Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin.
Foundational to a proper understanding of the Sabbath is a right view of God’s covenant. God made the Sabbath for man (Mark 2:27)—specifically, for His covenant people. He gave Israel the Sabbath as a sign of His covenant (Ex. 31:13). The rest that we enjoy on the Sabbath is covenant rest.
It follows that a wrong view of the covenant will negatively affect our view of the Sabbath. If God’s covenant with Old Testament Israel is essentially different than His relationship to His New Testament church, does the fourth commandment apply to Christians at all? Or, if God’s covenant with us is conditioned on our faith and/or obedience, can I truly enjoy the rest that God provides, of which the Sabbath speaks?
God’s covenant is the bond of fellowship that He sovereignly, graciously, and unconditionally establishes and maintains in Jesus Christ with elect sinners (Gen. 17:7; Ps. 89:19-37; Jer. 31:31-34). It is an everlasting covenant (Gen. 17:7, 19; II Sam. 23:5; Is. 55:3; Heb. 13:20). Our part in the covenant is not to help God establish or maintain it, but to live as those who are in it, by obeying God’s law out of gratitude (Gen. 17:1-2; Ex. 19:4-6; Ex. 20:1-17).
The child of God who appreciates the wonder of God in establishing and maintaining this covenant relationship, and who desires to enjoy covenant fellowship with God, will therefore want to observe the weekly Sabbath, will strive properly to keep it, and will long to enjoy the everlasting Sabbath in heaven.
The True Nature of the Sabbath—Covenant Rest
The rest that God gives His people on the Sabbath Day is the rest of the covenant.
That the Sabbath is a day of rest is clear from three considerations. First, the word “sabbath” means “rest.” Second, God called Israel’s weekly Sabbath “the sabbath of rest” (Ex. 31:15, 35:2; Lev. 23:3; see also Ex. 16:23). Third, God’s law prescribes that on the Sabbath Day we rest from our ordinary daily labor (Ex. 20:10; Deut. 5:14).
Although God’s law requires us to cease from our ordinary labors, the true nature of the Sabbath rest is not physical, to be enjoyed in the body, but spiritual, to be enjoyed in the soul.
He who thinks of Sunday as merely a day of physical recreation, or a day on which to catch up on sleep, does not understand the true nature of the Sabbath rest. He who thinks that going to church twice is in itself the keeping of the Sabbath, and so ignores the opportunity that the Sabbath provides to grow in grace by private study and devotion, and to manifest one’s love to fellow saints, does not enjoy the true Sabbath rest deeply enough.
For the true nature of the Sabbath rest is the enjoyment of salvation from sin!
The consciousness of sin destroys all possibility of rest. God judges sin by burdening man with the guilt of sin, withholding inner peace and true happiness, and causing man to experience that he has been separated from God, the source of true life and joy.
Some bear this just judgment of God throughout their entire earthly life, and to eternity. But to His people God gives deliverance in and by Jesus Christ, in the form of rest. The rest that the Messiah gives is glorious (Is. 11:10). Jesus identifies this rest as being rest for our souls—rest from the heavy toil and burden of sin (Matt. 11:28-29). God gives this rest by assuring His people that He does not declare us guilty of sin, but has imputed to us Christ’s righteousness on the basis of His atoning death. Therefore we have peace with God (Rom. 5:1) and the enjoyment of His favor and covenant fellowship.
Already in the Old Testament, God showed that salvation from sin and enjoyment of covenant fellowship with Him is true rest.
Israel enjoyed this rest typically by dwelling in Canaan, which Moses called “the rest and . . . the inheritance which the LORD your God giveth you” (Deut. 12:9). God also indicated that Canaan would be a place of rest, by swearing that those who manifested their unbelief when they heard the evil report of the ten spies should not enter into His rest (Ps. 95:11). Canaan’s rest stood in direct contrast to Egypt’s bondage. Egypt’s bondage depicted our bondage to sin; Canaan’s rest typified our fellowship with God in Jesus Christ.
Israel enjoyed this rest in Canaan only in the way of obedience to God, which obedience manifests covenant fellowship with God. Repeatedly Israel found that, though she lived in the place of promised rest, God judged her sins by sending the nations against her to bring her into bondage. Only in the way of repentance, and through the work of the judges as pictures of Christ, did she again have rest (Josh. 3:11; Josh. 3:30; Josh. 5:31). To Israel under David and Solomon God gave rest, for these kings directed Israel in the fear of God (II Sam. 7:1; I Kings 5:4). Israel’s rest from earthly enemies and her freedom to serve Jehovah according to His commands were pictures of our being delivered from Satan’s power, into the service of God again. Her rest was not that of inactivity, but of worshiping God in His tabernacle and living in holy fellowship with Him.
Even before the fall, Adam enjoyed true covenant rest in the form of fellowship with God, and in the way of obedience to God’s law. Genesis 2:15 says: “And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.” The Hebrew word here translated “put” means literally “caused to rest”: God caused Adam to rest in Eden. Commenting on this verse, Keil and Delitzsch write that Adam “was placed there to lead a life of repose, not indeed in inactivity, but in fulfilment of the course assigned him, which was very different from the trouble and restlessness of the weary toil into which he was plunged by sin.”* Adam’s rest was not that of idleness, of lying down on the ground and watching the clouds go by, for Adam was to dress and keep the garden. And it was not the rest of deliverance from enemies, and from sin’s bondage, for he had not yet sinned. It was, however, true covenant rest— that of enjoying covenant fellowship with God in the way of serving God perfectly.
Adam’s rest in Eden, and Israel’s rest in the earthly Canaan, point us to the rest that awaits us in heaven. The inspired writer to the Hebrews speaks of a rest of which Canaan was a picture, and which still remains to the people of God (Gen. 4:1-11). This rest is clearly spiritual, for it is appropriated by faith in the word of the gospel (Gen. 4:2– 3). It will be the rest that the people of God enjoy, of ceasing from sin, of being bothered no longer by Satan, and of being devoted to God forever, serving Him in love and obedience.
This is the nature of the Sabbath rest!
No Reformed believer may think otherwise. Not only must each one confess that the Sabbath rest consists of enjoying the spiritual blessings of God’s covenant, but each one does confess this. For in the Heidelberg Catechism’s explanation of the fourth commandment, the believer confesses the necessity of diligently attending church. Then he says: “Secondly, 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” (A. 103). The Westminster Confession of Faith makes essentially the same point: “This Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men . . . are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of his worship . . .” (Ch. 21, Art. 8). Underscoring that the Sabbath rest is not one of inactivity, the Westminster Larger Catechism (A. 119) and Shorter Catechism (A. 61) identify “the profaning of the day by idleness” as a sin forbidden by this commandment. A cursory glance at the fourth commandment would not lead to this conclusion—after all, the commandment prohibits us to work! But the reason for the prohibition of earthly labor is that we might have time to enjoy spiritual rest.
What rest can I enjoy, if God’s covenant is conditioned on any activity of mine? If the enjoyment of this rest depends even in part on me, I cannot enjoy it in this life, for until I die I must be fulfilling the conditions. Even then, I cannot confidently expect to enjoy it in the next, for the possibility exists that I fall short of fulfilling my part. Holding to a conditional covenant, one cannot properly view the Sabbath as an opportunity to begin to enter into this rest already now, and to enjoy a picture of the complete rest that awaits. Rather, the Sabbath must be a weekly reminder that I have not yet entered that rest, and must work to do so. Then, instead of a day of rest and joy, a day to praise Jehovah for saving us, the weekly Sabbath becomes the very opposite—a day of toil, a day to lament our inability to save ourselves, or a day in praise of man’s ability to contribute to his salvation. Then we would expect the fourth commandment to have read something like this: “Be sure to work twice as hard on the Sabbath as you do on any other day; for even though God delivered you from Egypt, He will not bring you into Canaan; you must find the way there yourself.”
Totally depraved man can never fulfill such conditions. But because God’s grace is given irresistibly and completely, we are not required to do so. The Sabbath is a day to enjoy the salvation God gives.
The Instituted Sabbath—Covenant Sign
Because the true Sabbath rest is the covenant rest, God instituted the Sabbaths in the Old Testament as signs of His covenant: “Verily my sabbaths ye shall keep: for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that ye may know that I am the LORD that doth sanctify you . . . . Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant” (Ex. 31:13, 16; cf. also Ezek. 20:12, 20). God promises blessing to those eunuchs who “keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant” (Is. 56:4).
In these texts the plural, “sabbaths,” is used. Partly this is because there were other sabbaths than the weekly Sabbath—the annual day of atonement and other feast days were called sabbaths. The plural also teaches us that every week, God appoints one day as a Sabbath; each weekly Sabbath is another picture of God’s covenant.
The sabbaths could serve as signs of God’s covenant, because the reality of the Sabbath—rest—is a covenant reality. In other words, to observe the Sabbath-rest properly was to enjoy covenant fellowship with God.
To keep the sabbaths, then, was not an option for Israel. As God’s covenant people, shemust enter into covenant fellowship with Him. Those who failed to do so were to be punished, for to profane the Sabbath was to profane God’s covenant. By contrast, to sanctify the Sabbath was to “take hold of” God’s covenant (Is. 56:6), that is, to uphold the covenant, to honor it, and to manifest it in one’s life.
Because the Sabbath was a sign of the covenant, Jesus properly honored the Sabbath by doing the works of God on that day. In addition to teaching on the Sabbath, He did many miracles on that day. His miracles pointed to the true rest and salvation that He came to give.
Is the weekly Sabbath still, in the new dispensation, a sign of God’s covenant?
Nowhere do the New Testament Scriptures indicate that this is so. Nor do they need to. Just as explicit commands to baptize infants of believing parents are unnecessary in the New Testament, because in the Old Testament God already made clear that He brings such into His covenant, so need we not find a reminder in the New Testament that the weekly Sabbath is a sign of God’s covenant. God made this clear in the Old Testament, and nothing has changed!
True, the day on which we commemorate the Sabbath has changed. But God’s covenant has not changed; it is everlasting! And the requirement to observe the Sabbath has not changed—it is perpetual! Nor has the true nature of the Sabbath changed—it is to be a day of spiritual rest! Therefore, the weekly Sabbath is still a sign of God’s covenant.
It functions as a sign, as God’s people gather in His house, to enjoy fellowship with Him—as we hear proclaimed the gospel of salvation from sin, completely earned and fully bestowed by Jesus Christ, and as we give ourselves over with genuine heart to serve this God.
A sign, that is, of a covenant salvation that God has fully founded in Christ’s death, and that God completely realizes through the exalted Christ and by His Spirit. A sign, not of what we do in cooperation with God, but of what God has accomplished for us, apart from us! This is what makes the sign so marvelous.
The Everlasting Sabbath—Consummation of the Covenant
A time is coming when the institution of the weekly Sabbath, and all pictures of God’s covenant, will be abolished. When the full reality comes, the signs will be rendered obsolete.
The voice that John hears out of heaven uses neither the word “Sabbath” nor the word “covenant,” but expresses the reality of both in speaking of the fellowship of God with His church in the new creation: “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God” (Rev. 21:3). That is the consummation of the covenant—the covenant fellowship of God and His people, enjoyed to the highest degree, forever!
In heaven will be no weekly Sabbath; it will be always Sabbath. Satan will have been destroyed in hell; those who defile and work abomination shall not enter into it; there shall be no more curse; thus our deliverance from the bondage of sin and death will be perfected. There we shall live with God forever; we shall eat of the tree of life, having right to it; and we shall serve Him and reign with Christ to eternity.
No wonder, then, that the angel says of those who worship the beast and are consigned to hell, “they have no rest day nor night” (Rev. 14:11). By contrast, “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; and their works do follow them” (Rev. 14:13).
Rest from our labors—from the labor of sin! Thus entering into perfect fellowship with God, and enjoying the fullness of His covenant blessings! The rest of the everlasting Sabbath!
Those for whom this rest is prepared live now as though they long for it. God notes this of those who die in the Lord—their works follow after them. Certainly, the works of faith and obedience that He notes are the fruit of His grace in us. But they are inevitable fruit. And among those works will be this—that His children have taken hold of His covenant, and kept the Sabbath in this life, in the hope of enjoying the everlasting Sabbath!
* C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), vol. 1, p. 84