The Expectation of a New Covenant Sabbath

The Expectation of a New Covenant Sabbath

Scripture indicates the Sabbath will be kept until the end of history. Isaiah 66:22-23, regarding the new heavens and earth, says, “For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the LORD, so shall your offspring and your name remain. From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the LORD.” This passage speaks of “all flesh,” a reference to all humans that includes the Gentiles (“all mankind,” NASB95). That the Sabbath continues in the new heavens and earth indicates the Sabbath did not end with resurrection of Christ.

The Fourth Commandment is of great controversy in the modern church. Many Christians today entirely ignore the Sabbath, and even many Reformed and Presbyterian ministers have moved far from a Sabbatarian position. Much has changed since early America, evidenced by the words of Conrad Speece (1776–1836), a Presbyterian pastor from Virginia, who said in an 1801 newspaper article, “Christians are generally agreed, in the belief of a divine warrant for the observation of the Christian sabbath.” Speece said this at a time when Christians in Virginia were a mix of Presbyterians, Anglicans, Methodists, and Baptists.

Yet it is ironic that the only one of the Ten Commandments debated as to whether it still applies today is the one explicitly rooted in the creation account—“Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God… For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day” (Exodus 20:9-11, ESV). Yet this rejection fits with the widespread cultural rejection of creational norms. 

It should also not be missed that the only one of the Ten Commandments outright rejected by American Christians today is the one regulating time. American life has become so busy, sometimes with both parents working outside the home and children’s sports crowding evenings and weekends. (And don’t forget the NFL on Sundays.) Is it just coincidence that Christians now reject God’s demand to devote an entire day each week to worship? Yes, there are theological arguments put forth against the continuing practice of the Sabbath, as we will see. But it cannot be ignored that there is increasing cultural pressure to abandon the Sabbath.

Sadly, American Christians have abandoned their Sabbatarian heritage brought by the British to the various colonies, including the Puritans in New England and the Scots-Irish in the backcountry. Even Virginia, which disestablished the Church of England in 1786, enacted that same year “A Bill for Punishing Disturbers of Religious Worship and Sabbath Breakers”—a bill ironically drafted by the rationalist Thomas Jefferson. Yet the American church played a large part in abandoning Sabbath practice by (1) providing little resistant to the repeal of Sabbath (“blue”) laws, (2) providing little resistance to professional sports being played on Sunday, which began in the early 20th century, (3) and outright rejecting the existence of a Sabbath day (and thus embracing Sabbath-breaking).

What I want to do in this article is argue that the Bible expects Sabbath practice to continue in the new covenant. In a subsequent article, I will respond to objections to Christian Sabbatarianism, including the objection that there is no evidence the Sabbath day changed from Saturday to Sunday. To be clear, Christian Sabbatarianism generally consists of the following affirmations: (1) The Fourth Commandment has a moral component, not just a ceremonial one; (2) The day has been changed from the 7th to the 1st day of the week because of Christ’s resurrection; and (3) The day should be devoted to the worship of God, not employment or recreations.

The Expectation of a New Covenant Sabbath

While the Fourth Commandment is not restated in the New Testament, it is important to acknowledge that none of the first three commandments are explicitly restated in the New Testament (no other gods, no images, not taking God’s name in vain). Jesus and the apostles did not need to restate these commands relating to God’s worship because they obviously still applied to Christians. Often called the “first table” of the law, the New Testament assumes these four God-directed commandments still apply.

The Sabbath command broadly concerns the regulation of time, with the requirement that God’s people work and then devote one entire day to restful worship. On what basis could such a command not apply in the new covenant? Does God no longer regulate man’s calendar or time in creation? Thus, while there is room to debate the specific application of the Sabbath command in the new covenant, we are arguing that the Sabbath command must continue to apply to the Christian. The reasons are as follows.

First, the entire Ten Commandments are the foundation of God’s law, or what Reformed theologians historically have identified as the “moral law.” The Westminster Standards teach that “The moral law is the declaration of the will of God to mankind, directing and binding every one to personal, perfect, and perpetual conformity and obedience thereunto” (WLC 93). So the moral law applies to all men, and it is written on the heart of Christians (Jeremiah 31:33). And what is the content of this moral law? “The moral law is summarily comprehended in the Ten Commandments” (WLC 98), which of course includes the Fourth Commandment. Hence the apostles can freely quote the Ten Commandments as binding on the church (e.g., Ephesians 6:1-3). While there were civil/judicial penalties in the Mosaic law for Sabbath-breaking, as well as ceremonial laws falling broadly under the Fourth Commandment (feast days and Sabbath years), the Sabbath command at its root is moral. The day has been changed to Sunday in the new covenant, but the specific day was ceremonial and could be changed, seen in that the Sabbath principle of six and one is upheld. Accordingly, God has established the Sabbath “in his Word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment binding all men in all ages” (WCF 21.7).

Second, the weekly Sabbath command is rooted in creation (“For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth,” Exodus 20:11). What makes this relevant is that we still live in this created world. We live in the same world that Old Testament Israel did, and there is no basis for overturning such a creation principle. Nothing has changed in human nature that we no longer need weekly rest and worship. Our weekly schedule is regulated by God’s pattern set at creation (Genesis 1:1–2:3). Further evidence of such a creation order is that the Sabbath was practiced prior to the Mosaic covenant (Exodus 16).

Third, the weekly Sabbath is an important part of life as God’s redeemed. While the Sabbath was given for all mankind, the fall corrupted worship and Sabbath practice. But God restored Sabbath practice to its rightful place for His redeemed people. This is seen in that God delivered Israel out of oppressive slavery and into Sabbath rest, declared in the prologue to the Ten Commandments—“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). In fact, God’s redemption from slavery is given as the basis for the Sabbath in the restatement of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5:15— “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.” Such weekly holy rest was a blessing as Israel anticipated eschatological (i.e., final) Sabbath in Christ (Hebrews 3–4). We still await the ultimate fulfillment of this rest in Christ’s return, so we still practice the weekly Sabbath as a foretaste of what is to come. Accordingly, if the Sabbath command no longer applies, then the new covenant is worse than the old covenant, not better (Hebrews 7:22). If the Sabbath command has been entirely abrogated, then Christians are no longer given a day each week devoted to God’s worship for their spiritual benefit. The Sabbath is for our good—we may not feel like spending the entire day in worship, but we need to spend the entire day in worship. So God calls us to set the day apart.

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