A Biblical Theology of Sabbath

by Cory Barnes | May 3, 2023

I will never forget what it was like when I was a kid and Dad arrived home from work. He worked a few jobs when I was growing up, but the one I remember most was when he worked an office job an hour from home. He would leave hours before my siblings and I woke up and would not get home until 6:00 pm or later. When he came home, he was tired, but never too tired to play with his kids. We would mob him when he came home, and I do not remember him ever saying, “not now, I’m tired.” He spent weekends with us as well, camping, fishing, swimming, or just playing in the backyard. Jim Barnes’s natural habitat was with his family. He worked hard for us so that he could be with us.

Sabbath Is About God’s Presence

Unlike my Dad, God never tires in his work. But, by God’s grace, my Dad was reflecting part of God’s good design by enjoying the fruit of his labor—being present with his wife and children in the home that he worked to provide for us.

God’s purpose for creation demonstrates why God rested after he finished his creative work. The Bible makes very clear that God does not get tired, even in his work of creation (Isa 40:8). God’s rest, therefore, is not about the need to recover from the task of work, but rather to enjoy the product of his work—the creation and creatures he has made.

In Genesis 2:2 the Bible tells us that “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” (ESV). 

In Genesis 2:3, after the completion of his creative work, God rests in his creation. God’s resting in creation makes the seventh day both set apart (holy) and adored and celebrated (blessed).

Keeping Sabbath In A Fallen World Is A Reminder of God’s Grace

The narrative of Genesis indicates that God’s intention is for humanity to live with God in sabbath rest. Adam and Eve are invited into a covenant relationship with God where they accomplish the mission God has for them (to work and guard the Garden of Eden) while enjoying the presence of God. 

The Westminster Catechism reminds readers that people are created for life in the presence of God. It asks, “What is the chief end of man?” The answer: “A man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”

When Adam and Eve—God’s image bearers—sin, they break God’s good covenant and interrupt the Sabbath rest God intends for his creation. No longer in the presence of God, they are exiled from God’s presence.

So, in the Law when God gives his people a command for keeping the Sabbath, God is graciously inviting Israel to participate in a weekly reminder that God is restoring his presence with his people. Far from being a legalistic religious ritual, Sabbath keeping is meant to remind Israel of God’s intention for his people—to live in his presence and enjoy him. For this reason, the initial command to keep Sabbath comes with a reminder that Sabbath points to God’s presence with his creatures (Exod 20:11). Remembering the Sabbath, therefore, is remembering that God is doing something about the sinful and broken condition of humanity.

Jesus’s Work Restores True Sabbath Rest

In part 1 of this series, I addressed some of the bad ideas about Sabbath held by some religious leaders in the time of Jesus. What a thorough examination of the gospels shows us however is that Jesus obeyed the commandment to remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.

More than just keeping Sabbath, Jesus tells us that he is the “lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28). Far from throwing out the Sabbath as an unnecessary relic of Old Testament legalism, Jesus tells us that the Sabbath flows from his authority as the Son of Man who is given dominion over all things by God the Father (Dan 7:13–14). 

Through Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath, God’s presence is restored once again to his creation. In the incarnation of Jesus, the Eternal Word of God takes on flesh and dwells among people. In a very real way, the Sabbath was realized in Bethlehem on the day of Jesus’s birth in a better way than it had been since Eden. Once again, God dwelled among his people.

But Sabbath rest had yet to be restored.

Remember that Scripture makes it clear that the response of creation to Jesus’s presence on earth was not to embrace rest and enjoy God’s presence but to reject Jesus and, therefore, to reject God (John 1:10–11). 

Jesus restored Sabbath rest by putting sin to death and eliminating the barrier between God and humanity for all who, by grace, believe in him (John 3:16; Rom 5:17). More than just eliminating a barrier, Jesus offers to sinful humanity his righteousness, restoring our active participation in God’s presence (2 Cor 5:21).

Jesus is Bringing About Perfect Sabbath Rest

In the next to last chapter of the Bible, a loud voice from the throne of God proclaims:

“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” -Rev 21:3–4

These are the happiest words that will ever be spoken! Look carefully at the promise given to God’s people. 

God’s dwelling place will be with humanity—he will be present with us! 

The people who dwell with God will be his people—God’s image bearers will fulfill their purpose and enjoy God!  

God himself will be the peoples’ God—God will enjoy his creatures forever!

In this eternal Sabbath, there is no mourning or crying or pain or death—all things are now the way they are meant to be!

This means that for Christians, our celebration of the Sabbath—a commandment that we keep in continuity with the OT saints—is done in excited anticipation of the coming perfection of all creation. 


Cory Barnes

Cory Barnes has been blessed to teach God’s Word to college and seminary students since 2015. His research interests include biblical theology, intertextuality, and the ancient Near Eastern context of the Old Testament. In addition to his teaching role, Cory works with distance learning at NOBTS. He is the co-author of Kingdom Students(B&H Academic, 2020) and the author of From Creed to Canon (Borderstone Press, 2014).