As the new covenant people of God, Christians are to keep the Sabbath. The fourth commandment is no less timeless than the other nine, and so we must keep it entirely. Yet the difference between old and new covenant Sabbath keeping is radical. Jesus fulfilled and redefined Sabbath keeping, having done away with the types and shadows. He has granted to His people the fullness of rest in Him.
Breaking the Sabbath in New Ways
Unfortunately, we Christians violate the fourth commandment by our efforts to adjust our standing with God by the keeping of regulations. Regarding the Lord’s Sabbath rest, we are violating His law as we attempt to make our way to Him by our keeping of that law – including our special behaviors and rituals on Sundays.
If on Sundays we pray extra long, don’t stop to pump gas, and make sure not to fuss too much in the kitchen because we are attempting to gain something from Him, we have missed the point of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and rest for us at the Father’s right hand.
Ten Commandments, not Nine
When the Sabbath regulation was given to Israel at Mount Sinai, it was attached to the seventh day of the week, and it was wrapped in the civil and ceremonial laws of the old covenant (Ex. 16:1-36; 20:8-11; 23:10-12; 31:12-17; 34:21; 35:1-3; Lev. 23:3; 24:5-9; Num. 28: 9-10; Deut. 5:12-15). The seventh-day Sabbath was important because God had sanctified it by resting on the seventh day of creation (Gen. 2:1-3). When He at Sinai prescribed the same day of rest for Israel, He was binding the people to Himself. Think of it as God preaching about Himself through Israel by the giving of the law in civil and ceremonial particulars. Since I rested on the seventh day, now you as my special covenant people shall rest in the same way.
And that fourth of the ten commandments has transferred beautifully to the new covenant.
Jesus kept Sabbath in the exact right way, every Saturday of His life, and He did it as “Lord of the Sabbath”(Matt. 12:8). What a humble Lord, submitted to His own law as a human being! When He rose from the dead and ascended to His victory rest at the right hand of the Father, He granted to His Church a Sabbath rest that is infinitely more glorious than the Sabbath given at Sinai.
The ceremonial and civil garb of the old covenant Sabbath has been replaced with the 7 days-per-week rest in Christ’s righteousness.
We rest from all our works when we rest in Jesus. We violate His Sabbath rest when we perform works that He has already completed for us – we cannot draw any nearer to the Father than what Jesus already is, resting at His right hand – and we are seated with Him in the heavenly places (Eph. 1:3, 20). Yet how often we are not sure if God really loves us the way Jesus said He does (John 15:9). That’s where our trouble comes from – we don’t trust Him. We don’t believe His Word. We attempt to reconcile ourselves with God through our works, and we break His Sabbath rest in Jesus.
Let me elaborate a bit.
Missing the High Mark
Ironically, the Reformed confessions aim too low in how they prescribe a Christian Sabbath. The Westminster Confession of Faith calls for Sabbath observance in the section dealing with worship:
7. 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 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.
Notice in the next section the particular legislative binding upon even thinking about your job on Sunday:
8. This Sabbath is to be 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 an 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.
With all due respect to the venerable Westminster divines, this kind of legalistic prescription for sanctification, indeed, binding of the conscience of Christians in what God expects from us, is ironically a violation of the Sabbath commandment. Let me defend that outrageous statement.
Take a Rest
What does God command of us? Nothing short of perfect obedience to His perfect Law. In discoursing on the Law, Jesus said
“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:17-20 NKJV).
There is no loosening of the commandments of God, not in the slightest way. Yet there is in Christ Jesus a fulfilling of the Law – something that He did which re-ordered the cosmic interaction between humankind and God. In that same Matthew 5 sermon, Jesus closes out a section of His speech with
Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect (5:48).
We are to be perfect. So how is it that in our sinful, rotten state before God we can be perfect? How do we keep His Law? How do we honor Him who is holy and perfect? Jesus is the key – His fulfillment of God’s Law was perfect, and His obedience to the Father was pure. In His perfect life of Law-keeping, He earned a place in God’s presence, as a man – and in His substitutionary death, He makes sure He will give His perfect life to each one of His people. He gives us His Sabbath-keeping life record, and we rest in Him as a response. We rest from our works in trusting Him (Heb. 3:16-4:10).
I should briefly say something to preempt a valid criticism. It is of course a wise and biblical principal to rest your body on a set-aside day each week. Sunday is a tremendous, obvious choice for Christians, for it is the Lord’s Day of Resurrection. We gather to worship the crucified, resurrected Son of God on Sunday, and it is eminently intelligent to create an atmosphere of family worship and relaxation! The only problem is if this keeping of Sunday is legislated to Christians as a means of obedience and sanctification. It can be a means of refreshment, of making worship more special, and of focusing on one’s family, but if the church enforces a Sunday rest, that church has broken the Sabbath rest of the new covenant.
And so what is His command? Repent of your sins, and believe the gospel. What does the obedience of that command look like? Trust Jesus, rest in Him, believe in Him, place your whole hope and confidence in Him.
Let’s let Jesus have the final word on this one:
Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matt 11:28-30 NKJV).
Soli Deo Gloria
Thanks for reading,