This article is part of a three-view forum on the Sabbath command.
There’s a traditional Scottish folk melody titled “The Cockerel in the Creel,” composed by Donald MacLeod. He recalls his grandmother—who lived on the still-largely-Sabbatarian Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides—on Saturday nights, chasing the cockerel, or rooster, around the yard with the creel (a netted basket used for crab and lobster fishing). Once caught, there the poor cockerel would stay until Monday morning, lest he find employment on the Sabbath day.
This quaint picture, shading toward caricature, raises for many the specter of legalism cast by the very idea of Sabbath-keeping. While Jesus and his disciples picked the ears of corn on the Sabbath and ate them without sin, woe betide the unsuspecting cockerel who did what came naturally on the Lord’s Day! That can’t possibly be right, can it? And so, by appeal to an all too common reductio ad absurdum, we dismiss the very idea—Christians keeping the Sabbath holy—as sharing more of the spirit of the Pharisee than of Christ.
In the face of these caricatures, I’d like to argue that the Scriptures do in fact teach the abiding obligation of Sabbath observance. But far from being legalistic or harsh, the Lord’s Day ought to be a source of joy and restoration for Christians. It offers a powerful, countercultural witness to a world ensnared by the frenetic pace of digital life.
Reading the Same Bible Differently
Before examining arguments in support of our continued obligation to keep the Sabbath, we need to back up and address some basic methodological differences that influence how we read the Bible. The first has to do with whether we read the theology and ethics of the Old and New Testaments with a primary hermeneutic of continuity or discontinuity.
Far from being legalistic or harsh, the Lord’s Day ought to be a source of joy and restoration for Christians. It offers a powerful, counter-cultural witness to a world ensnared by the frenetic pace of digital life.
Surely many would acknowledge that those more influenced by dispensational theology, or by the Baptist tradition more broadly, tend to read the Old and the New Testaments with an emphasis on discontinuity. The new covenant is new ethically, ecclesiologically, and soteriologically. On the other hand, those more influenced by covenant theology, or by Reformed paedobaptist traditions, tend to find more continuity between the covenants. The old covenant is old externally and formally, but the inner spiritual core is essentially the same. The difference between the Old and the New is similar to a seed and a flower, rather than to a fish and a chocolate bar.
While it’s beyond the scope of this article to resolve these complex issues, it’s worth keeping in mind how different starting points color our different conclusions. For myself, Augustine’s oft-quoted maxim remains helpful: “The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed.” In my judgment, there is a fundamental continuity between the covenants.
A related issue has to do with an interpretive principle that the Westminster Confession of Faith calls good and necessary consequence:
The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture. (WCF, 1.6)
In other words, what kind of scriptural proof is sufficient when deciding matters of theological dispute? Prooftexts alone? Only doctrines “expressly set down in Scripture”? Or should we also gather together the pertinent scriptural data and draw conclusions from them that are “good and necessary”? Here, the Westminster Confession is arguing for a whole-Bible approach to theological questions. To be blunt, if you do not believe that principles articulated in the Old Testament continue into the New (unless we can demonstrate from the New that they have ceased)—and unless you believe that convictions on matters of doctrine and ethics are formed by explicit statements and necessary deductions and inferences from the whole Bible—then you will not likely be persuaded by traditional arguments for the abiding obligation to keep the Sabbath.
Case for Continued Sabbath Observance
What, then, are the main contours of a scriptural case for the continuing obligation to keep the Sabbath?
First, the Sabbath is not merely a Mosaic institution, but a creation ordinance (Gen. 2:2–3). Like marriage and the so-called cultural mandate, the Sabbath day is not a distinctive of Israelite society, but an abiding principle for the good of all people. As Jesus put it, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The Sabbath’s location at the end of the workweek signaled to Adam the promise of eschatological rest, into which his obedience would have ushered creation. But his sin brought the opposite: pain, thorns, and toil (Gen. 3:16–19).
Nevertheless, the Sabbath day—and the promise of rest it embodies—continued. It was enshrined both in the Ten Commandments, the moral core of God’s expectations for all who live in covenant with him (Ex. 20; Deut. 5), as well as in the calendar of Israel’s pilgrim feats (e.g., the Day of Atonement in Lev. 16:23) and civil code (e.g. the Year of Jubilee in Lev. 25). That the Sabbath remained at the end of the week reminds us of the Mosaic law’s pedagogical function (Gal. 3:24). Rest came after work, as if to reinforce the call to “keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them” (Lev. 18:5). But such obedience always eludes us. So God’s law makes it clear, by highlighting our sinful inability to obey, that if we are to obtain Sabbath rest then he must provide it. The refrain of Judges points in that direction. When the people cried out in their helplessness, God raised up deliverers who rescued them so that “the land had rest” (Judg. 3:11, 30; 5:31; 8:28). Rest comes not through Israel’s flawed obedience, but through the Deliverer.
Rest comes not through Israel’s flawed obedience, but through the Deliverer.
And so when Jesus came at last, he declared: “Come to me, all 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” (Matt. 11:28–29). Jesus inaugurates the rest symbolized and promised in the Sabbath. He is “Lord of the Sabbath” (Luke 6:5), the one who gives us rest. This is what the author of Hebrews meant when he said that “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Heb. 4:9–10). We rest in Christ’s work for us and cease from all dependence on our own efforts.
But if in Christ we receive the spiritual reality signified and promised in the Sabbath, does the weekly observance of one whole day for worship and rest no longer obtain? Some, arguing along these lines, point to Colossians 2:16–17, where Paul insists that the conscience of the Christian is free in matters related to “food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.” Christ is the substance to which the shadows point. Doesn’t this text prove that Sabbath observance can no longer be required of Christians?
We agree, of course, that the ceremonial laws have been fulfilled in Christ. Thus they’ve been either radically transformed or abrogated entirely. Yet given the prominence of the Sabbath principle and its symbolic role in creation and redemption, is Paul best understood as removing all obligation to observe one day for rest and worship?
In the Greek of Colossians 2:16, Paul actually speaks of sabbaths plural, not the Sabbath singular, likely indicating additional Sabbaths, such as Sabbatical years and Sabbaths of the land (e.g., Lev. 25:2–13). In Paul’s mind, the Christian is free from the extended complex of Sabbatical regulation, not from the weekly observance of a Sabbath day. Even if we insist he’s including the weekly Sabbath, he’s focusing on the ongoing observation of the distinctively Jewish seventh day. He was responding, after all, to the Judaizing tendency that troubled the Colossian church. However we read it, then, the text says nothing whatsoever about the status and character of Sunday observance. We ought to take a second look at our rejection of Sabbatarianism if this is the only passage on which our dismissal rests.
In Paul’s mind, the Christian is free from the extended complex of Sabbatical regulation, not from the weekly observance of a Sabbath day.
Jesus certainly didn’t seem to understand his coming as the end of the Sabbath obligation. Instead, he cleared the Sabbath of legalistic accretions, regularly teaching that deeds of necessity and mercy are lawful on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1–13; Mark 3:4; Luke 13:10–17). By calling himself Lord of the Sabbath, surely he wasn’t expunging the Sabbath obligation from the moral law, or eradicating from the piety of his people a weekly day of rest and worship that had obtained since Adam left Eden. Why teach so carefully and so extensively about true Sabbath-keeping if he had no expectation that his disciples would continue observing a weekly Sabbath day? Honestly, I’ve never understood why some are so attentive to our Savior’s exposition of all the other commandments in God’s moral law, but then so quickly dismiss his exposition on the fourth commandment.
It certainly doesn’t appear that the first believers felt this way. The church began meeting for sacred assembly not on the seventh day of the week—as God’s people had done until Christ’s resurrection—but on the first day. If the seventh day continued as the Sabbath, it would have been unthinkable for the early believers to consecrate a sacred assembly for weekly worship on any other day—given that their assemblies were so closely modeled on the weekly assemblies of the synagogues from which they had emerged. But in point of fact, we read of the disciples assembling on the first day of the week “where we gathered to break bread”—surely an allusion to the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7).
In 1 Corinthians 16:1–2, after discussing corporate worship in the Corinthian congregations, Paul urges them to set aside financial gifts on the first day of the week. This, he says, was not a novel instruction; he had previously directed the Galatians and, we can assume, other churches to do the same. Instead of depositing gifts in the temple treasury or synagogue on Saturdays, now their gifts are to be given to the church when it gathers on the first day. John too spoke of being “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10). This is the day over which Christ declared himself especially to be Lord, the Christian Sabbath—no longer the seventh day but the first, the day of resurrection.
The covenant people of God now assemble on the day the light was created and when Jesus, the Light of the world, “brought life and immortality to light” (2 Tim. 1:10) through his victory over death. The first day, the dawn of new creation in the resurrection of Christ, is now our day of sacred assembly and joyful Sabbath rest. Now we begin the week, resting on the obedience of the second Adam who did what the first did not and we could not. He kept the law for us and has himself entered God’s Sabbath. And now he welcomes us into that rest on the basis of his work and not our own.
Day for Rest and Day of Rest
Our continuing obligation to observe the Sabbath day holds out to us the promise of a final Sabbath rest to come in the new creation. In practicing Christian hospitality, in breaking from otherwise lawful employments, in turning off the TV to read, rest, and gather with God’s people, in acts of necessity and mercy, we observe a day of rest and gladness—ordained by God for our good.
Let a quiet and happy Sabbath observance awaken in you a longing for the fuller, deeper rest that will come when all our striving with sin is done, the work is at last complete, and we enter into our heavenly Sabbath. Until that day dawns, joyful Sabbatarianism can be a wonderful testimony to life governed by the Word of God and not the demands of the world.
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