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“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping 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, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” —Exodus 20:9-11 (also see Exodus 31:12-17)

When did it originate?

The observance of Sabbath, or Shabbat as it is known in Hebrew, goes all the way back to Exodus, the second book of the Bible. It is one of the ten commands God wrote down on stone tablets as part of the covenant which He made with Moses and the Israelites. This command reaches back to creation of the world.

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. —Genesis 2:2-3

What do slavery and freedom have to do with it?

By resting on the seventh day and making it holy (i.e., setting it apart from the others), we remember and acknowledge that God is the creator of all things. By doing so we also emulate His example. Deuteronomy 5:12-15 reiterates the command given in Exodus but includes an instruction for what to do on the Sabbath. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” What does slavery in Egypt and God bringing them into freedom have to do with Sabbath? EVERYTHING! Slaves do not get a day off. For that matter, in ancient civilizations there was no such thing as a day of rest. Only the wealthy and ruling classes had that luxury. Therefore, by observing Sabbath the Israelites were reminded that they were now free. As a Christian observing Sabbath I remember that I too am now free from slavery, but not just a slavery to man but slavery to my sinful nature. This freedom came because there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death (Rom 8:1)

The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. —Romans 8:15

Why do Jews begin to observe it on Friday night?

Did you know that for Jews the 24-hour period of a day begins at sundown rather than at midnight? This is why they celebrate Sabbath with a meal on Friday nights rather than on Saturday mornings. For the reason behind this you must look to the first few verses of the Bible.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. —Genesis 1:1-5

Did you catch that? Notice the last line. “And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.” In this account of creation which tradition says was given to Moses by God, the first day of the world has evening first and morning second. It is for that exact reason that to this day Jews observe the beginning of Sabbath at sundown on Friday.

Why did Christians begin to observe Sabbath on Sunday?

The early Christians of the 1st century CE (Common Era) were largely converted Jews who continued to attend synagogues and observe Sabbath from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday. Following the 2nd Jewish Revolt in 70CE being associated with the Jews became increasingly detrimental as the Jews became known as hot-headed, rebellious zealots. From 115-117CE the Jewish Diasporas around the Roman world revolted and caused a further rift between Christianity and Judaism. This separation between Christianity and Judaism resulted in a widening of the gap between Christians who believed the messiah promised by God through the prophets had already come and the Jews who were still waiting for that messiah. Christians were already worshipping on Sunday which they called the “Lord’s Day” because it was on Sunday that Christ Jesus rose from the dead (Luke 23). After the rift between the early Christians and the Jews reached the extent where Christians were no longer welcome in synagogues the Christians ceased to attend services on Saturday with their Jewish neighbors but did continue their own services on the “Lord’s Day”. Read Justin Martyr’s First Apology, Chapter LXVII for a description of the practices of the early Christians.

Rest, Remember and Rejoice!

This is what Sabbath is for Christians. Take steps to set apart a day to be free from your job, paying bills, running errands, etc. Spend that day remembering what has been done so that you may receive grace and be set free and rejoice in that freedom. Spend time getting to know your Heavenly Father and His love for you through reading and studying the Bible alone and with others you are are close to. Spend time with your family and close friends doing something that brings you joy and peace. This is the day on which we celebrate all of creation! Enjoy it!

Grace and peace,
Peter