Appendix: further notes on The Sabbath

I. The Creation: Genesis 2:1-3

A. Creation ordinance view, along with labor and procreation (Murray). However, there are two problems:

(1) Labor and procreation are not primarily “ordinances;” they are essentially mandates (tasks to be fulfilled). Furthermore, no penalty is specified for failure to comply. To call them ordinances is to prejudge the issue. There is indeed an instance of an ordinance in Genesis 2: the prohibition against eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. The creation mandates, however, stand in one sense in rather stark contrast to the one true ordinance in the Garden of Eden: they are the constituent elements of man’s subduing of the earth, the commission to which all of his abilities and efforts were to be committed, and everything about them speaks of man’s fulfillment and delight.

(2) The statement of Gen 2:1-3 bears anything but the character of an ordinance or even a mandate, simply because there is nothing for man to do; the sabbath rest in question is God’s, and there is no statement to the effect that Adam and Eve were to observe a sabbath. Therefore, the sabbath of Genesis 2 can hardly be an ordinance when the man and the woman were not told to do anything. The normal reply is that sabbath-observance would have been a part of their image-bearing role. The problem, however, is that labor and procreation are most decidedly image-bearing activities, but in both cases there was a clear-cut directive from God that both were to be undertaken. Why, then, was sabbath-keeping (in the currently accepted sense) left to inference?

(3) The creation ordinance interpretation finds an interesting point of contact with Jewish apologetics. The book of Jubilees, written during the Hellenistic persecution under Antiochus IV, made the sabbath, along with the dietary and purity laws, to exist in the Garden of Eden. Indeed, Ben Sira (44:20) earlier and then later 2 Baruch (57:2) and Kiddushin (4:4) make the remarkable claim that Abraham kept the law of Moses before it was given at Sinai. This was the standard Jewish polemic in the face of mass apostasy from the law; Jewish writers insisted that the Torah be kept because it had a cosmic significance (as over against the Greek claim to wisdom). Of course, a thing is not wrong simply because it is Jewish. But the point is that the creation ordinance view displays a propensity to project a Mosaic institution back into the creation for the purpose of making it a permanent and abiding value; and as I read Paul in particular, this is precisely the mentality which he was opposing in his Jewish kinsmen.

B. What is Genesis 2:1-3 saying? It establishes the sabbath rest of God as an eschatological principle.

(1) The statement of Genesis 2 serves as the climax of the creation account. As such, the rest of God forms the appropriate complement to the work of God, i.e., the ordering of the primeval chaotic mass which was the earth. In a very real sense, in Genesis 1 we read of God subduing the earth, i.e., of bringing of cosmos out of chaos. Thus, Gen 1:1-2:3 establishes a pattern of God working (subduing) and God resting.

Light is shed on the sabbath rest of God from Exod 31:17: “…on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.” To speak of God’s refreshment is, of course, an anthropomorphism. God’s energy was hardly taxed; but he was “refreshed” in the sense that when looked upon the work of his hands he delighted in it and took from it supreme satisfaction.

In addition, the rest of God signifies his kingly dignity. God has proven his mastery of and Lordship over the elements by his work of subduing the chaos. Thereafter he rests and thus assumes a position of unique regality. Commenting on Rev 14:13 (“Blessed are they who die in the Lord henceforth…that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!”), Meredith Kline tells us: “…the biblical concept of sabbath rest includes enthronement after the completion of labors by which royal dominion is manifested or secured (cf. Isa 66:1). The sabbath rest of the risen Christ is his kingly session at God’s right hand. To live and reign with Christ is to participate in his royal sabbath rest.”[1]

Therefore, the statement of Gen 2:3 that God blessed and hallowed (sanctified, separated) the seventh day has reference not to the seventh day of man’s week but the seventh day of God’s week. Accordingly, the writer of Genesis envisages not a day of the week for man to keep but a state or condition of God subsequent to his labors; it is this state which is blessed and hallowed. As we shall see momentarily, the blessing and the sanctification (separation) of this seventh day consists in the blessed and separated status for which God created man and to which he beckons him. How this can be maintained in light of statements in the book of Exodus we shall see in due time.

(2) It is after this divine model that the work and the rest of man is patterned. As God’s image-bearer, man was to subdue the earth, i.e., to take it as it left the creator’s hand as an ordered cosmos and bring it to its full potential by his own labor; an immense task, and yet one for which he had been amply endowed. Man, therefore, was to work as God had worked, and thereafter he was to rest analogously to the way in which God had rested. That is to say, the goal before him was that of one day delighting in and taking satisfaction from the work of his hands and, as God’s co-regent, of reigning with him over a glorious creation.           

The upshot of this divine/human pattern of work followed by rest is that an “eschatology” was built into the original creation. That is to say, there was a mandate to be fulfilled and then another state to be entered into as the consummation of man’s labors; this is the blessed and hallowed seventh day of God’s own sabbath rest. An exegesis particularly of 1 Cor 15:44ff. suggests that this entrance into the sabbath rest would have corresponded to man’s assumption of the “spiritual body,” transforming him from his original “psychical body” and making him an even more adequate image-bearer of the living God—indeed a blessed and hallowed condition! Hence, man’s rest, as argued by the creation ordinance view, is an image-bearing function; but not in the sense assumed by that position. Man was meant to be an imitator of God not because he would keep a day of the week, but because of his emulation of the divine work of subduing the earth and the divine rest consequent to that work.

(3) Adam, however, was unable to accomplish the mandate of subduing the earth because of his apostasy and, consequently, failed to enter God’s rest. As the writer of Hebrews informs us (2:5-9), Adam’s unfinished task was taken up another Adam who was able to bring to completion the programme begun with his predecessor. Because of Adam’s fall, a turning point is marked in the biblical conception of “rest;” from its original meaning as outlined above it becomes hereafter in the biblical revelation a synonym of “salvation.”

II. The Mosaic Period

A. The Sabbath as the Sign of the Covenant (Exodus 31:12-17)

(1) Perhaps even more fundamental for our understanding than Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 is the insight provided by Exod 31:12-17. In vv. 12 and 17 the sabbath is called the “sign” of the Mosaic covenant; just as the rainbow is the sign of the Noahic covenant and circumcision was the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, the sabbath was the sign of the covenant mediated by Moses.

The “sign” of any covenant is an entity which embodies and distills in itself what the covenant was all about. In the case of the Noahic, the rainbow signified both that God had put away his weapon of warfare and light shining in the darkness, eloquent of a new creation following the chaos of the flood waters. In the Abrahamic, circumcision, performed on the eighth day, likewise signified a new creation, the removal of that which was unclean and a new beginning. Similarly, the sabbath institution informs us that the Mosaic covenant had at its center the idea of man working and then resting.

(2) What this means is clarified by the interpretive comments of Moses in Exod 20:8-11 and Deut 5:12-15. As Murray has rightly pointed out, the motivation of sabbath-keeping in the former is the creation pattern of God’s labor and rest, while in the latter it is the exodus from Egypt. Thus, the twofold rationale behind the sabbath is that of creation and redemption; the sabbath for Israel was a memorial of God’s work in the creation and in the deliverance of his people from bondage. But it was not a memorial merely for sake of remembering the past, because we see here an analogy with the two covenants preceding the Mosaic, the Noahic and the Abrahamic; what these several covenants share in common is the notion of a new beginning. Israel is reminded of the creation and the exodus because her experience of the exodus was a new creation; and it is the sabbath which not only pointed backward to what God has done but forward to what he will do (in Christ).

The connection of rest with the creation is natural enough, because the creator’s design was that man, his image-bearer, should enter into his rest. This is why Exodus 20 grounds Israel’s motivation for keeping this command in the creation; not because it was a “creation ordinance,” but because the nation was being taught that it was to enter into God’s own rest. Keep in mind that Israel was the son of God, as Adam was earlier; and as Adam was intended to enter God’s rest, so Israel now (more later on Heb 4).

It is not without reason, therefore, that the prophetic writings are saturated with anticipations of the new creation (new covenant) to be accomplished by means of a new exodus for the people of God. All of this informs us that the Mosaic economy was never meant to be an end in itself but a pointer to God’s ultimate goal in Christ. That is to say, by the repeated process of working and resting, Israel was typifying what God would do in the new creation/new exodus complex of redemption. The sabbath, then, as the covenant sign means that the Mosaic covenant as a whole was a picture beforehand of rest and a rest-giver and of the necessity of quitting one’s own works in order to enter that rest. Although there was a religious dimension to the sabbath day, it is cessation from all servile labor which characterizes the institution. Indeed, the element of worship simply reinforces the fact that the sabbath is God’s rest.

At this point it has to be added, though, that the picture is complicated by another consideration, viz., Israel’s trek through the wilderness and her conquest of the land. Combined with the total typology of the OT, we see in this Israel, as the new son of God, subduing the earth and then resting. It is theologically significant that the book of Joshua states several times that God gave Israel “rest” (1:13, 15; 21:44; 22:4; 23:1). Thus, the whole of Israel’s wilderness experience, including the conquest, suggests that there was both an inaugurated and a consummated rest; in one sense Israel was to cease from her own labors, but in another sense she was to work again and thereafter rest. We shall see below the NT counterpart of this.

B. The Place of the Sabbath Command in the Decalogue

(1) The ten commandments undeniably occupy the central position in the law of Moses (not because they summarize everything else in the Torah, but because of creation: the law written on the heart, Rom 2:14-15). It is not remarkable that the sabbath should be included within the ten words, because, again, it is the sign of the covenant; we would be surprised not to see it there. Nor are we surprised that infraction of this command carried with the death penalty. If the ultimate design of this institution was to point men to Christ, then death signifies to the covenant community the consequences of failing to put away one’s own works and rest in those of the Coming One (Gen 49:10: Shiloh; Joshua and Solomon who give rest and peace from the enemies of Israel).

(2) Among the ten commandments, the fourth one is unique in that it contains moral, civil and ceremonial elements all at the same time. The civil aspect is obvious enough; along with numerous laws it regulated the life of the theocracy. It is, however, the merger of the “ceremonial” and “moral” which is of particular interest to us. As should be clear by now, I consider the “moral” element not to be a day for its own sake or even a “sabbath principle,” i.e., the observance of one day in seven irrespective of which day it is. Rather, the moral dimension is that men should find their rest, i.e., their salvation—in the comprehensive sense—in Christ. Man’s quintessential problem is that he has sought out many inventions (idols) and many saviours besides God’s saviour. Israel, therefore, was being taught that only one cistern would hold water, the Lord God himself who is the fountain of living waters. It was to this end that the so-called ceremonial function (actually, typological) of the sabbath day existed; by a week-in and week-out reminder, the people of God were pointed to the one who would declare of himself that he is the well of living water (John 4, 7) and the sabbath rest of the people of God (Matthew 11).

C. The System of Sabbaths in the Torah

(1) In Col 2:17 Paul speaks of “sabbaths” in the plural. He has in mind not merely the seventh-day sabbath but the sabbatical years and the series of feast-days in Lev 23 and 25, which in themselves were sabbaths. There are eight sabbath festivals in these chapters, which is significant in itself, because the number eight symbolizes a new beginning (as circumcision). The superscription to the enumeration of these is Lev 23:1-3, a reiteration of the seventh-day sabbath command as applied to the festivals. This is the index to our understanding of what these special days were all about: each of them in its own right was a sabbath, embodying and perpetuating the ideal and goal of the sabbath day (christological/eschatological).

(2) Of particular interest is the year of Jubilee (Lev 25:8ff.). In the Jubilee is present not only the notion of giving the land rest after a period of work but as well that of release from bondage. Therefore, rest and liberation intersect in the year of Jubilee. Furthermore, the Jubilee begins on the day of atonement, the day on which the sins of the people are put away by sacrifice, which itself was commenced with the blowing of the trumpet. We encounter the Jubilee again in Isa 61:1ff., where the work of Messiah is depicted as the release of the captives. Again we see that a prophet picks up a Mosaic institution and makes it the paradigm for future salvation.

III. The New Testament

A. Luke 4:16ff. Jesus declares himself to be the fulfillment of the year of Jubilee, i.e., the bringer of release from bondage and the sabbath rest. B. Mark 2:23-27

(1) Mark places this pericope as the climax of events in chap. 2 and the lead-in to the incidents of chap. 3, especially vv. 1-6. In other words, this sabbath saying is surrounded by the ideas of healing/salvation and the onset of the new age (2:18-22). Mark thus wishes us to interpret Jesus’ explication of the sabbath in terms of the context in which he has placed it. It is failure to see the passage as part of an integral whole which has given rise to an atomistic exegesis.

(2) Hand in hand with 3:1-6, 2:23-27 focuses our attention on Christ. In fact, this is characteristic of the gospel portraits of Jesus’ sabbath controversies in general. Some years ago E. C. Hoskyns raised the problem that rabbinic literature nowhere condemns good works on the sabbath; indeed, such works are frequently commended in positive terms.[2] In other words, the Judaism which we know from the extant sources was not inimical to works of charity on the sabbath day. So then, why the controversy with Jesus of Nazareth? Why were the Pharisees constantly on the watch to see if he would violate the sabbath? Why does John 5:18 state that Jesus customarily broke the sabbath?

The more or less traditional answer is that Jesus transgressed the Pharisaic regulations of the day but not the day itself. This in itself is true; but qualifications are required. (a) According to John 5:18, two charges were customarily made against Jesus: he broke the sabbath and called God his unique Father. The two are in parallel to each other and there is no indication that the former is former was a concoction and the latter a true statement. By way of analogy, the gospels repeatedly relate that Jesus went out of his way to contact things “unclean.” (b) Although there were certainly Pharisaic accretions to the sabbath command, these are not characteristic of Jesus’s sabbath controversies with the Pharisees as recorded in the gospels. The Pharisees, for example, could not have been unaware of David’s plucking of grain on the sabbath, nor could they have been unmindful that the law made provision for rescuing an ox or an ass from a pit on that day. In all such cases, Jesus reproves them in terms of things they knew very well.

But still the question is, if all of this so, then what was the fuss about? Hoskyns proposed—and I accept—that the real source of aggravation for the Pharisees was Jesus’ self-claims which were always implicit and sometimes explicit in his use of the sabbath day. In other words, his healing miracles on that day were a sign post to himself as the deliverer from bondage (Jubilee) and the rest-giver (Gen 49:10, etc.). The Pharisees did not object to good works in the abstract; but they did object to his good works because they were able to discern that he was claiming to be the sabbath rest, which itself, in the prophets, was tantamount to Yahweh’s salvation. No wonder, then, Jesus’s sabbath-breaking and his claims to be God’s unique Son are linked together in John 5:18.

Among the many instances in the gospels, Luke 13:10ff. provides an especially clear example. Luke relates that a certain ‘daughter of Abraham’ had a spirit of infirmity which had caused her to be bent over for eighteen years. In relating the healing, Luke twice uses the language of release: apoluô in v. 12 and luô in v. 16. Notice especially in v.16 that it is Satan who had bound the woman. Thus, the incident is eloquent of Jesus the sabbath healer who is at the same time the deliverer from bondage—the bondage of Satan. Of course, the ruler of the synagogue objects, quoting the fourth commandment. Luke says that he was indignant that Jesus healed on the sabbath. A superficial reading of his objection would place stress on the sabbath day, whereas the stress properly falls on Jesus; he was upset that Jesus healed on the sabbath.

All of this ties into the statement of Mark 2:28 that the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath. The point is not that he came to free the sabbath from its Pharisaic encumberments (Murray), but that he is the center of attention as concerns the sabbath; he is its point of reference and its reason for existence. He, in other words, is the sabbath incarnate.

C. Matthew 11:28-30

(1) This is the new covenant’s restatement of the fourth commandment. In terms of fulfillment as opposed to promise, one keeps the sabbath by resting in Christ.

(2) Against the backdrop of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 51:26-27, Jesus’ declaration of being the rest-giver assumes an apologetical significance, i.e., he is true rest and true wisdom, not the law.   

(3) Matt 12:1ff. relates two sabbath controversies, thus confirming the sabbath framework of the saying in 11:28-30.

D. Christ’s Death and Resurrection

(1) We recall that the beginning of Jubilee coincided with the day of atonement; the land was to be given its rest and the captives were to be set free on the very day that sins were propitiated and expiated in the two goats. It is not accidental, then, that the gospels represent Jesus as laboring in Gethsemane and on the cross on the sixth day of the week; nor is it accidental that he dies on the Passover, in accomplishment of the new exodus (as the paschal lamb, a figure consonant with that of the slain goat on the day of atonement); nor it is not accidental that at virtually the time he cries from the cross “it is finished” (John 19:30) a priest was reading from the Septuagint of Gen 2:1-2: “The heavens and the earth were finished, and all the hosts of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done.” In other words, Christ’s labor, which is his atonement, is the completion of God’s work of new creation and signals the release of the captives.

(2) After the labor of the sixth day he rests on the seventh day, and then rises on the eighth day, the day of the new beginning, the day on which the light of the new creation breaks upon the world. As we know from John (20:19) Paul (Eph 2:17), it is the risen and ascended Christ who communicates “peace,” a term synonymous with rest.

E. Col 2:16-17. The Mosaic system of sabbaths was a “shadow,” of which Christ is the “substance.” F. Heb 4:1-13

If Matthew 11 represents the “already” of our entrance into the rest of God, Hebrews 4 is the “not yet.” Having rested in Christ, the Christian assumes a new kind of labor—the work of perseverance, the struggle with sin (the “easy yoke” as compared with the law). The Hebrews have begun the trek through the wilderness, but now they must complete it and enter into God’s rest. Note how the writer ties in the sabbath rest of God in Genesis. These Hebrews, in other words, are being taught precisely what Israel was, viz., their arrival in (the heavenly) Canaan is God’s own rest, which was begun after the completion of the heavens and the earth (v. 10). Israel, because of unbelief, was unable (as Adam) to rest in the land. Thus the eschatological programme is consummated when the latter-day people of God enter into his rest, following Jesus our new Joshua (v. 8). It is in this sense that the author can say that there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God (v. 9).

IV. The Lord’s Day

A. Theologically, the Lord’s day is the outgrowth of the fact that the Lord is the sabbath, in the sense argued above (like the “Lord’s supper”). The first day of the week is marked out as the day of the resurrection and the commencement of the new creation and later (Pentecost) the inauguration of the age of the Spirit. The consistent witness of the NT is not that something has been retained from the old covenant but that a new beginning has been made in Christ. Thus, the concern of the Lord’s day is not the retention of rules relating to the age of preparation, but the risen Lord himself. The Lord’s day, in other words, is dominated by a theology of resurrection, new creation, release from bondage and the possession of the Spirit—all gifts of the Lord.

B. The Practical Upshot

(1) Negative. No one has a right to place restrictions on the Christian’s movements and activities on this day which do not find an anchorage in some principle of the new covenant revelation. It is often said that since Sunday is the Lord’s day, he has the right to regulate its hours. I agree; unless one can find a pronouncement or principle from the Lord or his apostles respecting the first day of the week, I cannot be bound with it. It was precisely such matters as “festivals,” “new moons,” “food and drink” and “sabbaths” that the apostle considers to be bondage; “These are a shadow of things to come, but the body is Christ.” Gal 5:1: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Just as there are no longer any holy places, there are no longer any holy (sacrosanct) days. From this vantage point, Sunday is to be regulated qualitatively in the same way as any other day of the week. Put negatively, any activity which is wrong on Sunday is wrong the other six days of the week. Interestingly, in Puritan enumerations of sins, sabbath-keeping is always placed high on the list; but in the NT it is never mentioned.

(2) Positive. Assembly of ourselves together is the prime directive. I would argue that work and recreation in themselves are not wrong, but they become so if they consistently take us away from that fellowship in whose midst the Lord comes in resurrection power and in which there is sanctification. Our freedom in Christ is not to become a pretext for the flesh (Gal 5:13).

C. Two Final Questions

(1) In view of all of this, what do we say to the godless of this generation? Are we to charge them with sabbath-breaking? Yes: not because they want to shop on Sundays, but because they will not relinquish their idols and rest in Christ. The problem with modern man is the same as with ancient man: the attempt to gain the whole world by pouring every ounce of time and energy into that pursuit, and all the while ignorant of the fact that to do is to lose one’s own soul. The unbeliever seeks every source of rest except Christ. Such a charge of sabbath-breaking ought to be the backbone of our gospel preaching.

(2) Should we oppose such things as Sunday trading? Perhaps. It is here that we must all follow the lead of individual convictions. Certainly, no Christian wants to see the encroachment of secularization and the blunting of the consciences of men. But if the trend does continue, we will find ourselves in precisely the same position as the apostles, who left behind no record of formal opposition to Sunday trading in their day but a message that Christ is the sabbath rest of the people of God.

[1]Kline, “The First Resurrection,” Westminster Theological Journal 37 (1974-75), 373. Cf. 1 Cor 15:25 and especially Heb 1:3.

[2]E. C. Hoskyns, “Jesus, the Messiah,” in Mysterium Christi: Christological Studies by British and German Theologians (eds. G. K. A. Bell and A. Deissmann; London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1930), 75ff.