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All in the Family – Sabbath 1

The views of a pastor who believes the Christian Sabbath should be observed as part of God's eternal moral law. This is the first of three articles on the subject of the Sabbath as part of our “All in the Family” series.

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The aim of the All in the Family series is to explore the breadth of belief and practice that exists amongst FIEC churches on matters that our Doctrinal Basis doesn’t touch on and yet are important in church life.

For each subject we ask a variety of church leaders to respond to the same questions, with an emphasis on seeing how belief shapes practice in a local church.

In this collection on the Sabbath, the responses are:

You can download a combined PDF of the three papers under the image on the right hand side.

Introduction

Name: Paul Gibson

Viewpoint: Christian Sabbath observed as part of God’s eternal moral law

Church: Wheelock Heath Baptist Church is an independent church meeting in Sandbach and Winterley, south Cheshire. Our elders subscribe to the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, seeing this as a faithful summary of Scriptural teaching, and this is the teaching standard of the church. As such we love the truths rediscovered and vigorously taught by the Reformers - the historic doctrines of grace with their emphasis on Scripture alone and justification by faith alone. We believe that Christians should keep the Fourth Commandment by setting aside the first day of the week (Sunday) as a day of rest & worship – and we seek to emphasise that this is not meant as a burden, but a delight (Isa 58:13) – a good gift of God’s grace that brings refreshment, blessing & joy.

Our membership is diverse in geography (members live in several towns & villages, mainly in south Cheshire), age, Christian maturity, background, and views on secondary theological issues, but we share together a common faith in the gospel, love for the Lord Jesus, and desire to follow him. As a church family we are committed to the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ in south Cheshire, and we seek to work together with one another, and with other evangelical churches, to make Christ known.

1) How do you understand the relationship between the Sabbath commands in the OT law and the account of creation in Gen 1-2?

Central to Gen 1:1 – 2:3 is the Sabbath as the culmination of all that has gone before. Gen 2:2-3 shows the Sabbath woven into creation, a creation ordinance like work and marriage. God blesses the Sabbath (2:3) – the third thing to receive God’s blessing alongside creation (v22) and humanity (v28): it is clearly immensely significant. God also declares this day alone to be ‘holy’.

Gen 2:2 tells us that on the seventh day God ‘rested from all his work.’ Clearly this is anthropomorphic language – speaking of God in human terms. God has not literally exerted himself in creating; he is not tired; he does not literally need rest. Yet God does rest – from his work of creating (v2), not from his ongoing work of providence. Why does God tell us that he rested? God has just made man in his image (1:27), and now he rests, giving his image-bearers a model: God worked for six days and then rested on the seventh, and we image-bearers get the privilege of imitating our Creator.

In Ex 20:8-11, the Fourth Commandment is explicitly grounded in creation. The reason God’s people must rest on the seventh day is because God did so; they are to imitate him. As well as drawing the requirement to rest from Gen 2:2-3, Ex 20:8 also speaks of keeping the Sabbath day ‘holy’, because the Lord ‘made it holy’ (v11). This implies the day is not merely for rest but also for worshipping God. Deut 5:15 shows that the Sabbath is grounded not only in creation, but also redemption, pointing forward to our eternal rest.

The grounding of the Fourth Commandment in creation helps answer the key question of whether this command is solely part of the Mosaic Law and covenant, or whether it transcends it. The Mosaic Law in itself is part of that covenant, but it is important theologically to insist that God’s essential moral law does not change. If God’s moral law stays the same from creation onwards, we can be confident that his standards have not changed, and the law Adam disobeyed and the law Israel disobeyed is in essence the same law Christ has perfectly obeyed in our place (Rom 5:19), and there is not some new law that God will now require us to obey to be fully justified: Christ has obeyed God’s unchanging law, and that is enough.

Rom 2:14-15 speaks of this moral law being written on the hearts of Gentiles who do not have the law (they have never heard it) but know it through conscience. The law in this sense was written on Adam’s heart and that of every person. There seem to be good reasons to see this moral law as summarised in the two great love commands and in the Ten Commandments (these are closely related – Rom 13:8-10; James 2:8-11; Matt 22:40 – with love for God summarising commandments 1-4 and love for neighbour commandments 5-10). The Decalogue is distinct from the other Mosaic laws: it is spoken directly by God, not mediated through Moses (Ex 20:1); after the Ten Words God “added nothing more” (Deut 5:22); it is written by the finger of God on tablets of stone (Ex 31:18); and the Commandments are often referred to by Jesus when asked about God’s requirements (e.g. Lk 18:20).

Furthermore, there is evidence that the laws in the Decalogue were known before the Mosaic covenant was instituted at Sinai. For example, God expects even Abimelech, who is not one of God’s covenant people, to avoid adultery (Ex 20) – the law is written on his heart. Regarding the Sabbath, God’s people are expected to keep the Sabbath holy prior to the Sinai covenant (Ex 16:21-30). So the Ten Commandments are not restricted to the Mosaic covenant, but are God’s eternal moral law dating back to Eden.

2) How does a Christian now relate to the 4th commandment and apply the other regulations concerning the Sabbath in the OT law?

The NT makes clear that the Mosaic covenant is now obsolete (Heb 8:13). Furthermore, we are no longer ‘under law’ (Rom 6:14): the Mosaic Law in its entirety (insofar as it is tied up with the Mosaic covenant) is no longer binding. However, Christians are still called to obey law (1 Cor 9:21), not to be justified, but as an expression of love for Christ (Jn 14:15). So the question is, which law must we obey? Several passages suggest Christians must still obey the Ten Commandments, including the Fourth, as God’s moral law which transcends the Mosaic covenant.

For example, in Jer 31:31-34 one of God’s gracious new covenant blessings is to ‘put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts’ (v33). This cannot mean that God’s people will be free to disregard God’s law; rather, they will have a new desire and strength to obey it. But to which law does this refer? Jeremiah’s new covenant prophecy is closely linked to Ezekiel’s prophecy that God will give his people a heart of flesh and give them the Spirit to move them to keep his laws (Ezek 36:27). These prophecies are an elaboration of God’s earlier promise, in the context of Sinai, to circumcise his people’s hearts so they will keep his laws (Deut 30:6). So Jer 31:33 seems to speak about the same law given at Sinai being written on the heart of new covenant believers. In particular, the Decalogue seems to be in view. Paul picks up Jeremiah’s new covenant prophecy in 2 Cor 3:3 and contrasts the letter (law) written on tablets of stone – the Decalogue – with the letter written on the heart (new covenant). The same law once written on tablets of stone is now written on our hearts, that we may obey it.

Other passages also imply that God’s moral law has not changed. Jesus himself often quotes from the Decalogue when asked what standard God requires. Rom 7:14-25 is hotly disputed but in my view refers to Paul’s struggle as a Christian (he desires to keep God’s law, v18, and delights in God’s law, v22, which describe a believer’s experience). If so, the Christian should keep God’s law. Which law? The law that includes the commandment not to covet (v7-12), i.e. the Ten Commandments.

If the Ten Commandments are indeed God’s eternal moral law, then this includes the Fourth Commandment. With the change to the first day (discussed in question 3), Christians should still observe one day in seven. Firstly, it is a day of rest from our normal secular work for the whole day (though there are exceptions for acts of necessity and mercy, as discussed in question 3). Secondly, it is a day of worship (a day holy to the Lord: Gen 2:3; Ex 20:8, 11). As such it is a great blessing – a delight (Isa 58:13) – how generous God is to give us a day when we get to rest and worship him together!

While the moral law remains binding because it transcends the Mosaic Law, the Mosaic Law itself is tied up with the Mosaic covenant and therefore no longer binding. Therefore Christians do not need to keep the other Sabbath regulations in the OT law. For the Christian, Sunday is not to be a day burdened by long lists of regulations but a day God has graciously given for our benefit, that we may rest and worship him together.

3) How do the NT references to the Sabbath (e.g. Mark 2:23-3:6, John 5:1-18, Col 2:16-17), the Lord’s Day (Rev 1:10), the observance of special days (Rom 14:5, Gal 4:10) and the Sabbath rest of Heb 3-4 inform your views?

It is a common fallacy to think Jesus attacked Sabbath-keeping. Rather, he clarified the Sabbath against misinterpretations by the religious elites. In Lk 13:10-17 the synagogue leader is indignant that Jesus heals on the Sabbath. Jesus sets the woman free (v12, 16), delighting the people (v17) – he liberates people to enjoy the Sabbath, freeing it from the hedges the Pharisees have put around it which have turned it into a burden, freeing it to be a day of joy and renewal.

Likewise in Mk 2-3, Jesus does not abolish the Sabbath but declares he is Lord of it (2:28), with the right to define its proper interpretation. Again Jesus sets the Sabbath free from the Pharisees’ restrictive interpretation, showing that it is a day when people rest from their normal work but are free to do acts of necessity (obtaining food, 2:23-26) and acts of mercy (healing the sick, 3:1-5). “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (2:27) – it is a gift for our benefit, joy, refreshing and blessing.

In Jn 5:1-18 the Jewish leaders accuse Jesus of Sabbath-breaking (v18). This accusation must be false, because, even if the Fourth Commandment is not binding on Christians, Jesus must perfectly obey God’s law so that his perfect obedience may be imputed to us (Rom 5:19). The Father is always working (v17): he rested from the work of creation on the seventh day but continued his work of providence; likewise Jesus kept the Fourth Commandment but continued to do work that is legitimate on the Sabbath, including acts of healing.

Rev 1:10 points to the change in day from seventh to first. John speaks of the Lord’s Day as a day distinct from the other six, following a pattern of Christians meeting on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2). The early Christians met on the day Jesus was raised, as a day to remember God’s redemption and re-creation through Jesus’ resurrection (cf. Deut 5:15).

As such the Lord’s Day symbolises the eternal rest which Jesus has won for us. This eternal rest is primarily in view in Heb 3-4. Our weekly day of rest and worship is a foretaste of the greater rest to come.

On the surface, the most difficult passages for this position are Col 2:16-17, Gal 4:10 and Rom 14:5. In Colossians, Paul speaks of “a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day” as shadows of things to come, and therefore not binding on Christians. What are these celebrations? This threefold combination of events is often found together in the OT (e.g. 2 Chron 31:3; Neh 10:32-3) to speak of old covenant ceremonial days; when the three appear together they are bound up with sacrificial offerings – all of which was exclusive to the Israelites, unlike the Fourth Commandment where the rest was a universal command (including the foreigner). Therefore it seems best to view ‘Sabbath days’ here as referring to the Jewish ceremonial calendar, certainly including other Sabbaths on top of the seventh day (e.g. Ex 23:10-12; Lev 25:4, 8-10), and possibly including the seventh day Sabbath which has now been replaced by the Lord’s Day. Jewish Christians were free to observe such ceremonial days, but not to impose them as necessary for all Christians. They are shadows now fulfilled in Christ (v17).

Likewise in Galatians, Paul is thinking more broadly of the many festivals in the Jewish calendar (hence his reference to months, seasons and years, as well as days). Paul is especially blunt with the Galatians as some were insisting on the observance of the Mosaic law as part of the basis for justification. Paul rejects the law as a basis for justification and also makes clear Christians are no longer bound by the Mosaic Law in itself – but does not reject the moral law in the life of believers (5:14). Again 4:10 probably speaks about Jewish ceremonial laws, not the new covenant Lord’s Day. Surely Paul would not have despaired that he had laboured in vain simply because he saw them gathering together to worship God on the first day of every week – but when he saw them insisting on observing all the Mosaic rules about special days, he knew he must warn against this.

In Romans Paul again probably has in mind the various Sabbaths and days in the busy Jewish festival calendar. Jewish Christians may observe these if they choose, but not impose them on others.

4) What in your view must or should a Christian do on the Sabbath/Lord’s Day? What must or should they not do?

As the Lord’s Day is a gracious gift from God, the primary emphasis should be not on what we must or must not do, but on what we get to do. We live in a society where stress, overwork and burnout are endemic, including among Christians. How generous God is then to give us a day when we get to rest from our normal work. This is counter-cultural, desperately needed, and enables us to do our work better having had a day completely away from it.

Likewise how good it is that we get to meet with God’s people and worship him corporately. God works primarily through the ordinary public means of grace, hence the early believers found it a delight, not an imposition, to devote themselves to meet together around the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, sharing the Lord’s Supper, and prayer (Acts 2:42). How kind God is to give us a day set aside for this – and why therefore would we not want to meet morning & evening, if our circumstances allow? And how kind God is to enable us often to continue sharing fellowship & deepening gospel relationships during the afternoon, whether through a church lunch or hospitality in each other’s homes.

All the things we should do are therefore a tremendous blessing, not a burden: we should rest for the whole day from our normal secular work (with the exception of those vocations which are acts of necessity or mercy, such as working in a hospital); and we should worship God corporately if we are able to (i.e. not prohibited by illness, etc.). If possible Christians should commit to morning and evening worship, as the whole day is holy to the Lord, not just a couple of hours of it.

Beyond this, there is no need for a list of restrictions of specific things we should not do. The emphasis must be on the joy & blessing of rest and worship, not on paralyzing people with lists of prohibitions.

5) How does your view of the Sabbath and/or Lord’s day shape…

a. ...the ministry of your church?

We have two Sunday services, morning and evening, and we encourage people to come to both. We pray that gathering on the Lord’s Day will be a delight to God’s people, not a burden. We rejoice that, as we gather, God gives generously to us through the means of grace. Through his word read, preached and sung, and through the Lord’s Supper, he feeds us with Jesus and his loveliness, and reminds us of the gospel blessings of being united with Christ. He gives us the immense privilege of responding to his grace in praise and prayer. Therefore we want our services to be full of Christ, full of grace and comfort, full of the gospel, full of refreshment.

We teach on the topic of the Lord’s Day when it comes up in the exposition of Scripture, and we teach it primarily as God’s generous gift to us – we GET to have a day of rest & worship!

b. ...your expectations of church members? (if you don’t think the Sabbath is binding, how else do you urge attendance and commitment?)

We expect regular attendance from church members, except when they are unable to because they are engaged in works of necessity or mercy in their secular job, or they are sick or on holiday or otherwise unavoidably detained elsewhere. We strongly encourage attendance twice on a Sunday, and discuss the importance of this when interviewing prospective new members. We also encourage fellowship together during the afternoon, by encouraging hospitality, and from time to time sharing a church lunch together.

Where a member has a job that means they must work on a Sunday, but the work does not involve acts of necessity or mercy, we would encourage them, if possible, to negotiate with their employer so they can have Sundays off, or if that is not possible, arrange their timetable so they can attend at least one service or the other every week, or seek alternative employment, where possible. We want to be full of grace here – not laying burdens but helping members see the goodness of the Lord’s Day and the benefits they will get from taking steps to enable them to observe it more closely.

c. ...your own practice as a Christian?

As parents Helen and I want our children to see the Lord’s Day as a delight, a gift from God, something we get to enjoy together. Therefore we prioritise all coming together to the morning service, and staying for a good length of time with God’s people after the formal ‘service’. When we can, we all come in the evening, and the children enjoy being up a bit later! When that is not possible, either Helen or I will come to the evening service.

We aim, as often as possible, to share fellowship with other Christians in the afternoon, typically by inviting people for lunch, which all four of us really enjoy. In other parts of the day, we might have a quiz on the children’s catechism, or watch a Colin Buchanan DVD, but we also might play a game or go to the park. I try to finish my sermon prep before the Lord’s Day so that Sundays are a day when Daddy is around and involved with the children, not a day when I am locked in my study.

If we are on holiday, we make it a top priority to meet with believers at a local evangelical church.

6) What relevance do you think the Sabbath has for our wider society?

If, as argued above, the Fourth Commandment is part of God’s eternal moral law, it has much relevance as it is binding on all people, not just Christians. It is striking that in Ex 20:10 the Sabbath is to be observed not only by God’s covenant people but also by foreigners residing in Israelite towns: they too needed a day of rest.

It is not hard to see the relevance of the Fourth Commandment to wider society today: secular culture so often drives people to push more and do more; many employers expect too high a workload, and many people are worn out and over-stressed. God’s way is so much better for us – and so as Christians we should present God’s way positively, not embarrassed by it but showing what a good gift it is, and how much society would benefit from a day of rest each week.

Recommended Reading

  • Iain D. Campbell, On the First Day of the Week: God, the Christian and the Sabbath (Leominster: Day One, 2005).
  • Joseph A. Pipa, The Lord’s Day (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 1997).