Question: "Why does Exodus 35:2 require the death penalty for working on the Sabbath?"
Answer: In the Mosaic law, Israelites who broke the command against working on the Sabbath faced the death penalty. This penalty not only underscored the supreme importance of observing a holy day of rest as a sign of Israel’s covenant relationship with God but also established a symbolic truth regarding God’s eternal rest.
In Exodus 35:2, as Israel was about to embark on the work of building the tabernacle, Moses gathered all the people together and said, “For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day shall be your holy day, a day of sabbath rest to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it is to be put to death.” This passage reiterates the Sabbath observance that the Lord had given to Israel through Moses in Exodus 31:12–18 and earlier in Exodus 20:8–11 and Exodus 16:21–26.
Observing the Sabbath was an important sign of the covenant between God and His people. Failure to observe this critical symbol of the covenant was such a serious breach of the relationship that it was assigned a penalty of death. Up to this point, Israel had a proven track record of either forgetting or disobeying God’s commands. In the people’s excitement to begin constructing the tabernacle, it was imperative that worship not be overlooked even to do praiseworthy work. Thus, the death penalty emphasized the seriousness of maintaining fidelity to the solemn pledge between the people and God.
Keeping the Sabbath was a sign for the people of Israel, but it also holds symbolic significance to all those who are in covenant relationship with the Lord. New Testament believers are under a new covenant and no longer required to keep the Sabbath as a legalistic day with rules about no work; however, the principle of prioritizing time to worship and honor God remains. When we give preeminence to God, we acknowledge to ourselves and others that He is Lord over our work, our time, and our lives.
To fully understand the spiritual significance of the Sabbath, it is necessary to see its connection to the rest of God. The creation account records that God, after creating the heavens and the earth in six days, rested on the seventh day (Genesis 2:2–3). This rest of God teaches us that the Creator graciously set an example for how we His creatures are to spend and enjoy a regular day of rest from our labors. But there is a deeper meaning to this phrase. God’s rest points to a spiritual rest for us—the joy of heaven forever with God—that comes through faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to Him (Hebrews 4:1–10). If we do not rest in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross, we remain spiritually dead.
Under the Old Covenant, the Jewish people labored to make themselves acceptable to God but, of course, were unable to keep all of God’s laws. The sacrifices required by the law had to be repeated again and again to allow sinners to approach a Holy God. The elaborate but inadequate system was designed to point to the Messiah, Jesus Christ, who would offer “once for all time one sacrifice for sins.” After Jesus completed His mission at Calvary, He sat down and “rested” at the right hand of God (Hebrews 10:1–14). Because of Christ’s completed work on the cross, believers no longer have to labor to be right with God but can enter into His rest (Hebrews 9:11–14). Jesus is our Sabbath Rest, and in Him we cease from our toils and find complete rest from our self-effort. We rest in Christ, not just one day a week, but always. The consequence of continuing our work when we should be resting in Christ is death—foreshadowed by the death penalty for Israelites working on the Sabbath.
For Israel, keeping the Sabbath was a sign of obedience to God’s covenant. Those who did not observe the Sabbath by ceasing from work were by their actions openly proving that they were not partners in the agreement. On the other hand, those who faithfully kept the Sabbath made a public show of their resolute faithfulness to the Lord of the Sabbath. The weekly Sabbath is also a symbolic reminder of God’s divine, eternal rest, and the death penalty for working on the Sabbath pointed to the fate of unbelievers who refuse to enter God’s rest through the atoning death of Jesus Christ on the cross.