We have just completed a series of Lord’s Day evening studies on the Bible’s doctrine of work, or a biblical view of a Christian’s occupation. We made the point that the Christian’s life, by the intention of God, is to be a working life. That intention is enshrined in God’s law. The fourth commandment reads: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work…” But that is not the whole story. The Christian life is a life of work but it is also a life of rest, of holiday, and of feast. This too is the intention of God; this too is enshrined in his law for human life and, in particular, in his law for his people, his children. In the same commandment in which we are commanded to work six days we are commanded to rest the seventh.
The Sabbath is the divinely ordered counterpart to our life of work. So it seemed right to me that we should conclude our series on our working life by looking at what the Bible has to say about our resting life. We’ve talked about why and how we are to work on the six days of the week; now we’ll consider why and how we are to rest on the seventh.
But we cannot begin to consider why and how we ought to observe the Sabbath day until we first consider whether we are obliged to do so. As you know there are a large number of American evangelicals, and a good many of the Reformed type, who argue that keeping one day holy to God, observing a day of rest every week, that sanctifying the Sabbath day was an OT obligation and was annulled in the new epoch introduced by Christ and his apostles. They regard Sabbath keeping by New Testament Christians as a breach of the freedom to which Christ has called us in setting us free from the law or, if they would not go that far, they maintain that Sabbath-keeping – while it remains a NT obligation – has been radically re-shaped in the teaching of the New Testament and is a very different sort of thing than it was for Israel in the age of Moses. This is not a new controversy, of course. It has in various forms been a matter of dispute throughout the life of the church – from ancient times to the present day – and certainly throughout the history of the Reformed church since the 16th century. The controversy about Sabbath sanctification surfaces in the Old Testament, resurfaces in the New Testament, and has continued to do so in every age of church history since.
But it is a particularly acute issue in our own time and even in our own church. This is not because people are fighting about it, for, by and large, they are not. Quite the contrary. The Sabbath is slipping away from the church – has already been lost entirely in some evangelical Protestant churches and is slipping away in others – largely because it has disappeared from the culture and the church is not fighting to preserve it. In our own Presbyterian Church in America you will find many congregations in which the Sabbath is effectively a dead letter. In some cases they will tell you that they don’t believe that Christians are obliged to observe Sunday apart from going to church and in other cases, perhaps in more cases, they will, if asked, pay some lip-service to the obligation of Sabbath-keeping – that is, they are Sabbath-keepers de jure – but de facto they neither teach their people to keep the day holy nor provide an example of doing so. You would be more likely to hear the pastor joke about keeping the sermon short so that they can all get home in time for the football game than hear a sermon about the sanctification of the Lord’s Day. The Lord’s Day, in our circles, by and large is dying the death of the culture’s attack on Sabbath sanctification met by top-down indifference in the church.
Nowadays it is the rare Presbytery examination of a man for ordination in which the man does not take exception to the Shorter Catechism’s definition of Sabbath sanctification, especially its prohibition on recreation. We’ll get to that issue in a later study. But what is concerning is not that exception in itself. I will myself argue that the church is correct in its now widespread opinion that the Westminster divines overstepped the biblical evidence in their definition of Sabbath sanctification. That is, when they defined what it means to keep the Lord’s Day holy they said more than the Bible does. The problem is that this is virtually the only thing one ever hears anymore about the Sabbath day and about the biblical doctrine as it has been understood in our tradition: viz. that the Puritans were too strict. What is not heard and what is rarely said is precisely what the Bible does say we ought to do and what we ought not to do on the Sabbath day, and even more important why we ought to keep the day holy. I don’t want that to be true of you. The Lord’s Day is a major matter in the Bible and in its teaching of the holy life. There is an argument to be made, a doctrine to be believed and an ethic to be followed. The Lord’s Day is fundamental to a biblical understanding of the Christian life and the Christian’s time. And it is very much worth our having all of that clear in our minds and resting upon our hearts and our consciences, just as it is very much worth our having, believing, and following the Bible’s teaching about our working life.
On any understanding of the Bible’s teaching about the Lord’s Day, no one can deny the practical importance of the issue. There are marvelous promises made to those who keep the Sabbath holy.
“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath…if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it…then you will find your joy in the Lord and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.” The mouth of the Lord has spoken. [Isa. 58:13-14]
Surely every Christian wants to ride on the heights of the land! If those promises still apply, must we not take pains to claim them for ourselves? It would be foolish not to. How many times have we found ourselves acting as if so many other things were more important to our happiness and our fruitfulness than those things the Bible says are of first importance! Similarly, there are severe judgments promised to those who profane the Sabbath day.
“But if you do not obey me to keep the Sabbath day holy…then I will kindle an unquenchable fire in the gates of Jerusalem that will consume her fortresses.” [Jer. 17:27]
No believer should take lightly such a warning. But, on the other hand, if the obligation to sanctify the Sabbath day no longer exists, then neither the wonderful promises nor the terrible warnings apply. In such a case the Sabbath is not only no longer a matter of any considerable importance to us as Christians, keeping it may reveal a spirit of legalism in our hearts that is displeasing to God and deadening to real spiritual life. However, if the Sabbath obligation is the same for us as it was for ancient Israel – the conclusion I will argue and seek to demonstrate tonight and next Sunday night – then those promises and those threats most assuredly do apply. And if they apply is it at all hard to believe that in an age such as ours – in which the church is willfully and promiscuously violating this commandment of God’s law – the failure to sanctify the Sabbath on the part of God’s people may be a primary reason for the lack of the Lord’s blessing in the church and for the lack of her influence in the world?
One thing is certain: it is increasingly important for Christians to have clear views of this part of the Bible’s teaching because precious little remains of our culture’s regard for the Sabbath day and of the natural and civil supports for the uniqueness of Sunday as a day of rest that Christians once enjoyed. Oh, Sunday is still the day of the week that more people have off than any other. There is the residue of Sabbath-keeping in our culture. But it is a residue only. People don’t work at their jobs on Sunday, by and large, but that is all that is left of the Christian Sabbath. The American Sunday is not in any meaningful sense “the Lord’s holy day.” If we ought to be Sabbath-keepers, no one is going to fall into Sabbath-keeping by accident any longer. And if we ought not to be Sabbath-keepers any longer, we will not cease to be for the right reason if we follow the world. If we don’t take our views from the Bible, we are going to take them by default from the world, and the Western world – which used to observe the religious uniqueness of Sunday – has almost entirely lost any sense of that uniqueness. But the world hasn’t given up the Lord’s Day because it gave careful study to the Bible’s teaching and wanted to do God’s will. It gave up the Lord’s Day because it found it a burden, as it finds all the law of God a burden. There is no help for a Christian to be found in our culture’s practice and viewpoint.
So it is to the Bible that we must go to answer both questions: whether we ought to keep the Lord’s Day holy and, if so, how?
Tonight and next Sunday night I want to answer that first and the greatest question concerning the Sabbath Day: is the obligation to keep that day holy, is the obligation of the 4th of the Ten Commandments, a part of God’s unchanging moral law for the life of mankind?Are we as the children of God and followers of Christ still bound by the obligation to keep the Lord’s Day holy? Or, we can put the same question in the reverse: is the fourth commandment only a part of the peculiarly Mosaic and Jewish law, a part of that law that pointed to Christ and was abolished by his coming? Is the Sabbath commandment, for example, to be numbered with the laws of clean and unclean foods that were declared null and void by Jesus and his apostles or, if not nullified, were radically re-configured so that they are kept in very different ways in the new epoch? Are we today obliged to keep one day in seven holy to God because that is part of God’s moral law or are we not so required because such Old Testament ceremonies were long ago abolished?
Now, as I said, these questions are not new. They have been discussed and argued over for centuries. In the Reformed church they were the subject of a sustained debate throughout the 17th century. Virtually every argument you will hear today – either pro or con – was advanced in those days. Take another example. One does not now expect to hear new arguments in the debate concerning election between Calvinists and Arminians – we know what the arguments are pro and con – we’ve heard them all before. We know what the Arminians’ texts are and what the Calvinists’ texts are. We know how Arminians argue and how Calvinists argue. I remember that when I was doing my graduate work at the University of Aberdeen, there was another American fellow finishing his dissertation on the election language of the Apostle Paul. His study was an effort to use the new science of linguistics to elucidate an old theological issue. After completing all his work – a dissertation full of technical terminology such as “synchronic” and “diachronic” analysis, “phonemes”, etc. – he wanted to sit down with me and discuss the issue, he being an Arminian and knowing me to be a Calvinist. Within moments the linguistics were forgotten and we were discussing the issue as Arminians and Calvinists always discuss it. The old arguments are the only arguments.
Well, in the same way, one is not likely to hear new arguments on either side of the Sabbath debate. We know the arguments made by each side, we know the rebuttals to those arguments, and we know the sur-rebuttals. And knowing that debate, there is one thing that is safe to say regarding this argument – especially as an argument within Reformed theology – about the perpetual obligation of the Lord’s Day: this question will be answered “yes” or “no” almost entirely in terms of the answers given to two other, separate questions about the Sabbath day.
The ground has been thoroughly worked over by very able and consecrated men and the two central arguments, issues, or debates are these: 1) did the obligation to keep one day in the week holy to God originate in Eden before the Fall as a perpetual ordinance for the life of mankind and 2) is the obligation to keep the Sabbath holy a part of the moral law. In other words, your conviction regarding the perpetual obligation of Sabbath sanctification, of keeping one day in seven holy to God, depends almost entirely upon the answer you give to these two other questions: when did the Sabbath originate as an obligation for man and does the obligation to sanctify the Sabbath day belong to the moral law, that is, that part of God’s law that is binding upon all men at all times? We must too deal with both of these questions but it will require two Sunday evenings to do so. Tonight we’ll have to content ourselves with the first.
- The Sabbath as a Creation Ordinance
The first mention of the Sabbath day comes in Genesis 2:2-3.
“By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.”
Here we learn that the seventh day was sanctified or set apart – that is what is meant that it was made “holy” – from the other six days because God himself had worked for six days and rested on the seventh. When, later, we are told that man was to work six days and rest the seventh, we are taken back to this moment. God’s work and rest was made the pattern for man’s. But all of this takes place in Eden before the Fall. What seems to be said is that this pattern of work and rest for man – hence the sanctifying of the seventh day, that is setting it apart to a holy use – took place at the very headwaters of human life in the world. The Sabbath day as a day set apart to God, for worship, for the rest of the man’s body and soul, is one of those fundamental ordinances or institutions of human life like work, marriage and family that are also introduced to the life of mankind prior to the Fall. Human life, in other words, had there been no sin, would have been a life of six days of work and one of rest, even as it would have been a life of marriage and family. This makes of the Sabbath day and of Sabbath-keeping what theologians call a creation ordinance. And what is so significant about that is that the Sabbath is thus – like work, marriage, and family – a fundamental obligation of human life, a fundamental structure or pattern of human life as God created it and intended it. And if it is that, it becomes very difficult to believe that it would have been abrogated by the coming of Christ. To abrogate the Sabbath would, for some reason, make obsolescent, outdated, and no longer necessary this one alone of the creation ordinances. Christ didn’t abolish work; he didn’t abolish marriage or family. Why then would the Sabbath be abolished? All the more insofar as it is paired with work as a counterpart to it. Are we now to work all seven days? Is there to be no rest for us? Is this the better, higher life to which Christ has brought us in the new epoch?
Just so you know that this is the way the issue has been framed, now for a long time, here is, for example, Wilhemus a Brakel [Redelijke Godsdienst, vol. 2, p. 123], one of the champions of Dutch Puritanism in the 17th and early 18th centuries:
“If the Sabbath were given to Adam before the fall, it belongs thus to the unalterable rule of holiness, as the other commandments of the moral law, and binds all men of all times, and does not belong to the ceremonial law; and is in Christ not fulfilled as a shadow and thus abolished…”
A great many of our authorities have made the same argument. And you have no difficulty seeing their point: put the Sabbath in Eden and it belongs to all men for all time. It is part of man’s creation before it is part of his redemption. It is fundamental to human life, not a later add-on. Now, there are always exceptions. I have learned in my study of Christian thought that one can never say “never!” But generally, nearly universally, the logic of this argument is accepted on all sides. And therefore those who argue that we do not need to keep the Sabbath in the new epoch almost all argue, and must argue, that the Sabbath is not a creation ordinance. But how can they argue that you may ask? Is it not instituted there in Gen. 2 before the Fall? Do we not find it cheek to jowl with work and marriage and family?
Well, not so, the other side argues. Michael Horton is an example of someone known to you who argues against the Sabbath as a creation ordinance. He and they argue this way. A prima facie reading of Gen. 2:3 certainly seems to suggest that the Sabbath day originated in Eden. On its face that is what the text seems to say. But in fact it does not. According to this way of thinking, the statement of Genesis 2:2-3, the statement about God blessing the Sabbath day and making it holy, should be taken as a prolepsis or anticipation of the institution of the Sabbath much later in history. In this interpretation the words do refer to the sanctification of the Sabbath day and the reason for it, but the statement is made there in Gen. 2 as an explanation ahead of time. The day of rest as an obligation of life was not, in fact, revealed until Exodus 16 in connection with the regulations governing the gathering of manna. You have it mentioned in Gen. 2 only to provide an explanation of what would eventually be explained in Exodus 16. We might read Gen. 2:2-3 as saying, “And this was the reason why, later in the wilderness, God ordered his people to keep the Sabbath day holy.”
The defenders of this prolepsis interpretation of the statement about the Sabbath in Gen. 2:2-3 point out that it does not say there that God told Adam not to work on the seventh day. As Michael Horton says, “nothing is said about bringing creatures into the enjoyment of God’s rest until the Fourth Commandment…” [The Law of Perfect Freedom, 114] There is no commandment not to work on the seventh day in Gen. 2 though there is a commandment given to Adam to work and care for the garden. He is told to work, but he is not told to rest. And they added other arguments.
- In several places we read that God gave the Sabbath to Israel (Exod. 16:29; Ezek. 20:12) and that the Sabbath was to be kept as part of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel. In other words, the Sabbath was not created for mankind in general, but only for Israel.
- Before the fall the Sabbath would not have been necessary. Man served the Lord continuously and his work was not a burden from which he had to rest. Let me say here, as an aside, that one of the reasons why I don’t take such arguments seriously – that life without sin should have been a life of continuous work (besides, that is, the fact that the perfect God rested from his work – is that advocates of this view never argue that therefore, in the new epoch Christians should work all seven days and never take a day off. They deny the Sabbath but still want a day off – or two – every week! It is a very cheap deliverance from the Sabbath day these people advocate.
- The heathen did not know a Sabbath day.
- The heathen are not condemned for failing to keep the Sabbath as they are for other sins.
- The patriarchs were unacquainted with the Sabbath and did not observe it.
- If the Sabbath had been instituted in Eden before the fall, then the circumstance of its time – that is, the seventh day of the week – cannot be ceremonial and thus cannot be abrogated but must continue in force. That is, we should still be worshipping on Saturday, not Sunday. With Adam in the state of righteousness hardly anything was ceremonial.
- Moses, in giving reason for the keeping of the Sabbath day in the second giving of the Ten Commandments in Deut. 5, mentions not the creation in six days and God’s resting the seventh, but, instead, God’s deliverance of Israel from bondage in Egypt.
Against these arguments and others to the same effect the defenders of the origin of the Sabbath day and Sabbath-keeping in Eden replied with the following considerations.
- One may conclude that God, in fact, did command Adam to do no work on the Sabbath day because God’s rest was introduced to Adam and his posterity for their imitation, which is confirmed by the fact that in Gen. 2:3 we read that God “hallowed” or “sanctified” the day, which means in biblical parlance that he set it apart for a special use. For what use? Well, for rest. That is what Sabbath means! The Hebrew word means rest. But that use is man’s use, not God’s use. Things are sanctified for man to use in his service of God, they are not sanctified for God to use. When God sanctifies something, it is for man to use. In other words, in the compressed narrative of Genesis 2 all that needed to be said to indicate that the Sabbath day was to be not only a rest for God but a day of rest for man is said when it is said that God “blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” No Israelite reader of that text would understand it in any other way. As one Reformed father put it: to sanctify the day is to order it to be sanctified [Sunius in Shepard, Theses Sabbaticae, 158]
- It is incorrect to say that, because it is said that God gave the Sabbath to Israel, therefore it was not given to mankind in Eden. In Ezekiel 20:11-12, for example, where God says explicitly that he “gave them my Sabbaths” it also says that “I gave them my decrees and made known to them my laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them.” That is, it appears that God gave all his laws to Israel, even those that already belonged to the law of nature and the revealed will of God. It is not only the 4th commandment that God gave to Israel; he gave all ten to her! There is undoubtedly a sense in which God gives his laws to his people in a special way that he has also given to mankind in general. He gave the Ten Commandments to Israel, but that hardly means that she was the only nation obliged not to murder, lie, and commit adultery.
- There was certainly need for a Sabbath in Eden for even then man had to serve God with rites of worship and had need for and was capable of enjoying special occasions of communion with God. The Sabbath, as the other creation patterns for human life, has to do with the very nature of human life as God created it and not merely with its condition in sin. But the whole Bible teaches us that human beings would have worshipped God and found joy in assemblies for such worship had there never been a Fall, just as we see such worship going on now in heaven, as in the book of Revelation. Everything in the narrative of Holy Scripture suggests that had there never been a Fall, there would still have been holidays in the kingdom of God and those holidays would have been for the purpose of communion with God in the company of his people, good works of various kinds, and joyful feasts: all the things the Sabbath is said to be for in Holy Scripture. This anticipates an argument we will make later about precisely what the Sabbath is for, but it is worth saying now that “resting” from the labor of work is not the primary sense of the “rest” of the Sabbath day. One sleeps at night to recover from the exertions of the day. The Sabbath rest is rest of another, a deeper kind. And that rest would have been given men had they continued to enjoy perfect satisfaction in their work and never found it wearying and laborious. And the proof of that is precisely and obviously that God rested from his work and his rest plainly had nothing to do with him being exhausted or his labor being toilsome. This was rest of an entirely positive kind, rest that even the omnipotent and the perfect wants and will enjoy. To deny this, as Michael Horton does, is, in my mind, to mistake something very basic about worship and the Christian life.
- There is evidence that both the heathen and the patriarchs did know the Sabbath though in the heathens’ case, as is to be expected, in a corrupted form. I could take time to marshal the considerable evidence in detail but I won’t bore you with all of that. Simply think of the weeks that Noah observed as he waited for the waters to recede after the flood or to the reference to Leah’s “bridal week” in Gen. 29:27. There are quite a number of such references in the patriarchal period, that is, before Moses and before the specific mention of Sabbath-keeping in Exodus 16. It is true that keeping the Sabbath is not mentioned in Genesis, but, then, it isn’t mentioned between Deuteronomy and 2 Kings. But, for that matter, circumcision is not mentioned in the narrative books of the OT after Joshua. The fact that something is not mentioned does not necessarily mean very much. What is more there is evidence of the division of the month into four seven day periods in ancient Babylon. Such a seven day week is interesting because there is no astronomical reason for a week of seven days. Seven doesn’t evenly divide the month based on either the lunar or the solar calendar. [Cf. R.T. Beckwith and W. Stott, The Christian Sunday, 3-5]
- There were ceremonial features of the life of man in Eden; the sacramental trees being one of them, which were later altered. Reading Gen. 2:2-3 by itself we certainly don’t expect that there will be millennia later a change of the day of rest from the seventh to the first day of the week; but then we don’t expect any of the remarkable things that are yet to come. This is an argument from silence that is of little importance in my view. As we will see later, there are other reasons beside creation for keeping the Lord’s Day holy and those reasons have to do with redemption. So, it is not impossible to think that the day of the week would change even as the obligation of keeping the Lord’s Day holy would remain the same.
- The nations are not condemned for failing to keep the Sabbath day, but, then, there are a great many of their sins for which there is no biblical record of the Lord’s condemnation. They aren’t, for example, condemned for working too much or too little.
- When the instructions for gathering manna are given in Exodus 16 and explicit mention is made for the first time in the Bible of keeping the day of rest, it is not obvious that Israel is being told, for the very first time, that she will work six days and rest the seventh. It seems rather to be accommodating the genuinely new thing – manna gathering – to the established law (keeping the Sabbath rest). [Much of the above take from Hugo Visser, De Geschiedenis van den Sabbbatsstrijd onder de Gereformeerden in de zeventiende Eeuw.]
All of the arguments for the prolepsis view of Gen. 2:2-3, that is, that the Sabbath was not instituted in Eden as a creation ordinance and was not, in fact, instituted until the wilderness and the gathering of the manna, have convincing answers. But, what is more important is that the prolepsis interpretation is in itself so implausible. There is nothing else in the creation narrative that we take to be a prolepsis. All the other arrangements are regarded as establishing patterns or creating structures for human life. When God brings Eve to Adam the narrator goes right on to say, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife…” That is, this first marriage is the pattern or archetype for all marriages. And that seems to be precisely what is said about God blessing the Sabbath day and making it holy. There is something happening there that has implications for the human life that follows.
The prolepsis interpretation can be given a clever spin by able scholars, but I offer my own opinion that it is an interpretation that no one should take unless absolutely driven to it. Indeed, it seems to me that the men who contrived this interpretation did so precisely because they were driven to it. Their championing of this somewhat desperate exegesis was their own admission that if one admits that the Sabbath is a creation ordinance, if it belongs with work, marriage and family as a fundamental structure of human life, one must then accept that Sabbath-keeping as defined in the fourth commandment is a permanent and universal obligation. The prolepsis interpretation, in my view, violates the natural sense of Gen. 2:2-3. A simple reading of the text does not suggest such an interpretation. What is more, it requires that the obligation of the Sabbath day, a matter of such immense importance in the covenant, was revealed by the way in the rules governing the gathering of manna as they are given in Exodus 16. That is made still more unlikely, as we will see next time, insofar as Sabbath-keeping is then made a part of the Ten Commandments, the Bible’s great summation of the moral law, God’s moral standard for the life of mankind. What is more, in the 4th commandment, the reason for Sabbath-keeping is found in its imitation of God’s working and resting in creation. Men should do rest from work because God rested from his, establishing thereby a pattern for human life. But, if so, that did not begin to be true only in the wilderness in Exodus 16. After all, in Gen. 2:2-3 we are told that the Lord rested the seventh day. Had he intended only rest for himself, we would have expected simply to hear that he rested. But he rested the seventh day and hallowed that day. The natural implication of both the institution and its repetition in the fourth commandment certainly seems to be that the imitation of God’s working six days and resting a seventh is universally binding in all times and upon all people. It seems to me wholly congenial to the Bible’s whole teaching of human life that God should have established already in Eden a rhythm of work and rest for the life of mankind. He is the God both of fruitful work and of holidays!
I don’t want to tire you with many arguments, but this question of the Sabbath’s origin is key to the entire debate and I wanted you to know how essential it is for the modern evangelical indifference to the Sabbath day to get the Sabbath out of Genesis 2 and I wanted you to know how hard it is to do that in faithfulness to the Bible. So the Sabbath was instituted in Eden before the Fall and so Sabbath-keeping was, like work, marriage, and family, a pattern laid down for the life of mankind by its creator at its creation.
Now, as I conclude, I want you to think about the Sabbath as a pattern for human lifeakin to marriage and family. I want you to think about what it means for the Sabbath day to be something woven into the very fabric of human life – not just church life! – and made part of the fundamental morality of human life. This rhythm of work and rest, patterned on God’s example in creation is for all time and for all human beings. Do we think of marriage as a burden we would be better off without? We do not! Do we think of family as a burden to bear that we would be glad to hear Christ had delivered us from? We do not. These things are wonderful and make life wonderful. It is when they are corrupted that human life becomes so heavy and so hard. Well so with the Sabbath day. It was made for us, says Jesus, for our welfare and our happiness, just as marriage was! This weekly holiday is fitted to our moral and spiritual nature as creatures made in the image of God and placed in the world to live for and love him. The Sabbath is a gift, a great gift. When we lose it, we lose something very precious and very important. When people think that the Sabbath is something we would be better off without, it is clear they have profoundly misunderstood the Sabbath as the Bible teaches us to keep it.
But, made fundamental to life in this way, no wonder the Lord’s Day should be under attack. Satan will try to ruin our Sabbath-keeping – or destroy it altogether – just as he works to undermine marriage and family and to corrupt our life of work.
We have only made a beginning. There is much more to say.