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A Sabbath Day's Journey

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet,
which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day's journey.
Acts 1:12

A Sabbath day's journey is the distance a Jew could travel on the Sabbath without breaking the law. In Acts 1:12, Mount Olivet is described as being near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day's journey. This distance is about two thousand cubits or a thousand yards (Joshua 3:4) - the distance between the Ark of the Covenant and the rest of the Israelite camp in the wilderness.

The wisdom behind this law of God (Exodus 16:29) is that Sabbath is a holy day unto the Lord and for His people. It should never be hurried or busy. Every person within the camp or city would be close to the centre of worship to take part in the services without having to travel a great distance. This law, although noble in intent, was soon abused by strict legalism. In the New Testament, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees about their blind legalism over observance of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-9).

Every one of us has a need to rest. Sabbath is the practice of observing one day in seven as a time for rest and worship. This practice originated in creation when God created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh (Genesis 1). By this act, God ordained a pattern for living - that man should work six days each week and should rest one day a week. This is the understanding of the creation set forth by God Himself in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3-11) to His people.

The history and practice of the Sabbath dated long before the Ten Commandments. Before Exodus, in Genesis 4:26, men began to call upon the name of the Lord in acts of worship. Periods of seven days played a prominent role at crucial points throughout Genesis (Gen. 7:4,10; 8:10,12). The seven-day week and a seven-year cycle were mentioned and practiced in the life of Laban. The patriarch Job worshipped God on His appointed day (Job 1:4-5).

The formal institution of the Sabbath is a basic part of the Mosaic Law system. Each division of the law contains specific sections relating to the practice of the Sabbath:

  • the moral laws (the Ten Commandments)
  • the civil laws (Exodus 31:14-17) and
  • the ceremonial laws (Lev. 23:3).

Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work on it; it is the Sabbath of the LORD in all your dwellings. Lev 23:3

The keeping of the Sabbath was a sign of the Sovereignty and Lordship over His people. To break His Sabbath law was to rebel against Him - an action meriting death (Exodus 31:14-17):

You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.

All work except acts of mercy and worship were forbidden on the Sabbath (Isaiah 58:13; Matthew 12:1-13).

God's blessings were bestowed upon those who properly observed the Sabbath (Isa. 58:13). Nehemiah called upon the people to observe the Sabbath (Neh. 10:31; 13:15-22). Other prophets condemned those who made much of external observance of the Sabbath and ignored the heart and moral issues (Isa. 1:13; Hos. 2:11; Amos 8:5).

During the period between the Old and New Testaments, Jewish religious leaders added greatly to the details of Sabbath legislation. They sought to ensure proper and careful observance by making certain that people did not even come close to violating it. They substituted human law for divine law (Matthew 15:9), making the law a burden rather than a rest and delight (Luke 11:46), and reduced the Sabbath to nothing more than an external observance (Matthew 12:8).

Jesus kept the Sabbath Himself (Luke 4:16) and urged others to observe the day (Mark 2:28). But He condemned the religiosity that missed the deep spiritual truths behind Sabbath observance (Matthew 12:11-12; Mark 2:27; Luke 6:1-11; John 5:1-18).

The Hebrew word for Sabbath means cessation and rest. It is a means by which man's living pattern follows God's (Exodus 20:3-11). Work is followed by rest. Sabbath rest is a time for God's people to enjoy God and His creation. God's people are directed to keep the Sabbath because God delivered and redeemed them from slavery and bondages. Thus, the Sabbath is an ordinance that relates to redemption.

Sabbath rest also holds the promise of the ultimate salvation that God will accomplish for His people. As certainly as He delivered them from Egypt through Moses, so will He deliver His people from sin at the end of the age through the Great Redeemer (Gen. 3:15; Hebrews 4).

The Sabbath is a celebration of our salvation and rest in the Lord. To this end, God declared that His Sabbath was a day for public and holy convocation (Lev. 23:3), a special time for His people to gather together in public worship and obedience to His Lordship over them (Exodus 31:13; Eze. 20:12). The Sabbath is a gift of God that allows man to enter into His rest.

The Sabbath is a delight (Psalm 92; Isa. 58:13; Hosea 2:11). The Sabbatical holy days prescribe rest from work for everyone (Exo. 23:21; Num. 15:32). These holy days also are celebrated with great rejoicing before the Lord. To this end the daily morning and evening sacrifices are doubled on the weekly Sabbath day (Num. 28:9; Psalm 92). The people of God meet together to praise God and to be instructed in His law (Lev. 10:11; Deut. 33:10).

On the Sabbath, the Showbread which reminded Israel of God's daily and bounteous blessings, was to be renewed (Lev. 24:7-8). On each Sabbath the Levites placed fresh bread on the table of Showbread and removed the week-old bread from the sanctuary (1 Chr. 9:32). The older bread was eaten by the priests; whatever was left was burned with incense as an offering to the Lord (Lev. 24:5-9).

A year of rest and redemption that occurred every seven years in the Hebrew nation. By this prescription of God, Israel was to set apart every seventh year by letting the land to rest and go uncultivated (Lev. 25:4-5). The crops and harvest that were reaped during this year were considered the common possession of all men and beasts (Exo. 23:11; Deut. 15:1-18). None of this harvest was to be stored for future use.

Below is a promise of blessing from God concerning keeping His Sabbath:

"If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on My holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the LORD honorable, and shall honor Him, not doing your own ways, nor finding your own pleasure, nor speaking your own words, then you shall delight yourself in the LORD; and I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth, and feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father. then you shall delight yourself in the LORD; and I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth, and feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father. The mouth of the LORD has spoken." Isaiah 58:13-14

Note the three don'ts listed:

  • not doing your own ways (no self-centredness)
  • not finding your own pleasure (no self-indulgence)
  • not speaking your own words (no self-glory)

Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary