When I teach students the doctrines of the Bible, one of the passages I like to examine is found in Exodus 31:12-18, a short passage that nonetheless presents the reader of the Bible (for those few who read that particular part of scripture) an intriguing puzzle. This particular passage comes at the very end of God’s speaking to Moses and makes the Sabbath a separate covenant from the Old Covenant that came before it (which also included the Sabbath as part of its commandments). The presence of a separate Sabbath covenant from the Mosaic Covenant (or “Old” Covenant as it is disparagingly called by many) suggests several important questions.
Before we examine what is contained in the Sabbath covenant, let us ask ourselves a key question. Why is there a separate covenant for the Sabbath at all? It is a common and mistaken opinion for those who profess themselves to be Christians without obeying either the commands or following the examples of our Lord and Savior, the Lord of the Sabbath  to consider the Sabbath to be part and parcel with the Old Covenant established with Moses and ancient Israel at Mt. Sinai. The presence of a separate Sabbath covenant would seem to suggest that God was aware this argumentation would be used and sought to prevent it by establishing a separate covenant to show that the Sabbath would forever be a sign for His people, separate from the Old Covenant that was intended to pass away and be evanescent. And having established a separate and still lasting Sabbath covenant, God in His word set the Sabbath as a sign that remains for the people of God (Hebrews 4:9), even under the New Covenant, where the laws of God (including all ten of the Ten Commandments) are written on our hearts and minds instead of merely tablets of stone.
Surely My Sabbaths You Shall Keep
Exodus 31:12-18 gives the Sabbath Covenant, and it reads as follows: “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak also to the children of Israel, saying: ‘Surely my Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you. You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes the Sabbath 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.’ ” And when He had made an end to speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses two tablets of the Testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.”
Though this is a short covenant, it is an immensely important one for a variety of reasons. For one, let us note that this was a civil covenant with the children of Israel specifically. As Israel had committed to obeying and following whatever God said (Exodus 19:8), this commandment committed the people of Israel to enforcing God’s Sabbath by putting to death those who flaunted the Sabbath. This demonstrates the seriousness God viewed the Sabbath. To be fair, we should note that this was a civil covenant itself, one which Israel did not enforce, and that the Church does not have the right to enforce the covenant of the death penalty on Sabbath breakers (merely the ecclesiastical sanctions of disfellowshipment).
That said, the importance of the Sabbath to God was so great that He established a separate covenant to address the Sabbath issue with Israel and to state its permanently binding nature to both the Israel of the flesh and the Israel of God. Moreover, even though this Sabbath Covenant was made with ancient Israel, its presence states that anyone who wishes to be considered an Israelite must be obedient to its terms. This helps to explain the importance of the Sabbath Covenant in Isaiah 56:6-8 that explains how Gentiles are to be counted as among the people of God: “Also the sons of the foreigner who join themselves to the Lord, to serve Him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be His servants–everyone who keeps from defiling the Sabbath, and holds fast My covenant–even them I will bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on My altar; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel says, “Yet I will gather to him others besides those who are gathered to him.”
We see here that there was not a two-track method of salvation, but rather that all who wished to enter into God’s kingdom must be grafted into spiritual Israel, and that all who do so must be obedient in following God’s Sabbaths. This is not to say that anyone who obeys the Sabbath is automatically part of God’s people, as that is not the case (there is the Synagogue of Satan, after all, who say they are [spiritual] Jews but are not ), but that all who reject God’s Sabbaths reject God. This particular covenant talks about the weekly Sabbath, but it would be applicable to all of God’s Sabbaths in general, even if it was the weekly ones that were the most likely to be violated (see Nehemiah 10:31, describing the debt forgiveness of the Sabbath year, though, or Amos 8:5 describing the temptation to violate the rest of the New Moon). This is a sobering and important matter.
A close reading of Exodus 31:12-18 shows a rather dramatic and intriguing aspect of the Sabbath in God’s workings with humanity. The Sabbath, having existed prior to the ‘Old’ Covenant, is therefore outside of it and remains valid even after the replacement of the ‘Old’ Covenant with a ‘New’ Covenant that writes the laws (including the Sabbath) within all who accept God’s ways, whether Israelite or Gentile, male or female, slave or free. The Sabbath covenant was specifically a civil covenant, requiring any nation that wished to receive God’s blessings (even physical ones) to enforce God’s Sabbath laws on its people. No nation on earth has ever consistently followed that standard. Nonetheless, fidelity to the Sabbath remains sign for God’s people, regardless of whether they are Israelite or Gentile, as a sign of acceptance of and obedience to all of God’s ways. Let us all therefore strive to follow the example of the Lord of the Sabbath, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and be a part of the covenant people of God obedient to His Sabbath Covenant.