Sabbath keeping among Reformed people has been a important component of being Reformed. The Puritan Matthew Henry wrote “The stream of all religion runs either deep or shallow, according as the banks of the sabbath are kept up or neglected.”
Introduction of Sabbath into World History was revolutionary.
It is true that the Scriptures give us God resting in Genesis but there is no explicit record of a Sabbath rest being entered into by God’s people prior to their deliverance from Egypt. Any idea of a regular weekly rest finds its roots in Biblical revelation wherever it is found. The origin of the Sabbath is specifically cited as Mosaic by Nehemiah 9:14)
14 “So You made known to them Your holy sabbath,
And laid down for them commandments, statutes and law,
Through Your servant Moses. (See also Ez. 20:10-26)
Remember, Israel was a slave people who would have been tasked to work 24-7 for their masters. Once they are delivered and given victory the strict abiding prohibition to work on the Sabbath would have been a continual reminder, woven into the rhythm of their existence, of the salvation and liberty that was wrought for them by God.
**Sabbath Communicated God’s Providence and God’s Deliverance of Israel From Unending Labor
Unlike all the other peoples of the Earth, Israel alone was dedicated, as a religious principle, to this regular rhythmic rest that proclaimed God’s providence and their liberty from unending labor.
Isaiah 56:2 / Ex. 31:13-17 teaches that the keeping of Sabbath signified loyalty to the Lord and His covenant.
This was so important to their identity and existence that violation of the Sabbath rest was treason to Israel. To violate the Sabbath was to deny God’s providence. Such a violation was punishable by death.
(Numbers 15:32-36, [concerning the Sabbath — Ex. 20:8-11, 23:12, 31:13-17, 34:21, 35:2-3, Dt. 5:12-15, Lev. 19:3, 30, 26:2)
We must keep in mind that the whole thrust of the Sabbath was both to communicate God’s providence and Israel’s deliverance from unremitting slave work. The Sabbath was Liberty. This fact is what makes old objections about how having to keep Sabbath was an infringement upon a people’s liberty. The whole idea is that the Sabbath idea communicated the idea of Liberty. Jesus brought this front and center again when He reminded His listeners that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” The Sabbath allowed for works of mercy and necessity.
When Israel failed to keep Sabbath this failure was a part of their failure to forsake the idolatry they had adopted in Egypt (Ez. 20:5-11) and resulted in their return to captivity. By their constant Idolatry and refusal to honor God’s Sabbath they were communicating their continual Spiritual enslavement and so God returned them to a physical captivity to Babylon to match their spiritual captivity.
** Sabbath Communicated God’s Transcendence & Discontinuity W/ Man
Definition Transcendence — 1. Surpassing others; preeminent or supreme.
2. Being above and independent of the material universe.
God, being Transcendent, is separate from and beyond His creation and so He gives His people a day that is separate from the rest of the week.
Thus, true worship involves a separation from the natural processes of living one finds during the rest of the week. The fact that God gives regular rest and worship that is distinct communicates His discontinuity as Creator from man the creature.
To be sure the faith must be applied in daily life but the source of our faith can not be found in daily life. God is Transcendent.
What might we say then?
True religion, true faith in the God of the Bible involves
1.) A Sabbath that communicates a ceasing from our thinking that we are the cause of our own progress by means of the dint of our work or by natural cause and effect processes and requires that we look to God as a person who, in His providence, provides for His people. Now, this is not to say that the Sabbath teaches laziness. It most certainly does not for the resting of one in seven necessitates the working of 6 in seven. But the Sabbath teaches us that God’s providence ultimately accounts for blessing.
Man’s destiny is not a work of man or the result of natural processes or the working out of some kind of historical cause and effect operating in a closed universe History. Man’s destiny is the consequence of God’s ordination and fore-ordination. When we regularly rest, per God’s command, we communicate that we believe in a personal extra-mundane God who cares and saves His people by His work.
2.) From our confidence in God, as communicated in our resting and worshiping we then live the rest of our lives in terms of God’s revelation. God’s providence gives us rest but it also affords for us how we are to live and move and have our being for our daily living.
So, when we deny the idea of a weekly rest it is at the same time a denial of God and of His Providence. When we deny God’s regular weekly rest we are communicating, knowingly or unknowingly, a rejection of God’s transcendence and consequently we take that idea of the transcendence of God and we place in the created order. (We immanentize it.) Transcendence never goes away but is lodged somewhere else. In the times we live in, in the culture in which we live, that which typically gets the Transcendence of God that has been surrendered, in part by our refusal to honor His Transcendence by honoring the Sabbath is the State. The State becomes Transcendent and is given the prerogatives of God. And like the Pharaoh’s of old the State’s ultimate goal is to give no rest.
The Welfare state is merely the segue unto to the slave state
George Orwell’s Animal Farm — Boxer the Horse — “I will work harder.”
Again we say then that the Sabbath is a reminder of God’s sovereignty, of His role as creator, redeemer, sustainer, and judge. We can rest because God rules.
As an aside we should mention that this Lord’s Day resting that compels us to remember that God rules should deliver us from thinking that man in any sense rules or governs the affairs of History. It is true that conspiracies exist dedicated to rule over the affairs of men, whether those conspiracies are local or global. Elite men do have their plans of social engineering the masses. But the keeping of the Sabbath has us preaching to ourselves that we have no need to fear those conspiracies because we belong to the God who sits and heaven and laughs at those who conspire against His Sovereign providential rule. In the end even the conspiracies of men serve the purposes of our Sovereign God. An insightful glimpse into the meaning of the Sabbath can tell us all that.
*** Just as Israel Rested In God’s Victory Over Egypt, So we Rest in Christ’s Victory Over The Kingdom Of Darkness
We must understand that we can rest because the victory has been accomplished. And when we then arise to work the other 6 days we work not to accomplish an uncertain victory but only to manifest the Victory that has already been accomplished for us in Christ.
The Sabbaths of the OT, and the “rest” given in the promised land, were only foreshadowings of the victory and rest to be given in Christ.
Hebrews 4 is the definitive passage regarding Jesus as our Sabbath rest. The writer to the Hebrews exhorts his readers to “enter in” to the Sabbath rest provided by Christ. After three chapters of telling them that Jesus is superior to the angels and that He is our Apostle and High Priest, he pleads with them to not harden their hearts against Him, as their fathers hardened their hearts against Jehovah in the wilderness. Because of their unbelief, God denied that generation access to the holy land, saying, “They shall not enter into My rest” (Hebrews 3:11). In the same way, the writer to the Hebrews begs them—and us—not to make the same mistake by rejecting God’s Sabbath rest in Jesus Christ. “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:9-11).
When considering Christ as our perfect Sabbath rest it is interesting to consider the word “Liturgy.” Liturgy originally literally meant “public work.” The Christian Liturgy, the Christian public work, is the perfect law keeping, propitiatory death, resurrection and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ and then man’s faith and obedience in light of that. This is captured in the very Liturgy we practice here on the Sabbath.
So what might we say in terms of Application?
1.) The Sabbath forces us to ask ourselves if we really believe in the God of the Bible.
Doctrines like God’s Transcendence or the importance to embrace the truth of how God as Creator is distinct from the creature sometimes seem rather abstract but when we consider the Sabbath we begin to realize how important these doctrines are. The Sabbath teaches us about the Character of God. It is not primarily about what we can or can not do on this day. It is primarily about the Character of God.
2.) As the Sabbath points to Christ we must ask ourselves if we are resting in Christ for our all. Is our rest and work a manifestation of our gratitude for a full and free delivery or are we insecure in our deliverance and so work in order to put God in our debt? The good news of the Sabbath is that God has delivered us from our guilt ridden inspired works.
3.) Do we see both our work and our rest in terms of God’s victory? Our work, whatever it is, is not primarily about us but about God manifesting His already accomplished Victory through the work and rest He has called us to. The Sabbath reminds us of the set-apartness of the Christian’s life vis-a-vis the pagan.