By Mike Willis
The book of Exodus contains the Ten Commandments, one of which is the commandment to observe the Sabbath day. The Lord commanded:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor and do thy work: but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: 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 (20:8-11).
Additional revelation was given regarding the observance of the Sabbath day. The Sabbath observance was commanded to provide a rest for man and animal from their labors (Exod. 23:12). Not even the busy times of the agricultural season, earing and harvest, were justification for not observing the Sabbath (Exod. 34:21). The repetition of the Sabbath commandment in the context of instructions pertaining to the building of the Tabernacle points to the conclusion that the urgency in building the Tabernacle was not justification for neglecting the Sabbath (Exod. 31:1217; 35:1-3).
Punishment of the Sabbath Breaker
God ordained that the man who violated the Sabbath was to be punished with death: “Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord: whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death” (Exod. 31:15).
During the wanderings in the wilderness, a man broke the Sabbath law by gathering sticks on that day. The record of his sin was given to illustrate presumptuous sin. Regarding presumptuous sin, the Lord revealed,
But the soul that doeth ought presumptuously, whether he be born in the land, or a stranger, the same reproacheth the Lord; and that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Because he hath despised the word of the Lord, and hath broken his commandment, that soul shall utterly be cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him (Num. 15:30-31).
Immediately following these verses which describe the punishment for presumptuous sin, the record of the Sabbath violator is given.
And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day. And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto all the congregation. And they put him in ward, because it was not declared what should be done to him. And the Lord said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp. And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the Lord commanded Moses (Num. 15:31-36).
To some people the death penalty for violation of the Sabbath law seems too harsh. Should we never understand why the death penalty was demanded, we should have enough reverence for the Lord’s revelation not to criticize the Lord’s judgment. However, the reason for the death penalty can be better understood when we recognize the seriousness of the offence. Writing in the Pulpit Commentary, George Rawlinson described the seriousness of the sin and God’s justice in making the punishment so harsh:
The penalty of death for breaking the sabbath seems to moderns over-severe; but the erection of sabbath-observance into the special sacramental sign that Israel was in covenant with God made non-observance an offence of the gravest character. The man who broke the sabbath destroyed, so far as in him lay, the entire covenant between God and his people – not only broke it, but annulled it and threw Israel out of covenant (Exodus, p. 318).
The Sabbath breaker showed a willful disregard for the Sabbath day, the covenant which God had made with Israel and the God who made the covenant. This was a presumptuous sin punishable by death.
Are There New Testament Parallels?
The Sabbath, along with the rest of the Law of Moses, was nailed to the cross (Col. 2:14-17). Christians are not bound by the Law of Moses to observe the Sabbath, the claims of Seventh Day Adventists to the contrary notwithstanding. This is not to imply that there are no covenant requirements equal in importance in the New Testament.
When Jesus instituted the Lord’s supper, taking the fruit of the vine he described the cup as “my blood of the new testament” (Matt. 26:28). He commanded Christians to remember his death for sin by partaking of the Lord’s supper saying, “This do in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:24). The Lord’s supper was observed regularly (Acts 2:42 “they continued steadfastly”) and was observed upon the first day of every week (Acts 20:7; cf. 1 Cor. 11:20; 16:1-2).
The man who willfully misses the first day of the week assembly to remember the Lord’s death shows a disregard for the covenant and him who died for that covenant to be established. For him to place temporal matters (such as work, recreation, sleep, family, etc.) above the covenant shows a contempt for the Lord who made that covenant.
The forsaking of the assembly is treated as a most serious offence in Hebrews. The writer commanded the Hebrew Christians not to forsake the assembly saying, “Not forsaking the assembly of ourselves together, as the manner of some is” (Heb. 10:25). (Some have equated “forsaking the assembly” with total apostasy. That this is not the meaning of the phrase is evident from the fact that “forsaking the assembly” can become a habit. When it becomes a habit [custom], then total apostasy has occurred. Forsaking the assembly is, therefore, missing the assembly, not total apostasy.) Following the command not to forsake the assembly, he added,
For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins. But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace? (10:26-29)
Forsaking the worship of the Lord and the observance the Lord’s supper, is a serious offence – a presumptuous sin – a showing of disregard for the covenant and the God who made it!
We dare not imply that Christians are bound by the law of Moses. However, we would do well to remember that “whatsoever things were written afore time were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). We can learn from the sin of the Sabbath breaker to show a reverence for the covenant and the God who made it.
Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 4, pp. 98, 118
February 15, 1990