shall answer this tomorrow.
So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. (Hebrews 4:9-10)