What Is the Christian Sabbath?

Hebrews 3 and 4: These chapters of Hebrews are often used to justify the keeping of a Sabbath day. In fact, as we will see, this was very far from the writer’s intent.

Although we do not know for sure who wrote Hebrews, it is obvious from the topics covered that the letter was addressed to Jewish Christians. In fact, the letter contains so much concerning the Old Covenant, the priesthood, and the temple, that it might have been directed specifically at converts to Christianity from the priesthood (see Acts 6:7). The writer specifically wants to emphasize the supremacy of Jesus Christ over the prophets, angels, Moses, and the Aaronic priesthood; the strength of grace over the weakness of the law; and the substitution of the New Covenant for the Old Covenant.

Hebrews 3 starts by pointing out the superiority of Jesus Christ over Moses. With this comparison in view, the writer then (beginning in verse 7) brings out a parallel between the Israelites entering the land of Canaan and Christians entering God’s true rest. The Israelites hardened their hearts and “could not enter in because of unbelief” (verse 19). Verse 12 warns, “Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God.”

The warning is repeated in Hebrews 4:1, with the additional information that we still have a promise of entering God’s rest: “Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it.” Verse 2 explains that the Gospel did not profit the Israelites because they did not have faith. “For we,” verse 3 continues, “which have believed do enter into rest, as he said, As I have sworn in my wrath, if they shall enter into my rest: although the works were finished from the foundation of the world.” The King James Version translates the latter part of this verse somewhat confusingly. It is a quote of Psalm 95:11, which says, “Unto whom I sware in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest.” Other versions, such as the New King James Version, translate the latter part of Hebrews 4:3 as, “‘So I swore in My wrath, They shall not enter My rest,’ although the works were finished from the foundation of the world.” In other words, although God rested at Creation thereby showing that His rest was already a reality, He swore that the Israelites would not enter that rest because of their unbelief. But we who believe, the first part of the verse says, do enter that rest. Verse 4 simply points out God’s rest in Genesis 2:2.

Verses 5–9 are the pivotal verses. Verse 5 again quotes Psalm 95:11; the Israelites did not enter God’s rest. Therefore, points out verse 6, since it remains that some must enter God’s rest, and those to whom it was first preached did not enter, then God designated another day [meaning time, not a 24 hour day] by saying through David (in Psalm 95:7–8), “To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” In other words, since the children of Israel under Moses refused to enter God’s rest, typified by their refusal to enter the land of Canaan, God is calling others into His rest, as can be seen in the words of David many years after Moses. Of course, God decreed from eternity that all of this would occur. It did not catch Him by surprise. Nevertheless, from our perspective, we see this time sequence of the Israelites refusing to enter God’s rest and God, then, calling others into His rest.

Now it might be argued that the next generation of Israelites did, after forty years of wandering in the wilderness, eventually enter the land of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua. But Hebrews 4:8 explains that, by the physical entering into the land, they still did not enter God’s true rest: “For if Jesus [Joshua] had given them rest, then would he not afterward have spoken of another day.” Bible commentators and modern Bible versions agree that “Jesus” in the King James Version of this verse is really a reference to Joshua (the names are the same in Greek). So, God speaks of another time for people to enter His rest. “There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God” (verse 9).

It should be pointed out that, with the exception of verse 9, the word “rest” in these verses has been translated from the Greek word katapausis. This word means a causing to cease. In Greek literature, it is used when someone stops and puts down his work. The word, as it is used in these verses that we have examined, is defined right in Hebrews 4, in verse 10: “For he that is entered into his rest [katapausis], he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his.” So, the writer of Hebrews is using katapausis to mean to cease from one’s own works, as God did from His.

The children of Israel did not cease from their own works because they did not have the faith to trust God. But we who have faith can cease from our own works, thereby entering God’s rest. But we must learn from the Israelites’ example of faithlessness. If we do not cease from our own works, we show a lack of faith and cannot enter God’s rest.

In Hebrews 4:9, we read, “There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God.” Many writers have said that this means Christians are to continue keeping the Sabbath day (either seventh-day or Sunday, depending on the writer). But, in fact, the keeping of a day according to the Law of Moses is completely contrary to the message the writer of Hebrews was trying to convey.

The Greek word translated “rest” in verse 9 is sabbatismos. It is found nowhere else in the Bible. This word does not emphasize the day of the Sabbath, but the celebration rest associated with the Sabbath. In a comment concerning this word, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, on page 529, says, “Here the sabbath-keeping is the perpetual sabbath ‘rest’ to be enjoyed uninterruptedly by believers in their fellowship with the Father and the Son, in contrast to the weekly Sabbath under the Law. Because this sabbath ‘rest’ is the ‘rest’ of God Himself, [Hebrews] 4:10, its full fruition is yet future, though believers now enter into it.” This is not the seventh-day Sabbath. It is not a Sabbath day at all. It is the true rest that was only typified by the seventh-day Sabbath, which was only a shadow of the reality.

Of Hebrews 4:9–10, Unger’s New Bible Handbook (p. 588) states:

These verses refer to the rest called sabbath-keeping (sabbatismos, “a state of rest from labor”), [Verse] 9. It involves the believer’s resting completely in a perfect work of redemption ([verses] 3–4) as God rested from a perfect work of creation, [verse] 10. This rest of redemption reposes wholly in the work of the cross, and ceases from all self-effort, human merit or legalistic claim as a means either of salvation or sanctification, [verse] 10 (cf. Eph 2:8-10). It projects the victory of faith in conquest over spiritual enemies (the world, the flesh and the devil).

There is another problem with trying to make Hebrews 4:9 mean that there remains a Sabbath day to be kept. Whatever remains in Hebrews 4:9 for us to enter is what Joshua, in Hebrews 4:8, failed to lead the people into. If what remains to be entered is the keeping of a Sabbath day, then the rest that Joshua failed to lead the people into was the Sabbath day. This, of course, is nonsense. Joshua failed to lead the people into God’s true rest because the people did not have faith. The Sabbath day can have nothing to do with this. Joshua’s not leading the children of Israel into God’s true rest cannot be a reason why we should therefore keep the Sabbath day. Forcing Hebrews 4:9 to be a reference to the Sabbath day makes a hash of the Scriptures.

It is an interesting fact that Hebrews 4:9 is the first place in all literature in which the word sabbatismos is found. It is quite possible that the writer of Hebrews invented the word. Why? Why did he use, possibly even create, sabbatismos instead of using katapausis? Apparently, the writer wanted to not only express that we can through faith enter God’s rest, or cease from works, but he wanted to also say that when we enter that rest, it is the true celebration and delight that the Sabbath rest foreshadowed (notice in Isaiah 58:13 that God wanted the Jews to delight in the Sabbath).

Continuing in Hebrews 4:10–11, we read: “For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his. Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief.”

If the writer of Hebrews wanted Christians to keep a Sabbath day, he could have clearly said so. But as we have seen, this was not his intention. His intention was to explain that we enter God’s rest (of which the seventh-day Sabbath and the land of Canaan were only types) through faith, and we can fail to enter through lack of faith. To continue to rely upon the law by keeping a Sabbath day and to fear retribution if one were to fail to do so are symptomatic of a lack of faith.

The writer of Hebrews was concerned that the Jewish Christians to whom he was writing were wavering in their faith and again taking up their works from which they should have ceased. These verses explain that those who have entered God’s rest (those who are in Jesus Christ) must cease from their own works just as God did from His at the end of the Creation week.

So, what is the answer to the question posed in the title of this article? What is the Christian Sabbath? Remember that the Bible says that the Sabbaths were only shadows, but Jesus Christ is the body or substance (Colossians 2:16–17). Jesus Christ, then, is the real Christian Sabbath. Because He was sinless and His righteousness is imputed to us (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15), and because He died for our sins (Matthew 26:28; 1 Thessalonians 5:9–10), we have our rest in Him. He is God’s rest that we enter by faith.

The God’s Rest view of the Sabbath is the only view that is consistent with the Scriptures. Therefore, it is sad that many churches, beginning about the seventeenth century, started misapplying Scripture to teach that certain days must be kept.

It is my prayer that God’s people will shed their yokes of bondage, turn from the weak and beggarly elements, and rediscover their true rest in Jesus Christ.

Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.

Galatians 5:1

NOTE: We have received many questions and comments from seventh day keepers that we have put into an article called, “Questions from Seventh Day Keepers.” If you have any questions or comments concerning the Sabbath, you may find them addressed in this article. We invite you to read it. If your questions are not addressed in that article, please feel welcome to contact us by clicking here.

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