Studies in the Sabbath No. 2


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I am very grateful for our evening service! Without it there would be so many things we could not do in our study together of the Word of God. We certainly would not give successive Sundays to a careful study of the obligation of Sabbath-keeping if we had but one Sunday sermon per week. And, yet, it takes a number of studies to do justice to a subject as controversial and, in some ways, as difficult as that of the Christian Sabbath. Jonathan Edwards has a single sermon on the Sabbath in his published Works but he preached it over three Sundays!

We began this series last time by admitting that in our historical moment in American Reformed evangelical Christianity one can no longer simply plunge into talking about how to keep the Lord’s Day holy. One must first ask if we are really obliged to do so. So, at the outset of our series, we are making the argument that the Lord’s Day is, in fact, a perpetual obligation for Christians. And we said that there are two principal arguments in support of that conclusion. The first, which we considered last time, is that the Sabbath Day, the day of rest, was established for mankind in Eden before the Fall as one of the fundamental structures or patterns of human life as God created it. It can no more be removed from human life than can work, marriage, and family. It is, like those other three institutions, a creation ordinance. One proof of these things being divine ordinances for human life is the misery that eventuates when they are neglected, forsaken, denied, or corrupted. Human life does not get better – and will not in our time – for the want of work, marriage, and family. Another proof of these ordinances – including the Sabbath day – being divinely ordered patterns for human life is the fact that when man refuses to observe these ordinances he always replaces them with something like them, only worse. He cannot escape his nature as God made it. If he won’t marry, he will live together with a woman in a marriage-like relationship; if he won’t honor God’s design for the family he will, nevertheless, be bound by relationships of blood that he cannot entirely or even willingly escape. For all the assault on marriage and family in our culture, for example, the aim of the unbelieving culture is not to escape marriage but to redefine it. It is rebellion within the limits of man’s nature.

In the same way, the Lord’s Day, the Sabbath day, may be forsaken in our world, but no one is arguing against holidays, even against a holiday every week. There is the universal recognition that there would be something wrong about always working and never resting, even if man no longer wishes to find that rest in the way God has ordered it to be found.

As an aside, let me make a point about nomenclature. I will make this point again later in the series, but it is worth mentioning early on that the two terms – “Lord’s Day” and “Sabbath” – are synonyms. The term “Lord’s Day,” found in Revelation 1 for the Christian Sunday, is simply another biblical term for the Sabbath day, carried over from the Old Testament and applied to the new Christian Sabbath observed not on Saturday but on Sunday. You can call the day we are talking about the Lord’s Day or the Sabbath Day or the Christian Sabbath. They are simply different terms for the same day and the same thing. Sometimes people forget this. They forget that in the Old Testament the Sabbath was also called “The Lord’s Day,” as, for example, in Isaiah 58:13:

“If you call the Sabbath a delight, and the Lord’s holy day honorable…”

Now, on to our second great argument for the perpetual obligation of the Lord’s Day, namely that this obligation is part of the moral law, God’s will for the life of mankind published in the Ten Commandments.

The commandment to keep the Lord’s Day holy is found as the fourth of the ten commandments, the Ten Words that summarize the will of God for mankind and, all the more, for his people. Think of those commandments: You shall have no other gods but the living and true God; you shall honor your father and mother; you shall not murder, commit adultery, steal, or lie. Which other of these commandments do we imagine is not a perpetual obligation for all human beings? That is the first fact to consider: we understand the Ten Commandments to be a summary of human ethical obligation? Why would only one part of that summary no longer apply? What is more, the 4th commandment requires not only a resting on the seventh day, but working the other six. Surely everyone thinks that human beings ought to work. So the question becomes: on what principle and according to what instruction are we to drop out of the Ten Commandments only one part of only one of the Ten Commandments? And still more, why would we now look to the government to preserve our weekly holiday—for we don’t intend to give that up whatever we say about the 4th commandment in the new epoch—instead of to God who gave it to us in the first place!

These Ten Commandments are the law, after all, of which Jesus was speaking when he said in his Sermon on the Mount that not one jot or tittle would fall from the law until all was fulfilled. This is the law of which Paul was speaking when he said that, far from nullifying the law, his doctrine of justification by faith establishes the law. This is the law of which the Apostle spoke when he said that circumcision was nothing and uncircumcision nothing, what mattered was keeping God’s commandments. This was the law that Jesus himself carefully kept, even while pronouncing Jewish ceremonies null and void or soon to be abolished.

Bill McColley, Dawn Darby’s father, a son of this congregation in its early years and later an able and learned minister in this Presbytery, once preached a sermon to his congregation in Calgary recanting a previous sermon he had preached. In the first sermon, early on in his ministry, he had argued that the Sabbath obligation had been abrogated and no longer applied to Christians today. In the second sermon he confessed that he had been wrong about that and that he believed the Lord’s Day, as taught in the 4th of the Ten Commandments, was a perpetual obligation. And he said that it was A.B. Bruce’s treatment of this issue in his great book The Training of the Twelve that convinced him that he had made a mistake. In his book on the Lord’s teaching in the Gospels Bruce takes up the Lord’s example of Sabbath-keeping, his teaching his disciples about the Sabbath day, and, especially, his protest against the misunderstanding of the commandment abroad in the church of his day. Listen to the passage that changed Bill McColley’s mind. [88-89]

“The key to all Christ’s teaching on the Sabbath…lies in His conception of the original design of that divine institution. This conception we find expressed with epigrammatic point and conciseness, in contrast to the pharisaic idea of the Sabbath, in words uttered by Jesus on the occasion when He was defending his disciples. “The Sabbath,” said He, “was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” In other words, his doctrine was this: The Sabbath was meant to be a boon to man, not a burden; it was not a day taken from man by God in an exacting spirit, but a day given by God in mercy to man – God’s holiday to his subjects; all legislation enforcing its observance having for its end to ensure that all should really get the benefit of the boon – that no man should rob himself, and still less his fellow-creatures, of the gracious boon.

This difference between Christ’s mode of regarding of the Sabbath and the pharisaic involves of necessity a corresponding difference in the spirit and the details of its observance. Take Christ’s view, and your principle becomes: That is the best way of observing the Sabbath which is most conducive to man’s physical and spiritual well-being – in other words, which is best for his body and for his soul; and in the light of this principle, you will keep the holy day in a spirit of intelligent joy and thankfulness to God the Creator for his gracious consideration towards his creatures. Take the pharisaic view, and your principle of observance becomes: He best keeps the Sabbath who goes greatest lengths in mere abstinence from anything that can be construed into labour, irrespective of the effect of this abstinence either on his own well-being or on that of others. In short, we land in the silly, senseless minuteness of a rabbinical legislation, which sees in such an act as that of the disciples plucking and rubbing the ears of corn, or that of the healed man who carried his bed home on his shoulders, or that of one who should walk a greater distance than two thousand cubits, or three fourths of a mile, on a Sabbath, a heinous offence against the fourth commandment and its author.”

So far A.B. Bruce. Now that very helpful and insightful account of the Lord’s view of the Sabbath as made for man and not man for the Sabbath, that very positive view of what it means to keep and to observe the Sabbath, we will return to in a later study. It has much to teach us about how to keep the Lord’s Day holy and how not to keep it. But, for now, it is important merely to point out that on this construction of Sabbath-keeping, which is surely right, which is surely faithful to the Bible, it becomes well nigh impossible to imagine that this should have been removed from the Ten Commandments. The Sabbath was made for man, that is, it was not made only for the Jew, and the Sabbath was made for man’s blessing, not to be his burden. But, if that is so, why would the Lord of the Sabbath – for that is what Jesus calls himself on that occasion in Mark 4 – take the Sabbath from us? Why would he remove a blessing from his people? For, take away the 4th commandment and we are saying that the Lord has taken away from his people a great gift he gave to them. Then we would be saying that we have less not more than God’s people had in the ancient epoch; less not more because Christ has come.

After all, remember that of this law that God had given his people the Psalmist said,

“He has revealed his word to Jacob, his laws and decrees to Israel.
He has done this for no other nation; they do not know his laws.
Praise the Lord.” [147:19-20]

This is the law that the writer of another psalm says that he loves; this is the law of which the OT teaches time and time again that if Yahweh’s people live by it they will prosper. We would never say that we would be better off today if adultery were permissible, or lying, or murder, or disrespect toward parents. We would not think it a better thing if people did not work hard at their callings. We do not think it an improvement when the air is filled with profanity. How then does anyone conclude that we would be better off or that it would represent a great step forward to have this wonderful holiday taken from us, this thing that God gave us and designed for our welfare and happiness?

To anyone who is familiar with the Bible and the place of God’s law in the Bible, it should not have to be said that the notion that one of the Ten Commandments should fall out of the law, should be cancelled or nullified, should cease to be an obligation, without a single word to that effect in the New Testament, is simply preposterous. So it is not surprising that the force of this logic and argument has long been seen. It is this logic and this argument about the law of God that explains the sort of explanations that non-Sabbatarians – that is, people who deny the perpetual obligation of the Lord’s Day – tend to offer for their view of the Lord’s Day and the Fourth Commandment in the new epoch established by Christ and his apostles. There are comparatively few who argue that the fourth commandment simply disappeared and has no relevance for us today. That is a view of one of the Ten Commandments so unlikely that hardly anyone proposes it. Instead the argument is made that the 4th commandment still binds us, but only in a lesser way – requiring, for example, only going to church on Sunday – or that it means, in the new epoch, resting in Christ’s righteousness rather than our own. That is, the 4th commandment has become a kind of gospel commandment.

But this is sheer desperation and contrivance. Where does the Bible ever say or suggest anything like this? The fourth commandment requires, very explicitly, six days of work and one of rest. That is the commandment. It either applies or it doesn’t. The New Testament never teaches that the Sabbath now means only going to church and it certainly never says that it means resting in Christ for our justification. Fact is, regarding rest in Christ, as we learn in Hebrews 4, the Old Testament saint did just as much as we must do today. There is no change to be found there.

So where does this idea come from: that the Sabbath has passed away, at least in some form and some way? Well it comes from three statements in the New Testament, two in Paul and one in Hebrews. I want to look briefly at each of those three texts.

  1. Romans 14:1-6


In a discussion of weak and strong Christians and of the problems posed by an over-scrupulous conscience on the part of some weak Christians, and having first introduced the issue of eating meat or eating only vegetables, Paul writes,

“One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.”

The word “Sabbath” does not appear here and may not even be in view. The precise question at issue is debated but perhaps the most likely conclusion and the easiest to defend is that the differences of opinion Paul is speaking of here concerned Jewish ceremonial regulations. The issue here is not the principle of legalism that Paul combated in Galatians: with that principle and that spirit Paul would not compromise. Rather what Paul refers to here is observance of Jewish ceremonies by those for whom it was a matter of conscience, no doubt Jewish Christians. In any case, Paul is referring here, in all likelihood, to Jewish ceremonial days which some thought they should continue to observe and other Christians – no doubt especially Gentile Christians – did not feel they had to. There was never a controversy about Sunday, only about Saturday; Sunday was never an offense, only Saturday. Paul is talking about a difference of opinion; that concerned Saturday, not Sunday. Perhaps included among those days – though Paul does not say so – is the Saturday Sabbath, the particularly Jewish form of the Lord’s Day. And, in all likelihood, the Gentiles were getting put out with the Jews who wanted to observe these days.

The relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians is a major issue in Romans so it is not surprising that practical issues relating to that subject should surface in the ethical section of the letter. Indeed, this section that begins in Romans 14:1 concerning weak and strong Christians concludes with an explicit commandment for Jews and Gentiles alike to practice unity in the church (15:5-13).

Now what does this, then, have to do with the nullification of the Sabbath day? We’ve already said that the obligation to keep the Sabbath holy is not a ceremony but part of the moral law that God laid down for the life of all mankind. Much more would have to be said here to give us leave to conclude that Paul was abolishing one of the Ten Commandments! Given what he has already said, earlier in the letter, to the praise of God’s law, we may presume one thing he never imagined was that anyone would have thought he was abrogating one of the Ten Commandments! He was reminding the strong Christians to bear with the consciences of the weak who still felt it necessary to observe the Jewish ceremonial days (the feast days, the new moons, and, perhaps, the Saturday Sabbath) and were offended when the Gentile Christians showed no interest in doing so and urging the Gentile Christians to be cheerful in bearing with the consciences of their Jewish brethren

  1. Colossians 2:16-19


In Colossians 2:16-18, in combating false ideas that had surfaced in the Colossian church – a mixture of Jewish legalism and asceticism with pagan philosophy – Paul says,

“…do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize.”

Several things are worth taking note of at once. First “a” Sabbath day is listed together with religious festivals and New Moons, that is, with days connected with Jewish ceremonial rituals. That has led to the not improbable assumption that the Sabbath day in view is not the weekly Sabbath but the other ritual days of the Jewish liturgical calendar that were also called “Sabbaths.” For example, in Lev. 23:32 the Day of Atonement is called a Sabbath and in v. 24 the Feast of Trumpets, because they were, like the other feasts, a day of rest from work. It is an argument about Jewish rituals and Jewish forms of piety being imposed upon the new church and it is in that context that the Apostle tells the Christians in Colosse not to let anyone judge them about their observance of any of these ritual sabbath days. In such a case, there would be nothing here about the weekly Sabbath.

It is quite possible, however – I would think it likely – that the weekly Sabbath is also in view here. But, of course, the Sabbath as the Jews insisted on its celebration, that is, on Saturday, not Sunday. It is the Jewish Sabbath that is the issue, as the context makes absolutely clear: the Jewish Sabbath as the Jewish religious festivals and the Jews’ New Moon celebrations. It is precisely the unwillingness of Jewish Christians in the apostolic era to let go of their religious culture that proved such a controversy in those early years. They did not seem to mind the celebration of Sunday, but they were unwilling to let go of Saturday and of the Sabbath as they had come to practice it as Jews.

Fact is, circumcision and Sabbath were the two pillars of Jewish piety in the first century and it is perfectly obvious that, just as giving up circumcision – and allowing the church to be flooded with Gentile converts who were not circumcised seemed to many Jewish Christians to be giving up circumcision – became a bitter controversy, giving up the Sabbath would have as well. This is, after all, the issue of apostolic Christianity: how to make the transition from an all-Jewish church to a church in which Jews were an increasingly small minority in a sea of Gentiles. It would be passing strange if this problem didn’t surface with regard to the Sabbath day, as it surfaced with regard to circumcision, food laws, festivals, and other aspects of Jewish piety. But, of course, circumcision wasn’t abolished, it was reformed and reconfigured in baptism and the Sabbath as celebrated by the Jews wasn’t abolished either, it was given a new form by being observed on the first day of the week.

The fact is, we know from church history that Jewish Christians and even some Gentile Christians continued to celebrate the Saturday Sabbath even as they celebrated Sunday and that was allowed in the church until much later when the Council of Laodicea (A.D. 364) declared observing Saturday – even together with Sunday – as “judaizing.” [Cf. NPNF, xiv, 133, 148-149] Once the Sunday Lord’s Day was introduced, it became a pressing question as to what would happen to the Saturday Lord’s Day. That it became a controversial question is unmistakable and entirely predictable.

But, the fact is, apart from Seventh Day Adventists, a few Seventh Day Baptists, and some groups of Messianic Jews, no one disputes that the Saturday Lord’s Day was no longer a necessary observance for Christians – Jews or Gentiles – once the Sunday Lord’s Day began to be observed. It was acceptable to observe it, but not necessary. That would never have been enough for some Jewish Christians, hence the controversies. In any case, in context, the statement of Paul in Colossians 2 furnishes no evidence that the church is not to observe the Lord’s Day.

Indeed, with respect to both Romans 14 and Colossians 2, one absolutely fatal argument against the view that these statements amount to a nullification of the Lord’s Day as a day of perpetual obligation for Christians is the fact that, taken that way, the statements would prove too much. Taken that way, there would be no distinction of days remaining, but we know there is such a thing as the Lord’s Day, for it is mentioned in the New Testament! We cannot take Rom. 14 and Col. 2 to mean the end of the Lord’s Day because the New Testament bears its own witness to the fact that there was such a thing as the Lord’s Day in apostolic Christianity. John mentions it in Rev. 1:10.

  1. The last of the three texts we are considering tonight is Hebrews 4:1-11.

We considered this text in greater detail not so long ago in our evening series of sermons on the letter to the Hebrews. We can be brief here because the idea that this text has something to do with the abrogation of the weekly Sabbath day is now generally denied.

In the past some Reformed theologians (e.g. the influential Nadere Reformatie theologian Johannes Cocceius) taught that Hebrews 4 taught that the Sabbath of the New Testament Christian was his rest in Christ for salvation.

In largest part, the argument rested on the present tense in v. 3:

“Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God said…”

The idea was that when you become a Christian you enter the rest which, later in v. 9, is called a Sabbath rest. So Christians, by believing in Christ, have entered the rest of the Sabbath. That was taken to mean that the Sabbath in the OT was a sign of the rest that Christians would enter by faith in Christ. Christ brought the rest of which the Sabbath was the sign. What was anticipation in the OT is fulfillment in the NT and the Sabbath is, therefore, one of those shadows of the ceremonial law that is now fulfilled in Christ.

But, these considerations reveal that interpretation to be incorrect.

  1. First, and foremost, the rest or Sabbath rest of which we read in Hebrews 4 is the rest of heaven which Christians have not yet entered while in this world. That is the issue throughout the letter to the Hebrews – who will finally get to heaven – and it is the issue here as well. That point is made clearly in v. 11 when the author urges upon his Christian readers perseverance in the faith so that they will not fail to enter the rest. That is, they haven’t entered it yet and won’t unless they persevere. Elsewhere in the New Testament heaven is described as rest. For example, we read in Rev. 14:13 of those who die in the Lord, “they will rest from the labor, for their deeds will follow them.”
  2. Second, the present tense in v. 3 is like other such statements in the New Testament that enunciate a principle of salvation that are in the present tense. It is like Acts 14:22 where we read, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God…” Here we are talking about how we get into heaven, just as in Hebrews 4:3. It is in the present tense but it manifestly does not mean that they are already in heaven. They must endure trials to get there. And here, they must believe and continue to believe in order to get there. Israel failed to enter in God’s rest – both the Promised Land and heaven itself – because she did not persevere in faith. We must not make the same mistake or we’ll suffer the same horrific consequence.
  3. The word translated Sabbath rest in v. 9, which is not the ordinary word for Sabbath but is like it, occurs for the first time in this text so far as anyone knows. If the author of this letter coined the term he obviously is connecting the weekly Sabbath with the rest of heaven. It is true; the Sabbath is a sign of things to come, a weekly anticipation of heaven. The Sabbath does have eschatological significance, but it has that for us as well as it did for believers in the ancient epoch. As Hebrews makes a point of saying, our situation, spiritually considered, is the same as Israel’s in the wilderness not different, and we must make a pilgrimage to the Promised Land just as she had to. “Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it.” [v. 1] The Sabbath points to a fulfillment that is future for us as it was future for Israel.
  4. That being so, there is no argument here for the doing away with the Sabbath day. Quite the contrary. The argument of Hebrews 4 is that the Sabbath, as a day for anticipating heaven, is as necessary and helpful for us as it was for the people of God in the ancient epoch.

All of that to make this simple point. None of the texts often alleged to teach that the OT Sabbath, the fourth commandment has been set aside, do in fact teach any such thing. Some are talking about something else entirely and others are addressing the pressing issue of apostolic Christianity, how to make the transition in apostolic Christianity from Jewish piety to a largely Gentile one. What the New Testament has to say about the Sabbath fits either into that issue or confirms the sanctity of the Lord’s Day we were already taught in the OT.

There is certainly nothing to suggest that a creation ordinance and one of the Ten Commandments has been set aside, nullified, or radically reconfigured. But, there is one great change, from Saturday to Sunday, and we will talk about that next time.

Tonight we end where we began: with these two arguments, these solid and immovable pillars that have always ensured and will always ensure that the holiness of the Lord’s Day remains in the church even in very worldly ages. And what are they: that the keeping of one day in seven holy to God belongs to the life of mankind as God created it and belongs, accordingly, to the moral law as summarized in the Ten Commandments.
I realize that this has been a long lecture – and less a sermon – but there is little point talking about how to keep the Lord’s Day holy and get the blessing of it for ourselves and our children, if we aren’t clear that there is a blessing to get and that we are obliged to sanctify the day. All the more with so many telling us, in word or by deed, that there is no blessing and no obligation. So let’s think carefully and hard about the Sabbath day and then we’ll be not only ready to ask what Sabbath sanctification amounts to but be motivated to practice it with all our might!