A regular, rhythmic time of rest is right there in the opening story of Scripture. Before humans turned away from God, before God established his partnership with the nation of Israel, a pattern of resting on the seventh day was established by God (Gen. 2:2-3). We call this seventh-day rest Sabbath.
So what does observing the Sabbath mean for God’s people today? Are Christians supposed to observe the Sabbath? And if so, how? Why would we keep the commandment to “remember the Sabbath” if we don’t have to live by some of the other laws in the Bible, like the ones about mixing fabrics and eating unclean animals?
Defining Sabbath in the Bible
Before we answer that question, let’s take a quick look at the idea of Sabbath rest in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament. There are two main Hebrew words used for rest in the Bible. The first is shabbat, which gets partially translated into the English word “sabbath.” So what is shabbat? This word simply means to stop working. Think of an hourly job where you clock out at the end of a shift. The work is done, and there’s no more until you clock back in.
The other main Hebrew word for rest used in the Hebrew Scriptures is nuakh. This means to “dwell” or “settle.” This is not the same as clocking out from an hourly job. This type of rest is like sitting in front of a fire with a loved one or unpacking a suitcase to stay at grandma’s house for the holidays.
God introduces the ideas of shabbat and nuakh right around the same time in Scripture. In the creation account, God works for six days creating the world, and he rests on the seventh day (Gen. 2:2-3). After six days of bringing order to chaos, he takes the time to shabbat from his work. Only a few verses later, we read that God creates humans and then immediately “rests them” or “settles them” (nuakh) in the garden with him (Gen. 2:15). The literary structure communicates a link between the concepts of shabbat and nuakh—they are connected. God leads by example as he rests from work (shabbat), and then he dwells (nuakh) with his people.
These opening chapters of Genesis communicate the importance of rest to God, but how will these concepts develop throughout the rest of the biblical story?
Sabbath Rest in the Hebrew Scriptures
As we keep reading, we see the nation of Israel reject God’s design for rest repeatedly (Ezek. 20:12-13; Jer. 17:27). They worship false gods, ignore his instructions, and rebel in almost every way possible. Despite this, God finds a way to rest (nuakh) his presence with them through the sacrificial system in the tabernacle and later the temple (Exod. 40:3-34; Lev. 1:1-4). The temple is modeled after the garden of Eden, the place where God and humans rested together. Relational trust has always been at the heart of God’s Sabbath invitation, but Israel struggled to receive it. As we finish reading the Hebrew Scriptures, we’re left wondering: Will Sabbath rest ever be received the way God intended? Let’s jump ahead and find out.
How Did Jesus Keep the Sabbath Holy?
We see the clearest picture of God’s presence on Earth in the life of Jesus. Jesus was God come to live among his people. And Jesus had a lot to say about the Sabbath and the true rest that God intends for humanity.
In his Gospel, Matthew includes a series of connected stories where Jesus is confronted by Israel’s religious leaders and teachers. On one Sabbath day, the leaders object to Jesus’ friends picking corn as they’re walking through a field (Matt. 12:1-2). They also object to Jesus healing a man’s shriveled hand (Matt. 12:9-14), saying that Jesus is ignoring the command to keep the Sabbath found in the Hebrew Scriptures (Exod. 20:5; Deut. 5:15).
Jesus responds with an argument that clarifies the true definition of the Sabbath, asserting his role as the promised Messiah and pointing to his divinity (Matt. 12:3-8). Jesus understood the heart of the Sabbath—what God’s original command was pointing to. To understand Jesus’ point, we have to look at the context in which Matthew placed these stories.
Sabbath in the New Testament
Matthew records these Sabbath controversies immediately after quoting Jesus’ words about rest.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
All this talk of rest right before a passage that deals with Sabbath? This is no mistake. The people have become weary and burdened by the heavy weight of observing the Sabbath, following the letter of the law while missing God’s intent behind the command.
Jesus wants to clarify the meaning of Sabbath for them. The people are in need of rest—to stop hard work (shabbat) and be present with God (nuakh). And Jesus is here to usher in the full promise. He is God’s rest, and the people can come to him and find the true seventh-day rest that God intended.
Jesus reminds the people of God’s original intention for the Sabbath: unity with God, creation, and each other. Jesus teaches that the Sabbath points to him, the one Israel’s prophets promised would come to mercifully restore the rhythm of all creation.
When followers of Jesus observe the Sabbath, we live as if this restoration has already taken place. We take a break from the broken rhythms of hustle and hardship to set aside a time to honor Jesus’ rule, enjoy his presence, and extend rest to the world around us. When we trust God’s invitation to come to him and truly rest, we become places where his presence can dwell.
Observing the Sabbath for Modern Christians
So what does this practice look like for modern Jesus followers? Does it mean attending a weekly church service, turning off work emails, or volunteering in your community? Does it matter what day you observe the Sabbath? Sabbath could certainly include those activities, but the whole of the biblical story seems to emphasize the purpose of the Sabbath rather than specific rules for observing it.
As followers of Jesus, God does not expect us to live by Israel’s laws. However, the wisdom of these laws remains, and the law of the Sabbath is rich with significance for us today. Sabbath is not a commandment we are bound to; it’s a promise we’re invited to enjoy.
Sabbath rest is an invitation to practice for eternity in God’s presence. It is an act of regular and intentional trust of God’s rule on Earth. We shabbat in order to nuakh—when we stop working, we can truly rest in God’s presence. When we practice this purposeful pause, we make room for God to take up residence in our individual lives and communities. And when we do this, we take part in the new creation story, setting the stage for God to make his dwelling place once again on Earth.