God Works, God Rests
The Bible introduces the Sabbath at its beginning. We first meet the Sabbath in the account of God making heaven and earth (Gen. 1:1–2:3). Strikingly, it is God who, in a sense, observes the first Sabbath (Gen. 2:3).
In the creation account, God makes the world and everything in it in six days. A seventh day follows that is set apart from the previous six in some important ways. Genesis 2:1–3 reads,
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.
In this addition to the Short Studies in Biblical Theology series, Guy Prentiss Waters provides a study of the Sabbath, from creation to consummation.
The Sabbath: God’s Ordinance for Human Beings
This observation raises the question, “What kind of worship is in view, and by whom?” The answer of Genesis is, “Humanity’s worship of the God who made them.” Human beings are unique within Genesis 1:1–2:3 as those said to be made after the “image” and “likeness” of God (Gen. 1:26), after God’s “own image, in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27). As such, people are uniquely capable among all the creatures mentioned in Genesis 1:1–2:3 of fellowship and communion with God.2 Thus, the worship for which God provides in Genesis 2:1–3 is given so that his image bearers may have fellowship with him. Strikingly then, “humanity . . . is not the culmination of creation, but rather humanity in Sabbath day communion with God.”3
Genesis 1:1–2:3, in fact, presents a twofold imitation of God on the part of his image bearers. First, God creates human beings to work (Gen. 1:28–30). In part, people express the image of God as they labor in their various callings. The God who exercises dominion over the works of his hands calls humanity to “have dominion” over the earth and all the animals in it (Gen. 1:26). The God who fills the world that he has made calls human beings to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). Thus, humans will exercise dominion as they are faithful to marry and produce offspring (see Gen. 2:23–25). But it would be a mistake to say that Genesis 1:1–2:3 conceives no higher human imitation of God than labor. As human beings imitate God at work, so also are they to imitate God at rest. As God made the world and everything in it within the space of six days and rested on the seventh day, so are human beings to engage in six days of labor and one day of holy resting.
In sum, God intends for human beings to imitate his rest by taking the weekly Sabbath to rest from their labors and devote the whole day to his worship. The word translated “bless” (barak) in Genesis 2:3 “is normally restricted to living beings in the [Old Testament] and typically does not apply to something being blessed or sanctified only for God’s sake.”4 Thus, God does not bless the seventh day for his own sake but for humanity’s sake. He is setting apart this one day in seven to be a regular day of rest in the weekly cycle of human existence. He is, in effect, commanding human beings to observe the Sabbath. Further, we have noted above that the word translated “made . . . holy” (qadas) frequently relates to the worship of God in the Old Testament.5 This clarifies that human beings are to observe this seventh day as a day devoted to such worship. As it is dedicated to the worship of God, the Sabbath promises blessing to human beings who comply with this divine command.
Exodus 20:8–11 confirms our findings from Genesis 2:1–3. Here, God draws an explicit parallel between his creating the world in six days but resting the seventh and human beings working six days but resting the seventh. Exodus reads:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. . . . For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Thus the basis for the weekly Sabbath, according to Exodus, is God’s resting on the seventh day of Genesis 2:1–3.7 This relationship between God’s resting and the weekly Sabbath is precisely what we have observed in Genesis itself, where this relationship implicitly grounds the Sabbath command as a perpetual ordinance for human beings.
God does not bless the seventh day for his own sake but for humanity’s sake.
In addition to this confirmation from Exodus, the New Testament provides indirect testimony to the Sabbath as an ordinance for humanity established at the creation. Early in Mark’s Gospel, we read of a series of incidents in which Jesus comes under criticism by the religious authorities (Mark 2:1–3:6). One of these incidents takes place in “grain fields” through which Jesus and his disciples are traveling on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23). The Pharisees accuse Jesus of “doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath” (Mark 2:24). But he defends his disciples’ activity as proper to the Sabbath day and then proceeds to clarify the true nature of the day. As he does so, he tells the Pharisees, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Here, Jesus makes at least three points that bear on our study of Genesis 2:1–3. The first is that the Sabbath is not unique to the Jew, nor is it exclusively intended for any other subset of the human race. Rather, it is something that pertains to human beings as human beings (“man”).7
The second point that Jesus makes is that the Sabbath “was made” for man. The passive voice here points to divine agency—it is God who made the Sabbath for human beings, and thus the Sabbath is a divine ordinance. Third, God instituted the Sabbath as a help to humanity (“for man”). The Sabbath is intended to promote and to further the purposes for which God made human beings. Although Jesus does not explain those purposes or how the Sabbath advances them in this passage, his words echo what we have observed from Genesis 1:1–2:3—that the Sabbath is a means to an end, specifically, the end for which God created human beings, which is to commune with him and to find rest and refreshment in this divine communion.
In conclusion, by setting aside the seventh day as a time of resting from his work of creating the world, God institutes the weekly Sabbath as an ongoing ordinance for human beings. The Sabbath commandment does not oblige Israel alone; it binds all human beings by virtue of them being made in the image of God. Thus, humanity did not receive the Sabbath commandment at some point far into the course of human history—God gave the Sabbath to humanity at the beginning of history, at the creation of the world.
So how are human beings to keep the Sabbath? And what does God intend to bring about through their Sabbath keeping? Humans are to imitate God by engaging in labor for six days of the week. But they are no less designed to imitate God by resting the seventh day. This means that God wants people, for twenty-four hours, to cease the work that occupies them six days of the week. Yet, that cessation of labor—and the refreshment that comes from that cessation—is a means to a greater end.8 God wants human beings to worship him. The Sabbath is a day that God has “made . . . holy”—it is set apart to him and to his worship. And it is precisely because the day is directed toward God that it carries blessing for human beings. It is a day that God has “blessed.” In light of the testimony of Genesis 1:1–2:3, that blessing carries potential for fruitfulness and fullness. Thus, as God meets with people who truly worship him on that day, they experience all of these gifts—spiritual blessing, fruitfulness, and fullness.
It is this latter point that brings us to the heart of the Sabbath. God made human beings to worship him, to have fellowship with him, and to find blessing and happiness in that worship and fellowship. We were created to labor, to be sure, but the ultimate goal of human existence is to worship and glorify the God who made us.
- The next verse begins with the phrase, “These are the generations.” Commentators often point out that this clause serves as the marker of a new section within Genesis (see Gen. 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12; 25:19; 36:1; 36:9; 37:2). The first portion of the section that follows, Genesis 2:4–25, offers a more detailed account of the way in which God created the first humans, Adam and Eve, on the sixth day (cf. 1:26–31).
- L. Michael Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus, New Studies in Biblical Theology 37 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 46.
- Morales, Who Shall Ascend, 47.
- Beale, New Testament Biblical Theology, 778.
- Gregory K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 778. As Beale notes, “the use of the Piel stem of the Hebrew word qādaš found in Gen. 2:3, which is used the most throughout the OT, almost always refers to setting apart humans or things for human cultic use. However, the only days said to be ‘set apart’ or ‘holy’ in the OT are Sabbaths and various festival days” (778).
- John Murray observes that “even in Ex. 20:11 it is difficult to ascertain whether the sabbath day referred to is expressly the seventh day in the realm of God’s activity or the seventh day in man’s weekly cycle.” Even so, he continues, “the sabbath of God’s rest is the reason given for the sabbath of man’s rest, the recurring seventh day of the week. And this would carry with it the inevitable inference that God blessed and sanctified the seventh day of our week precisely because he sanctified the seventh day in the realm of his own creative activity.” John Murray, Principles of Conduct (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1957), 31.
- Roger T. Beckwith and Wilfrid Stott, This Is the Day: The Biblical Doctrine of the Christian Sunday in Its Jewish and Early Church Setting(London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1978), 11.
- Geerhardus Vos rightly notes that the “rest” in view at Genesis 2:1–3 “stands for consummation of a work accomplished and the joy and satisfaction attendant upon this. Such was its prototype in God. Mankind must copy this.” Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1975), 140.
This article is adapted from The Sabbath as Rest and Hope for the People of God by Guy Prentiss Waters.
Jesus is not only the agent of creation but is also the goal of creation, for everything was created by him and for him, that is, for his honor and praise.
In the end, the cosmos God intended from the beginning will be restored.
The practice of remembering the Sabbath requires Israel (and us) to remember what God has ordained for his children from the earliest moments of human existence: a pattern of work followed by rest.
What does it mean to take a Sabbath? Does this Old Testament law even practically apply today?