Principles for Observing Sabbath as Christians

Sermon by Nate Wilson for Christ the Redeemer Church, Manhattan, KS, 13 May 2012

Passage from Swiss Family Robinson on Sabbath

This is the 200th anniversary of the first printing of the book The Swiss Family Robinson. I read it to my children last week, and I was struck with how naturally Christian faith was expressed in the middle of an adventure novel:

The children woke the next morning, eager and springing about like young monkeys. “What shall we do today?”


“Rest?” they repeated.

“‘Six days shalt thou labor, but on the seventh thou shalt rest.’”

“Oh, jolly,” said Jack. “I shall take a bow and arrow and shoot. We’ll climb about the tree and have fun all day!”

“That is not how you will spend the Lord’s day,” I said.

“But we can’t go to church here.”

“The shade of this tree is far more beautiful than any church. Here we will worship our Creator.”

One by one, the children slipped down the ladder. I took my wife aside. “My dear Elizabeth,” I said, “This morning we will devote to the Lord. But it will be impossible to keep them quiet the whole day. After services, I will allow them innocent recreation, then in the evening we will take a walk.”

During our evening meal I spoke about naming the different spots we had visited on this coast. We began by naming the bay in which we landed Safety Bay. Our first home we called Tentholm; the islet in the bay, Shark Island; and the reedy swamp, Flamingo Marsh. After some time we named our tree home Falconhurst. Following our evening walk, we closed our Sabbath day with a prayer and glad hymn of praise. We slept with our hearts full of peace.[1]


A. In the first of these 3 sessions on the Sabbath, we looked at the origin and role of law. We saw that:

  1. God is the origin of law, and Jesus is the ultimate lawgiver and judge, so He has authority to define and interpret law as God.
  2. The role of law is to bless and lead to freedom. We saw this applied to the Sabbath law, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
  3. Therefore we must fight the urge to use law to condemn and control people by:


B. In the second session, I introduced Micah 6:8 as a way of keeping these 3 components in balance:

  1. Do justicefigure out what is right and do it, never yielding God’s holiness to compromise,
  2. Love mercyForgive, show compassion, and seek for God to be merciful when confronted with evil and the fallout of sin.
  3. Walk humbly with GodNever attempt to do justice and love mercy by your own wisdom and effort, but rather maintain your personal relationship with Jesus Christ, following in His footsteps, drawing on His wisdom and His power.



C. Now, I want to zoom out from this particular passage in Matthew to look at the whole of scripture and address some other issues which the law of Sabbath raises:

  1. Is the Sabbath law still binding on Christians today?
  2. Why is the Christian Sabbath on Sunday whereas the Jewish Sabbath was Saturday?
  3. And how do we sort through how to apply all those rules in the Bible in light of all the added church traditions we have today?

1) Is the Sabbath day still binding on anyone today?

2. How did the Sabbath get changed from the 7th to the 1st Day?

Can there be exceptions? Yes

I believe that the principle of rest is one day in seven, and not necessarily that Saturday or Sunday has to be that day of rest. “Six days shall you labour and do all your work, but the seventh is a Sabbath to the Lord.” So one exception could be made for the day of the week on which you rest.

3. What should we do on the Sabbath?


APPENDIX A: Overview of Biblical Law on the Sabbath (NASB)

“Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts. By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.” (Genesis 2:1-3)

“’Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, the sabbath, there will be none.’ It came about on the seventh day that some of the people went out to gather, but they found none. Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My instructions? See, the LORD has given you the sabbath; therefore He gives you bread for two days on the sixth day. Remain every man in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.’ So the people rested on the seventh day. The house of Israel named it manna, and it was like coriander seed, white, and its taste was like wafers with honey.” (Exodus 16:26-31)

“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the 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.” (Exodus 20:8-11)

“You shall surely observe My sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you. Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall surely be put to death. So the sons of Israel shall observe the sabbath, to celebrate the sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor, and was refreshed.” (Exodus 31:12-17)

Moses assembled all the congregation of the sons of Israel, and said to them, “These are the things that the LORD has commanded you to do: For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a holy day, a sabbath of complete rest to the LORD; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall not kindle a fire in any of your dwellings on the sabbath day.” (Exodus 35:1-3)

“For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation. You shall not do any work; it is a sabbath to the LORD in all your dwellings.” (Leviticus 23:3)

Putting out new loaves of showbread in the holy place (Lev. 24:8) and offering extra animal sacrifices (Num. 28:10).

“On the first day you shall have a holy assembly, and another holy assembly on the seventh day; no work at all shall be done on them, except what must be eaten by every person, that alone may be prepared by you… For seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a feast to the LORD.” (Ex. 12:16…13:6),

“On exactly the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall humble your souls and present an offering by fire to the LORD. You shall not do any work on this same day, for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the LORD your God. If there is any person who will not humble himself on this same day, he shall be cut off from his people… It is to be a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwelling places. It is to be a sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall humble your souls; on the ninth of the month at evening, from evening until evening you shall keep your sabbath… On the fifteenth of this seventh month is the Feast of Booths for seven days to the LORD. On the first day is a holy convocation; you shall do no laborious work of any kind. For seven days you shall present an offering by fire to the LORD. On the eighth day you shall have a holy convocation and present an offering by fire to the LORD; it is an assembly. You shall do no laborious work.” (Leviticus 23:27-36)

“When you come into the land which I shall give you, then the land shall have a sabbath to the LORD. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its crop, but during the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath rest, a sabbath to the LORD; you shall not sow your field nor prune your vineyard. Your harvest's aftergrowth you shall not reap, and your grapes of untrimmed vines you shall not gather; the land shall have a sabbatical year. All of you shall have the sabbath products of the land for food; yourself, and your male and female slaves, and your hired man and your foreign resident, those who live as aliens with you. Even your cattle and the animals that are in your land shall have all its crops to eat. You are also to count off seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years, so that you have the time of the seven sabbaths of years, namely, forty-nine years. You shall then sound a ram's horn abroad on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the day of atonement you shall sound a horn all through your land. You shall thus consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim a release through the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, and each of you shall return to his own property, and each of you shall return to his family.” (Leviticus 25:2-10)

“You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:15)

“Bring your worthless offerings no longer, Incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies-- I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly.” (Isaiah 1:13)

“To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths, And choose what pleases Me, And hold fast My covenant, To them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial, And a name better than that of sons and daughters... Also the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, To minister to Him, and to love the name of the LORD, To be His servants, every one who keeps from profaning the sabbath And holds fast My covenant; Even those I will bring to My holy mountain And make them joyful in My house of prayer… For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.” (Isaiah 56:4-7)

“Look, in your fast day, y’all find pleasure and y’all drive all your laborers.  Look, it is for strife and fighting that y’all fast and for striking with a wicked fist. Do not fast like today to make your voice heard in the height! … Is it for this you call a fast and a day of acceptance for Jehovah? Isn’t it this – a fast I choose: to open the manacles of evil, to spring the bindings of the yoke and to send forth the oppressed [as] freemen, and tear off every yoke? Isn’t it to split your bread for the hungry, and bring home the poor vagabonds? … 13. If, on the Sabbath, you make your foot turn away from doing your pleasure during my holy day and you call the Sabbath “a delight,” Jehovah’s holy thing “honorable,” and you honor it instead of making your ways – instead of finding your pleasure… Then you will indulge yourself over Jehovah, and I will make you ride upon the high places of earth …” (Isaiah 58:3-14 NAW)

Thus says the LORD, “Take heed for yourselves, and do not carry any load on the sabbath day or bring anything in through the gates of Jerusalem. You shall not bring a load out of your houses on the sabbath day nor do any work, but keep the sabbath day holy, as I commanded your forefathers. Yet they did not listen or incline their ears, but stiffened their necks in order not to listen or take correction. But it will come about, if you listen attentively to Me,” declares the LORD, “to bring no load in through the gates of this city on the sabbath day, but to keep the sabbath day holy by doing no work on it, then there will come in through the gates of this city kings and princes sitting on the throne of David… and this city will be inhabited forever… But if you do not listen to Me to keep the sabbath day holy by not carrying a load and coming in through the gates of Jerusalem on the sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates and it will devour the palaces of Jerusalem and not be quenched.” (Jeremiah 17:21-27)

“The LORD, the God of their fathers, sent word to them again and again by His messengers, because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place; but they continually mocked the messengers of God, despised His words and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against His people, until there was no remedy. Therefore He brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans... Those who had escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon; and they were servants to him and to his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its sabbaths. All the days of its desolation it kept sabbath until seventy years were complete.” (2 Chron. 36:15-21, cf. Lev. 26:34ff)


APPENDIX B: Theologians on the Sabbath

What is the function of the Sabbath? How is it fulfilled? I would like to share with you the thoughts of three great minds from the 20th Century on this topic:

Geerhardus Vos

Geerhardus Vos, theology professor at Princeton at the beginning of the 20th Century, in his classic book, Biblical Theology, touched on the fact that the Sabbath has three meanings, one practical (the need to get some rest and religious instruction), one soteric (the need for sinful men to be saved and given peace with God), and one eschatological (the need to look forward to the fulfillment of all of God’s plans).

·         [Utilitarian] “It would be a mistake to base its observance primarily on the ground of utility. The Sabbath is not… a fixed day to devote sufficient care to the religious interests of life… It has its main significance apart from that, in pointing forward to the eternal issues of life and history…”

·         [Soteric] “The universal Sabbath law received a modified significance under the Covenant of Grace. The word which issues into the rest can now no longer be man’s own work. It becomes the work of Christ… The resurrection of the Messiah… was to [the early church] nothing less than the bringing in of a new, the second, creation… our lord died on the eve of that Jewish Sabbath, at the end of one of these typical weeks of labour by which His work and its consummation were prefigured… Sabbath… Sabbatical year… Jubilee… from all this we have been released by the word of Christ, but not from the Sabbath as instituted at Creation… Inasmuch as the Old Covenant was still looking forward to the performance of the Messianic work, naturally, the days of labour to it come first, the day of rest falls at the end of the week. We, under the New Covenant, look back upon the accomplished work of Christ. We therefore, first celebrate the rest in principle procured by Christ, although the Sabbath also still remains a sign looking forward to the final eschatological rest…”

·         [Eschatological] The week of seven days was known before the time of Moses… the Sabbath, though a world-aged observance, has passed through the various phases of the development of redemption, remaining the same in essence but modified as to its form, as the new state of affairs at each point might require… The principle underlying the Sabbath is… that man must copy God in his course of life… ‘[R]est’ cannot, of course, mean mere cessation from labour… It stands for consummation of a work accomplished and the joy and satisfaction attendant upon this. Such was its prototype in God. Mankind must copy this, and that not only in the sequences of daily existence as regards individuals; but in its collective capacity through a large historic movement. For mankind, too, a great task waits to be accomplished, and at its close beckons a rest of joy and satisfaction that shall copy the rest of God… Therefore, the Sabbath is an expression of the eschatological principle on which the life of humanity has been constructed…

Robertson McQuilken

Robertson McQuilken, missionary, professor, and president of Columbia Bible College and Seminary (now CIU) in the late 20th Century focused on some of the more practical applications in his book, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics:

·         The Sabbath is not limited to a certain time or ethnic group. It was originally “given to all mankind” at creation as a “pattern for those made in His image.” It shares universal application to mankind together with the other creation ordinances of substitionary atonement, marriage, and work. These things apply to all mankind at all times in history.[5]

·         The Sabbath is not a result of sin. “Periodic rest is of the nature of God.” God’s rest on the seventh day was “not merely a contrived model for humankind.” It was given “before man had fallen.”

·         The Sabbath was made for fellowship with God: It is not to deprive us of productive labor, but rather to give us more time to enjoy Him. “Just as two lovers long for a time of quiet when they can stop their regular activity and spend unhurried time together, so God designed a gift of a special time with those He loves, time that is ‘holy,’ set aside for that purpose of companionship.”

·          “Christ said ‘Yes’ to the rest day, but a resounding ‘No’ to the rabbinical additions. He contended with the scribes continuously over their interpretation of the law, with the complex hedge they built around the law to protect it.” However, He recognized “exceptions to the law of rest: [namely] works of necessity and mercy… Christ came to fulfill [obey] the law… He put an end to the transitory ceremonial aspects of the law [instituted in Moses’ time] while reinforcing through His own example and teaching the eternal, moral elements of the Old Testament revelation… His life and teaching seem to favor a continuing moral obligation to obey the forth commandment, but to strip it of all the scribal additions.”

·         “What is very clear in Paul’s teaching is that the old ceremonial system of sacrifices and holy days was fulfilled in Christ and was no longer binding on the believer.”

·         “The high view of one day set aside as the Lord’s Day in a special way, a day built theologically on the biblical commands concerning a rest day, is a direct gift from the Puritans.”

·         “The only way the careful observance of the rest day commandment could displease our Lord would be if a person looked to that obedience as a means of earning merit or as a way of salvation.”

·         “In a thoroughly humanistic age in which man is the center, ‘God first!’ thunders from Sinai. The first table of the Decalogue proclaims this ultimate message: ‘Above all else, O man, guard your relationship to your God.’”

Rousas John Rushdoony

My thinking on the meaning of the Sabbath has been developed more than anything else by a thick book by R. J. Rushdoony called The Institutes of Biblical Law. While I do not agree with everything I read there, I thought these quotes were very good:

·         “The purpose of the Sabbath is … the rest and release of redemption and regeneration” (p.140). “The pattern of the Sabbath is God’s creation rest...” (p.128)

·         “The goal of the Sabbath, as Hebrews 3 makes clear, is the promised land, the new creation in Jesus Christ. The Sabbath therefore sets forth the restoration and restitution of all things in Christ.” (p.141)

·         “The essence of the Sabbath is our rest in Christ, and our growth in the knowledge of that salvation by His grace.” (p.153)

·         This is pictured in the greatest of all Sabbaths, the jubilee year, but what is it that inaugurates the Jubilee? It is the Day of Atonement! The day on which God provides a way for His people to be forgiven of their sin by killing a substitute, a lamb without blemish.

·         “On the close of the great Day of Atonement, when the Hebrews realized that they had peace of mind, that their heavenly Father had annulled their sins, and that they had become reunited to Him through His forgiving mercy, every Israelite was called upon to proclaim through the land, by nine blasts of the cornet, that he too had given the soil rest, that he had freed every encumbered family estate, and that he had given liberty to every slave...” (quoting C. D. Ginsburg’s commentary on Leviticus)

·         The death sentence in the law of Moses for the violation of the Sabbath implies that the observation of the Sabbath was life-giving. (p.137) “The Sabbath is life to the man who looks to the Lord for life, and allows God to work throughout all creation as the great re-creator.” (p.144)

·         The Sabbath was a covenantal sign – a sign that God and man were in agreement. “The commandment does not merely require a cessation of work, but to ‘remember to keep it holy… Holiness in itself implies authority; it is separation and dedication in terms of God… the rest of the Sabbath comes from the fact that covenant man is under authority… To be under authority and to acknowledge sovereignty requires knowledge… Growth in the knowledge of God and His law-word is thus important to the celebration of the Sabbath.” (p.151) “To rest in the Lord is to accept His authority and to trust in Him” (p.154).

·         “The Sabbath… looks backward to the creation rest for its pattern and faith; it looks upward to God in the assurance of His grace and victory; it looks forward to the great Sabbath consummation.” (p.146, quoting Gustave Oehler’s Theology of the Old Testament, a well as Augustine’s Confessions)

·         The following Jewish anecdote is quoted by many people, “The people of Israel said: ‘Lord of the whole world, show us the world to come.’ God, blessed be He, answered: ‘Such a pattern is the Sabbath.’” (p.156, quoting Jalk. Rub.)

·         “[T]he Sabbath has always had reference to the future. The pattern of the sabbath is in the past, from the Sabbath of creation. The entrance in to the Sabbath is also in the past; for Israel, it was the redemption from Egypt; for the church, it is the resurrection. The fulfillment of the Sabbath is in the new creation. The Sabbath is a present rest, based on past events, with a future reference and fulfillment.” (p.156)

·         “The Sabbath law is a plan for the world’s tomorrow. The Biblical law works to eliminate evil and to abolish poverty and debt. The Sabbath law has as its word the recreation of man, animals, and the earth, the whole of creation. The Sabbath thus reveals the design and direction of the whole law: it is a declaration of the future that the law is establishing.” (p.157)

[1] Young Reader’s Christian Library The Swiss Family Robinson, by Johan Wyss, Retold by /Kristi Lorene, Illustrated by Ken Save, Published 1994 by Barbour Publishing, Inc, Uhrichsville, OH

[2] Paul K. Jewett, The Lord’s Day, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), p. 77-79.

[3] Rushdoony quoted extensively from Curtis Clair Ewing’ book, Israel’s Calendar and the True Sabbath to prove this point.

[4] Gary North, in his article “The Economics of Sabbath-Keeping,” cites Thomas Gouge, a 17th Century English puritan, who “praised as shining examples several Christian physicians who refused payment of Sunday labor.”

[5] cf. Patrick Fairbairn, The Typology of Scripture: The Divine Dispensations, vol. 2, 4th ed. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1864), pp. 128-129. “Does he feel himself warranted to assume, that because, after Christ’s appearing, the marriage union was rtreated as an emblem of Christ’s union to the church, that literal ordinance is thereby changed or impaired? Assuredly not. And why should another course be taken with the Sabbath? … both are destined to last until the songs of the redeemed shall have ushered in the glories of a world restored.”