When godly Levites in the days of Nehemiah exalted Jehovah in prayer, they spoke about what He had done with the Sabbath. They prayed, “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, statues, and laws, by the hand of Moses Your servant” (Nehemiah 9:13,14).
According to the words of that prayer, whose Sabbath was it? It was God’s. To whom did He make the Sabbath known? To the Israelites whom He had brought out of Egypt. And where did He make the Sabbath known to them? At Mount Sinai. By whom did He make it known? Via Moses. Thus, when the Israelites were encamped at Sinai, God made known/ revealed His Sabbath to them. Let us take a look at several aspects of His Sabbath instructions for Israel.
The designated day – As part of the Ten Commandments, God’s message was, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy . . . the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God . . .” (Exodus 20:8-10). So, God’s designation was for the Sabbath to be the seventh day, that is, Saturday.
The designated restrictions – “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you” (Deuteronomy 5:13,14). On the Sabbath, God’s people were not allowed to work throughout the entire 24-hour cycle that constituted the seventh day. Not only was it a holy day, but it also was a time to allow their bodies to rest (5:14).
There is more. At Sinai, God through Moses also informed Israel that something else was “off limits”: “You shall kindle no fire throughout your dwellings on the Sabbath day” (Exodus 35:3).
The designated keepers – Contrary to what many assume and several have propagated, God never intended for every person of every nation to keep the seventh day of the week as “a holy day . . . a Sabbath of rest to the LORD” (Exodus 35:2). To whom was that instruction given? The Bible says it was given to the children of Israel (35:1). The Ten Commandments, including the Sabbath, were given as part of a covenant that involved two parties. Those two parties were God and the children of Israel (Deuteronomy 5:1-3). God Himself made it super clear, saying, “Therefore the children of Israel
shall keep the Sabbath . . . It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel . . .” (Exodus 31:16,17). The Sabbath was for Israel, my friend, not for every nation under the sun.
The designated significance – On the Sabbath, the children of Israel were to refrain from labor. They were to count it as a holy day and also as a day of “resting up.” Beyond that, though, was another matter of great importance for God-fearing Israelites. When the Israelites were on the verge of entering the Promised Land, God by Moses pointed out to them, “And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:15). Let that thought sink in. According to that passage, why did the Lord command Israel to keep the Sabbath? So they would remember that He had rescued them from bondage. Thus, for the Israelites the Sabbath was to be a weekly memorial of what their gracious God had done for them.
The designated punishment – What if? What if an Israelite disregarded God’s message about the Sabbath and worked on the seventh day? What God said about such a transgression was plain: “. . . the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death” (Exodus 31:15). That was not symbolic language. It was not a hyperbole (an exaggeration to emphasize a point). At God’s order, the Israelites stoned a man to death who violated the Sabbath by working (Numbers 15:32-36). God was not joking!
The designated duration – Per God’s plan, Sabbath-keeping was to be a temporary action. “Wait a minute. I remember that God said the Israelites were to keep the Sabbath as a perpetual, that is, ongoing, never-ceasing covenant.” He did call it “perpetual.” That simply meant that Israel was to keep on keeping the Sabbath as long as that law/covenant was still in force. The Lord’s arrangement was for the Law of Moses, including the Sabbath, to be in force for only a certain period of time. When the Christ died on the cross, He abolished the old law, including the command to keep the Sabbath (Ephesians 2:14-16). By no means is that a criticism of the Sabbath or its Giver. Rather, it is a recognition that the Sabbath and all the rest of the old law system were temporary. For those who are wondering, no, the Bible does not instruct Christians to keep the Sabbath, and, no, in the Bible, Sunday is not called “the Christian Sabbath.”
— Roger D. Campbell