Christians have been commemorating the last Sabbath since the beginning. Only, instead of observing the Jewish weekly Sabbath as a command, Holy Saturday is a yearly Christian tradition to remember Christ in the tomb during the passion week, the day before Christians celebrate the resurrection. It is said that St. Peter, prince of the Apostles, gave the first Holy Saturday sermon and we still have copies of that sermon passed down to our time. Some of this ancient sermon is recorded here:
"What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.”
The meaning of Sabbath slowly unfolded through time as recorded in scripture. Let's return to the Creation story and the first day of rest.
“Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts. By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.” Gen. 2: 1-3
Only with a cycle of both darkness and light was there a complete day. With the evening and the morning, it was finished. But, in the creation account, the seventh day had no external boundaries. It had no beginning and end like the other days. The seventh day rest day was not finished. That was for a very important purpose. To find the purpose of the open-ended seventh day of creation we need to know what a seven day cycle meant.
The Seven Day Cycle
Sevens in scripture point to cycles of completion. The seventh in all cycles signals the end, the finish of whatever was taking place. Whether it was a week, a time period for healing or taking a vow, often the Bible speaks of a seven day cycle. When the ceremonial cycle of seven was finished, another cycle began.
So in creation, God began a cycle of seven days that didn’t quite end. The seventh day did not complete the cycle of both evening and morning.
The creation week ended... but not quite, for the seventh day rest began but never ended. In a sense we can say the seventh day began with the evening but there was no record of the cycle being completed. As if God was saying, “The morning has not yet come.” The cycle of God’s physical creation ended, the heavens and earth were done... yet, the rest He began was not finished.
Then this rest began to unfold in Israel's history.
Introduction of the Sabbath Rest
Then more rules were added:
No gathering, no working.
All Israel was commanded to cease.
This rest was a sign for Israel, it pointed back to the seventh day of creation. That same seventh day that wasn’t quite finished. That day of evening and yet no morning, when God rested.
The end of this cycle of sevens was holy. To profane the sign of God’s rest at creation, meant physical death. As Israel wandered in the wilderness awaiting the promised land, Sabbath was not a day to go out at look at nature. It was not a day to enjoy. It was a solemn rest, just as if it were a preparation for Israel’s death.
So to recap: Sabbath (rest/ceasing) ends a seven day cycle of completion before a new cycle begins. This rest of God did not end at Creation. Something wasn't complete. And a similar rest, given to Israel, remembered the open-ended rest of creation and also resembled death. Could these Sabbaths be a Old Testament antitype of Christ's death?
The Sabbath Death
The eighth day in scripture means a new beginning. The eighth day was also a prophecy of the first day of a new heaven and a new earth. An eighth day would mean the end of the old cycle and a new would begin.
Okay, think about this: since Israel was given all these cycles of sevens ending with a Sabbath rest, could they not have some ceremonial significance that pointed to Christ? After all, many of the ceremonies, like the Passover, the sin offerings, the Exodus that were indeed Messianic prophecies.
Many would agree it was. However now add to that sign of Messianic rest with the creation open-ended seventh day.
God’s rest at creation began but was not finished until He would rest in the tomb. The first seventh day rest would culminate in the last seventh-day rest on that Great and Holy Saturday when Christ would enter the tomb. As an ancient writer (perhaps even St. Peter himself) spoke about this Great and Holy Sabbath:
“Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps...Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep.... He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam's son. The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his cross. ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light. I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison:
Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise. ‘I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.
`I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side, for you, who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side healed the pain of your side; my sleep will release you from your sleep in Hades; my sword has checked the sword which was turned against you. ‘But arise, let us go hence.’ “ (From ancient homily, “For Holy Saturday: The Lord’s Descent into Hell,” http://www.vatican.va/spirit/documents/spirit_20010414_omelia-sabato-santo_en.html).
God’s rest at creation began but was not finished until He had conquered both Heaven and Hell, both the seen and the unseen, the physical creation and the spiritual creation. With the Sabbath rest of Holy Saturday, God’s rest was finally complete. It was finished. All those Sabbaths Israel was figuratively in the tomb with Christ, pointed to the ultimate fulfillment of the end of the cycle of sin. The end of the seven of sin, the seventh day was finally over. Now with the dawn of the eighth day, the evening of the seventh day was finished! The morning and the true light had come in Jesus. Our Messiah. Our Christ. Our Savior.
Sabbath was to proclaim (as a sign) what God was going doing for us through His rest--begun at creation. He was going to suffer the depths of the underworld, the tomb, the dark rest of no light, just as the sabbaths commanded for Israel.
Now a new heaven and a new earth has come. The cycle of sin is over and the Sabbath of death has been fulfilled. We continue to remember the Sabbath, that great commandment of God for the Jews, only we do it now through the lens of the New Covenant. We now commemorate Holy Saturday once a year (as a Christian tradition) as it takes us to the completion of the seven-day cycle of creation.
The Sabbath was Israel's sign that the Messiah would fulfill the law and the prophets by His death and entombment and finish the long cycle of unaccomplished rest. They entered the prophecy of the tomb by ceasing their labor each Sabbath.
Christ was bringing in the New Covenant rest that was to be found in Him. "Come unto me all ye who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest." And Christ entered the tomb and the final Sabbath was finished.
Morning has broken and we are living in a new day and a new creation. A day of life. A cycle of morning and the Son that will never end.