Explore the interpretation of Exodus 31:12–17, a passage often misapplied in debates over Sabbath observance. This analysis clarifies its context within the Old Covenant and its transition under the New Covenant, highlighting how the early Christian church understood and practiced worship beyond a literal seventh-day Sabbath.
Introduction: The Sabbath Commandment
The passage of Exodus 31:12–17 is pivotal in understanding the Sabbath commandment, which has been subject to various interpretations. Some groups, like Seventh-day Adventists, assert that this commandment is eternally binding for all believers. However, a careful exegetical analysis reveals the context and application of these verses and their relevance to Christians under the New Covenant.
The Sabbath in the Old Testament
Specific Covenant with Israel
Exodus 31:12–17 clearly addresses the children of Israel, establishing the Sabbath as a sign of the covenant between Jehovah and Israel. This covenantal sign, with its specific regulations, was uniquely given to Israel and not to humanity at large.
Symbolism and Foreshadowing
The Sabbath, in the Mosaic Law, served as a reminder of God’s creation and Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. It was a day of rest and reflection, symbolizing deeper spiritual truths that would be fulfilled in Christ.
Transition to the New Covenant
Christ: The Fulfillment of the Law
Romans 10:4 and Galatians 3:24 indicate that Christ is the culmination of the Law, including the Sabbath. The New Covenant, inaugurated by Christ's death and resurrection, brings a shift from the literal observance of the Sabbath to a spiritual fulfillment in Him.
The Early Church and Worship
The New Testament records (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1–2) show that the early Christians gathered on the first day of the week, Sunday, commemorating Jesus’ resurrection. This shift from the seventh day to the first day marks a significant transition in worship practices, aligning with the New Covenant realities.
The Theological Significance of the Sabbath
Rest in Christ
Under the New Covenant, true Sabbath rest is found in Christ. Believers enter into this rest through faith in Him, ceasing from their works as God did from His (Hebrews 4:9-10). This rest symbolizes the complete and sufficient work of Christ for our salvation.
Sabbath as a Shadow
Colossians 2:16-17 describes the Sabbath as a “shadow” of the things to come, with the substance found in Christ. The physical observance of the Sabbath pointed towards the spiritual reality available in Jesus.
Misinterpretations and Corrections
The assertion that Christians are bound to observe the seventh-day Sabbath does not align with the broader New Testament teaching. The focus is shifted from a specific day to a person—Jesus Christ.
Sabbath as an Eternal Decree
While Exodus 31:17 refers to the Sabbath as a “perpetual covenant” for Israel, the New Testament reveals its temporal nature as part of the Mosaic Law, now fulfilled in Christ.
Conclusion: Understanding the Sabbath Today
The Sabbath, as given in Exodus 31:12–17, was a covenantal sign specific to Israel under the Old Testament. With the advent of the New Covenant, believers find their rest not in a day but in a person—Jesus Christ. This shift from a literal day of rest to a spiritual rest in Christ aligns with the apostolic teaching and practice of the early church. Thus, Christians are not obligated to observe the seventh-day Sabbath but are called to rest and worship in the risen Christ every day.
About the Author
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored over 220+ books. In addition, Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).
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