God’s people had been in Egypt for hundreds of years, waiting for the moment when they would return to Canaan to occupy the land that had been promised to their forefather Abraham. The ruler—the Pharoah—who now sat on the throne didn’t remember the blessing that Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph had been to the nation of Egypt during the famine, and he was worried that if the number of Israelites—who already outnumbered the indigenous population—continued to grow, they would soon overrun the Egyptians. The solution seemed obvious: enslave the Israelites.

God sent Moses and his brother, Aaron, to liberate the nation of Israel and restore their dignity as a people. But in the story, prior to their departure, there is a little-observed detail that should grab our attention:

Afterward Moses and Aaron went in and told Pharaoh, “Thus says the LORD God of Israel: ‘Let My people go, that they may hold a feast to Me in the wilderness.’ ”

And Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, nor will I let Israel go.”

So they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Please, let us go three days’ journey into the desert and sacrifice to the Lord our God, lest He fall upon us with pestilence or with the sword.”

Then the king of Egypt said to them, “Moses and Aaron, why do you take the people from their work? Get back to your labor.” And Pharaoh said, “Look, the people of the land are many now, and you make them rest from their labor!” (Exodus 5:1–5).*

celebrating salvation

Here’s an important question: What was the “feast in the wilderness” that God wanted His people to celebrate? The Passover had not yet been established. For that matter, none of Israel’s annual feasts were yet in existence. So, what was thi “feast” Moses was proposing to Pharaoh?

We find a clue in Pharaoh’s protest “You make them rest from their labor!” In this case, the Hebrew word translate “rest” is shabath, which is the root word for shabbath (Sabbath), the word used in the fourth commandment to describe the seventh day of the week. Both words simply mean “rest.” What was Moses proposing? A festival of rest!

When the Israelites’ workload became unbearable, and they were sinking under the humiliation of slavery, God called them to rest.

I’ve always found it fascinating that in the two versions of the Ten Commandments spelled out in the Bible, God gives two different reasons for observing the Sabbath. Here’s the version found in Exodus: “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it” (Exodus 20:11, KJV).

What’s the reason for keeping the Sabbath? It’s a memorial of God’s creative power. The seventh-day Sabbath, which we commonly call Saturday, was established at Creation and set apart for holy use. It was “hallowed.”

Now look at the reason for the Sabbath given in the second version of the Ten Commandments: “And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:15).

I’ve heard some people suggest that the Bible is inconsistent because of these differing accounts. But there’s nothing contradictory about them. Even before human beings rebelled against God, the Sabbath was both a day of rest and a memorial of God’s creative power. Then, after we fell into sin, it came to also stand for something else: freedom from slavery.

In addition to its original significance, it became God’s special sign that He had a concrete plan to save us humans from the misery of sin. We shouldn’t look at the account in Deuteronomy as an alternate reason to celebrate the Sabbath; we should look at it as an additional reason to celebrate it. It reminds us that God is restoring our world to its original state.

salvation by works?

I’ve heard a number of preachers say that since Christ died on the cross, the Sabbath has become unnecessary. Why? Supposedly, it’s because Old Testament believers were trying to deserve salvation through their works, while New Testament believers are leaning on Christ through faith. This view is an unfortunate distortion of the purpose of the Sabbath.

First, God set aside the seventh day and blessed it before humans rebelled against Him, which means He established it quite apart from any human need for salvation. Second, that misguided teaching loses the secondary meaning of the Sabbath—redemption from slavery—as explained by God Himself: “The LORD your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm.”

The people of Israel were utterly helpless in the land of Egypt, incapable of freeing themselves from slavery. Their only hope was an act of God. Before they left, God instructed them to paint their doorposts with the blood of a lamb so that the angel of death would pass over their homes. This blood was a clear symbol pointing to the redemption from eternal death that the sacrifice of Christ on the cross would purchase for those sold into the slavery of sin. There was nothing legalistic about Israel’s redemption from slavery!

When my wife and I started celebrating the Sabbath, some people suggested we were trying to earn our salvation. Nothing could be further from the truth! We honor the Sabbath precisely because we can’t earn our salvation. Salvation is an act of God, quite apart from anything we might imagine ourselves able to contribute: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8–10).

Did you catch it? The Bible calls the plan of salvation a creative act of God! “We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.” The Bible also says: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

trusting God for salvation

It’s quite simple, really. The Sabbath was originally established at Creation as a day of rest and a memorial to God’s creative power. After human beings sinned, it took on the added significance of being a celebration of God’s same creative power now directed to liberating us from the slavery of sin and re-creating us in the image of Christ. The Sabbath has nothing to do with earning salvation. On the contrary, it marks the fact that we are resting in the knowledge that God has saved us and will bring us home.

Far from being an attempt to earn salvation through works, observing Sabbath rest celebrates the fact that we are trusting in God alone for our salvation. Not only do we get to rest from six days of actual physical labor, but that day also serves as a weekly reminder that we can rest in God’s ability to save us from sin and ultimately make us fit to live in the Promised Land. It’s the same meaning God added to the Sabbath after the Exodus. It’s a celebration of both creation and re-creation. It’s a clear sign that God understands the suffering we experience in our slavery to sin and that He’s doing something about it.

The Sabbath, rightly understood, is not legalism at all. It’s a matter of sheer faith.

I recommend that you try setting the next Sabbath apart as a day of rest. Lay aside all your business affairs for the whole day. You’ll find the physical rest refreshing, you’ll be celebrating God’s creation of our world, and you’ll also be rejoicing in His saving grace.

Shawn Boonstra is the speaker/director for the Voice of Prophecy ministry in Loveland, Colorado, USA. His broadcasts and books have been a source of inspiration around the globe.

* Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations in this article are from the New King James Version.

A Symbol of Salvation

by Shawn Boonstra
From the May 2024 Signs