The Fourth Commandment: The Christian Sabbath
There have been significant figures in church history who argued that Christ abolished the Sabbath in the same way that he fulfills the shadows of the ceremonial law. Augustine and Calvin are two of the more significant figures that give me pause for holding to a view that differs. For them, gathering on Sunday is not a command from God, but a tradition from man. We will consider several challenges to the notion of the Christian Sabbath this morning.
This is our final sermon on the fourth commandment. We began by recognizing that the origin of Sabbath observance takes us back to the creation account (Genesis 2:1-3). If the Sabbath is a creation ordinance then it has abiding validity for all mankind. We also considered the observance of the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11). The following week we looked at the purpose of the Sabbath which was to delight in a day of rest and worship (Isaiah 58:13-14).
Last week we focused on the teaching of Jesus regarding the Sabbath. His corrections of the Pharisees returned his people to an accurate view of the day. In summary, Jesus taught three exceptions to the prohibition of work on the Sabbath:
- Works of Piety (worship)
- Works of Necessity (military, police)
- Works of Mercy (healing, medical)
This morning I want to turn our attention to several of the challenges that have been raised to the concept of “the Christian Sabbath” (WCF 21.7). I will admit that the fourth commandment does pose some unique challenges that are not present with the other commandments. The other commandments received deeper and broader treatment under Christ’s teaching, especially the sixth and seventh commandments (murder includes hatred, adultery includes lust), but none of them were changed as significantly as the fourth commandment. Although much has changed about Sabbath observance, it is still relevant for believers today.
Read Hebrews 4:1-10
I. Does Jesus Fulfill the Christian Sabbath?
The author of Hebrews discusses the Sabbath in a section arguing that Jesus Christ is the great high priest, superior to Moses. It is the final passage in Scripture which uses the word ‘Sabbath’.
The psalmist’s curse of the disobedient Hebrews (who failed to enter the Promised Land) is interpreted as a promise that some will enter God’s rest (Hebrews 4:1-3; Psalm 95:11). Those who believe enter God’s rest which is exemplified by God’s rest from his creative activities (Hebrews 4:4). Man is to rest by enjoying God’s finished work and glorifying him for it.
Since the Fall men have failed to enter God’s rest, but hope is held out for those who repent (Hebrews 4:5-7). Those who entered the land under Joshua have not experienced this rest either (Hebrews 4:8). That rest is a rest specifically reserved for believers (Hebrews 4:3).
“Sabbath-keeping” (σαββατισμὸς) remains for the people of God (Hebrews 4:9-10). The word for “rest” (κατάπαυσιν) occurs 12x between Hebrews 3:11 and 4:11, but it does not occur in v.9. In Hebrew 4:9, the author deliberately substitutes it with the word σαββατισμὸς. This shift in words would have been abundantly clear to the original audience.
The Septuagint (LXX) uses the verbal form (σαββατισμὸς) in four places (Exodus 16:30; Leviticus 23:32; 26:34f.; and 2 Chronicles 36:21). In each of these cases the term denotes the observance or celebration of the Sabbath, not a Sabbath rest as a state to be entered into but a Sabbath-keeping as a practice to be observed.
Greek morphology would agree as the μὸς ending indicates action rather than state of being. If the author were speaking of a state, he would have used σάββατoν or continued with κατάπαυσιν instead.
Hebrews 4 is not explaining the abrogation of the fourth commandment, but the establishing of it under the new covenant.
“God” only occurs once in v.10. Only pronouns are used prior: “for whoever has entered his rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Hebrews 4:10). The question is who does the author have in view?
Could it be a reference to a believer’s present rest, in the sense of them no longer working for their salvation? Never does the author refer to a believer entering their own rest in this passage. He refers to their entering a rest of God (3). “His work” is finished (aorist tense) and he has already entered his rest. Believers are in the process of entering (present tense) God’s rest (3). John Owen and Richard Gaffin have pointed out how unlikely it would be for the author of Hebrews to compare the believer’s resting from dead works with God’s work in creation. So it seems unlikely that the author has the believer’s own rest in view here.
Could it be a reference to a future heavenly rest? There is no future tense in the passage nor is it related to the context. Plus, some Greek scholars (Baugh, Burton) point at that it is grammatically unfeasible to interpret this as a reference to the future.
This Sabbath-keeping rest of God is still offered to believers living under the new covenant. It is not the same as the rest of faith, although it is a rest that requires faith.
Jesus Christ rested from his finished work in his resurrection! In context, Jesus is spoken of as being better than Moses (3:1-6) and after this passage he is our great high priest (4:14-16). The gospel calls sinners to enter God’s rest through Christ.
What this means is that our Sabbath-keeping provides another sign pointing to the finished work of Christ. Since Christ’s “rest” occurred on the first day of the week in his resurrection, so we are now entering rest on that day.
So let’s consider how the early church exemplified this practice
II. Which Day of the Week is the Christian Sabbath?
Resurrection and early appearances occurred on the first day of the week (John 20:19, 26). When James did not see him at his first appearing, it wasn’t until the next week that Jesus appeared to him.
The apostles frequently engaged in evangelistic activity on the Sabbath (Acts 13:14, 42; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4). However, the early church had a pattern of gathering for worship on Sunday. We know they celebrated the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7). They took up a collection of financial gifts on Sunday (1 Corinthians 16:1-2).
John received his revelation on the “Lord’s Day” which is a reference to Sunday, the day of Jesus’ resurrection (Revelation 1:10). “The Lord’s Day” is used consistently as a reference to Sunday from the middle of the second century onward. It was not the habit of the New Testament authors to mention the day something occurred unless it held particular importance.
The apostles, by gathering on the first day of the week, maintain the 6 and 1 pattern of work/rest. The commandment remained in force, but the day it was observed changed. They didn’t simply choose a convenient day to worship. Yes, all time has been redeemed and is ‘holy’ (Eph. 5:16), and all of life can be seen as a sacrifice (Rom. 12:1), but the practice of gathering for corporate worship was ongoing.
Pipa, “The Old Covenant people looked forward to the accomplishment of redemption, so they kept the Sabbath at the end of the week. After the Rest-giver had accomplished His work, the New Testament Church kept its Sabbath on the day He entered in to His rest, signifying that although we wait for the consummation, we already have begun to participate in this rest.”
Under the old covenant this rest was imperfectly observed on the seventh day (if it was observed at all), under the new covenant it is to be observed on the first day of the week until Christ returns.
In celebration of the redemption of Christ accomplished in His resurrection, we gather for rest and worship on Sundays.
Some raise objections from several Pauline passages.
III. Does Paul Deny the Christian Sabbath?
Some have argued that making (or not) any day holy is a matter of personal preference (Romans 14:5-6). Weaker brothers are unable to enjoy their Christian freedom due to a conflict in their conscience. With regard to food, the strong brother is tempted to disdain the weak, while the weak brother is tempted to condemn the strong. With regard to “days”, the weak brother esteems certain days, while the strong brother esteems all days alike.
Both issues are dealing with ceremonial law, not the moral law. Can you think of any other commandment included in the moral law that is treated as a matter of Christian liberty? It is a sin to break any commandment of God’s moral law.
Believers are rebuked for returning to Old Testament patterns of worship including the observance of “days and months and seasons and years” (Galatians 4:9-11).
But, Paul was speaking against the false teaching of the Judaizers who required faith in Christ plus keeping the Mosaic law in order to be saved. Their concern was for justification. This was not a question of liberty like Romans 14:5-6. To accept the “gospel” of the Judaizers would be to fall away from grace (Galatians 5:2-4). Even if we concede that Paul has the weekly Sabbath in view in this text, his argument is that observing these days cannot justify a person.
Some point out how the law of commandments contained in ordinances have been abolished in the flesh of Christ (Ephesians 2:14-15). But this would imply that the moral law was entirely abolished by the death of Christ (contra 6:1-3). Rather, what was abolished was the wall that kept Jews separated from Gentiles. Paul was not referring to the abiding moral law, but the temporary ceremonial law. That is why he provides circumcision as the specific example (2:11).
Paul specifically refers to the Sabbath as an Old Testament shadow (Colossians 2:16-17). Since Christ, the reality, is now here, we have no more need for the shadow.
Do these texts contradict Mark 2:27-28 and Hebrews 4:9? Paul’s opponents seem to be the Essenes (ascetic) who were stricter than the Pharisees with regard to food regulations and Sabbath observance.
We would concede that each of these texts is referring to Jewish days that the Christian is no longer obligated to observe. Scripture refers to many Sabbath days. Leviticus 23 speaks of the Passover, Firstfruits/Pentecost, Feast of Weeks, Feast of Trumpets, Day of Atonement, and Feast of Tabernacles.
These were the days that Paul observed in Acts 20:16; 21:26. During the transitional period of the early church, this was a matter of evangelistic opportunity, not religious requirement.
In Rome, the encouragement was not to be critical of those who do/don’t observe these Jewish days. In Galatia, opponents of Paul had argued that circumcision and observance of these days were matters pertaining to salvation. In Colosse, Paul is concerned with the ceremonial nature of these practices.
These ceremonial laws were introduced under Moses, therefore we must conclude that they do not have the Christian Sabbath in view. On the other hand, the weekly Sabbath was a creation ordinance, therefore it is binding.
Jesus Christ said “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). We must keep coming back to this promise.
DeYoung The most important way we observe the Sabbath is by ceasing from our flawed, sinful labors and trusting in Christ alone for salvation.
The priority is ceasing from laboring for our salvation rather than resting in Christ alone. How that rest is practiced may differ, but the object of our trust must be Christ rather than ourselves.