Why We Must Keep the Sabbath Day

June 10, 2019 Series: Exodus Scripture: Exodus 31:12-18 by Chris Strevel

Assessing the Importance of Sabbath

The Sabbath command was the first direct command that God gave to his people after he delivered them from Egypt (Ex. 16:23). This was prior to their constitution as a particular nation; it was before they had a tabernacle or priesthood.  The Sabbath command is therefore not part of the ceremonial law; it has not passed away with the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. This is consistent with the placement of the Sabbath command at the center of the moral law (Ex. 20:8-11). It is part of the constitution of this universe and our own existence as made in his image – that we give one day each week to him in rest and worship. It is his own example when he created the heaven and earth; he worked six days and rested one. In Israel when constituted as a distinct political nation, the Sabbath was protected by civil sanctions (Ex. 31:14-15); Sabbath breaking was punishable by death. Not to keep Sabbath as a nation and to enforce the Sabbath is to commit national suicide by not dedicating one’s nation to God’s glory. The Sabbath command was also renewed at the conclusion of the first part of the ceremonial laws pertaining to the tabernacle and priesthood. Without Sabbath, there can be no worship.

The centrality of the Sabbath in the moral, judicial, and ceremonials laws God gave to his people should lead us to a high view of this creation institution. That there is so much evil in our land, as well as unrest, blasphemy, bloodshed, and perversity, is directly related to our loss of Sabbath. Our faith, holiness, and reverence for God are directly related to how highly we value and how joyfully we keep the Sabbath. This is far truer now that Jesus Christ has come (Heb. 4:9). The Sabbath seen in the light of his person and work is preeminently the Lord’s Day for which Isaiah longed (Isa. 58:13). This is because Jesus Christ is now raised from the dead and has entered the true rest and heavenly tabernacle. When we keep Sabbath by faith, we enter his rest and by faith heaven itself, so that we celebrate our citizenship there and refresh ourselves in our God for the next stage of our earthly pilgrimage, until the eternal Sabbath dawns and we rest with Christ in God forever.

Six Reasons We Must Keep the Sabbath

Tabernacle (Worship) Requires Sabbath (v. 12)

Why did the Lord repeat and expand the fourth commandment at this particular time in his revelations to Moses? It seems to me that in a portion of God’s will dealing with the tabernacle and priesthood, the republication of the Sabbath commandment is entirely fitting. One high purpose of the tabernacle and priesthood is for God to meet with his people, receive their praise, and extend mercy to them on the basis of substitutionary atonement. What better occasion to mention the Sabbath than this? It shows that the purpose of the Sabbath is not merely cessation from work but the undertaking of a different kind of work on that day – resting in God’s promises, seeking his mercy, thanking him for his many benefits, seeking covering for sin, and praising God in worship. Thus, the tabernacle and priesthood directly contributed to the keeping of the Sabbath. The work done by the priests was not a violation of the Sabbath but its very purpose – for us to draw near to God with hearts assured of his favor. Without a clear commitment to Sabbath, spirituality loses its grounding, the church her moral authority in society, and the soul its strength unto holiness.

The Sabbath a Sign of God’s Covenant (vv. 13,17)

The continued assault upon the Christian Sabbath by church leaders does not take into account the high regard given the Sabbath in the Scriptures. Twice in this short span of verses the Lord calls the Sabbath “the sign of the covenant between me and you” (vv. 13,17). He means, first, that he is gifting the Sabbath to them, for it is a sign of the fellowship he has with his people and the rest he gives to them from sin and judgment.  Nationally for Israel, this is the reason that the Sabbath was protected with judicial penalties – because the Sabbath and its keeping was the way Israel showed its national allegiance to God in thankfulness for his grace. Second, although the Sabbath is a creation ordinance, no other people but those who are brought back into harmony with the Creator can have Sabbath. The Sabbath and keeping this holy rest is a sign of a regenerate heart that no longer resists God’s authority but that gladly follows his example. And since God’s covenant with us, third, is in Jesus Christ, the Sabbath gives us one day in seven to enjoy our Savior’s great salvation and his gracious nearness to us by the Spirit. In this sense, Sabbath remains a sign of God’s covenant with the church, God’s holy nation. He has brought us to himself in grace, given us rest from sin in his Son, and indwells us as his living temple. When God gives us the Sabbath and we keep it, he is saying to us that I have drawn near to you in grace and mercy. You can trust me to take care of your earthly life and business. For this hope to be sustained, draw near to me one day in seven. Refresh yourself in me. Follow my example. Enter into my rest.

I think this is the reason that the Sabbath commandment is situated in the middle of the Ten Commandments. Without Sabbath, we cannot honor God and give him the worship of which he is so worthy, and we cannot truly love man, which requires heavenly strength through rest and worship. For God to enter into covenant with us means that he takes us to himself in gracious, condescending friendship, in order to redeem us from our sins, receive our thankful worship, and then walk with us. Imagine this without Sabbath – a day to celebrate these blessings. Just as the bread and cup are signs and seals of God’s covenant, so the Sabbath is a spiritual and public observance of the finished work of Jesus Christ, the rest we have from sin through his satisfaction rendered on our behalf at Calvary, and the enjoyment of God’s fellowship through his mediation.

The Sabbath a Pledge of God’s Sanctifying Presence (v. 13)

As the Sabbath is a day set apart, so are God’s people set apart to him. This idea of separateness, holiness, set-apartness is the heartbeat of true religion – that God has chosen us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be his people; that Jesus Christ came in time to redeem his people by laying down his life for us; that our ultimate separateness from the world – the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit – is a personal and living reality in our lives so that we “come out from among them and be separate” (2 Cor. 6:17). Thus, when we keep the Sabbath, this faith is the reflex of God’s grace and presence with us. It is a pledge that he is truly in our midst and that he has set us apart for himself. This certainly puts Sabbath appreciation and keeping upon a different plane that the usual narrowness or negativity associated with it, however unfairly. We keep Sabbath because God is in our midst and has set us apart to be his people. And the more we grow in “calling the Sabbath a delight” (Isa. 58:13), the more joy we have in the assurance that God is in our midst giving us holy desires to imitate him and rest in him as our God and Savior.

The Sabbath a Holy (Set Apart) Day to be Kept (v. 14)

Because of this sign and pledge of God’s presence and goodwill toward us, the Sabbath must be kept. In Israel, because it was a nation governed by God’s law, the Sabbath was enforced with the death penalty (vv. 14,15). This seems harsh to our secular ears, but remember that Western civilization has had many periods in which Sabbath observance was enforced by law, even the death penalty. Some of the early colonial codes had very strong laws against Sabbath-breaking, and until the last generation, “Blue Laws” enforced a social Sabbath in our land. And those times have been blessed. It is true that a man with a rebellious heart cannot be made to keep the Sabbath. He can, however, be punished for breaking it, doing unnecessary business on the Sabbath, and disturbing other’s enjoyment of a day of repose in God. But this is lost upon us, and we now expect Sunday to be “business as usual,” and more so. It has not always been this way. J.C. Penney, Truett Cathy, and David Green are notable examples of men who refused to do business on the Sabbath. They knew it was a day set apart unto the Lord, and they closed their stores. And they profited greatly! As our society has turned from God, the closure of stores on the Sabbath is a sign that these businesses are set apart. The men who own and operate them appreciate that God’s laws and statutes to Israel were wiser than any other laws of the nations and were given to Israel to be a model for the nations (Deut. 4:6-8).

Keeping Sabbath Imitates God (vv. 15,17)

Sabbath stands or falls with creation. God’s example and God’s command are inseparable.  He made the earth in six days and rested the seventh. This six and one pattern is the foundation of Sabbath; creation is the foundation of Sabbath. When we keep Sabbath, therefore, we imitate God. And this is exactly the reason that defending biblical creationism is our duty. Our very life as a people depends upon it, for if we bow before scientists and their eons of time and blind fate, then there is no rest for us anywhere in the universe. There is nothing but cycles of life and death, no order and meaning, and no rest for the soul, if there even is a soul. Secular society cannot rest because it denies that God created all things. Embrace God as the Creator of all, and you must eventually bow before him in humble faith and repentance. But it is certain that the church’s cavalier attitude toward the fourth commandment is tandem with her cavalier attitude toward the Genesis creation account. And when this occurs, whatever faith and holiness remain are in the hands of unstable souls, who because they cannot rest in God, preach doctrines and encourage worship that lacks the rhythm of Creation and Sabbath working together so that we are at peace with God, humbly and reverently worshipping him, and renewing strength by withdrawing from the world so that we can lead obedient lives on earth that are well-pleasing to God.

Keeping Sabbath Enters into Christ’s Rest (Heb. 4)

To these thoughts we should add the new covenant emphasis upon Sabbath. Since Jesus Christ did not come to do away with the law and prophets but to fulfill them by showing their true significance by his words and works (Matt. 5:17-20), and since the law of God is the eternal standard of a devout and holy life, as Calvin once said, there is really no question about the continuing normativity of the Sabbath command – except for those who have theological axes to grind or who are afraid to confront a cultural sin that burns in the church like a fever. “Keeping the commandments of God is what counts,” as the apostle wrote (1 Cor. 7:19), and this includes the fourth. But when to all other reasons we take seriously the teaching of Hebrews 4, that the true Sabbath is based upon the finished work of Jesus Christ and that there “remains a Sabbath-keeping for us” (v. 9), then our estimation of the Sabbath and thanksgiving to God should be boundless. It is through faith in Christ that we truly “Sabbath,” rest in God, and draw near to him and rest unto our souls. And this rest is not simply an idea or personal practice. The early church passionately recognized that his resurrection and entering into his rest, as well as the direct example of the apostles, authorized the change of Sabbath day from the seventh to the first, even as many old covenant feasts prefigured. Why the change? Because the true Sabbath in Christ has dawned, when he walked out of the tomb alive for our justification. We cannot keep the old Sabbath day, for a new day has dawned, the Lord’s Day, upon which the apostolic church gathered for worship, preaching, giving, and fellowship.

The Way to Keep a Good Sabbath

Faith and Worship Celebrating God’s Saving Grace in Christ

It is only through faith in Jesus Christ that we enter into rest. He made this connection explicit: “Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). By taking away our sin, he has removed the barrier between the holy God and sinners. It is sin that agitates and unbelief that cuts us off from rest (Isa. 57:21; Heb. 4:1-5). We can come to rest again, to Sabbath, through faith in Jesus Christ. This is a judicial rest of restored fellowship with God; it is historical rest in that faith in Jesus Christ restores us to creation and to redemption. It is rest that has a “day” associated with it, the Lord’s Day. This is another reason that the Sabbath day was changed from the seventh to the first day of the week. The old world until the coming of Jesus Christ labored to enter the rest; Jesus Christ has brought rest from sin and judgment. He has entered into his rest (Heb. 4:10). When we come to him, we receive true and eternal rest from the misery of being separated from God, the rest and peace of imputed righteousness, and are therefore able to celebrate Sabbath again.

Some have seen from this that any particular day of Sabbath is no longer necessary, but the apostle does not argue in this fashion. The fact that Jesus Christ has brought the rest does not entail the abolishment of a particular day of Sabbath celebration; it does bring a change of the day. We now begin our work week, our lives, our sacred service to God with Sabbath – in fellowship with him, in the power of our Savior’s resurrection, in assurance of his presence with us by the Spirit, in anticipation of the eternal Sabbath coming. Does this mean we do not need an earthly “day” of worship, a sabbatismos, a Sabbath-keeping, as the apostle says in Hebrews 4:9? To hear some talk, all that pertains to the Sabbath was ceremonial and has passed away. Scripture does not support this mistaken notion. It is gnostic to assume that true spirituality requires no structure and is spontaneous without rules. For the church to say it does not matter what day we worship – Sunday, Monday night, Thursday – denies the historicity of our faith and denigrates the epoch-making resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is a reason we have worshipped on the Lord’s Day from the beginning – it is the day of the Lord, the day of resurrection, the day of his mighty victory and of our justification. We have more of Sabbath than could ever have been enjoyed before Christ came, and therefore we need more “assembling of ourselves together” to celebrate God’s saving grace and presence with us through his Son. We need more carefulness in obedience to God and observing this day, for we now see that our fathers were right. Our hearts are prone to lose Sabbath, to allow this life to swallow up and make us forget what our Savior has done for us. We need Sabbath, celebration, focused worship, intelligent, restorative separation from our very historical responsibilities so that we can set our affections upon things above, enter by faith into our Savior’s heavenly rest and meditation, and thus be strengthened for a week of faith and love.

A Day Different from Other Days because of Christ’s Resurrection

We have a double motivation, therefore, to keep the Sabbath holy. Our Father’s creation example is just as normative for us as for all men in all times and places. Again, there is no possibility of dismissing the Sabbath commandment as ceremonial if it is properly rooted in God’s own creative work. But there is also another motivation, our Savior’s resurrection. It is true and good that we boast only in the cross of our Savior, but without the empty tomb, the cross is a sight to weep, a martyr’s memorial, but not a place to find cleansing and new life. The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead changed the structure of the universe – from work then rest, to rest then work – at least for those who have been quickened by the Spirit to believe upon the name of the Son of God. This is a very different day for us; it cannot be otherwise. It feels and should feel different, not only in our attendance upon the morning and evening worship, but also throughout the day, as we cease from our labors, celebrate the finished work of our Savior, and gain new joys and inspiration from him through fellowship with his body. Perhaps in this light we can readily understand why the completed or finished work of Jesus Christ often loses its centrality in our understanding of the atonement, with the door then being opened to process views of justification and outright synergism, as in Romanism – it is Sabbath rest that reminds us weekly that Jesus Christ has paid it all, that we have an unshakeable rest through his efficacious and finished mediation.

Intelligent Separation from the World’s Turbulence

Modern believers cringe at the detailed instructions for Sabbath observance that are found in the Reformation’s confessions and catechisms, especially the Westminster Assembly’s larger catechism. Admittedly, these directives were framed within a particular historical context in which the Stuart kings had self-consciously sought to undermine Sabbath observance because they did not want the people to attend upon Puritan preaching, which was unfriendly to their dictatorial rule and prelatic preferences in the church. But extract this, and you will still find a wealth of wisdom that will direct the steps and warm the hearts of spiritually minded believers – to separate as far as possible from our earthly concerns and recreations, to enter fully into worship and celebrating God’s mighty acts – is an afternoon hymn sing and sharing time between services a burden to any Christian? Is not our particular society’s mad obsession with sports and possessions and entertainment the strongest possible motivation for us to say, “Wait, let us put the screens away for today. Let us regain perspective on the eternal. Let us rekindle love for the Savior.” Our commitments, treasure, where our heart is¸ are revealed by whether or not we are able to keep Sabbath and separate from the world for a day so that we may draw nearer to our God and Savior.

A Day to Engage Your Children for the Glory of God, Now and Later

And just as Sabbath keeping was a multi-generational concern in Israel, so it is for us – and dare I suggest this, it is more so! Sin and the craving for change and idolization of technology bring such rapid changes to our lives that we need to drop anchor once each week in Sabbath, in Jesus Christ – or we have no idea where we shall be blown! And if it is difficult for adults living now, how much more our children, who live among a people for whom perversion is the new virtue, the Bible a pariah, and godliness not even a subject for ridicule because our nation has so little reminders of what a true Christian is. It is up to you, Christian fathers and mothers, pastors and teachers, to preserve true religion and to hand it on stronger to the next generation. Can you do this without Sabbath? I know that you are often tired and feel like taking a long nap, but the glory of God in his church and in the world may require you to take a shorter nap now – you can rest in heaven forever! Now is the time to have your children in God’s worship with you, learning his word, and some afternoon sense of joy and privilege in Jesus Christ. They need to hear this from our mouth, fathers, and learn from you what is important. If your heart is in Sabbath, in the finished work of Jesus Christ, in love with him, your children’s hearts will normally follow.

O God, make it so, that one generation may praise your name to the next!! And you cannot pass this legacy on with simply having gatherings at your house on the Lord’s Day, especially if you miss the evening worship. We are too prone to confuse friendliness with fellowship. We can have both, but fellowship requires an intentionality to seek the glory of God, to enter our Savior’s rest, to talk of his wondrous works, and to understand the basis for that rest. The Lord’s Day is not a time for merely human parties and celebrations but for remembrances of our blessed Savior’s victory, his rest from sin and judgment, and our Sabbath in him. Let us labor to enter that rest through faith and obedience (Heb. 4:11)!

Written with God’s Finger (v. 18)

The conclusion to the first part of the ceremonial laws pertaining to the tabernacle and priesthood is one of the most dramatic utterances in this book, and perhaps in the entire Pentateuch. All these words Moses heard; he likely saw some visual representations of the tabernacle and priestly vestments. And when it was all done, the Lord wrote these words with his own finger on two tablets. It is here that we learn the Ten Commandments were originally engraved upon two stone tables with God’s own finger. God has no fingers, but he can easily reveal himself to us in this way – even as the Angel of the Lord could eat the meal Abraham prepared for him. But the how is not the main point. It is that God wrote his words with his own finger, teaching us to value nothing as highly as we do his word. We may go through dry seasons in which his word does not resonate as much with us, but let us cry to the Spirit to quicken us, for now God’s finger has written his law upon our hearts! Should we not esteem it as more necessary than our daily food, as Job did (Job 23:12). We live only by God’s word, and it should arm us against the many critics of Scripture that however they carp and pick away at its authority, it was written with his finger. This is our only security in this world, that Sabbath, salvation, priesthood, the right way to worship God – he has shown us all these things and written them down for us so that we may have a bright light in this dark world (2 Pet. 1:19).

Through his usual deceits, Satan is trying to kill our faith and sap our strength. It is vital for us to learn to keep the Sabbath today – not superstitiously or burying it under a multitude of prohibitions and manmade rules, but by recovering the principle of Sabbath rest and the day of Sabbath enjoyment. Much of this depends upon our growth in Jesus Christ and clearer views of the glory of his finished work for us, especially what he has obtained for us by his life and death, as well as the rest he has entered in heaven for us – so that we may go there by faith, especially on the Lord’s Day, through hearing the gospel, singing his praises, fellowshipping with the saints, and having our affections drawn heavenward. We are raised and seated him, and our weekly Sabbath reminds us of this – a football game does nothing but drag the soul earthward. Shopping consumes us with this life. Let us love Jesus more and endeavor to obey him more joyfully, and the weekly Sabbath will be more precious to us than ever. Keeping the Sabbath will be a confirming sign to our souls that God has made a gracious covenant with us, that he is present with us and sanctifying us by his Spirit, and that we are truly his holy people.

For God to write these things for us with his own finger surely communicates a tender regard for our wellbeing. He loves us and knows that we must pass through many difficulties before entering our eternal rest. Thus, he would have us know the certainty of his promises and the all-sufficiency of his word so that we are not driven around like children with every new doctrine that men imagine, but rather that we patiently walk in the old paths, which are never old because they are the word of the living God who walks with us on this path and has come down to us in his Son to complete the path and carry us all the way to heaven. And particularly since we find it so difficult to keep Sabbath, one of the most precious and necessary helps for us to stay on the course, we should keep in mind that God wrote “REMEMBER THE SABBATH DAY” with his own finger. Yes, men will laugh, and God’s professing friends will kill the Sabbath with a thousand reasons and excuses, but let us see God’s own hand writing this. I know what you need better than you do, he says to us. I am sending my Son, who will give you true rest. He is Lord of the Sabbath, shows the true basis for rest in his own saving work, and gives you the true Sabbath by the Spirit’s abiding presence. Keep the day holy; celebrate resurrection! Rest and rejoice!

Profiting from the Word and Searching Our Hearts

1. What are some reasons that the Sabbath (as a day, as the 4th commandment) is not part of the ceremonial law?

2. Without a Sabbath, why does spirituality lose its footing and the church her moral authority in society? Give an example.

3. In what way does the Sabbath remain for us a sign of God’s covenant?

4. What is meant by saying that Sabbath is the hinge of the moral law?

5. How is Sabbath keeping a pledge of God’s presence with us?

6. Explain the connection between creation and Sabbath.  How do they stand or fall together? Can you see this in the history of the church over the past century?

7. Why is the Sabbath Sunday, rather than Saturday?

8. What is the connection between Christ and Sabbath?

9. What is our double motivation for keeping Sabbath?

10. How do our view of the Sabbath and our Lord’s Day practices reveal our heart?

11. How should God’s writing the law with his finger shape our attitudes toward the law? Toward the Bible as a whole? Toward God himself?