Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Five Reasons why the Sabbath is Designed for Worship

By Ryan M. McGraw
Nearly every disagreement over Christian practice is the result of a fundamental disagreement over Christian principle. When the issue of Sabbath-keeping arises, Christians conflict over what constitutes keeping the Sabbath holy. The crux of the debate over what is lawful on the Sabbath and what is not is whether or not the purpose of the day is rest, considered in itself, or “spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship” (Westminster Shorter Catechism 60). The manner in which you answer this question determines how you will answer every question respecting what thoughts, words, and works are appropriate on the Sabbath, as well as whether or not worldly recreations that are lawful on other days are also lawful on the Sabbath. If you believe that the purpose of the day is rest, then the emphasis of your Sabbath keeping will be upon activities that make you feel well rested. If, on the other hand, you believe that the purpose of the Sabbath is setting the day apart for corporate, private, and family worship, you will naturally seek to exclude all practices that are inconsistent with, or do not immediately promote worship. Five reasons why the ultimate purpose of the Sabbath day is worship rather than rest per se are the situation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the fact that God “sanctified” the Sabbath, the position of the Sabbath among the Ten Commandments, the character of the commands attached to Sabbath keeping, and the connection of the Sabbath to the hope of heaven.[1]

First, the situation in the Garden of Eden implies that the Sabbath was designed for worship and communion with God. The Sabbath was sanctified by God as soon as the sixth day of creation was completed (Gen. 2:1-3). The Ten Commandments remind us that the example set by God at that time constituted a permanent pattern for mankind. The Sabbath was given to Adam and Eve prior to the fall and initially had no respect either to sin or to redemption. It was not given as a type of Christ as the Redeemer, since there was no sin and death to be redeemed from, and it was not given as a type of a salvation, which was an irrelevant concept to an unfallen man and woman. In the Garden, Adam and Eve lived every day as worship and service to God, yet part of their joyful service was the labor that God had given them. When the Sabbath arrived, they had nothing left but direct acts of worship and communion with God. What more would a sinless man and woman have desired, and what other purpose could the Sabbath have served in paradise. 

The rest required on the Sabbath, even in paradise, cannot be equated with inactivity; it was not so in the case of God himself, who has never ceased to labor in his works of providence (John 5:17), and neither should it be in the case of his creatures as they imitate his rest. For this reason, Robert L. Reymond has observed, “‘rest’ cannot mean mere cessation from labor, much less recovery from fatigue. . . . ‘Rest’ then means involvement in new, in the sense of different, activity. It means cessation of the labor of the six days and the taking up of different labors appropriate to the Lord’s Day. What these labors of the Sabbath rest are is circumscribed by the accompanying phrase, ‘to the Lord.’ They certainly include both corporate and private acts of worship and the contemplation of the glory of God . . .”[2] We must also avoid the error of concluding that since we are called to live all of life to the glory of God (Rom. 12:1-2; 1 Cor. 10:31), we may worship God on the Sabbath with every activity with which we may serve him on other days. John Murray exposed the absurdity of this position: “While it is true that we ought to serve the Lord every day and in all things we must not forget that there are different ways of serving God. We do not serve him by doing the same thing all the time. If we do that, we are either insane or notoriously perverse. There is a great variety in human vocation. If we neglect to observe that variation, we shall soon pay the cost.”[3]  This is patently obvious from the fact that we must engage in labor for six days to the glory of God (Col. 3:23), yet this act of “worship” is strictly forbidden on the Sabbath day. Surely Adam and Eve would have enjoyed the Sabbath as it was intended to be observed: as a day of uninterrupted direct worship and communion with God. For this reason, Murray added: 

There is release from the labors of the six days, but it is also release to the contemplation of the glory of God. Cessation from the labors of the week must itself have its source and ground in obedience to God, and the gratitude which is the motive and fruit of such obedience will minister to the worship which is the specific employment of the Sabbath rest. This is just saying that rest from weekly labors and the exercises of specific worship are inseparable and they mutually condition one another. It is a Sabbath of rest to the Lord; we cannot have the one without the other.[4]
It was the Pharisees who made the mistake of regarding the Sabbath primarily in terms of inactivity. The purpose of cessation from worldly employments on the Sabbath is to take up the entire time with the public and private exercises of God’s worship. Murray concluded: “Even in innocence man would have required time for specific worship. We are too ready to entertain the notion that religion in a state of sinless confirmed integrity would have required no institutions as the medium of expression. . . . Unfallen man would need to suspend his weekly labors in order to refresh himself with the exercises of concentrated worship.”[5]

Second, the fact that the Lord “sanctified” and “hallowed” the Sabbath day means that he set it apart for the purposes of worship.[6]  Leviticus 27 addresses the subject of people, animals, various objects, and offerings that were dedicated as “holy” to the Lord. These people and objects were dedicated to the service of the tabernacle, and were used in the worship and service of the Lord exclusively. Objects that were holy to the Lord belonged to the Lord in a peculiar manner. The Lord said, “No devoted offering that a man may devote to the Lord of all that he has, both man and beast, or the field of his possession, shall be sold or redeemed; every devoted offering is most holy to the Lord” (Lev. 27:28). So when God sanctified the Sabbath and made it “holy,” he set it apart for worship exclusively. In other words, the operative phrase in the fourth commandment is, “keep it holy,” not, “you shall do no work.”  The error of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram was in asserting that since “all the congregation is holy, every one of them” (Num. 16:3), no single group of men (in this case the Aaronic priests) could be regarded as dedicated to the worship and service of the Lord in a peculiar sense. Moses responded by asserting, “Tomorrow morning the Lord will show who is his and who is holy, and will cause him to come near him” (v. 5). The Sabbath is distinguished from the other six days just as Aaron and his sons were distinguished from the rest of the congregation of Israel : the Sabbath is kept holy by dedicating it wholly and only to the worship and service of the Lord.

Third, the position of the fourth commandment among the Ten Commandments points to an emphasis upon worship. The first four commandments are generally acknowledged to address immediately our relation to God with respect to his worship and service, and the last six address our service to God by way of serving our neighbor. The first commandment concerns the object of worship, the second the manner of worshipping him, the third the proper attitude of worship, and the fourth the time that has been set apart for worship.[7] The grossest evidence I have seen that the Church has moved away from understanding the Sabbath as a day of worship was a sermon on the fourth commandment entitled, “Take a rest, you deserve it.” The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27), yet many contemporary Christians have abused this principle in order to shift from a worship-centered view of the Sabbath to a man-centered view of the Sabbath.

Fourth, the varied duties explicitly connected to Sabbath observance are duties related to worship. Every Sabbath, Israel must hold a “holy convocation” to the Lord (Lev. 23:3). The morning and evening sacrifices, which were an integral part of temple worship in the Old Testament, must be doubled upon the Sabbath. Psalm 92, which is entitled, “A Psalm for the Sabbath Day,” depicts God’s people giving thanks to the Most High and praising his name morning and evening with instruments and gladness, because he made his people triumph through the works of his hands (Ps. 92:1-4). In the New Testament, the disciples gathered together as a body on the first day of week as Paul preached to them (Acts 20:7ff). The first day of the week, or Lord’s Day, was singled out as the most appropriate time for taking an offering for the poor (1 Cor. 16:1-2). In short, the bulk of the requirements attached to Sabbath keeping in both Old and New Testament relates to some duty of corporate or private worship. If you consider these commands in isolation, you may be tempted to conclude that the Sabbath is a day of rest with duties of worship attached to it. However, when you connect the character of these commands with the three inferences drawn above, you must conclude that the Sabbath is a day of worship. Rest from your weekly employments is a necessary pre-requisite to keep the day holy. The presumption is that the purpose for which the Lord set apart the entire day was for his people to hold communion with him in worship.[8]

Fifth, the Sabbath is designed to be a type of heaven, and the biblical picture of heaven is a place solely consumed with the worship of God through Jesus Christ. We must not merely think of the Sabbath as looking forward to heaven, but we must regard the Sabbath as being patterned after heaven. There is much speculation about the continuity and discontinuity between this life and the life to come. Whatever we may legitimately conclude from the biblical evidence, we must recognize that the only places in the New Testament where we are given a glimpse of heaven reveal glorified saints and angels bowing before him who sits upon the throne and before the Lamb who was slain (Rev. 4-5). Every day of the week, the saints must long for heaven; on the Lord’s Day, they must act a though they are already there.
If the purpose of the Sabbath is worship, does this not go a long way to answer practical questions respecting appropriate behavior on the Sabbath? This places the oft disputed question about the role of “worldly” recreations “which are lawful on other days” in its proper perspective. The question should not be (as it is often framed) whether or not it is lawful, for instance, to take a walk with a child on the Lord’s Day, but whether or not all that we do on the Sabbath is designed specifically and intentionally to promote corporate, family, and private worship. Too often we have come to view Sunday as “our day” rather than the Lord’s Day. The reason why the Westminster Divines excluded recreation from the Sabbath was because it was contrary to the purpose of the day. How can we be concerned with our recreations when we worship in the presence of God with reverence and awe? How can we speak about our football games or shopping trips on the Sabbath when we are gathered together to meet with the risen Christ? If we were truly consumed with the glories of our redemption and of our Savior on the Lord’s Day, we would not likely define what is lawful on the day in terms of what we think is restful. If we were more consumed with love for Christ and grateful worship to God, it is likely that most of the activities that become the subject of debate on the Sabbath would become virtually irrelevant. John Owen wrote: “Those whose minds are fixed in a spirit of liberty to glorify God in and by this day of rest, seeking after communion with him in the ways of his worship, will be unto themselves a better rule for their words and actions than those who may aim to reckon over all they do or say.”[9]  The evidence bears out the fact that God appointed the Sabbath day in order to rest from our worldly employments (and recreations) so that we might have a day of worship and communion with God. When our sole focus on that day is upon worshiping and communing with our God through the glorious gospel of his Son, practical questions regarding our thoughts, speech, and recreations on that day will begin to answer themselves. As the Scottish theologian John Dick pointed out, “He who understands in what the sanctification of the Sabbath consists, has no need that the sins in the fourth commandment should be pointed out to him.”[10]  This overstates the case slightly, but it illustrates the point that most disagreements over Sabbath keeping result from a lack of clarity regarding the design and purpose of the day.
What a glorious privilege and blessing such a day ought to be! What a mercy from God that we should have one day in seven to enjoy God without the distractions that encumber us throughout the week! Does this not make neglecting the Sabbath appear to be base ingratitude? If Adam and Eve needed a day of worship before the Fall, do you not need such a day? When you disregard the Sabbath by bending your conscience to the will of employers, or to the lusts of the flesh rather than the Word of God, do you realize that you are actually despising the privilege of worship? You are not simply disobeying a commandment of God; you are spurning one of his greatest gifts to mankind. If the Sabbath is designed simply for “rest,” then our rule shall invariably be, “What is restful for you is restful for you, but what is restful for me is restful for me.” However, if the Sabbath is designed for worship, we shall gratefully confess, “The Sabbath is to be sanctified by an holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days, and taking up the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, 60).

[1] The material in this article was taken primarily from chapters 1, 3, 4, and 6 of my unpublished manuscript, Sabbath Keeping: A Defense of the Westminster Standards.
[2] Robert L. Reymond, “Lord’s Day Observance,” in Contending for the Faith: Lines in the Sand that Strengthen the Church (Fearn, Ross-shire , Scotland : Christian Focus Publications, 2005), 181.
[3] John Murray, “The Sabbath Institution,” in The Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), vol. I, 209. Emphasis original. The Puritan David Dickson, in emphasizing the point that the Sabbath cannot be kept merely by specific acts of worship on the day, but by dedicating the entire day for worship, added the interesting point that if all that was required was to “set apart some indefinite time” on the day for worship, then the Sabbath would not differ substantially from the other days of the week, on which worship was required as well. David Dickson, Truth’s Victory Over Error: A Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith (orig. pub., 1684, reprint, Edinburgh : The Banner of Truth Trust, 2007), 155. If the fourth commandment requires worship at all, it requires worship as the emphasis of the entire day. If the fourth commandment only requires rest, then the worship required on the Sabbath is no different than that required every other day.
[4] Murray, “Sabbath Institution,” 210. Emphasis original.
[5] Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957), 34.
[6] For a more in-depth examination of this point, see Iain D. Campbell, On the First Day of the Week: God, the Christian, and the Sabbath ( Leonminster , UK : Day One Publications, 2005), 45-48. Also see Joseph Pipa, The Lord’s Day (Geanines House, Fearn, Ross-Shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 1997), 32-34.
[7] John Owen added that the fourth commandment is “the keeper of the whole first table,” since it is designed to ensure that the worship required by the first three commandments is properly observed. John Owen, A Day of Sacred Rest, in, An Exposition to the Epistle to the Hebrews (orig. pub. N.d., reprint, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), vol. II, 289.
[8] For more on this point, see Reymond, 180.
[9] Owen, A Day of Sacred Rest, 447.
[10] John Dick, Lectures on Theology (orig. pub., Edinburgh : Oliver & Boyd, 1838, reprint, Stoke on Trent , UK : Tentmaker Publications, 2004), IV, 459.