Reformed Theology

Christ Our Sabbath Rest

As it is the law of nature, that in general a proportion of time, by God’s appointment, be set apart for the worship of God, so by his Word, in 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 is called the Lord’s day: and is to be continued to the end of the world as the Christian Sabbath, the observation of the last day of the week being abolished.

The sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering their common affairs aforehand, do not only observe an holy rest all day, from their own works, words and thoughts, about their worldly employment and recreations, but are also taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy. 1689 London Baptist Confession, Chapter 22, paragraphs 7, 8

“Christ is our Sabbath Rest” is a common saying these days. But when it is said, “Christ is our Sabbath Rest,” it does not mean that it is okay for you to skip church and go to work on the Lord’s Day. In fact, even the phrase “Christ is our Sabbath Rest,” does not imply that the Sabbath is nullified, but changed, and actually helps to explain well the reason why Christians have historically sabbathed on Sunday instead of Saturday.

Did you know that “Christ is our Sabbath Rest” is not found in the pages of Scripture? So, to use this phrase requires that the speaker take the Scriptural responsibility to know the grounds for what’s behind it.

The Rest can only be found in Christ. That is the meaning of this saying. Because of the fact that we are saved only through the atoning work of Christ on the cross–and there is no rest for the wicked (Isaiah 57:21)–the only way someone can fulfill the Sabbath is in Christ. That is, Mormons, muslims, or even Jews who observe a weekly holy day are getting nowhere by it, although the commandment still applies to them because of the creation principle. It holds no justifying value for them.

Col. 2:16 (ESV) “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.”

Some use this verse to try to say that for Christians there should be no observance of days. The traditional Reformed interpretation of this is that the Sabbath mentioned here is not the Lord’s Day. According to the Reformation Study Bible, the Sabbath mentioned here is not the Jewish commemoration of the seventh day, but is pagan, superstitious, astrological, dealing with trying to appease “the gods”. This is the kind of superstition that says, “I can’t go outside today because of what my horoscope says,” is what’s being addressed.

Even if you concede that the Sabbath here is the seventh day, Old Testament Sabbath, verses 22 and 23 clearly state that the matters listed in this section deal with man-made religion, that is unscriptural religion, that religion that comes from teachings other than the Bible, so it would be talking about the Pharisaical practice of adding new “fine print” to the Old Testament law. Furthermore, if the teachings of the Judaizers is what’s in view here, then Paul is telling them they don’t have to observe the Sabbath on Saturday, not that they should not keep the Lord’s Day with the same reverence. He’s telling them they don’t have to feel bad when legalists come up to them and say that just because Jesus rose on the First day doesn’t mean they shouldn’t still go to synagogue on the Seventh and be home by sundown on Friday night (this scripture is an ideal proof text to use if you’re confronted by Seventh-Day Adventists).

Heb. 4:9-10 (ESV) “So then, 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.”

This in context refers to the the great Day of the Lord, that just as the Israelites were 40 years in the wilderness, being tried by fire, as it were, to see which of them would get to enter the promised land (cf. 3:18), so in our day, it is our metaphorical “40 years in the wilderness” through which we must fearfully persevere (4:1, 11), by God’s grace, and so be brought home, in the end, to our final rest before the throne of God above.

Just as the Sabbath was a weekly reminder for the Israelites that one day they would enter the Promised Land, and then it was kept as a reminder that one day they would rest in their Messiah, so even now, “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God”: a weekly reminder of what God has done in Creation and what God will do when he finally brings an end to all our toil.

The traditional Reformed view of the Lord’s Day (Sunday) is that it is the new Sabbath, that Christ’s resurrection on Sunday was such a universe-changing event that even the Sabbath was turned upside down! Just as we count years in B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini, in the year of our Lord), counting backwards before him and forwards after him, so the 7th day Sabbath looked backward to God’s works in the past, and the 1st day Sabbath commemorates the new rest we have in Christ, who sat down at the right hand of the Father, and also looks forward to the greater fulfillment which we will have when we finally enter into his rest. On Saturday when Jesus was in the grave, it was the last of the backward-looking Sabbaths, and Sunday when he rose, it was the first of the new Sabbaths. As the Saturday Sabbath commemorated Yahweh’s rest on the seventh day, so the Sunday Sabbath commemorates Yeshua’s rest on the first day.

Let us clarify some points here: Christ perfectly fulfilled the law. By picking heads of grain on the Sabbath or healing the sick on the Sabbath, he was not in fact breaking the law, but showing his Lordship over it as the perfect law-giver and the perfect law-keeper (see Ken Puls’s article in the Spring 2007 edition of Founders Journal). He told us it is lawful to do good works on the Sabbath. Here are some examples of occupations which are not unlawful to do your job on the Lord’s Day: pharmacists who provide access to life-saving medication, doctors, nurses, paramedics, firefighters, etc. Saving lives, or even simply bringing healing to the sick, is valid on the Lord’s Day. Taking care of your animals is also recognized as valid.

I am a software engineer and am on call for one week a few times a year, and on the Sunday of my week, I always get a call about something that’s wrong with one of the servers and I have to take some time to see that the issue is attended to. I regret having to do this, but it is a very rare thing, and I must provide for my family. Paul says a man who does not provide for his own household is worse than reprobate, in other words, there is a special spot in hell reserved just for him. The New Testament does not provide the same sort of condemnation for work-related emergencies that occur on the Sabbath. Furthermore, I am on salary, and when I am on-call on the Lord’s Day, I am not actually making extra money for doing that, which I think is a significant point to make. There is an effort to build a new support-focused engineering team at my work which would be solely responsible for the on-call duties. Each member of this team would be on-call one out of every three or four weeks. That is a team that I cannot be on, no matter how qualified I may be for it.

As R.C. Sproul says, “Commerce just for the sake of merchandising ought to cease on the Sabbath.”

In other words, in an ideal world, I shouldn’t get a call about servers being down on Sunday because no one should be on the site (this is not necessarily the case because our selling products offer scheduling features, and our buying tools also provide automated bidding, so our servers could be slammed even if no one is logged on).

It’s one thing to stop by the pharmacy or make a diapers-and-milk run on Sunday. It’s another thing to make Sunday your shopping day.

Now I want to make a point about recreation. The 1689 London Baptist Confession says recreation is not allowed on the Lord’s Day. I disagree with the inclusion of the word “recreation” here because it is clearly not found in Scripture, and Scripture Alone should be our standard (I also recognized the possibility that “recreation” meant something different in 17th-century England than it does on 21st-century America). The creation institution of the Sabbath implies rest, but not sloth or laziness. We are supposed to not be working for financial gain. But we are supposed to be spending time with our families, in fellowship with other believers, or even enjoying God’s creation by hiking around in it. Even the legalist Pharisees invented a measurement called the “Sabbath-day’s walk”, which identified just how far you could go on the Sabbath, and even orthodox Jews to this day, you will find them enjoying walks with their families on their Saturday Sabbath, within the bounds of their clearly-marked neighborhoods. Jesus himself took walks on the Sabbath, and not within the confines of neatly-paved cities. I don’t think it would be possible for you to argue that his Sabbath-day-journeys were only on the way to the synagogue and then back home. He was probably visiting friends and family, going to barbecues, or maybe even just enjoying the Providentially beautiful weather and landscapes.

When I lived in Malibu our Lord’s days were spent with morning worship at church, and then we’d go to Little Dume and surf all afternoon, and then go back to church for evening worship. It was a great time of fellowship with fellow believers, and I think that’s a valid way of commemorating the Lord’s Day.


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