Cross casting shadow across the world

The seventh day of the week (Saturday) was the day God gave to the ancient Israelites as a day of ceasing from their labor (Ex 16). To a nation of former slaves who had just left Egypt, a day off of work must have been both a welcome and strange idea.

The word Sabbath (שַׁבָּת shabbath, H7676) means to cease, but most people think it means rest. Rest is certainly part of the Sabbath, but rest is the result of ceasing from labor.

Shadows of things to come

Many of the practices, roles, rituals and observances under the Old Covenant, including the Sabbath, foreshadowed realities that would come to pass in the New Covenant. In fact, the apostle Paul said these things were mere shadows cast by the reality of what was coming.

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (Col. 2:16-17 NIV)

Paul is saying the seventh day of the week which the Jews carefully observed was not the real Sabbath! The author of the Hebrew letter concurs.

[The Jewish high priests] serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven...  (Heb. 8:5 NIV)

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming-- not the realities themselves. (Heb. 10:1 NIV)

What is the Sabbath a shadow of?

When we see a New Testament passage say that something from the Old Covenant was a shadow or copy we should stop and ask, “What is it a shadow or copy of”? Since the Sabbath which the ancient Jews observed wasn’t the real Sabbath, but only a shadow, what was it a shadow of? What did it symbolize or represent? The Sabbath represented what the Hebrew writer called “God’s rest.”

In Hebrews chapter 4, the author draws upon Israelite history to make a very important point about the rest God offers. The first generation of Israelites who left Egypt did not trust God and constantly disobeyed Him. Because of this, they were not allowed to enter into the land that God had promised their forefathers. They died in the desert never obtaining “God’s rest”, but their children entered the land and possessed it. Possession of the land wasn’t ultimately what God had in mind when He established a place of rest for His people.

According to Hebrews 4:1, God’s offer of rest still stands today and He wasn’t speaking about the land of Canaan. Hebrews chapter 4 is a dense chapter. The author expects us to be familiar with the 40 years of wilderness wanderings, the conquest of Canaan and Psalms 95. Please study it yourself, but consider this summary which should help unpack it:

  • God’s offer of entering into His rest still stands  (Heb 4:1)
  • Belief allows us to enter into God’s rest, disbelief bars us from it  (Heb 4:2-3)
  • God’s rest has been ready for us since the world began  (Heb 4:3-4)
  • God’s rest is not about dwelling in the promised land  (Heb 4:8)
  • Only two choices - we either enter God’s rest, or we perish  (Heb 4:11 NIV)

Hebrews explains God's rest

So, what is God’s rest exactly? Heb 4:10 is the key: “the person who has entered [God’s] rest has rested from his own works, just as God did from his.” Therefore, the real sabbath is not the keeping of a special day, but the ending of a specific effort. The effort that has ended is the burden of keeping the law.

How do we know this? Hebrews 10:12-14 says that Jesus made one sacrifice, which perfected us, and then He sat down at the right hand of God. In other words, Jesus performed His work and then He rested! Jesus’ work consisted of fulfilling the requirements of the law on our behalf because keeping the law is not something we are able to do on our own (Rom 8:1-4, Acts 15:10).

God’s rest belongs to those who believe (Heb 4:3) and are in Christ. This rest is characterized by not having to labor under a law that we cannot successfully obey. The person who has entered God’s rest has rested from his own works (Heb 4:10)! This doesn’t mean there is no work at all; Eph 2:10 says God has prepared good works for us to do. What it does mean is that we can rely upon what Jesus did because there is no work we can do to bring about our own righteousness. Our own works cannot save us, only what Jesus did has merit.

The symbolism of the shadows

The ancient Jews worked six days each week and ceased working for one day. The six days of labor symbolized keeping the law. The seventh day of rest was merely a pointer to the real Sabbath which promised an end of laboring under an impossible standard of law.

This is why God’s people today aren’t required to abstain from work on Saturdays (the Sabbath). We are privileged to be in a New Covenant with God in which we now have the real Sabbath - we have entered into God's rest through the work of Christ.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. (Matt. 11:28 ESV)

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