The term “Sabbath” is derived from the Hebrew word “Shabbat,” which means “ceasing from work” (not necessarily “rest,” as it is often translated). The concept of the Sabbath first appears in the Bible at the end of God’s creation of the world: Genesis 2:1-3 states, “Thus the heavens and the earth were created in their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work He had been doing; so on the seventh day He rested from all His work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He rested from all the work of creating that He had done.”
The specific term “Sabbath” appears over and over throughout the books of Exodus and Leviticus:
“This is what the Lord commanded: ‘Tomorrow is to be a day of Sabbath rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord.’” (Exodus 16:23)
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” (Exodus 20:8)
“Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you.” (Exodus 31:14)
“It is a day of Sabbath rest; you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance.” (Leviticus 16:31)
“Observe my Sabbaths and have reverence for my sanctuary. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:30)
“It is a Sabbath of rest for you, and you must deny yourselves.” (Leviticus 23:32)
In Leviticus, the concept of a Sabbath is extended to not only the seventh day, but also the seventh year. Leviticus 25:4 states, “But in the seventh year, the land is to have a year of Sabbath rest, a Sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or plant your vineyards.” References to keeping the Sabbath holy continue throughout the Old Testament, in Numbers, Deuteronomy, 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Nehemiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Hosea, and Amos.
In the New Testament, the Sabbath was still being celebrated (and enforced): In Matthew 12:10, the Pharisees ask Jesus if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath. He responds by asking them, “If any of you have a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, do you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” This conversation illustrates the point Matthew had just made in verse 8: “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Throughout the New Testament, we see Jesus and His disciples “breaking” the Sabbath: they pick grain when they are hungry (Mark 2:23), they drive out demons (Mark 1:25), they heal the sick (Mark 3:5, Luke 13:12, John 5:8). In Mark 2:27, Jesus reminds His disciples, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
Did God really need to rest after creating the universe? Did it really tire Him out so much that He needed to take a break? I doubt it. But He knew that the people He had just created, and even the world that He had just created, would need to take a break from their work now and then. We were not designed to work without ceasing. Our bodies need rest, need sleep, need changes of responsibilities. We cannot go on for long without giving ourselves a physical and a mental break. The Sabbath, I think, is God’s reminder that we need to cease from our work now and then. In the middle of our busy, hectic lives, sometimes we need to just stop what we’re doing for a bit. We need to rest our bodies, our minds, and our souls. We need to stop. We need a Sabbath.