Old Testament Exodus Gift of the Sabbath

Gift of the Sabbath

We often overlook the fundamental needs of our humanity, focusing instead on the tangible necessities of daily life. We understand the importance of eating, drinking, and sleeping—essential for our physical well-being. Yet, if sleep or coffee were suddenly stripped away, our ability to function, if this was to happen our time in our confession of sin would grow drastically. Similarly, we grasp the necessity of fueling our cars with gas to keep them running and watering our plants to sustain their life, albeit with varying success in our own homes. However, we frequently neglect to consider the needs of our souls. What sustains our innermost being? While sleep rejuvenates our bodies, God has provided more than physical nourishment. He has blessed us with a day set aside for rest and worship—a Sabbath designed to nurture and enrich our souls, ensuring their flourishing and vitality.

Last time, we delved into the audacious complaints of the Israelites and witnessed God’s astounding grace in response to their grumbling, showcasing His boundless provision and our dire need for humility and faith in Christ—the ultimate wellspring of grace and transformation for our sin-stained hearts. God, in His infinite mercy, bestowed upon His people the heavenly bread and His divine word. Today, we pivot to explore a commandment often overlooked in today’s world—a commandment of paramount importance. While loving our neighbor is crucial, Jesus underscores the greatest commandment: to love the Lord our God with all our being. But how does this tie into Exodus chapter 16 and the significance of the Sabbath?

Rest one in seven

First, we must understand what the Sabbath is. The principle is very simple and found throughout the Bible. You see it in the very beginning that on the seventh day God rested, and he made that day holy (Gen 2:1-3). What we see here is that the Sabbath, resting one day in seven, is what we call a creation ordinance. That it is a part of God’s created order, such as marriage, multiplication, dominion and the Sabbath. We see all of these before the fall. Now they are affected by the fall, as you see in Genesis chapter three and following. You see that even here in Exodus chapter 16 prior to the giving of the Law, the Sabbath principle is found here. Prior to the law, the Sabbath is quite simple: in a week, seven days, it is divided into two, six regular days and one that is holy and set apart. You see that here in verse 5 with the commandment to prepare on the sixth day for the seventh, and then again in verse 22 they were to prepare on the sixth day for the seventh day.

Here is the simple principle of the Sabbath, six ordinary days and one holy day. As we will see there is a difference to this seven day. As we need to understand that this is not a part of the Law, they have not been given the law, now there are laws connected to the Sabbath (singular) one in seven, and then Sabbaths (plural) normally yearly cycles or special feasts. This is what Paul speaks about in Colossians 2:16. They can be helpful for the general equity of how we understanding, but when we talk about the cycle of one day out of seven, I personally believe the Bible teaches that is found in creation and continues today. I would be happy to talk to anyone who has questions.

Rest from Work

As you can see throughout the passage as we read it before, the sixth day was a day of preparation that required the people to collect more to have for the seventh day. The seventh day then became special because it was then a day that was set apart as a day of rest from work. You see this very clearly in verse 30, “So the people rested on the seventh day.” They ceased or stopped from work, that is where we get the word Sabbath, to cease or to stop. Actually, this is the exact same word that Moses records in Exodus chapter five, after Moses is sent to stand before Pharaoh, and tells Pharaoh that he needs to let God’s people go into the wilderness so that they can sacrifice to the Lord. Pharaoh responds by saying, “Moses and Aaron, why do you take the people away from their work? Get back to your burdens… Behold, the people of the land are now many, and you make them rest from their burdens!” Specifically, Pharaoh points out that Moses and Aaron are asking for a sabbat for God’s people. Rest from their work, and we know the story, Pharaoh does not give them rest but gives them a heavier burden. Yet how unlike the Lord is Pharaoh. He not only gives them an option to rest but it is a commandment, now this might seem like a blessing but as we will see it is a great blessing. We will also see this more when we get to the fourth commandment, around the end of June.

We are told two specific things in verse 23 about the Sabbath. The first is that the Sabbath is a day of solemn rest, the second it is a holy Sabbath. What does it mean to be a solemn rest? This is a special word used a handful of times in the Bible to speak of the special day of the Sabbath. The commandment is very simple, “do no work.” Even in Exodus 35:2 the punishment for breaking this commandment is death.

Now we will discuss this more over time (e.g., the fourth commandment and even when it comes up again chapters 31 and 35). But maybe we need to speak more practically because often what comes up when talking about the Sabbath is what can I do? What is lawful and what is unlawful? Now what we see in the days of Jesus is that they had said to work out a formula of explaining what is lawful or unlawful. Yet as Jesus points out they missed the important things. Let me begin with an illustration I heard from a preacher and then the simple formula I try to use to help me answer the question.

First, the illustration. A Pastor is surprised after marrying the couple two weeks earlier to get a phone call from the newly married couple right after their honeymoon asking to come and see them and if he could answer a question for them. The pastor, not knowing what he is getting into says of course come by the office and we can talk. As the newly married couple comes into his office, he can tell they were not the smiling couple that he saw on their wedding day and he asks what is the question they had. One of them finally asks the simple question, “what are you allowed to do on your honeymoon?” The pastor being wise asks another question, What do you mean? The husband finally answers and asks, can I play a round of golf? Because my wife went shopping and I was alone so I played golf. So, is it lawful to play golf on your honeymoon? The pastor, again wise, was able to explain that they are asking the wrong question. The problem is not what you can and cannot do, but why do you have a honeymoon. To be able to spend time together as a husband and wife. That they thought that golf or shopping would be better than spending time together talking. Their delight was in the wrong thing. They should delight in each other but instead they sought delight in ordinary things. You only get one honeymoon but shopping and golf can happen most other days. This is what we do with the Sabbath, we do not understand why it is here, as Jesus said, the Sabbath is for man, not man for the Sabbath. We think the we are to serve the Sabbath we see it as a burden but that is not what it is, it is a blessing. As Isaiah writes in Isaiah chapter 58, “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 58:13–14).

Secondly, the principle that I have found helpful. Jesus gives us helpful categories to help us understand work on the Sabbath. Mainly, works of necessity and works of mercy. The first works of necessity. Matthew 12:12, Jesus says, “So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” The example Jesus uses is the sheep in the pit principle, that the Sabbath is then not an excuse but some work raises to the level of necessity, based on good. Billy Graham has a good quote to warn us from overusing this principle as an excuse, “Jesus spoke about the ox in the ditch on the Sabbath. But if your ox gets in the ditch every Sabbath, you should either get rid of the ox or fill up the ditch.” However, the work of an ER doctor or Nurse or someone who needs to do works of necessity is a good thing to do on the Sabbath.

The second category is works of Mercy, this is similar, while different. Jesus explained to the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” But they remained silent. Then he took him and healed him and sent him away” (Luke 14:3-4). Works of Mercy are not a necessity, there is no mention of an immediate need for healing of this man, however Christ showed him mercy. Using the same example as before with an ox or a son (Luke 14:5). So helping your neighbor, visiting the sick or lonely, is would be considered a work of mercy, although not a necessity.

This then helps me to apply three questions to help me navigate what I do or do not do on the Sabbath. The first is, “Is this a work of necessity?” the second is “Is this a work of mercy?” and the third is, “can this be done on a regular/ordinary day?” This helps me to navigate how you might define ‘work.’ Again, this is not to be used as a weapon, but it is helpful for us to understand why this day has been given to us because we need rest. It is a blessing given to us (commanded) by God. As verse 29 explains, the Sabbath was a gift given to his people, James explains every good and perfect gift comes from God the Father of Lights (Jam 1:17).

Rest in the LORD

The second aspect we are given in this passage that helps us understand this day is what verse 22 explains, “Holy Sabbath to the Lord.” The Sabbath is then a special day, distinct from the others. Not only to not work but to be devoted to something else. That is, it is Holy. It is a Holy day because when God called it Holy, it was holy (Gen 2:3). We do not question what God called morning and evening, but we do sometimes not call this day as Holy. That this is a day of rest but also for worship. The day is to be given to the LORD. What does it mean to have a day that is Holy to the LORD? Holiness in the Bible is often used to speak about being set apart for a purpose, specifically when something is labeled Holy regarding the temple it means they are to be used only for the Lord in the temple. For example, the Priests were to wear Holy Garments, note holey but holy. These Garments were the special uniform of worship for the Priests, they signified that the man wearing them was set apart for a specific purpose but also when he wore them, he was carrying out specific tasks. So this day been marked as Holy shows that this day is to be different from the others, especially for the worship of God. This is what “to the Lord” means, throughout the Old Testament the Phrase to the LORD is found to speak of worship and sacrifice (Lev 1:2); Prayer and Praise (Ps 145:1); Oaths and Vows (Jug 10:30-31); and Service and dedication (1 Sam 1:28). This day was to be set apart to the Lord.

What we see is that in the time of Jesus the Sabbath is when the people of God would gather and listen to instruction from God’s word. One anonymous person said, “Our great-grandfathers called it the holy Sabbath; our grandfathers, the Sabbath; our fathers, Sunday; but today we call it the weekend.” We have lost the holiness of the day that God has set apart. The Truth is it still a day of worship, sadly a day where worship happens but just not in the church. Where across the United States of America people continue to worship creation rather than the Creator.

The Rest is History

One interesting aspect that we often do not think about in the resurrection story is the day in the middle. When you read the story of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, we are told multiple times that the Sabbath was coming, or was there, or had passed. Have you ever wondered why that is the case? That God gave the Israelites rest in the wilderness as a blessing but also a command that they might listen and obey. The author of Hebrews has a great sermon found in Hebrews 3:7-4:13, where he explains the example of the people in the wilderness and they have this promise of rest which would find their fulfillment in the Promised Land, but that failed to receive that rest because they hardened their hearts and they were unable to enter because of their unbelief. The author explains that promise to enter rest still stands today, as he explains in 4:2, “For good news came to us just as to them.” We have the same good news as they do; rest is still to be received. He continues and explains that God finished his works from the foundation of the world he still spoke of the seventh day as the day of rest, he explains that whoever enters God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. I am trying very hard not to preach another sermon, but we need to see the connection. If we see the Sabbath in Exodus merely as a physical test, we fail to understand the principle. That is, the rest is spiritual; we rest from our works because we rest in God’s works.

As the author continues in verses 11-13,

“Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:11–13).

This significant shift occurred following the resurrection of Christ, transforming the Sabbath day into the Lord’s Day, the Christian Sabbath. Previously observed on the seventh day of the week, which marked the end of six days of work and the onset of rest, the Sabbath was redefined as the first day of the week. This adjustment reflects a profound theological shift: from resting after work to commencing the week with a day of rest in honor of Christ’s victory over death.

Now, the Lord’s Day serves as a sacred occasion for believers to pause, reflect, and rejoice in Christ and his redemptive work. It’s a day of spiritual rejuvenation, where we find rest not just from physical labor, but in the completed work of Christ on the cross. As we gather with fellow believers, it becomes a foretaste of the eternal rest we will experience in Christ’s presence forever.

In essence, the Lord’s Day represents a transition from the old covenant to the new covenant, from legalistic observance to joyful celebration. It’s a day marked by blessings rather than burdens, where our hearts are filled with delight rather than demands. It’s a time to remember our ultimate destination—eternal rest in Christ—and eagerly anticipate its fulfillment, while finding solace and strength in the community of saints on earth.

Day of rest and gladness, day of joy and light,

O balm of care and sadness, most beautiful, most bright;

On thee, the high and lowly, before the eternal throne,

Sing, “Holy, holy, holy,” to the great Three in One.


On thee, at the creation, the light first had its birth;

On thee, for our salvation, Christ rose from depths of earth;

On thee, our Lord, victorious, the Spirit sent from heaven,

And thus on thee, most glorious, a triple light was given.


To-day on weary nations the heavenly manna falls;

To holy convocations the silver trumpet calls,

Where Gospel-light is glowing with pure and radiant beams,

And living water flowing with soul-refreshing streams.


New graces ever gaining from this our day of rest,

We reach the rest remaining to spirits of the blest.

To Holy Ghost be praises, to Father and to Son;

The Church her voice upraises to Thee, blest Three in One.

Where to find us


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