Many years ago, an article appearing in the United Airlines inflight magazine addressed a common problem among Americans today.
“Not so long ago,” the author wrote, “I was just another harried mom, rushing through the day with one thought always in my mind: Why isn’t there any time?” After describing her crazy-busy life of managing too many commitments and pursuing too many goals, she revealed the unlikely solution she found in Sabbath-keeping:
Now, if someone told you there was a way to stop the onslaught of everyday obligations, improve your social life, keep the house clean, revive your tired marriage, elevate spiritual awareness, and improve productivity at work—all overnight and without cost—you’d probably say the claim was absurd. I certainly did. But I was willing to see if some cosmic miracle cure might really work, and after a year of earnest research, I’ve discovered that adherence to a seemingly arcane set of Sabbath rules yields a precious gift of time. . . . My personal life, my professional life, and my family life have all improved, and I plan to go on celebrating the Sabbath.1
As far as any reader can tell, the author did not keep the Sabbath because of religious convictions. Yet she found something in the practice of Sabbath-keeping that God intended for humans from the beginning: a rhythm of life that is good for the body and the soul.
The Hebrew word for Sabbath (Shabbat) means to cease or stop. Like pressing the pause button on a video, the Sabbath brings our ordinary labors of the week to a halt, giving us a pause from the rat race so we can find rest for our weary souls.
As Christians, we ought to know this. Observing the Lord’s Day not only has a rich history in Christianity, but it is also an essential part of our discipleship. It is the weekly holiday when we rest from our labors and feast at God’s table. Sadly, though, Sabbath-keeping has fallen on hard times in the American church. It is common today for Christians to think of Sunday the way the world does: as merely half of our personal weekend and another opportunity to shop, play sports, or run errands. By crowding out the Lord’s Day with more activity, we look for our spiritual nourishment and refreshment through means other than those God appointed. More and more, evangelical churches offer Saturday night services as a convenience to consumers who have other commitments on Sunday morning. Others simply opt out of word and sacrament in the local church altogether.
Why bother with the Sabbath when one can find spiritual benefits elsewhere? Let’s look at a few reasons why Christians should see the Lord’s Day as a gift to be enjoyed and a necessary part of our growth as disciples.
The Sabbath Is Rooted in Creation
Many Christians think of the Sabbath as something unique to the nation of Israel under the old covenant, with little application to believers in the new covenant. It is important for us to understand, however, that the Sabbath predates the Ten Commandments. It did not originate at Mount Sinai when God gave his law to Israel, but in creation. The Lord made that very point in the fourth commandment: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exod. 20:11).
In creation, God instituted a six-and-one pattern by which human beings would live. The rhythm of a weekly Sabbath is part of the way that we, as God’s image-bearers, reflect our Creator’s holy nature. The opening chapters of Genesis reveal three primary ways in which God designed us to imitate him.
The first way is in our rule over creation. As the Ruler of the universe, God has designated humans to be his vice-rulers over the earth:
Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth. (Gen. 1:28; cf. Ps. 8)
The second way we imitate God is in our work in the world. Genesis 1–2 tells us that God worked in the beginning, creating the heavens and the earth and filling them with good things. Likewise, he has called his image-bearers to work. He “took man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). Adam was to be a gardener and guardian of the garden, and Eve was to be his helper. Our vocations provide us with the opportunity to imitate God to his glory.
The third way we reflect God is in a weekly sabbatical rest. Just as the Bible tells us that God worked in what are described as six days, it also tells us that he rested:
And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. (Gen. 2:2–3)
This beautiful rhythm of six-and-one is built into creation. Like ruling over creation and working in the world, resting on the Sabbath is an important part of being human.
The Sabbath Provides Us with a “Market Day of the Soul”
“Market day of the soul” was a term for the Sabbath used by some Reformed Christians in the seventeenth century. It describes well the weekly gift God gives us. God provides us with six days every week to labor and fulfill our vocations in the world: six days to go to market, so to speak, for the body. The Sabbath is a blessed pause from all that. Each week, we receive a whole day to care for our souls, withdrawing from the noise and buzz of the culture and assembling as the covenant community. It is a day of rest, worship, and fellowship with the saints.
This is why God commanded Israel to collect manna for six days but not on the Sabbath, for it was “a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord” (Exod. 16:23; note that this was before he gave his law at Sinai). After four hundred years of slavery in Egypt, they needed to be reshaped in their thinking and redirected in their paths. Rather than filling up the Sabbath with more work and frenzied activity, Israel was to come beside the still waters for a day of rest.
The same is true for us in the new covenant. We need to be reshaped in our thinking. We need to be catechized by God’s word, not the spirit of the age in which we live. The world says to us, “It’s your weekend. Do what you want.” Our sinful hearts say, “It’s my life. I’ll do as I please.” But God says to us, “You are mine. I bought you with a price. I love you and will give you what is best for you.” When we surrender the Sabbath to the forces of entertainment, consumerism, and ambition, we not only miss out on this gift God has given us to enjoy, but we also conform ourselves to this present evil age and fail to be salt and light to the world.
God knows what is best for us far better than we do. He has given us a day to refrain from our busy schedules and hectic lives to find refreshment in his green pastures. He leads us beside still waters as he brings us to his means of grace, opening his hand to give us his good gifts. He restores our soul with his word and sacraments. In the midst of this pilgrim journey, he prepares a table before us every week. He blesses us with the communion of saints, providing us with family members within his house. Why would we want to crowd out this weekly holiday with more activity?
The Sabbath Points Us to Our Heavenly Goal
By commanding Israel to keep that Sabbath, the Lord was (in certain ways) republishing his commands to Adam. The Sabbath was given to Adam in order to point him to the eternal, heavenly rest that would be his if he remained faithful to the covenant in which God placed him. From the very beginning, human existence was moving toward the consummation—that is, glorified life in a glorified world, free from the possibility of sin and death. While we do not know how many weeks Adam lived in the garden, we do know that every seventh day was a reminder of something greater that would be his if he obeyed the conditions of the covenant of works. Every seventh day pointed him to the glorious eternal Sabbath of heaven.
Israel was to learn this lesson by keeping the Sabbath. Although Adam had failed in the garden as our federal representative, making it impossible for any human (including the nation of Israel) to obtain glorified life through obedience, the Sabbath remained a weekly reminder that something greater was on the horizon. Every Sabbath in the wilderness pointed Israel to the Promised Land of Canaan, which was a type and picture of that glorious eternal Sabbath of heaven. That is the interpretation the writer to the Hebrews places on the Sabbath: “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Heb. 4:9).
In the fullness of time, Christ came as the second Adam and succeeded where Adam had failed. He came as the true Israel, never neglecting or disobeying any of God’s commands. He fulfilled all the demands of the law for his people through his active obedience, earning for us the righteousness we needed to be acceptable to God. He removed the curse from us by becoming a curse for us as our sins were laid upon him and he suffered the wrath of God in our place.
Being raised from the dead on the first day of the week, Christ’s resurrection reversed the curse and inaugurated the new creation. The first day of the week now represents the birthday of the new creation, signaling the beginning of God’s everlasting week. It was on the first day of the week that God poured out his Spirit upon the new covenant church at Pentecost, announcing to us that we do not live in a world with a plotless narrative, droning on without meaning, but in the inaugurated new creation that will be fully consummated at Christ’s return. So decisive were the redemptive-historical events of Christ’s resurrection and Pentecost that the Sabbath shifted from Saturday to Sunday. The Sabbath is recognized in the new covenant as “the Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10) and no longer part of a law covenant. As Old Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield put it, “Christ took the Sabbath into the grave with him and brought out the Lord’s Day with the resurrection.”2
Rather than viewing the Sabbath as a dreary checklist of what we may or may not do, we should see this day as a delight and blessing. It is a weekly holiday to be enjoyed with God’s people as we receive his good gifts from his open hand. Keeping it does not guarantee that your personal, professional, or family life will improve, but it does provide the Christian with a host of benefits as it breaks into our busy week, declaring to us that we do not belong to this present evil age, but to Christ and the age to come.
Michael G. Brown is pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, California.
- Nan Chase, “Ancient Wisdom,” Hemispheres (July 1997), 118.
- B. B. Warfield, “The Foundations of the Sabbath in the Word of God,” in Selected Shorter Writings, vol. 1, ed. John E. Meeter (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1970), 319.