The Abiding Obligation to Keep the Sabbath
The institution of the Sabbath has fallen on hard times in our days, in the post-Christian culture of the West. Over the last generation its observance has plummeted and respect for it has declined. This is not only true of our culture at large, and of evangelical churches in general, but even of Reformed and Presbyterian denominations. The latter give lip service to the Westminster standards but the Westminster doctrine of the Sabbath is far from their hearts and minds. Sabbath keeping is in a sad state of affairs today. Many evangelical churches, holding to dispensational theology, do not even give lip service to the doctrine of the Sabbath, but openly deny the abiding obligation of the fourth commandment.
Contrast today’s obliteration of the Sabbath with the situation just a generation ago. Today the malls are packed, and stores, supermarkets, service stations, etc., in general are open on the Lord’s Day. Professional sports are featured on Sundays and take up much of the time for large segments of the population. Political dialogue, featuring key political leaders, is almost exclusively carried out in the Sunday morning talk shows, and politicians who posture as Christians see no conflict in any of this. A generation ago the landscape was totally different. Stores were almost universally closed. So were service stations. In larger towns, at the request of the police department, one service station would remain open each Sunday to provide gasoline for travelers. This obligation was rotated among the town’s service station so that each one could be closed for most Sundays. Professional sports did not play on the Lord’s day and were forbidden by law to do so. I remember one situation when I was growing up involving the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey club. They were in the playoffs for the Stanley Cup and during the playoffs if the score was tied they continued to play until one team scored. One night the overtime stretched out and the game was not decided until shortly before midnight. The police chief of the city of Toronto was asked what he would do if a game went on until after midnight on a Saturday night. He didn’t fudge an answer. He didn’t flinch. He replied that he would enforce the law, the Lord’s Day Act, and that his officers would step on the ice and stop play at midnight. That is almost unimaginable today. People were used to that. They did their shopping, tanked up their autos, and prepared for the Lord’s Day on Saturday. I grew up in the Christian Reformed Church which at that time at least practiced strict Sabbath observance. It was drilled into us that we were not to work or to buy anything on Sundays. Even if some stores had been open, and they weren’t, we could not have bought anything for we would have been disciplined by our parents, and adults by the elders of the church if it was known that they were shopping on the Lord’s Day. We went to church twice every Sunday and in the afternoon we were allowed to go out for walks and play, but only with other children from the church. We were not allowed to spend time with children of unbelievers who did not keep the Sabbath. I remember one situation when I was a young teenager. I was out on a Sunday afternoon for a walk with a couple of boys my age from the church. As we passed a service station, which was closed of course, one of the boys noticed a Coke machine just outside its front door. It was a hot summer day and he went up to the machine, put in a dime, and bought a coke. I was shocked. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe what he was doing. I honestly expected that the Lord would be so displeased with him that lightning might come out of heaven and strike him down. This was only a harbinger of things to come for this young man. He later became a frequent adulterer, his marriage broke up, and the last I have heard of him he was a crack/cocaine addict living on park benches. Smaller sins lead to larger sins. Breaking one commandment leads to breaking another. Contempt for one part of God’s law cannot be isolated from growing contempt for other parts of God’s law. Our society, and even our churches have come a long way since then. Today it is not uncommon, even in Reformed and Presbyterian denominations to have church members do some shopping after church or go to a restaurant to eat. The Sabbath never seems to figure into their calculations.
The Sabbath is a creation ordinance. It didn’t start with Moses and it didn’t end with the coming of Christ. This can be established on two counts. First of all we see the rationale that the Lord gave for the fourth commandment when he gave his laws to Moses at Mount Sinai. He said… Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work…For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it. Exodus 20:8-11 Man was created in the image of God. We are to be godly and God-like. We are to think God’s thoughts after him and to walk in his ways. And here God commands us to follow his pattern of laboring for six days and then resting on the seventh. This pattern is rooted in the precedent of the original creation and is thus an abiding ordinance. We see this creation ordinance as being observed by man from the very beginning. Moses records for us of Cain and Abel, “And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD.” (Genesis 4:3) The phrase in process of time literally means at the end of days in the Hebrew. This is widely regarded as referring to the last day, the seventh day of the week. If so, then that would establish that Cain and Abel were bringing their sacrifices to God on the seventh day of the week, on the weekly Sabbath. It would establish a pattern of Sabbath observance going back to very beginning of mankind. We see further evidence of this in the life of Noah. Again as Moses records it, “Also he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground; But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him into the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth: then he put forth his hand, and took her, and pulled her in unto him into the ark. And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark; And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf plucked off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth. And he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove; which returned not again unto him any more.” (Genesis 8:8-12) Noah is clearly observing a weekly pattern and it may well be that he was observing the Sabbath, and with prayer and worship sent forth the doves seeking a sign from the Lord that it was safe to leave the ark. It is interesting to note that the week, a period of seven days, is almost universally observed by mankind, by all races and nations of peoples. It has to have been observed from the very earliest antiquity to be held as such a universal custom. Most other divisions of time are set by the pattern of the heavens. A year is a cycle of the earth as it orbits the sun. A month corresponds to the cycles of the moon as it orbits the earth, and there is evidence that at one time we had a 360 day year composed of twelve 30 day months. By contrast, the week is arbitrary. Why this universal observance of a seven day week? This is a powerful argument that the week and its weekly Sabbath was a creation ordinance instituted by God from the very beginning. The anti-Christian radicals of the French revolution must have realized this. For in their hatred of Christianity they sought to eliminate the weekly Sabbath. And their means for doing so was to abolish the seven day week and institute a ten day cycle of days in its stead. So the institution of the Sabbath appears to have been established from the beginning. It was incorporated into the Mosaic legislation as an existing institution. And that is why the reason for its observance could be stated as being related to the creation order. After all, if God wanted us to emulate his example in the creation it would seem somewhat strange that he waited about 2500 years before he communicated that to Moses. It is interesting to note that only the Sabbath requirement, the fourth commandment, of all the commandments of the Decalogue, is argued as being unique to Moses. No one argues that it was perfectly fine to steal, and murder and commit adultery before God gave his laws to Moses. Neither do men argue that it was fine to have other gods, to worship idols, and to commit blasphemy before the Decalogue was handed down from the heights of Mount Sinai. The fact is that the fourth commandment, with its requirement to keep the Sabbath holy, is, like the rest of the Decalogue, part of God’s abiding moral law that men have always been under ever since Adam, and will be until the end of the age. The Sabbath as an institution has been with us since the beginning. As a creation ordinance it has been with us ever since God created the world and put man upon it. It has gone through three phases, but the essence of the institution has been preserved through the ages. The first phase, as has already been mentioned was from Adam to Moses, where the Sabbath was especially remembered in connection with God’s resting after the six days of creation. This is clear from Exodus 20:11. Th second phase was from Moses to Christ. Although it continue the pattern of the creation rest an additional reason was assigned for its observance. The children of Israel left Egypt to go into the wilderness and worship their God on a Sabbath. So the Sabbath now also commemorated their rest from the unending slavery in Egypt. This is clear from the second giving of the Decalogue, towards the end of Moses’ life when the children of Israel were on the plains of Moab preparing to enter the land of promise. Keep the sabbath day to sanctify it, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee. 13Six days thou shalt labour, and do all thy work: 14But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou. 15And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the LORD thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day. Deuteronomy 5:12-15 In this passage Moses connects the Sabbath with the deliverance from Egypt and assign that deliverance as a reason for keeping the Sabbath. And finally the Sabbath is going through a third phase from Christ to the end of the age. And this phase of the Sabbath commemorates the rest we have in Jesus Christ, who has accomplished our salvation from sin and death and hell, so that we do not have to work to achieve our salvation but can by faith rest in the finished work of Christ. We will discus this in greater detail in the section on which day we are to observe the Sabbath. The key thing to note here is through the Sabbath has over the centuries gone through several phases it has essentially remained the same. It has remained the creation ordinance that is was established to be. It continues to be a period of six days of labor followed by a day of holy rest. It continues the emulate the pattern that God established for us when he created the world. Which Day? One of the perennial issue that comes up whenever Sabbath observance is discussed is which day are w to observe as the weekly Sabbath. Christians observe the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, as the weekly Sabbath. Old Testament Jews observed the seventh day of the week, as do some contemporary cults. Which day are we to observe as the true Sabbath for our day? And if the seventh day was the Sabbath for Israel, why do we not continue to observe it on that day? A fruitful source of confusion and error on this subject is a misreading of the fourth commandment as given in the Decalogue. The text says, “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God.” However most people read it is if it said, “…the seventh day of the week is the sabbath of the LORD thy God.” What the commandment requires is not that the seventh day of the week be observed as the weekly Sabbath. What the commandment commands is that there be a cycle of six days of labor followed by a day of rest. Which day of the week is to be that day of rest is not part of the commandment. Once this is understood then the issue of which day is to be observed becomes much easier to resolve. The misreading of the commandment has been the stumblingblock that has created difficulty in the minds of so many.
Once we understand the above we can go back and review the previously discussed three phases of the Sabbath and consider which day of the week ought to be observed as the weekly Sabbath. As we noted, it appears that Cain and Abel offered their sacrifices on the seventh day of the week. So it would appear that from the beginning the seventh day of the week was observed as the weekly Sabbath. This was obviously following God’s creation week where he labored for the first six days of that week and rested on the seventh day. When the children of Israel left Egypt and received God’s law at Sinai, the existing Sabbath requirement was incorporated into the Decalogue, but the day on which the weekly Sabbath was to be observed was left unchanged. This was because apparently the children of Israel left Egypt on the seventh day of the week, the night of the first Passover. The deliverance from Egypt and the rest from their unending slavery there provided an additional reason for observing a weekly commemorative day of holy rest unto the Lord, but did not require a change of day. However, all that changed with the coming of Christ. We have a greater deliverance to celebrate than that of the children of Israel from Egypt. We can celebrate our deliverance from our slavery to sin, our bondage to the corruptions of the old nature. We can celebrate our deliverance from the guilt and consequences of our sin in Christ’s redeeming us from sin and death and hell. And that is even a greater reason to have a weekly day of rest and worship as we rest in the finished work of Christ who has done all that is necessary for our salvation, so that we do not have the impossible burden of seeking to save ourselves by our own works. So therefore, as the Sabbath entered the third phase of its observance, it represented not only a continuation of the abiding institution of the Sabbath; it also required a change of the day. That day is the Lord’s Day, Sunday, the first day of the week, that commemorates Christ’s resurrection. It was his resurrection that consummated his victory That the Lord’s Day is the Christian Sabbath and that we are to now observe the continuing Sabbath on that day, on the first day of the week, is clear from the testimony of Scripture. Of Christ’s thirteen post resurrection appearances to his disciples there are six where we are told what day of the week it was. All six are on the first day of the week. This is when Christ met with his apostles. And that is still when Christians assemble to meet with Christ in his church. It is also noted in the Bible that frequently on those occasions the disciples were gathered together for worship and prayer. So as well as the example of our Lord we have the inspired example of the Apostles that we are to meet for worship on the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week. And this is a practice as we have noted above that Christ honored with his presence. The Holy Spirit adds his testimony to this truth as well. When the disciples were again gathered for prayer and worship on the first day of the week the Holy Spirit fell on them in a marvelous way, empowering the for the mission that Christ had given them. This was on Pentecost a day that falls on the first day of the week. And similarly, it was on a Lord’s Day when the Holy Spirit visited John on the Island of Patmos and gave him the visions that inspired the book of Revelation. It was on that day that he had a vision of the risen Christ. For all the above reasons, and based on all the above Biblical testimony and inspired examples, Christians observe their Sabbath on the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day. This was the practice of the Apostolic church, of the early church, and it has continued unbroken to our day.
Duties of the Sabbath
The Sabbath is a divinely appointed day of rest and worship. There are therefore only three basic duties that comprise Biblical Sabbath observance.
The first duty of the Sabbath, as it name denotes, is to use the day as a day of holy rest in the Lord. As the commandment says, we are to do no work thereon. It is to be a holy day of rest. As Nehemiah enforced it in his day…
15In those days saw I in Judah some treading wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and lading asses; as also wine, grapes, and figs, and all manner of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the sabbath day: and I testified against them in the day wherein they sold victuals. 16There dwelt men of Tyre also therein, which brought fish, and all manner of ware, and sold on the sabbath unto the children of Judah, and in Jerusalem. 17Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said unto them, What evil thing is this that ye do, and profane the sabbath day? 18Did not your fathers thus, and did not our God bring all this evil upon us, and upon this city? yet ye bring more wrath upon Israel by profaning the sabbath. 19And it came to pass, that when the gates of Jerusalem began to be dark before the sabbath, I commanded that the gates should be shut, and charged that they should not be opened till after the sabbath: and some of my servants set I at the gates, that there should no burden be brought in on the sabbath day. 20So the merchants and sellers of all kind of ware lodged without Jerusalem once or twice. 21Then I testified against them, and said unto them, Why lodge ye about the wall? if ye do so again, I will lay hands on you. From that time forth came they no more on the sabbath. 22And I commanded the Levites that they should cleanse themselves, and that they should come and keep the gates, to sanctify the sabbath day. Remember me, O my God, concerning this also, and spare me according to the greatness of thy mercy. Nehemiah 13:15-22 We are to rest not only from our daily employments, but also from our recreations. It is not a day to play golf, go to the beach, or watch the ball game live or on television. That is what the world does. This day is a day dedicated to holy rest. We rest in the Lord Jesus Christ and his finished work. We meditate on him and renew our spirits as we rejoice in his victory over sin and death and hell. As Isaiah said of the Sabbath,
If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the LORD, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: Then shalt thou delight thyself in the LORD; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it. Isaiah 58:13-14
The second is worship, both public and private. Paul exhorts the Hebrew Christians not to forsake the assembling of themselves together. This is an obvious reference to their weekly gathering on the Lord’s Day for public worship. Jesus himself said, “But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 10:33) If we forsake his public worship, if we refuse to publicly take our stand with the church of Jesus Christ, then we are denying him. And Jesus says that if we do that he will deny us at the last day. The we are likely to hear those awesome and terrible words from his lips, “…I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. (Matthew 7:23) Sabbath keeping may not be as optional as some people think. Likewise, we are to use the Sabbath for family worship and for our own private devotions. Personal prayer and Bible reading is the lifeblood of any Christian’s spiritual life. And this one day of the week, set aside from the labors, from the cares and toils of this present life, provides for many people the best opportunity to discharge these spiritual duties. The third duty of the Sabbath is to perform deeds of necessity and mercy. Works of necessity include the duties of police officers and firefighters, as well as doctors and nurses taking care of the sick. Works of mercy would include visiting the sick, and bringing gifts of food, etc. to our poorer brothers and sisters in Christ who are in need of support. Jesus said that ministering to such is as if we had done it unto him and will be rewarded in the life to come. Assisting those who have gotten into trouble on the Lord’s Day, as in a traffic accident, is another work of mercy and reminds us of Christ’s commendation of the Good Samaritan. And of course we have an obligation to take care of our animals, even on the Lord’s Day. The Bible says the “righteous man regardeth the life of his beast,” and Christ said it was needful to pull one’s beast of burden out of any pit they may have fallen into even on the Sabbath. And we need to do all this from our hearts, in sincerity, out of a true love for God, a willing submission to his will, and a true respect and honoring of his institutions. A formal observance, that considers the Sabbath a restraint on our wills, an imposition that we need to endure, is condemned in the Scriptures. Amos warns the children of Israel of this saying, “Saying, When will the new moon be gone, that we may sell corn? and the sabbath, that we may set forth wheat, making the ephah small, and the shekel great, and falsifying the balances by deceit? That we may buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes; yea, and sell the refuse of the wheat?” (Amos 8:5-6) Then we will have the Lord’s blessing on our keeping of the Sabbath and he will make the Sabbath a delight to us. As Isaiah stated it, “Blessed is the man that doeth this, and the son of man that layeth hold on it; that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and keepeth his hand from doing any evil.” (Isaiah 56:2)
The Westminster Confession of Faith
Although the Lord’s Day, as the Christian Sabbath, was observed by Christians continuously since the days of the Apostles, it also needed to be reformed at the time of the Great protestant Reformation. It needed to be given its rightful place in the life of a Christian and not buried by a competing avalanche of pretended holydays, saint’s days, and extra-scriptural feasts. The Westminster Confession of Faith, representing the high water mark of Reformed theology sets forth the Biblical and Reformed doctrine of the Sabbath in chapter 21, sections VII and VIII.
SECTION VII: As it is of 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 has 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.
SECTION VIII: This Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe a holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of his worship and in the duties of necessity and mercy.
Objections to Keeping the Sabbath
A chief objection to Christian Sabbath observance is that is was peculiar to the Mosaic economy and that this requirement passed away with the old dispensation. However, as we have noted, the Sabbath legislation was not part of the ceremonial law, rather it was incorporated into the Decalogue, the summary of God’s abiding moral law. We can no more set aside the Sabbath than we can set aside the prohibitions of murder, adultery and theft or the prescriptions against idolatry. The Sabbath began with the creation, as a creation ordinance, and as such it preceded the Mosaic economy and survived its passing.
A second objection to the Sabbath is that it is legalistic. Antinomian minded Christians love to prattle on that we are not under law but under grace. However, strangely enough they make this claim with respect to the other laws in the Decalogue, but only with respect to the Sabbath. Of course Christians are still under God’s law. We have no right to murder and steal and commit adultery, etc. Biblically, what we are not under law but under grace means is that we are saved by grace and not by our own futile attempts to keep God’s law perfectly. As part of God’s abiding moral law we are to keep the Sabbath and set apart one day in seven for worship and holy rest in the Lord.
A similar objection that modern Christians raise against Sabbath observance is that we now, under the New Testament, have liberty in Christ. Yes, it is true that under the New Covenant we have great liberty in Christ. We are freed from the yoke of the ceremonial law, a burden which even the Apostle Peter confessed that the fathers were unable to bear. We are freed from the law as a way of salvation. Christ has kept the law for us and his perfect obedience is imputed to us by faith. Being clothed with the perfect righteousness of Christ we are freed from the law as a way of salvation. However, to say that we are freed from the law in an absolute sense, and that we are free to sin, is absurd and unscriptural. We are no more free from the requirement of keeping the Sabbath than we are from the requirements to abstain from murder, theft, and idolatry, etc. Rather we are freed from sin in order to keep the law in newness of life and in gratitude to God for his great salvation. There is no liberty to sin. There is no liberty to break God’s commandments.
A fourth objection is that the Apostle Paul has specifically made Sabbath keeping an optional practice. This is based on a misinterpretation of the following text, “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days.” (Colossians 2:16) Paul is writing to the Gentile Christians of the city of Colosse. They were apparently under some pressure to conform to keeping the ceremonial law. Paul sates that they are to let no one, especially the Judaizers, judge them for their freedom from observance of the ceremonial law as mandated by the council of Jerusalem. Here is speaking of the ceremonial law, not the moral law. Paul enumerates some of the requirements of the ceremonial law that the Christians of Colosse are free from. First of all they are free from the dietary laws of Moses. No one is to judge them in their food and drink. Secondly, they are free from the special holydays of the church calendar of the Old Testament Jewish Church. These would especially include the three annual feasts that were obligatory on all Jewish adult males, the Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles. Paul then goes onto enumerate two other classes of Jewish holydays that no one is to judge the Colossian Christians for not observing. First of all there are the new moons. And secondly there are the sabbath days. What are these Sabbath days? A sabbath is a holy day of rest. The Jewish church had many sabbaths that were special apart from the weekly sabbath. If Paul had meant to exempt the Colossian Christians from the weekly Sabbath he would have stated things differently. Rather he is systematically enumerating the holydays of the ceremonial law. And he says Sabbath days, plural, referring to the ceremonial sabbaths of the Jewish church calendar. If he had meant the weekly Sabbath he would simply referred to the sabbath, the weekly sabbath, singular. Exemption from the ceremonial law is totally different from exemption from the moral law. No one is exempt from the requirement to keep God’s moral law. And the weekly Sabbath is recorded in the Decalogue and is thus a part of God’s moral law.
Sabbath keeping, at least outwardly, is not difficult. A generation ago that was the norm in Canada, where I grew up, and in the United States. When the laws and the culture support and respect the Sabbath then one falls into a natural pattern of outwardly keeping it. Today that is much harder. Constantly one is faced with situations where one is not only tempted to break the Sabbath, but is expected to do so. People seem somewhat incredulous when they are confronted with those who, as matter of conscience, will not. And this is greatly exacerbated by the fact that professing Christian churches fail to support Sabbath keeping and fellow believers mindlessly invite one to participate in activities that constitute a breaking of the Sabbath. Of course the Lord requires much more than an external keeping of the Sabbath, but keeping it from the heart is a matter of Biblical conviction and the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart. But although it is not enough, an external keeping of the Sabbath is part of what the commandment does require. And if Orthodox Jews, rejecting Christ, can meticulously keep their Saturday Sabbath, and if Muslims can rigorously maintain the observance of their Friday Sabbath it is a scandal that Christians are so cavalier about keeping the true Sabbath, the Lord’s Day. Our conclusions are simple. The Sabbath is an abiding institution, it is a creation ordinance, based on God’s example during the original creation week. It is of abiding obligation because it is part of the moral law that all men from Adam through the end of the age are required to keep. Objections to Sabbath observance are based on error and misinterpretations and are not valid as they are without Scriptural support. If we would follow the inspired examples of Christ and the Apostles, as well as the example of the early church and of Christians throughout the centuries we will keep the Sabbath holy. May we have grace and zeal to do so, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together on God’s holy day to worship him in spirit and in truth. AMEN.