Perfect Sabbath-Keeping
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Reformed Practice - Sabbath Observation

The Sabbath in the Garden of Eden
Man was created on the sixth day. The first full day he experienced was the Sabbath day. As the Lord rested from all the work which he had made (Gen.2:2,3), so man rested on the seventh day. Scripture mentions that God rested and "was refreshed" (Ex 31:17). God delighted in Himself (Prov.8:30) and man undoubtedly delighted himself in God (Ps.37:4). After man had fallen, he had to learn again to call the Sabbath a delight (Isa.58:13).

The Sabbath After the Fall into Sin
When man willfully fell into sin, he fell away from the Sabbath rest and was driven from the garden of Eden. God, in mercy, however, left man the promise of entering into His rest (Heb.4:3). He opened a way to be reconciled to the Lord and to enter into His rest again. The way is Christ, who said: "Come unto me ... and I will give you rest" (Matt.11:28).

As a sign of this rest, the Lord left the Sabbath to man. The Sabbath is a sign of the Gospel of God in preparing rest for man. He gave man the commandment to remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. This is a command and call to enter into God's rest, to delight ourselves in God's rest, grace, love, and good-pleasure, and by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, to rest in His work.

Israel manifested its relationship to the Lord by the way they remembered the fourth commandment. They were only truly able to do so when they learned to long for the rest in God through the sacrifice of the atonement and to thirst for the blessedness of reconciled communion with God. Apart from this longing and thirsting, there is no right remembering of the Sabbath day to keep it holy.

Christ and the Sabbath
The Pharisees exercised great strictness regarding the Sabbath, but they lacked the longing and thirsting for God and His Christ. When they rebuked Christ because His disciples were plucking the ears of corn on the Sabbath, He did not respond by saying that the fourth commandment was abolished. He reminded them of David's action with the showbread and the priests' work on the Sabbath day. Christ's offices and work serve God and aim at the rest of God. By their human traditions, the Pharisees made the Word of God of none effect.

Christ asserted His authority over the Sabbath day. "The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath day" (Matt.12:8). It is a tremendous statement, because God--Yahweh--the God of Israel, is Lord of the Sabbath. Notice that Christ did not say the Sabbath was abrogated. In fact, His Lordship over it implies its ongoing existence.

The Sabbath is for Man
According to Mark 2:27, Christ states: "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath." In other words, man must not be a slave to the Sabbath. The Sabbath, properly understood, cannot possibly run counter to human interests, because the Sabbath was made by God for the benefit of man.

In the judgment of God, man needs the Sabbath. He needs it physically, because of the curse "in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread" (Gen.3:19). He needs it spiritually, because he needs this one day per week to especially remember that he is created in God's image. He needs to take time to look to the God who made him; he needs a day when he can listen to the Word of God’s promises. He needs a day when he can be in the fellowship of his brothers in the faith, a day when he can be with the community of praise and feed his soul, not with bread, but with the words that proceed out of the mouth of God.

Man needs the Sabbath economically. "Remember that thou wast a servant" (Deut.5:15). This was for the protection of those who are employed. The Son of Man knew man's needs, his sorrow and frailty. He had seen human oppression, degradation and exploitation. He confirmed the institution of the Sabbath and affirmed that He is the Lord of the Sabbath.

The Sabbath and Works of Mercy. 

Works of mercy and acts of charity are therefore not prohibited by the fourth commandment. Christ says: "I will have mercy and not sacrifice" (Matt.12:7). You must never use the fact that it is the Sabbath day to deny somebody an act of mercy or an act of charity. Christ healed the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath (Matt.12:10). The man with the withered hand was not a life-threatening case. The problem could easily have been left until the next day. But "how much then is a man better than a sheep?" A man would rescue a sheep that had fallen into a pit. Therefore, Christ says, "It is lawful to do well on the sabbath days” (Matt.12:12). Active compassion for one's needy fellow men is more acceptable in God's sight than any number of pious acts without compassion.

Whereas we tend to think of acts of mercy as exceptions to the fourth commandment, Jonathan Edwards made clear that they are not exceptions at all! There is no better way to spend the Sabbath day than in performing acts of mercy such as to relieve loneliness and misery. It is lawful to do good. It is lawful to be gracious, to be kind and generous on the Lord's Day. (cf. "The Perpetuity and Change of the Sabbath," in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 2, p.103).

The Lord’s Day in the New Testament
There is a distinction between the Old Testament and the New Testament in the matter of ceremonial worship on the Sabbath day. Christ has finished the work of atonement. The rest for the children of God has been obtained. That which the believers longed for in the Old Testament is now a reality. By faith, guilty persons may rest in Christ and in that way delight themselves in the good pleasure of God.

It is in and from that rest that we do our work. That is why we celebrate the Lord's Day as the first day of the week. On that day, Christ arose and appeared to His disciples. On that day also, "when the day of Pentecost was fully come" (Acts 2:1), He poured out His Spirit. On that day He gathered His congregation. It is in the light of this teaching of Jesus on the fourth commandment that the New Testament church kept the Lord's Day. They transferred the obligation from the seventh day to the first day by the authority of Christ.

The Christians reminded themselves of the great motivating principle for the celebration of the Lord's day. They remembered that it was the first day of the week. It was the day they found the empty tomb. It was the day of the tremendous declaration: "He is not here; He is risen." It was the day of the triumph of the resurrection, of the exaltation and the vindication of Jesus. It was the day when the fact, "The Lord is risen indeed!" was engraved indelibly and memorably upon the consciousness of the church. To keep this day holy is to look into the empty tomb, to see Him who was crucified and smitten for our sin, who bore the chastisement of many and broke the bands of death, and who arose again in triumph.

Three Concluding Points
The Lord's Day as a day of rest is a gift from the Lord to the church and to the world. It is a gift of grace to people who have fallen away from the Sabbath rest and to a world of unrest. When we learn to live by the rest which is in Christ Jesus, we will work on the six remaining days of the week with a heart at rest that finds its strength in the Lord.

2. The Lord's day gives the believers in Christ Jesus a marvellous opportunity to maintain the Gospel ministry and to attend the assembly of God's people, as Israel did in the tabernacle, temple and later in the synagogue. The Lord's day is a sign of the Gospel. The commandment is: "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy."

3. The purpose for keeping the Lord's day is to direct us to live in accordance with the fourth commandment. It is a reminder that we are to rest in God all the days of our life, "ceasing from all my evil works, yielding myself to the Lord, to work by his Holy Spirit in me: and thus begin in this life the eternal Sabbath" (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 38). Any other way is to degrade the Lord's day by either legalism or antinomianism. According to this understanding, “there remaineth therefore a sabbath-keeping for the people of God” (Heb.4:9).

Dr. L.W. Bilkes is an emeritus pastor in the Free Reformed Church. This article was previously printed in the December 1999 issue of the FRC Messenger and has been republished here with permission.