Have you ever thought much about the calendar?
If you’re like me, then your calendar pretty much runs your life most days. I have everything from church activities to gym time and my work schedule to family dinner scheduled on my calendar. My phone is constantly beeping at me, telling me what I’m supposed to be doing next.
But I wonder if it’s ever occurred to you that some people in the world, even right now, don’t have the same calendar as you do. I’m typing these words on September 13, 2020. But, on the traditional Chinese calendar, it’s the 26th day of the seventh month in the year of the Rat. Of course, China uses the Gregorian calendar when relating to most of the rest of the world, but there are several cultures in the world that keep dates and times differently than Americans do.
In Iran and Afghanistan, it’s the 25th day of the first month of the year 1442, which counts from the year when Muhammad arrived in Medina. On the Jewish calendar, it’s either the last month of the year 5780, or the first month of the year 5781. Modern Jews differ some with each other on exactly how to count the date.
Interestingly, the Jewish year comes from a 4th century Jewish mathematician named Hillel, who calculated what he believed was the original date of creation, based on genealogies and other dates from the Old Testament. In fact, every calendar I could find from any culture was directly tied to one religion or another… It seems that humanity is – at its core – inevitably religious.
Not only is the annual calendar deeply rooted in religious observance, so too is the weekly calendar. So far as I can tell, there are only a few cultures in the history of humanity that did not observe a seven-day week. Fascinatingly, one of those cultures was ancient Egypt. They observed a ten-day week, and that’s almost certainly what the people of Israel would have been doing when they followed Moses out of their Egyptian captivity.
As with any ancient thing, there is some dispute about the exact origins of the seven-day week, for Israel or for anyone else. Some argue that the Israelites borrowed the seven-day week from the Canaanites, who got it from the Babylonians, and (they say) the Hebrews transformed the seventh day of the week into a day that would suit their own religious practices.
As a matter of fact, if you do a Google search for “seven-day-week,” it will tell you that it originates from a Babylonian calendar, which was based on a calendar from the Sumerians, which itself dates back to around 2000 B.C. But the biblical view of the origin of the Sabbath (and of the seven-day week) for Israel is quite clear. Sabbath observance began when God commanded Israel to observe it, and with the Sabbath, at least for Israel, came the seven-day week.
Incidentally, it seems to me that the seven-day week universally originates in God’s creative work. Adam and Eve were created on the “sixth day” of creation, and God “blessed” and “rested” on the “seventh day” (Genesis 1:26-2:3). Adam and Eve, learning God’s special blessing and rest on the seventh day, likely continued to practice something similar.
So, it is no surprise to me that the ancient historical record shows people groups from all over the world observing a seven-day week. They probably learned it from their parents, who learned it from their parents (leading all the way back to Adam and Eve), and they didn’t need special revelation to learn about a seven-day week or a weekly day of rest.
At any rate, what we are encountering in the 10 Commandments is nothing short of remarkable. The Bible is telling us about the beginning of the Israelite nation, the formation of Israel’s religion (at least in its Mosaic-covenantal system), and even the origins of Israel’s weekly calendar.
Let’s take a look at the biblical text – the 10 Commandments – and then I’ll make a case that the fourth commandment – the Sabbath command – was always meant to point to ultimate rest in Jesus Christ. After I make that case, I’ll turn toward the Christian Lord’s Day, and I’ll offer some pastoral instruction on why and how Christians are to observe the Lord’s Day each Sunday.
EXODUS 20:1–17 (ESV)
1 And God spoke all these words, saying, 2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
3 “You shall have no other gods before me.
4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.
11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and 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.
12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
13 “You shall not murder.
14 “You shall not commit adultery.
15 “You shall not steal.
16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”
WHAT IS THE FOURTH COMMANDMENT?
The fourth commandment begins in Exodus 20, verse 8: “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 to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, [or anyone else within Israel’s gates].”
But, the very first time the word “Sabbath” is mentioned in the Bible is Exodus 16. You might remember how God began to provide daily bread for His people – manna from the sky – to be gathered and eaten every day. But on the sixth day, God commanded His people to gather twice as much, so that they would not gather on the seventh day.
Instead of work, God indented His people to rest on the seventh day. God said,
“Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD; bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over lay aside to be kept till the morning.”Exodus 16:23
Indeed, the root word for Sabbath means rest… and this is a constant and a key aspect of the Sabbath throughout the Mosaic covenant.
After some people disobeyed God’s command, and went out to gather manna on the seventh day, Moses rebuked them, saying,
“The LORD has given you the Sabbath; therefore on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day.”Exodus 16:29
Again, God’s command was that the Sabbath was a day of rest. The people of Israel were not to go out and work for their daily bread as on other days.
After that, the next time the Sabbath appears is in the 10 Commandments, and here it came with an example.
“For in six days the LORD made heaven and 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 20:11
Pairing the Sabbath command with God’s own rest on the seventh day of creation implies that both the Sabbath and the creation order itself (in some sense) point toward blessing and rest for God’s people.
In Exodus 23, God repeated and even emphasized the idea that the Sabbath was not just for the Israelites. It was also for the benefit of the foreigner and even the animals.
“Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed.”Exodus 23:12
Here, again, we see that the Sabbath was a day of “refreshing” and of “rest.” This time we also see the emphasis that Sabbath rest was for anyone and anything associated with Israel, both alien and animal.
In Exodus 31, when God concluded the giving of the law and the instructions for the tabernacle, He repeated the Sabbath command yet again. Here there is added force behind the command, and God also set the Sabbath apart as a sign of His covenant with Israel. God said,
“Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you. You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.”Exodus 31:12–17
So, again, the Sabbath was a day of “solemn rest” and “refreshing.” But here we see the added fact that God instituted this particular commandment as a sign “between [Him] and the people of Israel.” The sign of the Sabbath was to signify God’s “covenant” with Israel through Moses. And, anyone who didn’t keep or observe this sign of the Mosaic covenant was to be “put to death.”
One last passage in Exodus gives us a bit more insight into this command, and that’s Exodus 35. Immediately after God finished giving Moses the commandments atop Mt. Sinai, the people of Israel formed an idol at the base of the mountain and started to worship it! You can read about that in chapter 32.
After that, Moses prayed for God’s mercy upon the people, and God graciously renewed His covenant through Moses with the people of Israel. That’s in chapters 33 and 34. And in Exodus 35, we’re told that Moses repeated God’s commands to the whole congregation of Israel (v1), but the one command explicitly recorded in the text is the fourth commandment – the Sabbath (v2). Here again, in this covenant renewal, God emphatically revealed the Sabbath command as a sign of His covenant with Israel.
I believe we can learn several things about the meaning of the fourth commandment from this summary (above) of the Sabbath passages in Exodus.
One, the fourth commandment was a command to rest, particularly from the work of everyday life.
Two, Sabbath rest was explicitly for the seventh day of the week, and it was for everyone (Jew and non-Jew alike) within Israel’s covenant community.
Three, the fourth commandment was a sign of the Mosaic covenant. It was a visible feature of God’s relationship with Israel.
Four, the Sabbath was to be kept or observed as a sign forever, or at least as long as the covenant itself was in effect.
Five, the fourth commandment, like God’s original work of creation, was meant to point forward to an anticipated and far greater rest in the future.
You can probably already see the uniqueness of the fourth commandment when compared with the other nine. In fact, I believe the Sabbath command serves as a kind of hinge point for the whole list.
The first set of commands are often called the “First Table” of the law because they pertain to our relationship with God. And the last six are often called the “Second Table” because they pertain to our relationship with other people. This fourth commandment seems to me to be in a category all its own. It is a sign which obviously points to something beyond itself and even beyond the other commandments.
Let’s turn our focus now to investigate this idea of “sign” more fully.
HOW IS THE SABBATH A SIGN?
We’ve already seen in Exodus that God has given this fourth commandment as a “sign” for His people. In fact, God gave the Sabbath as a “sign” of the Mosaic covenant in particular. But God attaching a “sign” to His covenant promises is not new with Moses or Sinai.
In Genesis 9, God made a covenant with the whole world through Noah, and God gave the sign of a rainbow, demonstrating His universal promise not to destroy the world again with water (Genesis 9:12-17).
In Genesis 17, God made a covenant with Abraham and his “offspring,” and God gave the sign of circumcision to go along with it (Genesis 17:11). This sign symbolized the promise – an offspring who would bless the whole world – and also symbolized the necessary separation between God’s people and the rest of the world around them.
In Exodus 20, with the Mosaic covenant between God and Israel, God gave the associated sign of the Sabbath. And the Sabbath signified God’s covenantal promises to Israel. More than that, it also pointed toward God’s ultimate promise of final rest for His people, something God had embedded in the very order of creation itself. As I said earlier, there’s something about the Sabbath and the order of creation that makes both of them imply God’s promises of blessings and rest.
Therefore, the question we must answer is: “What future rest did the Sabbath signal?”
The answer to this question is not too difficult to find in Scripture. The Bible as a whole clearly communicates the idea that “God’s rest” is ultimately provided in and through Jesus Christ. The New Testament picks up on this idea in several places, but let’s take a look at just a few.
The author of Hebrews, says that there “remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9), and he urges his readers to “enter [God’s] rest” (v11) by “drawing near” to God through the way which Jesus Christ has prepared by His priestly sacrifice (v14-16).
Revelation 14 contrasts the final destinations of the cursed and the blessed, and the text keys in on “rest” or the lack thereof. Those under God’s wrath will be tormented forever, and “they [will] have no rest” (v11). But those who are blessed by God will “have rest from all their labors…” (v13).
Rest is a major theme throughout the Bible, and rest is a particular feature of the promises of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But let me point to one more passage to demonstrate the specific connection of the Sabbath with that rest which is experienced in and through the New Covenant.
One very common question for early Christians, many of whom were Jewish, was, “What do we do with all of the Mosaic laws and holy days?”
In Colossians 2, especially verses 16 through 23, the Apostle Paul basically answered the question by saying that Christians may keep the laws and holy days if they wish. But the text is emphatic that Christians should only do so as an expression of love and gratitude toward Christ. Christians should never observe days or laws as an effort to earn or sustain a right standing before God.
On a side-but-related note, the New Testament also warns the Christians not to make legalistic demands on other believers who don’t share their same convictions about days or foods or social taboos (see Romans 14, the whole chapter). Therefore, any Christian who is convinced in his/her own mind that some Sabbath observance is still an obligation today should absolutely refrain from throwing that obligation upon another Christian.
Back in Colossians 2, we learn that ALL days are holy to those in the New Covenant, and no particular day is set aside as more or less holy than another. Christians are to live every day in love for and service to God. Christians don’t just worship in one location or on certain days of the week or month or year (see John 4). Christians live their whole lives to the glory and honor of God through Jesus Christ (Colossians 3:17). Incidentally, this is the essence of the third commandment!
As I said above, there is an explicit connection between the Sabbath and the rest which Jesus provides, and Colossians 2 shows us this connection. Additionally, Colossians 2 simultaneously links Sabbath observance with other obsolete aspects of the Mosaic covenant. The Scripture says,
“Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”Colossians 2:16-17
In other words, the stipulations of the Mosaic covenant – including dietary laws, various holy days and ceremonies, and even the Sabbath – were all shadowy guides, which were always intended to aim people toward Jesus. Since Jesus Christ has come, He has unveiled the New Covenant, and He is the “substance” to which those “shadows” and signs pointed. Therefore, the shadows (including the Sabbath) are no longer necessary (much less obligatory).
Jesus obeyed every command God gave through Moses, Jesus did all of the work of an Old Covenant priest, and Jesus offered Himself as the once-and-for-all sacrifice for sin and disobedience. Now, in the New Covenant, all of God’s promises of blessing and favor and peace and rest have become accessible by grace through faith in Jesus.
I’m arguing that God’s Sabbath rest is available to anyone right now through the person and work of Jesus Christ! And, right there inside of the 10 Commandments, God gave Israel a picture of what God had always planned to give everyone who turns from sin and trusts in Jesus. God always planned to give real, true, and eternal rest in Christ.
Jesus Himself calls out to those who will listen,
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”Matthew 11:28–30
It is no coincidence that this call from Jesus, which is recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, is followed by two short narratives where Jesus demonstrates His own superiority to the Sabbath. Jesus offers a far superior rest to that of the Mosaic Sabbath!
WHY & HOW DO WE OBSERVE THE LORD’S DAY?
I said at the outset of this essay that my main point was to argue that the Sabbath command was always meant to point to ultimate rest in Christ. And that’s what I’ve tried to present to you so far. But the second half of my main point was/is that we (Christians) observe the Lord’s Day in order to celebrate our rest in Christ now and also to edify one another until Christ returns, bringing with Him the fulness of that promise of rest.
So, let me offer the following defense of this secondary theses: Christians observe the Lord’s Day, not as a new Sabbath, but as a uniquely Christian day, in order to celebrate Christian rest and to edify one another.
First, a very brief historical overview. The New Testament shows us that Christians began gathering on the first day of the week almost immediately after Jesus was raised from the dead on that Resurrection Sunday morning. In Acts 20:7 and 1 Corinthians 16:1-2, Scripture clearly names the “first day of the week” (Sunday) as a special time for Christian gathering, for communion, for discipling, for teaching, and for regular financial giving.
In the book of Revelation, John tells his readers that something happened to him “on the Lord’s day,” and he assumes that his readers will simply know what day that is (Revelation 1:10). This strongly implies that within the first generation of the earliest Christians the first day of the week was already being referred to as “the Lord’s Day.”
In addition, many early Christians – especially those who were Jewish – observed both the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day as two distinct days in the weekly calendar. They didn’t initially see Sabbath observance as having any conflict with their Christian faith, so they kept the Mosaic Sabbath. But the universal Christian day of the week was clearly the Lord’s day (Sunday) and not the Sabbath (Saturday), so Christians gathered with fellow believers on Sundays for the purpose of corporate worship and edification. Early Christians were allowed to observe the Sabbath if they wanted, but they were never obligated to do so, however the Lord’s Day gatherings were compulsory (Hebrews 10:24-25).
It’s also important to note that it was about 300 years before Sunday was a day off from work in the Roman empire. Most Christians in the west today enjoy the benefit of having a full day off of work every Sunday. So, gathering on the Lord’s Day was a far more costly commitment on the part of early Christians. Additionally, for the first two to three centuries, the Lord’s Day was clearly not a Sabbath, since it was not a day on which Christians rested from work. But, when the Roman emperor Constantine designated Christianity as a nationally recognized religion, he also made Sundays a national day of rest.
Constantine’s appropriation of Christianity, more than anything else, seems to have been the initial step for Christians beginning to mix the Mosaic Sabbath with the Lord’s Day of the New Testament. The mixture of these two distinct days appears to have continued during the Medieval period, and it was certainly hardened during the Protestant Reformation. This is evident by the fact that all of my favorite Protestant confessions and catechisms conflate the Sabbath with the Lord’s Day. But, with all due respect, this simply ought not be.
The Mosaic Sabbath day was and is the seventh day of the week (Saturday). It was a day of rest and the sign of the Mosaic covenant, which pointed toward Christ and ultimate rest in Him.
The Lord’s Day was and is the first day of the week (Sunday). It is a day of celebration and edification, and it’s a particular day on which Christians anticipate final rest in Christ.
In short, the two simply are not the same. Both the New Testament and early Church history make this clear.
“Ok,” you might be thinking, “That’s all somewhat interesting, but what should Christians today do or not do on the Lord’s Day?”
Well, let me speak directly to the following questions which get into the nitty-gritty of that broader question above.
Why do we observe the Lord’s Day?
Christians gather on the Lord’s Day (1) because that’s what Christians have been doing right from the beginning, (2) because the New Testament teaches us to gather regularly for the purposes of celebration and edification, and (3) because our Lord and Redeemer came back from death to life on a Sunday morning… and that’s a really big deal.
How do we observe the Lord’s Day?
Christians observe the Lord’s Day, following the example of our Christian forebears, (1) by setting it aside for a particular focus on Christ and on His people, (2) by devoting time and effort to those things commanded in Scripture (particularly those things commanded among the saints when they gather), and (3) by commemorating what Christ has done as well as eagerly anticipating what Christ will do.
Let me finish this essay by giving three practical pastoral examples of the kinds of things Christians might do, especially on Sundays, in order to observe the Lord’s Day.
First, Christians should make a special effort on Sundays to show “brotherly affection” and “honor” to their fellow church members (Romans 12:10). Christians should look and listen for needs to meet among their fellow church members. Christians should come to church with the aim to serve others, and they should go out of their way to make other church members feel loved. Of course, all of this can and should take place before, during, and after the Sunday service (not just during a 2-hour window each Sunday morning).
Second, Christians should make a special effort on Sundays to be “kind” and to “forgive one another” (Ephesians 4:32). Christians should confess their sins to one another. They should ask for forgiveness from those they may have wronged. And they should make time and effort to forgive those who have wronged them. Sundays might be a weekly renewal for Christians who confess sin and forgive one another, thereby reaffirming and strengthening their mutually dependent discipleship as fellow church members.
Third, Christians should make a special effort to normally be together with their church family on Sundays. One distinct mark of contemporary evangelicalism is a bizarre willingness to be absent from the gathering on Sundays, but this is truly strange when compared with every expression of Christianity before the last 50 years or so. All of the special efforts we might make on Sundays (promoting godliness, participating in communal worship, and striving toward spiritual growth) presuppose the regular weekly gathering of the church. Additionally, the Bible commands Christians to gather regularly for congregational worship, prayer, preaching, fellowship, and edification.
So, Christians should gather regularly with their fellow church members for the purpose of “stirring” one another up toward “love and good works,” for “encouraging” one another in the Lord, and for urging one another to “hold fast” to our trust and hope in Christ until He comes to bring us final rest (Hebrews 10:23-25).
May God help us all to find our ultimate rest in Christ. May God help us eagerly anticipate the final rest to come for all those in Christ. And may God help us (as Christians) to observe the Lord’s Day with intentionality and with joy.
 See Dressler’s helpful summary in his essay contained in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, pages 22-24.