One Day in Seven
For the vast majority of people today Sabbath-keeping is a thing of the past. Large numbers, even among evangelicals, join with the world to deny the continuing authority of the Sabbath. But what does the Bible have to say on the matter? In other words, what does God say on the matter? In the face of so many claims that the Sabbath institution was purely for Old Testament times, what is the evidence that assures us that the Sabbath is just as binding today as ever it was?
It is a remarkable fact that the Fourth Commandment is one for which we have God's own example. We read that He "rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made. And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because that in it He had rested from all His work which God created and made" (Genesis 2:2,3). God was thus setting apart the seventh day in every week as a day for man to rest from his ordinary toil, and a day when he could have the opportunity of thinking on the ways and works of God, including the work of creation.
We should therefore not be surprised to find that, when God gave the Ten Commandments to Israel on Mount Sinai, the Fourth Commandment was put in the form of a reminder, not as something completely new: "Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy . . ". So we should be very much on our guard against any suggestion that the Sabbath was purely a Jewish institution. Indeed, even before the Ten Commandments were given, God made clear to Israel that Sabbath-breaking was a sin. When manna was first given for food to Israel, just after they crossed the Red Sea, they were told, "Six days shall ye gather it, but on the seventh day, which is the Sabbath, in it there shall be none" (Exodus 16:26). And, after some people went out to gather manna on the Sabbath, there came a rebuke from God Himself: "How long refuse ye to keep My commandments and My laws? See, for that the Lord hath given you the Sabbath; therefore He giveth you on the sixth day the bread of two days; abide ye every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day" (Exodus 16:28,29).
At this point it might be asked, Does the New Testament not make clear that Christians are free from all such restrictions? Does Paul not say, "Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days; which are a shadow of things to come" (Colossians 2:16,17)? Of course he does - and he speaks in a similar vein in other places also - but the question is, what does he mean in such passages by days and, in particular, by Sabbath days?
We must remember that a change took place in the worship of the Church of God after the resurrection of Christ. One aspect of that change was the substitution of the first day of the week for the seventh day as the day to be kept holy to God. But how were believers to treat the seventh day of the week after God instituted the Christian Sabbath - or the Lord's Day, as John calls it in Revelation 1:10, echoing the expression My holy day in Isaiah 58:13? The answer was that first-generation Christians were free to keep holy the seventh day of the week in addition to the first day, but no one had any right to judge those who did not keep the seventh day as well as the first day. God had changed the particular day of the week which was to be kept holy, but the Sabbath institution remained absolutely unchanged. The principle remained the same: that "a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so . . . He hath particularly appointed one day in seven for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto Him" (Westminster Confession of Faith 21:7).
There can be no doubt that the first day of the week was the day set apart in the early New Testament Church for the worship of God. It was "upon the first day of the week when the disciples came together to break bread" in Troas, "and Paul preached unto them" (Acts 20:7). It was on the first day of the week also that the collection for the poor saints of Jerusalem was to be taken in the Corinthian Church. (See 1 Corinthians 16:1,2). The change of day took place in order that the Christian Sabbath might be a memorial of the resurrection, which, of course, took place on the first day of the week. So it need be no surprise to find the Saviour on the evening of the Resurrection Day appearing where the disciples were meeting together, and coming to them again eight days later (that is, exactly one week later, for the Jews counted both the first and the last days of any period as full days). Christ honoured their gatherings with His physical presence just as He has honoured many other such Sabbath gatherings since then with His spiritual presence. And how wonderfully He honoured the preaching of the gospel on the Day of Pentecost (which was always the first day of the week) when 3000 souls were brought into His kingdom!
How then is the Sabbath to be kept in New Testament times? We cannot give a better reply than by quoting again from the Westminster Confession of Faith: "This Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord when men, after a due preparing of their hearts and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe a holy rest all the day from their own works, words and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of His worship and in the duties of necessity and mercy" (21:8). We should note how not only our outward activities, including our conversations, are to be regulated by the Fourth Commandment, but even our thoughts, which no one else - except God Himself - can possibly know about. These are Gods requirements, not man's. The whole of our time is to be given up to worshipping God, except when we must turn aside to activities which are genuinely necessary or merciful.
We are not to think of the Fourth Commandment as simply imposing restrictions on our freedom for, in the words of the Saviour, "the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). He is telling us that the Sabbath is given as a benefit to man - and an inestimable benefit it is. It is an opportunity for us to lay aside, as far as possible, our worldly duties and give our attention to our spiritual needs in a way that is not normally possible on a weekday. If we have any sense of the value of our souls, and of our need to learn of God and to worship Him, then we will value the Sabbath as God's provision so that we may give ourselves to the Word of God and prayer, and to whatever else will contribute to our spiritual well-being. A proper outlook will bring us to concentrate, not on what we are held back from doing if we keep the Sabbath as God has ordained, but on the freedom we will then have to attend to our spiritual needs.
Surely a well-kept Sabbath is the closest we can get to heaven in this world. In the world of spirits temporal needs and blessings will have lost their relevance, and the glorified saints will be continuously occupied with spiritual activities as they serve God "day and night in His temple". Our willingness to keep the Sabbath, not only outwardly but inwardly also, is a test of our spiritual state, for the natural heart has no love for spiritual things. How can we expect to feel at home in heaven unless in this life we can enjoy a Sabbath which is consecrated to the worship of God?
Is there a blessing in keeping the Sabbath? We can be sure that there is a blessing in keeping each of God's commandments, but He specially assures us that He will bless those who keep the Sabbath: "Blessed is the man that doeth this and the son of man that layeth hold on it, that keepeth the Sabbath from polluting it" (Isaiah 56:2). It is interesting to note that the previous verse states, "My salvation is near to come and my righteousness to be revealed", and Matthew Poole comments, "My salvation: that eminent salvation by the Messiah. . . . My righteousness: the same thing which He now called salvation and here calleth His righteousness, because it is an evident demonstration of God's righteousness . . . in the salvation of sinners upon just and honourable terms." Could the Sabbath possibly be spoken of in such a context if it was not to survive into New Testament times?
And God says again through Isaiah, "If thou turn away thy foot from the Sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on My holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable, and shalt honour Him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words, then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord, and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father, for the mouth of the Lord bath spoken it" (Isaiah 58:13,14). The heritage which God had given Jacob included the promise, "I am with thee and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest" (Genesis 28:15), and it is therefore a promise which forms part of the blessing that belongs to all who have a heart-love to the Sabbath. This promise of God's continual presence is all the richer a blessing because it will never come to an end. All who love the Sabbath are assured of a safe entry to heaven, where with perfect heart they will relish the opportunity of worshipping God with all the fulness of their being, and absolutely without interruption.
Let us then seek that new heart which is essential if are to love the Sabbath sincerely. And let us seek grace to observe that holy day consistently, according to the will of God as expressed in the Fourth Commandment.