God sent the prophets to remind His people of their obligation under His covenant to be a faithful and holy people. Many sins were charged against them by Isaiah and other prophets. In Isaiah 58, the people are charged with the sin of violating the Lord's Sabbath: If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on My holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the LORD honorable, and shall honor Him, not doing your own ways, nor finding your own pleasure, nor speaking your own words, then you shall delight yourself in the LORD (vv. 13-14a). Rather than resting and worshiping on the Sabbath, the people apparently had pursued business and fun. This selfish attitude was not compatible with keeping the Sabbath.
The sin of Sabbath breaking was especially serious for them. God had highlighted that command and made it central in His summary of the law, the Ten Commandments: Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it (Ex. 20:8-11). God even began the commandment with a call for them to remember it, knowing the people's tendency to forget Him and His ways. The Sabbath was to mark God’s people and to set them apart from the nations. The fourth commandment itself declares that it is grounded in Creation. The Creator had made the seventh day holy. As He had rested on the seventh day, so His people were to rest. They were to live their lives according to the pattern God had established in Creation itself.
When the Israelites rejected the Sabbath, they were rejecting God’s claim upon them as Creator and Redeemer. They wished to live like the rebellious nations. Their Sabbath sin was a sign of their profound faithlessness. So the prophets came with serious warning and rebuke for their profaning of the Sabbath.
In the days of Jesus, the Pharisees thought that they kept the law, particularly the Sabbath command. In their eyes, they were not rebels like their fat hers but serious law-keepers. But Jesus insisted that they also were faithless, because they added tradition to Sabbath observance and made it a grim legal burden. He insisted that He was the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28)—clearly a claim of divinity. He healed and did good on the Sabbath, reminding them that the Sabbath was a joyful day to experience the deliverance of God. He reminded everyone that the Sabbath was made to be a blessing for man in relation to God, not to make man a slave to the Sabbath (Mark 2:27).
Some theologians have suggested that the fourth commandment was solely for the life of the people of Israel under the economy of Moses. But believe that it has an important continuing meaning for the church today, for the Sabbath was not instituted by Moses at Sinai, but by God at Creation. It is part of the moral law that continues to bind all creatures, but especially the church.
The seventh-day Sabbath established a pattern for the people of God from Creation on: work and then rest. Most Reformed theologians believe that with the coming of Christ a profound change was made in the pattern of life and in the application of the moral law. Jesus came to be our rest. He came to work for our salvation so that we might never have to work to salvation. He rose from the dead on the first day, establishing a new pattern for the people of God: rest and then work. We live out our lives from the foundation of the rest He has won for us.
From the beginning, the church recognized this change and gathered for worship on the first day of the week (John 20:1, 19, 26; Acts 2:1, 20:7; I Cor. 16:2). The church called Sunday the Lord's Day (Rev. 1: 10), the day that belonged in a special way to the Lord Jesus. Jesus had not abolished the Sabbath, but fulfilled it in the Lord’s Day.
Some have argued that the Sabbath commandment does not apply to Christians because of certain passages in the New Testament that warn against honoring some days as holy (Rom. 14:5- 6; Gal. 4:10; Col. 2: 16). But such warnings must apply to the elaborate calendar of Jewish holidays that some Christians were tempted to keep, because the New Testament clearly establishes one holy day, namely the Lord’s Day.
As Christians, we need to keep the Lord’s Day holy as a day of rest and worship. God still calls His people to a patterned life, now patterned after the completed saving work of Jesus: rest and then work.
The Lord’s Day should be treasured as a gift and blessing among us. In the busyness and stress of this world, God has instituted time for us to spend with Him. He calls us as He did ancient Israel to set aside our business and to fellowship with Him, especially in worship as His church. He calls us to hear the mark of His people in keeping His day holy. We, too, must heed the prophet's appeal to call the Sabbath a delight, and then we will experience the promise: ‘You shall delight yourself in the LORD.’
First published in Tabletalk, October 1999. © Westminster Seminary California All rights reserved