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Moses records the Ten Commandments twice in the Pentateuch—in Exodus 20 and in Deuteronomy 5. The commandments are the same in the two accounts, but interestingly, the motivation for keeping the fourth commandment is different. Exodus 20 looks backward to creation (Ex. 20:8–11), whereas Deuteronomy 5 looks backward to the exodus from Egypt (Deut. 5:12–15). In the New Testament, the book of Hebrews looks forward to the eschatological Sabbath rest that will be consummated when Jesus returns (Heb. 4:1–11). Taken together, these passages tell us that the Sabbath is rooted in creation, redemption, and consummation. In other words, we rest because God created us to rest, He has redeemed us for rest, and He is redeeming us for ultimate rest. Given that these factors apply to all the redeemed, we can say that when it comes to Christians, everyone is a Sabbatarian.
Some Christians might be reluctant to embrace this appraisal, for we do not all agree on the theology of the Sabbath. How, then, can we all be considered Sabbatarians? We often debate the particulars of Sabbath observance, asking questions such as: May I go out to eat? May I watch football? May I take a nap? We might also debate the degree of continuity that the Sabbath principle enjoys from the Old Testament to the New. Many (those favoring discontinuity) have understood Jesus’ apparent harshness toward the religious leaders who emphasized the Sabbath as an express abrogation of the Sabbath principle in the new covenant (e.g., Mark 2:25–28). Others (those favoring continuity, among whom I stand) would argue that the Sabbath was never distinctively Mosaic or exclusively Jewish; rather, the Sabbath is creational—that is, God instituted the Sabbath at creation, and therefore, the dawning of the old covenant with Moses did not originate or rescind it. Nor did the inauguration of the new covenant abrogate the Sabbath, though Christ’s work does cast new light on the Sabbath, including its transition from the seventh day to the first day (leading to its also being called the Lord’s Day). According to this view, the Sabbath started not at Sinai but in Eden.
While questions regarding particulars of observance are important, they are secondary. Before we resolve to say what we’re against on the Sabbath, we should determine what we’re for. We must therefore ask why God appointed one particular day in seven, blessing and sanctifying the Sabbath at creation (Gen. 2:2–3). Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees’ questioning is instructive here: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Jesus teaches that God appointed, blessed, and sanctified the Sabbath for Adam and his progeny. From Moses’ account, we also know that God instituted the Sabbath before the fall. The Sabbath, then, is a divine gift for our good. Alongside marriage and labor, the Sabbath was a gift from a benevolent Creator, a “merciful appointment,” says J.C. Ryle. It was to serve as a reminder to man of, among other things, God’s authority and goodness. The Sabbath, Jonathan Edwards said, was “made for the profit and comfort of our souls.”
When Adam fell, the Sabbath was not revoked. If anything, its necessity and its blessing shone all the brighter. Adam’s well-deserved punishment was that the ground he worked would be cursed with thorns and thistles, and his bread would be acquired through sweaty toil, only for him to return in death to the dust whence he came (Gen. 3:17–19). Had God rescinded His one-in-seven gift, mankind would toil without any respite from the thorny ground. Scottish theologian Robert Haldane is worth quoting at length:
The Sabbath was appointed before the curse was pronounced that in the sweat of his face man should eat bread; yet after he had sinned, it was not abolished, but continued as a permanent mitigation of that sentence. The fourth commandment is not a burden, but a blessing. Man does not suffer by it, but is benefited. By our fall in Adam we become slaves to Satan, and God might have condemned us to labor all the days of the week. But He has given us a reprieve for one day. His providence so orders it that men in all conditions shall participate in the curse and eat the fruit of the earth in the sweat of their face. Is it not then a blessing when He gives us one day of rest? This respite from toil ought, then, to be thankfully acknowledged as a high privilege bestowed on man, doomed to labor on account of sin.
The Sabbath, then, is a day for both spiritual and physical rest. In the Reformed tradition, there has been an emphasis on rest, both spiritual and physical, as well as worship. The Heidelberg Catechism underscores the spiritual: “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” (Q&A 103). The Westminster Shorter Catechism spotlights the physical: “The sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days” (Q&A 60). Each Christian and family unit ought to thoughtfully and prayerfully determine how to most faithfully appropriate and enjoy the benefits of Sabbath rest.
The Sabbath is far from burdensome, and it’s much more than a topic of theological debate. God has determined to vouchsafe His special blessing and presence to His people who sanctify the Sabbath day. He is prepared to make His blessing known to those who seek enjoyment and rest in Him. The Lord has made a great provision for us to lay aside our ordinary cares and toils. On the Lord’s Day, we can cease our common labors and cultivate a heart that is set ablaze to worship the Lord. We can lay down our shovels and thoughtfully fix our eyes on a better and abiding possession (Heb. 10:34). As we do, we’re reminded of what remains for us who rest in the Lord Jesus Christ—true and abiding Sabbath rest in the presence of God (4:9–10). Then, too, all of God’s people will be Sabbatarians.