On May 31, 1998, Pope John Paul II published his influential apostolic letter entitled “Dies Domini,” calling all Christians everywhere to faithfulness in keeping holy “The Lord’s Day.” This is just one example of a surge of interest across the whole spectrum of Christianity recently concerning the Sabbath, which probably had its initial origins in the work of the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book, The Sabbath—Its Meaning for Modern Man (1951), and that of the German theologian Karl Barth in his Church Dogmatics (111.1; 111.4 (1958).
In even more recent times Protestant writers Mark Buchanan and Lynne Baab released two more books on the same theme in 2005 and 2006.
Most of these authors focus on the spiritual, psychological and social benefits of regularly spending one day in seven away from work to cope with the destructive issues we all confront in the world today.
It is not being melodramatic to face these matters and take them seriously.
They are, in fact, pressingly urgent considering the essence of human survival they involve, and demonstrate vividly why Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
To confine the meaning of a “rest” day to only these issues, however, is to miss the major emphasis given in the Bible to the Sabbath. Seen from a complete biblical perspective, the Sabbath becomes the most comprehensive and meaningful sacrament given to Christians to celebrate all Jesus has done for us to bring glory to His Father. In its wide sweep, the Sabbath illuminates the role of the Trinity in our origins, our redemption, our destiny and the meaning of life in between.
From the beginning
In contrast to current atheistic endeavours to explain human origins, the Bible gives a brief theistic account of the beginnings of our planet. There is no attempt to defend it scientifically. Those who reject this account need to be sure of themselves because its whole credibility is sustained by the word of the Creator Himself, who is clearly identified in the New Testament as Jesus Christ (see John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:1, 2).
If we are convinced that Jesus is who He claimed to be—and there is overwhelming evidence that is so—then the matter is settled.
The first chapter of Genesis describes Jesus, the “Word” of God, speaking into existence, over the first six days of creation, everything humans would need for their future existence. And He did this, not just in rough basics but in productive extravagance before humans came on the scene on the sixth day. It was as if He were rolling out the red carpet for them before they arrived. It was a magnificent demonstration of God’s grace; doing for them what they could not do for themselves.
The creation of humans, however, was not the pinnacle of His work. In His wisdom God had reserved intimacy with Him as the peak of His design. In our holy imagination, we can picture Jesus conducting a grand tour of Eden with Adam and Eve, sharing with them His finished work for them. It is no coincidence that Jesus went out of His way to emphasise that finished work: “Thus the heavens and the earth were completed [finished]… . By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing” (Genesis 2:1, 2). He had done all He needed for their existence.
The creation of the seventh day was for a unique purpose. It was a day set apart for a holy use, to provide an ongoing sacrament to celebrate Jesus’ finished work, to be spent in worship and intimacy with Him.
Adam and Eve did not make the day holy by the way they kept it. It was God who blessed the seventh day and made it holy. All they could do was to enter into the holiness provided for them. And without realising it they began a practice, which in later years became a tableau of the gospel itself.
A day of grace
After sin entered the world, we cannot make ourselves holy by the way we live. All we can do is enter by faith into the holiness provided for us in the birth, life, death, resurrection and intercession of Jesus.
The Sabbath is a day to rest from our inbuilt propensities to work for our spiritual merit as well as physical work. The Sabbath’s deepest meaning is expressed in Jesus’ compassionate invitation “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). This is rest from all attempts to make ourselves right with God other than through faith in Jesus.
With the passing of time, God chose to codify the Sabbath in the heart of the Ten Commandments, and He saw it necessary to do this, He says, because humankind’s transgression had blurred the response He desired to His covenant to save them (see Galatians 3:19). In Exodus 20 the reason given to remember the Sabbath was the finished work of Jesus in Creation.
In Deuteronomy 5, however, the reason given to remember the Sabbath was the redemption of Israel.
Jesus’ last words at His death on that first Good Friday were once again, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Scripture says that once again He rested from His finished work, this time a work of re-creation and redemption (see Luke 23:50-56). In so doing He invested the Sabbath with a deeper meaning. It became the supreme demonstration of doing for humankind what they could not do for themselves. The author of Hebrews specifically gives this deeper significance to the original creation Sabbath.
Because of human propensity to forget this crucial need to rest in Jesus by believing in Him, he points out that this purpose of the Sabbath would always remain till the end of time when we ultimately enter that final rest in the earth made new (see Hebrews 4:1-11).
A day for eternity
The book of Revelation picks up on the Sabbath as a tableau of the rest Jesus will provide for the redeemed at His second advent (see Revelation 10:5-7). The Hebrew people did not name their days as we do today. The day we call Sunday, they call the first day to the Sabbath.
Monday is the second day to the Sabbath, and so on. Friday was the Preparation day for the Sabbath. In their economy, every day of the week was spent in anticipation of the last day. Once again, but on this occasion for the last time, Jesus utters those immortal words, “It is finished.” In these three contexts (Creation, redemption and Second Coming), just one day in seven, although well meaning, is not sufficient. It is no coincidence that the last proclamation of the gospel given to a dying world is given in the setting of our origins, our destiny, and that of worship (see Revelation 14:6, 7). The Sabbath at that time does not become an issue of just one day versus another. That would degenerate into mere Sabbath keeping.
Rather, it becomes the last expression of those who trust the finished work of Jesus and enter into the holiness provided by Him alone. Any endeavour at that time to make another day holy by human activity becomes an outworking of someone who has rejected the gospel.
To avoid this, Christians need the Holy Spirit to write that law of God on their hearts (see Hebrews 10:15, 16). Only a holy people, filled with the Holy Spirit, can enter meaningfully into a holy day that represents the eternal gospel.