The Deeper Significance of Sabbath Rest

By: Karen Engle, ICEJ USA Managing Editor 

There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His. (Hebrews 4:9–11)

Though Passover kicks off the Feast cycle each year and is among the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays today, God lists His instruction for keeping the weekly Sabbath before mentioning any of the feasts in Leviticus 23:

Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work on it; it is the Sabbath of the Lord in all your dwellings. (v. 3)

Unlike God’s feasts, which He required Israel to observe once a year, the Sabbath was to be observed weekly—every Friday to Saturday, sundown to sundown. God instituted the Feasts at Mount Sinai, but the first time we see Sabbath appear in Scripture was before Adam and Eve sinned in Paradise. After six days of creating the sun, moon, stars, and all the earth, God blessed and made holy the seventh day as the Sabbath because “He rested from all His work” (Genesis 2:1–3). This is why God, through Moses, called Israel to “remember” the Sabbath day and keep it holy (“set apart”) in Exodus 20:8—for Israel, observing the Sabbath was an act of imitating their Creator who rested on the seventh day.

The word Sabbath means “to cease or desist,” and for the nation of Israel in ancient biblical times, this meant stopping labor once a week and trusting God for provision. Sabbath was to be an everlasting covenant and sign between Him and the children of Israel of their trust in and loyalty to Him and a significant practice that would set them apart from the surrounding, godless nations. The penalty for violating the Sabbath law was severe: death (Numbers 15:32–36).

Thus, it’s not by chance God listed Sabbath before the Feasts in Leviticus 23: the story of Israel is the story of God’s call to trust Him as King—one who would provide, protect, and care for them, though unseen. Trusting Him was paramount for what He required for all the Feasts.

Perhaps this is why some theologians say this weekly day of rest was even more sacred than the seven feasts: on other Sabbaths connected to Feasts, Israel had to refrain from “servile” work, like tilling the fields or cooking. But on the weekly Sabbath (and on the Day of Atonement), no work at all could be performed.

In addition to keeping the Sabbath because God modeled it by stopping work and resting on the seventh day after creation, the Bible gives another reason for observing Sabbath: to commemorate Passover when the Lord took the children of Israel out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm (Deuteronomy 4:34; 5:15). Every Sabbath, Israel was to remember that God was her rescuer.

The Reality of Sabbath Rest for Believers

The act of keeping Sabbath is more than stopping work once a week. That is only the shadow. The reality of Sabbath is the “rest” that comes from trusting and believing in Jesus as Savior. Jesus said, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 6:31; 11:28). Life as a believer in Jesus is not easy. We will at times find ourselves “heavy laden.” We will continually be pulled toward sin and tempted to trust ourselves and man instead of the One who promises to do the work for us.

The weekly Sabbath is a reminder of our need to continually rest in and trust in Jesus to not just do the work of redeeming us but sanctifying us—making us more like Him every day until He calls us home.