As I was reading through Exodus last week, I noticed something in its literary structure. The command to keep Sabbath is reiterated after the instructions for the tabernacle and then again before the construction of the tabernacle. The pattern is a chiasm: tabernacle (25:1-31:11), Sabbath (31:12-18), Sabbath (35:1-3), tabernacle (35:4-40:38). The pattern follows Genesis 1-2, where God creates a cosmic tabernacle in six days and rests on the seventh. It’s a pattern of sacred space and sacred time. The tabernacle was sacred space, a renewed garden, where God was present. Hence its other name, “the tent of meeting.” Exodus concludes with a statement that Moses finished the work (another echo of Genesis) and a description of the glory of the Lord covering and filling the tent of meeting (Ex 40:34-38). His presence was manifest in a pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. The tabernacle was a holy space and a sign of God’s presence among his people. It was also the place of atonement. It was a sanctifying space.
Just as the tabernacle is sacred space, so the Sabbath is sacred time. Keeping Sabbath is a sign that the Lord sanctifies us:
And the Lord said to Moses, 13 “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you . . . 16 Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. 17 It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.” (Ex 31:12-13, 16-17)
Notice two things. First, the Sabbath is a sign that God has redeemed us for himself and set us apart as a holy people for his service and his glory. Immediately following this command concerning the Sabbath, Israel called on Aaron to make them idols for worship (Ex 32). The demand for idols arose from a complaint about time: “Moses delayed to come down from the mountain” (Ex 32:1). They had a problem with God’s timing and turned to idols. Were they keeping the Sabbath? The Lord commanded them: “keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you” (Ex 31:13). They may have turned to idols because they were idle in keeping Sabbath. The gift of Sabbath was a sign that the Lord sanctified them, but they wanted to sanctify themselves by making idols. Keeping Sabbath reminds us that it’s the Lord who sanctifies us. We don’t sanctify ourselves. Keeping Sabbath is abiding in grace.
Second, the Sabbath “is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed” (Ex 31:17). The Sabbath is a sign that the Lord created all things, “for from him and through him and to him are all things” (Rom 11:36). Sabbath is a sign that even God rested and was refreshed after working six days. The Sabbath is a gift for our rest and refreshment. Our Lord reminds us, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The Sabbath is a gift, given for our rest and refreshment and given as a sign, “that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you” (Ex 31:13).