In previous articles we have been examining the Ten Commandments from this viewpoint, that in the Commandments God reveals Himself to His people in all His glory. The Commandments, therefore, are not mere arbitrary precepts for our life, but a ten-fold (and therefore complete) lesson in God’s perfections and in our calling to be perfect us He is perfect (Matt. 5:48). This is also the great reason why the Ten Commandments, as a summary of God’s whole law, are of abiding significance for us, so that it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one small letter of the law to fail (Luke 16:17).
In the way of understanding what God reveals of Himself in each Commandment, the people of God are equipped to confess His Name and show forth His glory not only in word but also in deed. Thus, in worshiping Him alone, as the First Commandment requires, and refusing to trust in or love anything or anyone else beside Him, they confess in word and deed that He is the only true God and that there is none like Him. By heeding the Second Commandment and worshiping Him without any images or representations, and only as He has commanded in His Word, they show that He is a Spirit, the God Whose glory is so great that no man has seen Him or can see Him at any time. In using His Name, according to the Third Commandment, with careful reverence, and by forsaking and condemning all swearing, cursing, and blasphemy, they acknowledge everywhere that He is a holy God, separate from all evil, as the light from the darkness. Their obedience, then, is not only submission to the sovereign will of God, but the means by which they begin to fulfill the whole purpose of their existence as a redeemed and sanctified people, in showing forth God’s praises (Is. 43:21).
It is, perhaps, especially important that we see God’s self-revelation in the Fourth Commandment, the Commandment concerning the Sabbath. Also in the keeping of the Sabbath, as required by the Fourth Commandment, there is the opportunity and privilege of honoring and glorifying God. This must be emphasized at such a time as this in which we live, when the Sabbath is almost universally forgotten and despised, even among Christians. It is the failure to see God’s self-revelation in the Fourth Commandment that stands as the reason why some still keep the seventh-day Sabbath of the Old Testament and not the first-day Sabbath of the New. It is also the reason why others, who would never think of blaspheming God’s Name, or of holding other gods beside Him, do fail entirely in the matter of Sabbath observance.
Such disregard of the Sabbath is not only a great evil, but also a great loss among Christians, since the revelation that God gives of Himself. in the Fourth Commandment is of special value and joy for God’s people. The Commandment itself indicates this, for it is one of only two commandments in the law which is expressed positively rather than negatively. Instead of merely saying, “Thou shalt not . . . ,” the Fourth Commandment tells us to remember the Sabbath, and in connection with the Sabbath to remember something about God Himself and His glory, which is of incalculable value for us.
That which we must remember about God in our observance of the Fourth Commandment is the beautiful truth that He is a covenant-making and covenant-keeping God, and, along with this, the truth that as a covenant God He is the God of rest in Whom alone we find rest for our weary souls.
That the Sabbath is indeed a revelation of God’s covenant is clear from such passages as Leviticus 26:2, Nehemiah 9:14, and Isaiah 56:1, but especially from Exodus 31:13-17 where God calls the Sabbath a sign of the covenant between Himself and His people forever. And, as a sign of the covenant, the Sabbath is also a sign that God is the God Who sanctifies His people, thus causing them to rest from all their own sinful works (Ex. 31:13, Heb. 4:10).
In order to understand our Sabbath duties, therefore, we must know what it means that God is a covenant God. Above all we must know from Scripture that the essence of the covenant is friendship or fellowship with God. This is usually expressed in Scripture in terms of God’s dwelling with and being the God of His people and taking them into His own life (Gen. 17:7, Ps. 25:14, II Cor. 6:16, James 2:23, Rev. 21:3, etc.). But we must also understand that God is a covenant God in Himself. He does not need us either to be a covenant-making or a covenant-keeping God. The fellowship of the covenant is first of all a fellowship that He has with Himself; and the covenant is always “My covenant,” not only because it has its origin and security in Him, but because it is the covenant of His own life in Himself and with Himself.
It is the doctrine of the Trinity which helps us to understand this. In the tri-personality of God, that He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, there is the possibility of fellowship within His own divine Being. In the unity of the three Persons in God we find the very essence of the fellowship that God, as a covenant God, has with Himself. All His life in Himself is of the Father, through the Son, and by the Holy Spirit, a life of perfect friendship (cf. Prov. 8:30, John 1:18, I Cor. 2:10, Rom. 8:27).
That He is a covenant God means also that He is a God of rest, for in the fellowship that He has with Himself as the Three-Personed God He has perfect rest. That He “rests” means that there is no toil, struggle, or strife in God, but perfect harmony, perfect peace, and perfect joy (Ex. 31:17, Prov. 8:30, Matt. 3:17, John 1:18), and because He has perfect rest, He also has perfect fellowship in Himself.
We learn this first in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 where we read for the first time of God’s rest. We ought to read the first three verses of chapter 2 with chapter 1. That His works were “very good” means that there was harmony and order and perfection in all that He has made, reflecting the harmony of His own life as Father, Son, and Spirit, and the orderly perfection of His own Triune Being. And that He found His own works good (Gen. 1:31), and blessed them (Gen. 1:22, 28), and rejoiced in them (Ps. 104:30, 31), is simply another way of saying “God rested.”
It is that covenant of fellowship and rest that God reveals to us. He causes us to “rest” from all our sins through the work of His beloved Son (Matt. 11:28-30, Rom. 5:1), and thus establishes a new basis for covenant fellowship and friendship with us. Through Christ, the Rest-giver, He takes us into His own life (II Pet. 1:4), dwells with us and in us (II Cor. 6:16, Col. 2:9, 10), and has fellowship with us (I John 1:3).
He revealed that covenant of fellowship and rest first of all to our father Adam, and to us through him, but only to show by way of contrast how much better is the rest that we have in Christ and how much closer is the fellowship that we have with God in Him. In Christ we have a deeper appreciation for the rest that we have in God’s fellowship, for we enter into that rest out of sin and death, through the miracle of the incarnation and dying of God’s own Son. Thus Isaiah reminds us, “His rest shall be glorious” (Isaiah 11:10).
It is through the gift of the Sabbath especially that we are able to enjoy that rest and that fellowship of God’s covenant now. The Sabbath of the covenant is still the great sign between God and His people of the rest and refreshment that they have in His fellowship and friendship. The very word “Sabbath” means “rest,” and so long as God in Christ gives rest to His people, the Sabbath will be the sign of that rest. It is, therefore, a sign of God’s covenant forever. That is why the glory of the saints in heaven can still be called a Sabbath, as it is in our Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day XXXVIII, 103). That glory is the “rest” which still remains for the people of God (Heb. 4:9). There they are forever blessed, for there, as the Spirit Himself says, they may rest from their labors (Rev. 14:13). There every day shall be a day to walk with God and to see Him face to face in the face of Jesus Christ (I Cor. 13:12, II Cor. 4:6). Then the promise of the covenant shall be fulfilled perfectly, and God will dwell with His people, and they shall be His people, and He Himself shall be with them, and be their God in His own tabernacle, which is the glorified body of our Lord Jesus Christ (John 2:19-21, Rev. 21:22) with Whom we are one bone and one flesh.
Now, however, God gives us one day out of every seven to enjoy these blessings. On that day, through the preaching of the Gospel, we hear the voice of Jesus calling, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” On that day more than any other we are in the Spirit (Rev. 1:10) to enjoy through the Spirit the life of God Himself as He reveals to us His glory. On that day, we may set aside, with God’s approval, the weary labors of our life in the world, which came originally as part of the curse and which so often draw us away from God (Gen. 3:17-19). On that day also, in the communion of Christ and His people, we cease from our evil works and yield ourselves to the Lord.
In a certain sense we do this all the days of our life, but, nonetheless, especially on that one day that God in His mercy has given to us. It is, therefore, no accident that the risen Christ, Who rose from the dead to prove that we have rest and peace and fellowship with God (Rom. 4:25), arose on one specific day, and also appeared to His church for the first time in person, as He continues to appear through His Word on that day. Nor is it mere coincidence that the Spirit was poured out for the first time to give salvation and joy to God’s people on that day also. Just as God chose one day in the Old Testament, the seventh, to reveal Himself as the God of rest in His works of creation and preparation for salvation, so also He chooses one day in the New Testament, the first, to reveal Himself as the God of rest in His works of redemption.
That day is a day for remembering that we were slaves in the house of bondage, and that the Lord brought us out through a mighty hand and a stretched out arm, to dwell with Him and be His people forever. It is a day to praise Him as our Savior and Friend. Therefore the Lord has commanded us to keep the Sabbath, and not to lay heavy burdens on us (Deut. 5:15). With joy we respond to His Commandment and sing:
A thousand other days can yield
No gladness like one day with Thee;
Tho’ only at Thy door I wait
No tents of sin give joy so great.
(Psalter No. 229:5)
We wait at the door because the morning of the eternal Sabbath has not yet dawned. But even while waiting at the door, we take hold of God’s covenant of grace by calling the Sabbath a delight (Is. 56:1, 6).