All in the Family – Sabbath 2
The views of a pastor who believes the Christian Sabbath should be observed as a creation ordinance. This is the second of three articles on the subject of the Sabbath as part of our “All in the Family” series.
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:
- 1. Christian Sabbath observed as part of God’s eternal moral law - Paul Gibson
- 2. Christian Sabbath observed as a creation ordinance - Reuben Hunter (this article)
- 3. The Sabbath fulfilled in Christ - Andy Robinson
You can download a combined PDF of the three papers under the image on the right hand side.
Name: Reuben Hunter
Viewpoint: Christian Sabbath observed as a creation ordinance
Church: Trinity West Church was planted in January 2013 with a core group of twenty (who differed in their views on the Sabbath). The church was established around core values that seek to hold the Gospel at the centre of our life together, whilst taking seriously the community the Gospel creates and our responsibility to reach out to the local area in which the church is planted. The church does not make a particular view of the Sabbath a requirement for membership, and a breadth of views would be held across the church.
1) How do you understand the relationship between the Sabbath commands in the OT law and the account of creation in Gen 1-2?
The Sabbath commands in the OT law are most explicit in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. Both command the observance of a Sabbath day, but do so for different but complimentary reasons. Exodus 20:8-11 ties the Sabbath back to God’s rest at the climax of the creation account in Genesis, and Deuteronomy to God’s rescue and redemption of His people in the events of the Exodus. In the explicit linking of the commandment to creation, two important points are being made: first, that the Sabbath marks the completion of God’s work of creation. That which He starts, He finishes and whilst He could have created everything in an instant He chose an historical process. In the course of the days of creation there was an ‘already’ and a ‘not yet’ that was seen through to completion; creation was consummated and rest enjoyed and this eschatological pattern provides the basis for how God works redemptively, and the certainty of future final Sabbath rest for His people (c.f. Hebrews 4:9).
The second point is that the link to creation is made to give humanity a pattern to imitate. This is a point of debate in the church, and no doubt others in this discussion will take a different view, because it is argued that the focus of the Genesis text is on God’s rest and not that of Adam or Eve. It is certainly the case that the text is silent as to Adam and Eve’s behaviour at this point, but we should not hear that silence as ruling out an analogous rest for humanity. I say this for two reasons:
- 1. The Six-Plus-One pattern – When we consider the earlier point about God’s ability to create in an instant, but His choosing six days and one of rest, it raises the question: why did He choose that pattern? He could have created in three days or even less, and He didn’t rest because of fatigue. The rest of the completed work could have come at any point, so why six-plus-one if not to be imitated by humanity?
- 2. The Language of Exodus 20:11 – The Exodus commandment requires Israel to keep the Sabbath because of the creation event. ‘Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy … For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day…’ (emphasis added).
An explicit link is being made between God’s rest on the seventh day and the rest prescribed for Israel. John Frame comments:
“Exodus 20:11 sees an identity between these [God’s and Israel’s Sabbaths]. It teaches that when God took his own rest from his creative labours and rested on the seventh day, which he hallowed and blessed, he also hallowed and blessed a human Sabbath, a Sabbath for man (Mark 2:27). In other words, when God blessed his own Sabbath rest in Genesis 2:3, he blessed it as a model for human imitation.”1
Sabbath is, therefore, given to man as man and should be seen as a creation ordinance, and as such, appropriate for every age. This point is made explicit when the pre-Sinai manna regulations are given in Exodus 16 (c.f. 16:26).
This link between Sabbath and creation ties it’s meaning firstly to rest, and all humanity are obligated to keep it, and will be refreshed by doing so, but the Deuteronomy passage further develops the reason for God’s people keeping the Sabbath day:
“Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you … You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:12, 15)
Here the purpose of the Sabbath day is remembering the redemption that God has won for His people in the Exodus. So if in tying Sabbath to creation the purpose is rest, here in Deuteronomy the purpose is remembrance for worship (c.f Lev 23:3). John Calvin argues that this is the primary goal of the Sabbath day2, and the purpose of resting from work is only to enable time for worship. I don’t, however, think one need take priority over the other. The Sabbath is given to man as a gift (Mark 2:27) to enable both physical rest from the toil that daily work has become post-fall, and to enable the gathered worship of God’s people.
2) How does a Christian now relate to the 4th commandment and apply the other regulations concerning the Sabbath in the OT law?
How one answers this question involves the wider question about the place of the law in the Christian life. I take it that all sides in the discussion agree that Jesus has fulfilled the OT law, so the disagreements surround what that fulfilment means. My own view is that when Jesus says in Matthew 5:18 that “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” that He does not mean to abrogate any part of it, rather to demonstrate its true depth and show how love for God and not legalism is to motivate obedience. The whole law dies with Christ and the whole law rises with Him and this means that the signs and shadows give way to the reality. With this outworking of God’s redemptive purposes, whilst the law still serves to show God’s people how to live in order to please Him, certain aspects are observed in different ways and some laws change in their application (e.g. physical circumcision comes to an end and is replaced by heart circumcision and baptism; Passover comes to an end and is replaced by the Lord’s Supper).
This means the Christian relates to the fourth commandment, and to any of the other OT Sabbath requirements, by recognising its abiding significance and carefully discerning how it applies to their life ‘in Christ’. As I argued in the first question, we should observe the Sabbath because of its role as a creation ordinance (it was ‘made for man’ (Mark 2:27)), but also when Jesus identifies Himself as ‘Lord of the Sabbath’ He is not simply showing Himself to be divine, but assuming the ongoing significance of the day by declaring and demonstrating what sort of ‘work’ is appropriate on it, e.g. works of mercy and necessity.
Jesus clashed often with the Pharisees over the Sabbath and had ample opportunity to clearly state that it was coming to an end, but he didn’t do this. Instead He “affirmed the Sabbath as a blessing to man, a time of resting, worshipping, eating, drinking and healing.”3
The redemptive historical move from Old to New covenant, however, has also brought change. The reordering of history that Jesus brings through His resurrection means that now the church is given a new day for rest, remembrance and worship. Jesus rises (Mark 16:2) He appears to His followers (John 20:19), He gives His Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1), He gave the Apostle John a vision (Revelation 1:10) all on the first day of the week. We then see this pattern taken up in the early church when Paul instructed the churches to put aside a collection on that day (1 Corinthians 16:2) and the Apostle John refers to it (Revelation 1:10) as the Lord’s Day.
The fourth commandment comes to us then as the Christian Sabbath, the Lord’s Day, to be enjoyed in rest from our work; worship in remembrance, with the Lord’s people, of the redemption that was won for us in Christ; and works of mercy and necessity.4
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?
I have touched on the Mark passage already as I think that alongside the main point that runs through this section about the deity of Jesus, it highlights the purpose of the Sabbath to be about blessing and mercy. The Pharisees, as was so often their way, in missing the point of the law turned something that was designed by God to be a blessing into a burden. The Sabbath, according to Jesus, was “for man” (v.27) and saving life and doing good are especially appropriate on that day.
John 5:1-18 is another staggering claim to deity as Jesus identifies Himself with God: “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” This is not a rationale for Sabbath work that anyone else can use (!) but a similar point is being made as in Mark 2. It is entirely fitting that showing mercy to those in need should take place on the Sabbath.
I take Colossians 2:16-17 along with Romans 14:5 and Galatians 4:9-11 as the basis for the strongest case against the continuance of a Sabbath in the New Covenant. Calvin thought it was so obvious that only “madmen cannot see what observance the apostle means.”5 But, rushing in where angels fear to tread, for the reasons already stated, I disagree with him at this point. I think the issue in question in these verses relates to confusion around days for the early Jewish Christians. Historians tell us that many of those converted from Judaism continued to keep a seventh-day Sabbath, as well as meeting with fellow Christians for worship the following day. As with any who come to Christ from strongly religious backgrounds they remained connected with their old practices for a time, but as Christianity became more distinct from Judaism this started to change. There was, however, in the early church this ambiguity and my reading of the Romans, Galatians and Colossians passages is that they are addressing a Judaising error, insisting that Christians were required to keep the Jewish Sabbath, that grew out of this confusion.
Hebrews 3:7-4:13 is an important passage for all sides of this discussion. The writer is urging Jewish Christians not to return to Judaism and he wants to discourage hard-heartedness such that they press on and enter God’s rest (4:3-4). Reference to God’s rest in these verses takes us back to the creation account which, as we noted above, are the basis of the Sabbath command in the Decalogue. But the writer also tells us that “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (4:9) which has a future focus. The word for ‘Sabbath rest’ here could be translated ‘Sabbath keeping’ but as John Frame notes: “the term self-evidently refers to the future rest, of which Canaan is a type, the final reward of the believer. The final reward is to join God in the rest he entered into at creation.”6 These verses do not directly tell believers to observe a weekly Sabbath, but looking back to the explicit connection to creation, while also taking up the future focus that makes it clear that ‘Sabbath’ is not experienced in its fullness by the believer at the first coming of Jesus, I take it that weekly Sabbath observance is still valid. “If what the Sabbath symbolises is still future, then weekly Sabbath observance performs a vital function; it is a reminder of and a participation in that final reality.”7
4) What in your view must or should a Christian do on the Sabbath/Lord’s Day? What must or should they not do?
The Sabbath discussion is usually defined by this question, particularly in the negative, and this is where I feel I will depart from those who may share my theological convictions up to this point.
I grew up in a country where government legislation meant that shops did not open on a Sunday until the late 1980s and pubs remained closed until the very late 1990s. I remember visiting a park as a child only to discover that some local Christians had chained up the swings to stop people breaking the Sabbath. These restrictions, however well meant, are mistaken and I think much of the criticism of the ‘Sabbatarian’ position is down to how it has been implemented rather than the purpose it is supposed to serve in the life of the church.
In terms of what Christians must do, I would say that means regularly observing the physical rest from their regular labours that the day affords. They must also regularly worship with the gathered assembly of God’s people. Hebrews 10:25 tells us that we “must not forsake meeting together” and the same responsibilities that a believer has to serve those around them, including those who are in need, remain binding on the Sabbath as well.
This affords a significant amount of liberty for us, and I think it is summarised well in the answer offered to Q103 of the Heidelberg Catechism:
Q. What is God’s will for you in the fourth commandment?
A. First, that the gospel ministry and education for it be maintained, and that, especially on the festive day of rest, I diligently attend to the assembly of God’s people to learn what God’s word teaches, to participate in the sacraments, to pray to God publicly, and to bring Christian offerings for the poor. Second, that every day of my life, I rest from my evil ways, let the Lord work in me through His Spirit, and so begin in this life the eternal Sabbath.
Beyond this, Christians should see the day as a blessing, a gift given from God for our good, and they should seek to use it as much to that end as possible. They should also see it as an opportunity to show work colleagues and neighbours that they are a forward looking people, not owned by their jobs in the way so many are. Taking a break from work, meeting with the Lord and His people, eating and drinking together as a foretaste of the final Sabbath, having a snooze, using the time to read Scripture or theologically rich books, enjoying the chance to re-calibrate our lives around the One who is most important.
Where Christians need to work on the Lord’s Day to provide for their family, or out of some other necessity, or in the case of mercy and care for others, this too is right and proper. But when it comes to what they should not do, I think Christians err when they waste the day by neglecting, or allowing themselves to be distracted by lesser things.
5) How does your view of the Sabbath and/or Lord’s day shape…
a. ...the ministry of your church?
We encourage people to see Sunday as a day for the Lord and for His people. We meet in the morning for worship and we meet in the evenings for our weekly church prayer meeting. We also encourage people to practise hospitality in the day and occasional discipleship meetings might also happen in the afternoon. We want church members to see it as the old Puritan phrase described, ‘a market day for the soul’.
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 members to be committed to the formal gatherings of the church, and to see Sunday as the high point of the week. That said, the position I have outlined here is not a requirement for membership at Trinity West Church and there will be a divergence of views across the church.
c. ...your own practice as a Christian?
Our family sees Sunday as a day for the Lord and His people. We worship together in the mornings, we eat a great meal together, usually with others from the church, we go to the park, we might read together or watch Bible story DVDs (my children are young), I will go to the church prayer meeting and occasionally when we get a babysitter my wife will come too. We would self-consciously not ‘go shopping’ in the ‘doing the shopping’ sense but we have no problem using a shop. We would not watch something on T.V that prevented us being together as a family or missing a church service, but we might watch it at another time in the day. We don’t enrol our children in Sunday sports because it would mean missing church, but we might play sports at a different time in the day.
6) What relevance do you think the Sabbath has for our wider society?
This is an important question, not unrelated to the question above about the role of God’s law in society, that I don’t have space to address here. Wherever you stand in that discussion, I’m not sure anyone would disagree that a day of rest that challenges the two big corporate emotions of greed and fear, would be a good thing. A day where people can work on their relationships, where parents can spend undistracted time with their children, and where the church is given liberty to preach the Gospel of a God who has won eternal rest for those He loves through His Son, would be a good thing.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960).
- John Frame, Doctrine of the Christian Life, (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2008).
- J Douma, The Ten Commandments, trans. Nelson D. Kloosterman (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1996).
- D.A Carson (ed), From Sabbath to Lord’s Day (selected chapters), (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1999).
1. John M Frame, Doctrine of the Christian Life, (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2008) 532.
2. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960). 2.8.28. There is some discussion about whether Calvin’s position on the Sabbath changed between writing the Institutes and his sermons on Genesis.
3. Frame, Doctrine of the Christian Life, 558
4. To say that this privilege is abrogated in the New Covenant puts us in a worse position than those under the Old.
5. Calvin, Institutes, 2.8.33.
6. Frame, Doctrine of The Christian Life, 559
7. Frame, Doctrine of The Christian Life, 560