The topic to which we desire to devote a few moments is not a new one. However, we do believe that it is one in which we ought to be periodically instructed and continually admonished. Sabbath observance, as we are all well aware, can be a rather touchy subject. In discussing it one can discern a wide spectrum of opinions regarding it, ranging from legalism to antinomianism. Yet, we believe that if one has a truly scriptural understanding of it, both the extremes can be avoided and one can walk soberly before God with regard to the fourth commandment. Therefore, it is our purpose to take a brief survey of the idea of the Sabbath as found in Holy Writ and, in conclusion, to come to some understanding regarding its observance.
We do well to begin at the beginning, that is, with the Sabbath of the week of creation. The institution of the Sabbath belongs to the creation narrative, and it is unfortunate that the chapter division between Genesis 1and Genesis 2 does not reflect this. It is certainly a mistake to sever the seventh day from the foregoing six. The Scriptures themselves point to this when they proclaim that God ended His work which He had made on the seventh day. Also the numbers involved dictate this to us. Never in the Bible is the number six attributed to God but always to man apart from God. The number six symbolizes that which is incomplete, where as the number seven always designates completion. The week of God is one complete unity or whole and must be characterized by the number seven. This points us to the fact that the creation of all things finds its completion and purpose in the rest of God. The whole creation is linked to God in the seventh day. Although God pronounced all things to be good on the individual days of the creation week, His blessing was upon the seventh day in which He entered into the rest of enjoying His work.
We read, “. . . God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work. . .” (Gen. 2:3) We must come to a correct understanding of the rest in which God engaged. In so doing we must be aware that it has to be in harmony with the very being and nature of the living God. Most generally the word rest, or more literally Sabbath, means to sit down or to sit still; but in addition to this meaning of inactivity it can also mean to cease or to desist. We immediately perceive that the first meaning can never apply to the living God Who is continuously and constantly active, yet never fainting. Thus it must be clear that on the seventh day God ceased—left off—doing one thing only to continue another activity. The activity of resting! If we understand the idea of rest with regard to the Sabbath in this manner, as we must, then a common fallacy falls by the wayside. That is, the misunderstanding that Sunday ought to be a lazy day of inactivity. On the contrary, God continued active in His rest. We must be busy upon the Sabbath. Yet, that business must be a ceasing from our every day routine, even as God left off creating.
Thus understanding the idea of rest, we read that? God bestows His blessing upon the seventh day. God’s blessing is tantamount to His favor. Where the blessing of God resides there is prosperity, benefit and true happiness. Therefore, God’s blessing is a characteristic of the Sabbath. We understand, of course, that the blessedness of favor of God upon the Sabbath must be for the benefit of man. For it is nonsensical to speak of a blessed day in the abstract. God made the Sabbath day a day of happiness and benefit to man. The Sabbath was made for man, as he is God’s king-servant of the whole creation.
In addition to blessing this day, God also sanctifies it. To sanctify means to make holy or to consecrate toward a certain purpose. Even as the priests in the old dispensation had their mitre engraved with the words “holiness unto the Lord,” or as the child of God sets himself apart from the world in a life of sanctification, so God made this day holy, separating it unto a certain purpose. And that purpose was that He might rest in the enjoyment of His creation. So also, the Sabbath day is sanctified for man that he may in a special way concentrate all his attention upon God and His glory!
All this will be made yet clearer to us as we see the idea of the Sabbath in connection with the scheme of the ceremonial laws of the nation of Israel. The obligation to keep the Sabbath was formally given to Israel when the voice of the Lord thundered down from Mt. Sinai in that form of the fourth commandment. The time and place in which it was given to Israel, are significant. The Israelites stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Behind them was the miraculous exodus out of the bondage house of Egypt, ahead of them was the long journey through the wilderness and finally the entrance into Canaan. The writer to the Hebrews instructs us as to this significance. As he is fond of doing, so here, he connects for us the Old Testament type with the reality or antitype. In the fourth chapter he speaks of the, eternal rest which we have in Jesus Christ. But in so doing, he makes reference to the Old Testament picture by quoting from Psalm 95:11 where we read, “unto whom I sware in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest.” This reference is to the dire oath which shut the Israelites out of the land of Canaan. Canaan was the Sabbath land. The ordinances of Leviticus 25make this very clear. For six years they were permitted to sow but the seventh year the land had to rest. Seven times seven years or the forty-ninth year was the year of jubilee in which each man would return to his possessions and family. It was the Sabbath land as a picture of heaven! Toward this land Israel journeyed, being afforded one day in seven to rest and, pause, to meditate upon their promised inheritance.
But the writer to the Hebrews does not let us stop here. We must not remain with the type and picture but moveon to the reality. Let us read Heb. 4:8, 9, “For if Jesus (i.e. Joshua) had given them rest, then would he not afterward have spoken of another day. There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God.” This rest is not the rest of Paradise from which Adam fell, not the rest of Canaan into which Joshua led Israel, but the rest of heaven into which Christ leads His people. What a beautiful progression in the revelation of God unto us.
The book of Hebrews again draws a striking parallel. Let us notice verse 10, “For he (Christ) that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works as God did from his.” As God created first, then entered into the enjoyment of His works and as Israel journeyed and then possessed the promised land, so also Christ labored in order to enter in. And the labors of Jesus Christ were the labors He performed as the Servant of Jehovah. That is, Christ labored in the work of our redemption from His birth to His death. We do well to consider carefully and ponder at length the labors which Christ performed on our behalf! From these labors Christ ceased. He left off laboring when He had completely borne away the burden of God’s wrath and righteous indignation against our sins. And He sanctified Himself for our sakes, that we might be sanctified through the truth. And thus He made the eternal Sabbath a blessing unto us in Him.
Christ entered into that rest at His ascension. Yet, for us entering into that rest must wait because this flesh and blood cannot inherit heaven. Christ received His glorified body at His resurrection but we must wait until we are changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. Yet, His resurrection is the earnest of ours, and Christ being in heaven is a sure pledge for us.
All this means, of course, that we principally partake of that eternal Sabbath even now. The heavenly Sabbath extends into time. It is exactly this that is the force of that beautiful 103rd answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, “. . . that all the days of my life I cease from my evil works, and yield myself to the Lord, to work by His Holy Spirit in me; and thus begin in this life the eternal Sabbath.” For Christ has sanctified us unto that Sabbath, The old man of sin no longer has any control over us, but we are free in Christ. Israel has to labor in order to partake of the typical rest, but our labors have been completed by Christ, for He fulfilled the law for us. Therefore we walk in sanctification seven days a week!
We would be grossly negligent if we did not apply some of what we have learned to the proper observance of our Sabbath days. Though it is not our purpose, we may point out that we ought to observe the first and not the last day of the week. Many arguments are put forth against this. Some cleave to the original institution, others tell us that Paul admonishes us not to esteem one day above another, etc. Yet we must notice: God created and rested, Israel journeyed and entered in, Christ labored and ascended into His rest; but our labor has been completed in Jesus Christ. Therefore we celebrate the first day of the week upon the basis of Christ’s completed labor. And for this occasion we meet in God’s house to be replenished with water from the rock, Jesus Christ, to sustain us during the week ahead, that we may fulfill the admonition of the Heidelberg Catechism, as we noted earlier.
Yet the question remains: how must we celebrate the Sabbath day? It is true that we principally observe every day as Sunday, yet practically we rest one day and labor for six days. Returning a minute to the type and picture, we might ask ourselves the following. Where are we? In Egypt? In Canaan? No! We have been delivered from the bondage of sin of which Egypt was a picture. But we are not yet in heaven, the real land flowing with milk and honey. We are in the wilderness journey of this life, as pilgrims and strangers wending our way toward our homeland. On our journey the Lord gives us one day in seven to rest. Sunday is an oasis in the midst of a dry desert land. This means, that we certainly ought to “rest” on Sunday. By this we mean that we must cease from our daily labors and take our minds off the carnal and earthly cares of our lives. It is improper to use Sunday as a physical rest day in order that we may feverishly labor during the week to accumulate earthly gain. Nor must we contemplate on Sunday how to make a “fast buck” on Monday. We ought to realize and our children made to understand, that on Sunday, in a special and different way, the emphasis is upon the eternal Sabbath.
Oh, we know that we are often guilty of the sin we abhor so much in our children when they ask, what may or may I not do on Sunday? May I ride my bicycle, take a pleasure ride? Must I go to church once or twice on Sunday? And the list could be compounded, as we well know. Let’s be positive, shall we. If we are in doubt as to any of these things, let us stand before the face of the Most High and answer in His presence the following question. Is this which I am about to do on Sunday conducive toward making me concentrate upon God and the eternal rest which He has prepared in Christ? Or does it serve my own carnal pleasure? Let’s not see what we can “get away with” on Sunday but how we can make it spiritually more beneficial to us. Then the day which God has sanctified will be a blessing to us.