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How should we think about the Sabbath?

By Matthew Roberts, 18 Oct 2016

For those who haven’t been to ‘Thinking Like a Christian’ yet this autumn, each week we’re choosing a question suggested by someone in the room and looking at the Bible together and discussing how we should answer it. Last Sunday the topic chosen was the Sabbath – is Sunday the Sabbath day, and if so, how do we keep it without being legalistic? We had a good time looking for relevant parts of the Bible and discussing how to put them together to have a biblical point of view on this.

Here is a summary, and a bit more explanation, of how Reformed churches have generally understood the Bible’s teaching on the Sabbath.

1. The Sabbath is established at creation: God made the world in six days, and then rested on the seventh. So he blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. Note that ‘holy’ means specially set aside for God’s use. It’s a day for creation to remember its creator, for creation to especially remember and celebrate its relationship with its creator.

2. At the same time the Sabbath day is looking forwards. The purpose of creation is rest: the whole of creation is looking forward to its coming rest when all things are complete. We can see this because a) the New Testament shows that the dominion of man over all creation, described on day 6 in Genesis 1, is only truly fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus; he is the man who is given all authority in heaven and on earth, who has all things put under his feet. So the true seventh, Sabbath day, the day of rest, comes after Jesus has been raised from the dead and entered into his kingdom. i.e. it still lies in the future.

Even in the Old Testament this can be seen, because the idea of ‘rest’ – clearly connected to the Sabbath – is always about a future hope. Israel in the Wilderness looks forward to ‘rest’ in the promised land. And once they are there, it quickly becomes clear that the true day of ‘rest’ still lies in the future. Psalm 95 makes this point, as Hebrews 3:7-4:13 explains.

So to summarise: the Sabbath is about creation (remembering God made us) and redemption (remembering God has saved us, for a glorious future rest). When we rest from our work on the Sabbath day God is reminding us that he made us, and that he has rescued us. These two aspects of the Sabbath are brought out in the two accounts of the ten commandments (Exodus 20:11 & Deuteronomy 5:15). Both these things mean the Sabbath is to be kept holy – a day especially for God, and especially for us to meet with and serve and worship God.

3. Lots of Old Testament commands change in the way they apply in the New Testament. Some lapse completely (e.g. don’t eat shellfish), some are essentially unchanged (e.g. you shall not murder). The difference is in whether the commands are grounded in the unchanging realities of who God is and who we are (traditionally called ‘moral’ laws) or are grounded simply in God’s decision to command them. The latter God can clearly decide to withdraw, and he has done exactly that with many commands which were given for a specific purpose to God’s people during the time between Mount Sinai and Jesus. But moral laws God can never withdraw, because they are grounded in his nature. So Jesus declared all foods clean; but he did not, indeed he could not, say it was now OK to worship other Gods!

Now lots of Christians assume that the Sabbath command no longer applies, just like the command not to eat pork. There are two problems with this.

First, until very recently hardly any Christians thought this, which should always be a red flag for us. We’re unlikely to be the first Christians to get this right, and if we are, the fact that the scales have fallen from our eyes just at the moment in western history when the culture has turned secular and is putting huge social pressure on us not to keep the Sabbath seems to be a bit too much of a coincidence.

Second, and more importantly, it’s very hard to make the case for this from Scripture. It’s true that there are changes in how the Sabbath works in the New Testament (not least the change of day – we’ll come to that), but it can’t be put in the same class as the laws which apply just to Old Testament Israel. This is because

a) it is so explicitly grounded in creation. It’s not something which God introduced for Israel. Given Genesis 2:1-3 and Exodus 20:11, it clearly applies to all of creation.

b) It is in the ten commandments. All the other nine commandments, although they were spoken to Israel at Mount Sinai, already applied to the whole world. When Moses murdered the Egyptian in Exodus 2, it was already wrong, even though it was 40 years earlier. And when Pharoah commanded the murder of baby boys, that was also wrong. So why would the Sabbath be listed here if the same were not true? More than that, it is made quite explicit that the same is true: the Sabbath applies to all of God’s creation, ever since creation, because it is about creation. Just like the goodness of truth and the wrongness of lying, and like the sanctity of human life and the wrongness of murder, it is hard-wired into creation itself. And therefore it cannot simply have evaporated in the New Testament.

c) What’s more, it clearly hasn’t evaporated in the New Testament. Jesus addressed the Sabbath repeatedly, and not once did he declare it over. Rather he refocused people’s attention on what it was for and on himself as the Lord of the Sabbath (which of course can only be true of God himself).

4. So why then has the day changed from the seventh day to the first day of the week? The clue is that it is called ‘the Lord’s Day’ in Revelation 1:10. This is the day that the Lord Jesus was raised from the dead.

The Sabbath was about creation. It was the seventh day because it was pointing forward to the great coming day when all creation would have reached its fulfilment, entered the rest God planned for it. That day arrived on the first Easter Sunday. That is the day when the new creation began. When God’s design for his creation: that it should all be ruled over by the man he has appointed, was first fulfilled. From that day onwards he has been building his kingdom. Of course, it is not yet complete, which is why we are still looking forwards to the true Sabbath rest arriving when Christ returns, and the new creation is completed. But we look forward to it knowing that it is done. Jesus in his death and resurrection from the dead has completed God’s works. It is finished. Now is simply the time of gathering people into his kingdom.

So Sabbath is still about our creation and our redemption. But now, since Jesus’ death and resurrection, it is about not just our first creation, in the image of Adam, but our new creation, in the image of Christ. It is about his finished and certain work to make us perfect and bring us into perfect, eternal worship of God in his new creation. So now the week starts with Sabbath. We rest not at the end of our week’s work, as a pointer to a rest not yet here, but at the beginning, before we begin our week’s work, as a pointer to what Christ has completely accomplished, in which we will certainly share. We work in joyful celebration of what God has already done.

So the Sabbath is not less important for Christians than for Old Testament Israelites, but more! It is the Lord’s day, a day for joyful celebration and particularly for joyful worship of the God who has made us and re-made us in Christ.

Here is the Westminster Confession’s paragraph on understanding the Sabbath:

As it is the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in his Word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment binding all men in all ages, he hath particularly appointed one day in seven, for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto him: which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week; and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week, which, in Scripture, is called the Lord’s day, and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath. (21.7)

Next week I’ll post some pointers on good ways to celebrate the Lord’s day.