For a few people today, an hour or two on Sunday mornings is occupied with public worship, but for most people, the idea that Sunday is the Christian Sabbath—an entire day set apart for worship, rest, and ministry—is entirely novel. And yet, in an age of frenetic and unrelenting busyness, when technology allows us to stay plugged in to the world twenty-four-seven, when entertainment becomes the de facto purpose of so many lives, nothing could be more countercultural, nor bear more eloquent testimony to a Christian’s citizenship in another world, than a well-spent Lord’s Day.
Growing up in Scotland, I had a residual cultural awareness that Sunday was the Sabbath Day. Even my secular parents spent the day with the TV switched off, quietly reading and resting. Years later, I came to faith through the faithful witness of a Pentecostal friend, and I saw the Lord’s Day as nothing more than a needless imposition upon my Christian freedom, more reflective of old covenant convictions than new covenant joys.
When I went to college, however, that all changed. After worship every Sunday, church families would vie with one another to bring students and visitors into their homes for lunch. There we’d be invited to spend the afternoon enjoying a veritable banquet, returning to evening worship with them at day’s end. After lunch, the TV remained silent. Some dozed contentedly in an armchair. Others went for a walk. Some brought a Christian book to read. Often, lively discussion would spill over from the lunch table to fill the afternoon. Sometimes we’d gather around the piano and sing hymns together. Conversation ebbed and flowed, punctuated by gales of laughter and grunts (the Scottish equivalent of an “amen”) of affirmation at some helpful point or another. Well before I could ever articulate a clear theology of the Lord’s Day, I contracted the happy contagion of joyful Sabbath observance. Were there nothing to support a well-spent Lord’s Day but the practical benefits of it, I would still commend this day of rest as an excellent mechanism for promoting our spiritual best.
Not that the doctrine of the Sabbath is without scriptural warrant. Its origins are woven into the fabric of God’s own creative work at history’s dawn. The seventh-day Sabbath was established at the climax of the creation week (Gen. 2:1–3). God blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it, so that it became a sign to our first parents of the eschatological rest into which Adam’s obedience would usher creation itself if he were to keep covenant with God. The persistence of a Sabbath day after Adam’s fall is a reminder of the grace of God, who continues to hold out to fallen humanity the offer of rest through faith in Jesus Christ (which is why both creation and redemption are urged as motives for Sabbath-keeping in Exodus 20:11 and Deuteronomy 5:15).
Part of the function of Mosaic law in the history of redemption was to act as a temporary paedagogos, a schoolmaster or tutor teaching God’s old covenant people of their need for a Savior (Gal. 3:24–25). Thus, the Sabbath remained on Saturday, at the end of our weekly labors, a kind of enacted promise, offering Israel eternal rest should she perfectly obey the law. The persistence of the Sabbath, at the end of a week of imperfect obedience, was intended to teach Israel to look for a second Adam who would accomplish the ultimate exodus-redemption and obtain for His people the final Sabbath rest that the first Adam forfeited and our best works cannot now hope to secure.
And so when Jesus came, He obeyed and bled and died, keeping perfectly God’s law. The demands of the covenant of works were met in full. The representative of a new humanity won for all who believe what had been lost in Adam. On the first day of the week, the Father vindicated His obedient Son, declaring Him to be righteous in His resurrection (Rom. 1:4; 1 Tim. 3:16). On Sunday, the day that light was made, the curse on Adam’s sin was undone (Gen. 2:17), death was abolished, and the light of the world brought life and immortality to light (2 Tim. 1:10). Now that “it is finished” (John 19:30), the Sabbath day comes no longer at the end of a week of work but at the beginning of it. The work by which the Sabbath rest is secured has been accomplished for us by Jesus. Now we rest in Him and work in the strength His saving grace supplies (Heb. 3:7–4:10). A new creation has been inaugurated and a perfect exodus has occurred. We have been translated from the dominion of darkness into the kingdom of the Son of God’s love (Col. 1:13).
That’s why the church now meets on the first day of the week (John 20:19; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2; Rev. 1:10). New creation and perfect redemption are the great realities that are ours already in Christ, and we celebrate them and enjoy them on the Christian Sabbath day. It is a gospel ordinance that is refreshing for us and glorifying to God.