Isaiah 58:13 says, “If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the LORD, honourable” (emphasis added). You will not be able to wholeheartedly pursue a profitable Sabbath day until you are convinced that the Lord’s Day is truly set apart by God as sacred time devoted to Him. You must be able to say with absolute conviction, “This is God’s holy day.” If your conscience is gripped with a sense that God commands us to honor the Lord’s Day, then you will do what it takes to honor it. And, if you love the Lord, you will do it with pleasure because it is His will.
The Sabbath was instituted by God as His holy day.1Portions of this article are adapted from two of my sermons on Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 103, and Joel R. Beeke, “The Didactic Use of the Law,” in Puritan Reformed Spirituality (Darlington, U.K.: Evangelical Press, 2006), 112–18. I am grateful to Ray Lanning for coauthoring that chapter with me. In the fourth commandment God says, “The seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God” (Ex. 20:10). These words remind us that God commanded us to observe the weekly Sabbath and that He claims the day as His own. As God said through Isaiah, it is “my holy day.” Not to devote the day to the purposes and activities commanded for its sanctification robs God of that which belongs to Him.
The Sabbath is a creation ordinance. Genesis 2:1–3 recounts how on the seventh day of the creation week, God rested from all His work as Creator. God, who does not need to rest, rested as an example for the man and woman He had created in His image. They were to follow His example, resting from their work as He did from His; thus it is a divine institution which God crowned with His blessing, setting it apart for all of time. A common error is to assume that the Sabbath originated with the giving of the law at Sinai. Such a view ignores the fact that Exodus 20 does not introduce the Sabbath as something new but rather acknowledges something ancient and historic that is to be remembered and observed by God’s people: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8).
What, specifically, is to be remembered in the pattern of six days of work punctuated by a day of holy rest? “In six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it” (Ex. 20:11). Every Sabbath we remember that we are not in this world by chance; we are not products of evolution. Every Sabbath God declares to us, “Remember that you are accountable to Me. Remember that you are under My authority as your Creator.” Jesus Christ owned the Sabbath. The first three evangelists record that He said, “The Son of man is Lord of the sabbath” (Matt. 12:8; Mark 2:28; Luke 6:5). In one blow, Christ asserted His full deity as the God of Israel and reaffirmed the claim of God upon the weekly Sabbath, restating that claim in His own name. The claim left its mark on the apostolic church, so that by the end of that era, the Christian Sabbath was known as “the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10). Are we really to believe that Christ declared Himself Lord of the Sabbath so that in a few years He could abolish it? As Walter Chantry says, such an argument “makes nonsense of Jesus’ words.”2Chantry, Call the Sabbath a Delight, 57.
Therefore, while the ceremonial and civil regulations of the old covenant law no longer bind us in Christ (though they still point us to Him), the Sabbath continues. Our Lord Jesus Christ did not treat the Sabbath the way He treated the ceremonial laws. For example, He taught His disciples that food cannot make a person unclean (Mark 7:18), pointing them beyond the Mosaic distinction between clean and unclean food. However, when it came to the Sabbath, Christ taught His disciples the proper way to keep the Sabbath, implying that He expected His church to continue observing it. Indeed, by saying that He is “Lord of the sabbath,” Christ stamped the day with an indelible, Christian character. Henceforth it was only right to speak of the Christian Sabbath.
When Christ died on the cross, He fulfilled the law of God in both its demands for complete obedience and its penalties for sin. His work of redemption was finished (John 19:30). He ratified the promise of the new covenant, by which God’s law is written on the hearts of His covenant people and they desire to do His will. The body of the Lord Jesus rested in the grave on the seventh day and His human spirit rested in Paradise. Then on the first day of the week, Christ rose from the dead, the Firstborn of the new creation, and met with His disciples, teaching them the meaning of the Word, filling their hearts with understanding, joy, and peace by the Holy Spirit, and giving them their worldwide mission (Luke 24; John 20:19–23). One week later, or on the next first day of the week, Christ appeared to the gathered disciples a second time to renew their faith and peace (John 20:26–29). Again, seven weeks later, on the day of Pentecost, which also falls on the first day of the week (Lev. 23:15–16), Christ poured out the Spirit upon His church (Acts 2).
Since then, the apostles directed the churches of all lands to set apart the first day of the week as the day for sacred assemblies to give their offerings and receive God’s Word and sacraments (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1–2). By Christ’s example and the apostles’ direction, the sacred day was changed from the seventh day to the first day, giving it a new name: “the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10). Thus, while the early church distanced itself from the Jewish Sabbath, it wholeheartedly embraced holy rest on the Lord’s Day. Justin Martyr (d. 165) wrote in the mid-second-century that on Sunday the church gathers to read Scripture, hear the preaching of the Word, pray, partake of the sacraments, and collect money for the poor because that is the day when Christ our Savior rose from the dead.3Justin Martyr, First Apology, ch. 67, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), 1:186. And around the same time, Dionysius of Corinth wrote, “Today being the Lord’s Day, we kept it as a holy day.”4Quoted in Eusebius, The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, trans. G. A. Williamson (Middlesex, Eng.: Penguin Books, 1965), 185 [4.23].
Perhaps you question whether God really expects us to keep the first day of the week as His holy day. I encourage you to dig deeper into the Bible. Give careful consideration to God’s resting on the seventh day of creation, blessing it, and making it holy. Why would God do that, unless He did it for mankind? Meditate on how our Lord Jesus explained and observed the Sabbath. Why did He spend so much time explaining the true meaning of the Sabbath, unless He intended for His disciples to keep the Sabbath?
To have a firm foundation for keeping the Sabbath in a profitable manner, you must be convinced from the Scriptures that the Sabbath is the sacred day of God. Then you are able to wake up on the first day of the week and say to yourself, “My God has set apart one day in seven for Himself since the beginning of time. Christ declared that He is Lord of the Sabbath. I am Christ’s disciple, and because I love Him I will keep His commandments. Today is the Lord’s Day, and I will keep it holy.”
An excerpt from
Delighting in God: A Guide to Sabbath-keeping
By Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley
PURITAN REFORMED JOURNAL
Volume 11, Number 1 • January 2019