From the time of the Reformation until the mid-twentieth century, the great majority of Protestant Christians held fairly strict views regarding the observance of Sunday. With the encroachment of liberalism, the rise of dispensationalism, and the ubiquitous presence of the television, this practice has so declined that today only a small minority of Christians in the West hold this position.
Most Christians argue that Sunday is a day of worship, but because the Sabbath commandment served as a covenant sign only for Israel (Ex. 31:13ff.), the Christian is not obligated to observe it.
The role of the Sabbath, however, was not unique in the experience of Israel; it was instituted by God before the fall in Genesis 2:1–3. Along with work (Gen. 1:28; 2:15) and marriage (Gen. 2:18–25), God instituted the Sabbath to govern the lives of all mankind. Just as the ordinances of work and marriage are permanent (and are incorporated into the Ten Commandments), so is the ordinance of the Sabbath. In fact, note that God grounded the Sabbath commandment in the creation Sabbath ordinance (Ex. 20:11).
God instituted the celebration of the Sabbath, both by His example and by His words of institution. First, He established the principle of Sabbath-keeping by resting on the seventh day: “And by the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done” (Gen. 2:2; NASB here and throughout). The term Sabbath is derived from the word “rested” in verse 2. By resting on the seventh day, God Himself established the principle and practice of Sabbath observance. In order to understand the Sabbath ordinance, one first must consider why God rested.
First, by resting, God declared that His work as Creator was completed: “thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts” (Gen. 2:1). The words heavens, earth, and hosts encompass all the results of God’s creative work on days one through six.
God’s rest, however, was not a cessation from all work (John 5:17), for He continues to work as He governs the processes of life and all aspects of His created order. He also worked in accomplishing redemption, and continues to work by calling His people unto Himself and sanctifying them. Since He continues to work, why this emphasis on rest? When God rested from the work of creation, He declared that He had perfectly completed the work of creation and bade mankind to worship Him as Creator of heaven and earth.
Second, God’s rest expressed His delight in creation. Moses amplified this concept in Exodus 31:17: “It [the Sabbath] is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor and was refreshed.” (Notice the relationship between Israel’s Sabbath observance and the creation ordinance.) What does it mean that God was “refreshed”? Certainly God did not need rest. The refreshment of God on the seventh day was an expression of His joy as He contemplated the beauty and perfection of all creation at the conclusion of the sixth day (Gen. 1:31). Just as one steps back to contemplate with pleasure something built or accomplished, God stepped back to contemplate His work with pleasure. By resting on the Sabbath, God reflected on the beauty and glory of His completed work, taking joy in it.
Third, by resting on the seventh day, God pictured the promised rest (eternal life) that He would provide for His people. He offered Adam and his descendants life (eternal rest). Had Adam not fallen into sin, he would have entered into that rest without passing through death. God graciously did not cancel the offer of rest after the fall; instead, He renewed the promise of life, not through Adam’s obedience, but through a Redeemer. According to God’s eternal purpose, the day of rest became a weekly promise and reminder to sinners that He would provide redemption and rest.
By resting, therefore, God declared that He had finished His creative activity, thereby showing that He is the all-powerful Creator who has authority and power to govern His creation. He contemplated with joy the finished work of creation. He calls people to seek their rest in Him as they contemplate His goodness in the beauty of creation and His mercy in the gracious offer of redemption. He gives a foretaste of the eternal rest that belongs to His people, and He promises the reality of entering into His eternal rest. In Sabbath keeping, Christians celebrate that God’s works of creation and redemption are finished. They contemplate the complex beauty of His works, are refreshed in communion with Him, and anticipate eternal life with Him.
Having demonstrated these truths by His own rest, God explicitly consecrated the seventh day for man to keep the Sabbath: “God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made” (Gen. 2:3). In this dual action of blessing and sanctifying the day, God instituted the pattern of six days of work and a seventh day of rest.
Some suggest that God blessed His eternal rest, not the seventh day. In the Sabbath commandment, however, God specifically blessed the seventh day in the weekly cycle, grounding believers’ responsibility to sanctify the seventh day on His blessing of the Sabbath day: “therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Ex. 20:11).
By blessing the day, God assigned it special purpose. When God blessed something in the creation account, He established its purpose and endowed the thing created with the ability to fulfill that purpose. For example, when God blessed the animals in Genesis 1:22, He established their purpose of multiplying and filling the earth, and He endowed them with the inclination and ability to procreate so that they might accomplish this purpose. The same thing is evident in God’s blessing of man (Gen. 1:28). In like manner, when God blessed the seventh day, He gave it purpose and the ability to fulfill that purpose.
Furthermore, He promised those who would follow His example of rest every seventh day that He would bless them. So by blessing the day, He made the day a blessing for man. Surely Christ had this blessing in mind when He said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). For a list of the blessings attached to the Sabbath, see Isaiah 58:13–14.
God’s purpose in blessing the day is made clearer when one understands what is meant by His “sanctifying” the day. When God sanctifies something, He sets it apart from its common use to a special religious use connected with His worship and service. For example, He declared to be holy or sanctified the garments of the priest, the altar, the sanctuary, and all the furnishings and utensils used first in the tabernacle and, later, the temple. On account of this sanctification, these things were to be used only for the holy purposes of worship (Ex. 30:37–38).
How then should Christians apply this sanctification to the seventh day? Does the Bible require Christians to observe one day in seven, or are all days equal? Is Sunday to be observed according to the commandment or are Christians free to spend the day as they please, as long as they worship? They may reasonably assume that in the same way that God has set aside certain things for His special use and service, He set aside the seventh day for the special purpose of worship and service. This is not to deny that the other six days are holy and are to be used for God’s glory; Christians are to glorify God in all of life. However, He established the seventh day as a holy day, set apart for special purposes.
By blessing and sanctifying the day, God communicated to Adam and Eve, and through the Scripture to all mankind, the principle of Sabbath-keeping. Christians are to treat as holy what God declares to be holy, concluding that the observation of one day out of seven is a perpetually binding moral obligation because of this creation ordinance.
The New Testament demonstrates that God changed the day from the seventh to the first day of the week (Col. 2:16–17; Acts 20:6–7; 1 Cor. 16:1, 2; Rev. 1:10). Although God has changed the day, the obligation and privilege remain.
Hence, the Sabbath commandment is but the extension and application of the creation ordinance. As the moral responsibilities of marriage and work remain, the moral responsibility of keeping holy one day in seven remains.