The Sabbath

Sunday Trading is now an assumed part of life. Expected work hours seem to forever encroach on family and leisure time. School sports commonly now take place on Sundays. And weekly church attendance is increasingly sporadic.

It is against such a cultural backdrop that we reconsider the question of the Sabbath: Does the Lord really require us to set-apart a day a week for rest and worship? And if so, how exactly should it be used?

Genesis 2:2-3 - An abiding principle?

Though the word “Sabbath” is not mentioned here, we can know that it is in mind for two reasons: First, because the Hebrew word “Sabbat” actually means “cessation” or “rest,”[1] the activity of God on this day. Second, because Hebrews 4 explicitly ties God’s rest on the seventh day to the idea of Sabbath (Heb 4:3-10). Third, because Genesis was originally penned to Israel, who were commanded to “remember the Sabbath day” for the very reason that “in six days the LORD made heaven and earth…and rested the seventh day.” It does not go too far to say then, that Moses intended Genesis 2:2-3 to explain the later command. In other words, this is the original “Sabbath day” that Israel were to remember. Given this, the key question is over the extent to which God’s action here is prescriptive for all people and all time.

The nature of the Sabbath

We should note first that all men and women are in view here. These two chapters are about the creation of humanity not Israel or the church. Second, the word for “work” in Genesis 2:2-3 is the usual one for human work, and it comes three times in these two verses. This is at the very least suggestive that God’s example here holds relevance for human work in general.[2] Third, this is confirmed by the fact that the chapters are about our call to “image” God. The entire structure of chapter 1 reflects this. It begins with a watery chaos (v2) which God subdues (days 1-3) and then fills (days 4-6). When we read that men and women are created in his image (v26-27) we are subsequently told that they are to “image” him in the same way: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (v28).

In short, we could say chapter 1 portrays humanity as created to image the way in which God works. And it is in this context that we read of God resting on the seventh day. The logic is inescapable: Imaging the way in which God works includes imaging his seven day pattern. So by making this first seventh day a Sabbath for himself, God makes every seventh day a Sabbath for those who “image” him. It is as if the mantel for filling and subduing is past to humanity. God created and initiated all the processes necessary for an ordered world in which they rule. But what he has started we are to finish.

It is this that makes the Sabbath so significant eschatologically.[3] Just as we are to rest every seventh day from this completing-work of creation, so, when it is finally completed, we will rest forevermore. Now here we must note what is little more than an allusion in the Genesis account: The fall results in a curse that entails toil in the work of filling and subduing the earth (3:16-19). Noah is then portrayed as one bringing “rest” from this toil (5:29), implying that the returning of the world to its original state through the flood was, potentially at least, the provision of a Sabbath for humanity. It seems then, that in addition to the seventh day being a Sabbath, the entire pre-fall state, and by implication, the new creation, is to be seen as a Sabbath in which fellowship with the creator and engagement with his creation was and is to be enjoyed. As Dumbrell puts it: “Mankind was created to rejoice before the deity and to enjoy the blessings of creation in the divine presence.”[4]

So Adam and Eve’s daily life was to be a participation in God’s unending Sabbath day, and the proper activity of their weekly Sabbath was probably therefore a more focused enjoyment of God and the world than was possible on the other six days. More than that, it surely reminded them each week of whom their 24/7 Sabbath joy depended upon. Calvin puts this all eloquently and highlights the “spirit” to which the concept points:

“God claims for himself the meditations and employments of men on the seventh day. This is, indeed, the proper business of the whole life, in which men should daily exercise themselves, to consider the infinite goodness, justice, power, and wisdom of God, in this magnificent theatre of heaven and earth. But, lest men should prove less sedulously attentive to it than they ought, every seventh day has been especially selected for the purpose of supplying what was wanting in daily meditation.”[5]

We might note at this point that the type of work the Sabbath gives rest from varies depending on the focus of the Sabbath. The weekly Sabbath is a rest from normal work, and in Eden this was untoilsome. The eschatological Sabbath however, is a rest from the toilsome work instituted at the fall. And this is perhaps why Jesus can portray the rest found in him as one from the burden of the law – another consequence of sin (Matt 11:28ff).

The continuity of the Sabbath

Of course Jesus taught that God continues to work (John 5:16f). He does so in his works of providence and redemption.[6] However, this is beside the point. The intention of Genesis 1:1-2:4 is to model our work/rest pattern on God’s work of creation. And this was finished in six days (whether literal or not) and followed by a day of rest.

To what extent then is this weekly Sabbath pattern still morally binding? Here we might recognise that our call to “image” God is itself more than simply functional: First, it reflects a command to fill and subdue the earth. Second, it reflects God’s character. God saw that all he had made was “good.” So the task is also to be completed in a way that reflects God’s own goodness.

It would seem that the Sabbath pattern is moral in similar ways: First, because it is assumed in this same command. Second, because it is also therefore to be held to in accordance with God’s character. So the way we spend our rest is to be ethical just as the way we work is to be. As with every day, the Sabbath is not to be spent in ungodliness. But more than this, God’s concern to give us rest means that we are not to rest in any way that oppresses or keeps rest from others.

We might also add two motivationally moral aspects to the Sabbath: third, the desire to have in the Sabbath pattern a reminder that God is our creator because he created in the same way (v3b)[7]; fourth, though it is not explicit in our verses, the desire in observing it to recuperate in order to better fulfil the command he has given us.

So we see two different sorts of moral requirement. The first, is that which is moral not primarily because it is grounded in the character of God, but simply because God has commanded it. By contrast, the second, third and fourth are moral because they stem from God’s character: love for neighbour (the concern not to oppress) and love for God (the concern to remember him and serve his purposes). The first and third would seem to bind us to the one day in seven pattern (unless changed or abrogated) at least until the world is full and subdued.[8] The set pattern is important here if we are to be said to truly be imaging God and remembering his work of creation. The second and fourth would seem to bind us only to the principle of taking whatever rest, whether one day or more, that is sufficient to properly fulfil our calling, and take it without abusing the needs of others. We must note here that the pattern does implicitly urge industriousness in those truly committed to God’s creational command to use six days of every week for whatever filling and subduing they are involved in. However, its intent is to ensure one day of ceasing from this, not to disallow the taking of greater rest where it is necessary.

This pretty much exhausts what can be gleaned from Genesis 2:2-3. Some claim we also find teaching here about using the Sabbath to appreciate the work we have done. This may be hinted at and is certainly not forbidden. However, this appreciation is more clearly seen in the daily declaration that “God saw that it was good.” Others claim that by making the seventh day “holy” the priority of using the Sabbath for specified worship and spiritual instruction is being stressed. But this really is not clear. The phrase “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy” is certainly a focus. However we are told only that the day has been made “holy” or “set-apart for God” in the sense that it is “set-apart” from work as a reminder that God is our creator (v3b) and as an opportunity to better enjoy him and (presumably) his world. It is in this sense that the Sabbath brings joy, i.e. is blessed. Waltke is surely right to say that our imitation of the divine work-rest pattern confesses “God’s lordship” and our “consecration to him”[9] at least in an implicit sense. Yet a straightforward reading of the text really must keep us from prescribing detail about how the day should be spent other than, as Frame rightly stresses, in rest.[10] Having clarified that, the nature of the day in giving us time out from work to enjoy God and his world certainly makes it the most sensible one for those who love God to use for worship and instruction.

Exodus-Deuteronomy - A temporary law?

On the relation of the creation ordinance to the later law, Calvin writes:
“We must know, that this is to be the common employment not of one age or people only, but of the whole human race. Afterwards, in the Law, a new precept concerning the Sabbath was given, which should be peculiar to the Jews, and but for a season; because it was a legal ceremony shadowing forth a spiritual rest, the truth of which was manifested in Christ.”[11]
Our question is of course over the extent to which he was right.

The Sabbath regulated

First, we find the Sabbath legislated for in the Ten Commandments. The call to “remember” (Exodus 20:8) probably doesn’t look back to the creation ordinance but parallels the equivalent “observe” (Deut 5:12) and so simply means “observe without lapse.”[12] However, the “keep it holy” certainly echoes the “made it holy” of Genesis 2:3, and the quote of Genesis 2:2-3 as the reason behind the command makes the link even more explicit (Exodus 20:11). More intriguing is the call in the Deuteronomic account to observe the day “as the LORD your God commanded you” (Deut 5:12). Commentators tend to assume this refers to the original command recorded in Exodus. However, Moses is here quoting what the Lord actually said in giving that commandment (v2-5). This would mean that this phrase could have been a comment from Moses in the midst of his quote. The alternative is that it was actually part of the original commandment, but not mentioned in Exodus 20. If this is the case, because there was no clear Sabbath command under the Mosaic covenant prior to the Decalogue,[13] the phrase would imply that the Sabbath of creation was actually the original “command” that applied to Israel. This would give the creation ordinance the form of law. 

Whatever the case, the pervasive creational focus to the fourth commandment suggests that it was intended to reiterate what was instituted by creation. This suggests that the form of the commandment should be as abiding as the creation ordinance it is intended to uphold. Indeed, the Ten Commandments are clearly meant to have a special and perhaps enduring prominence. They are given in the most dramatic circumstances (Exodus 19) and written by the very finger of God (Deut 9:10). At this point at least then, it would seem that the command should stand.
As for its detail, we see much we have established reaffirmed: The stress is on rest from work and labour not on involvement in worship or instruction. Yet again, the Sabbath is “to the LORD your God.” So it is theocentric, and without further detail we must assume that, as in Genesis, this is because it gives opportunity for the people to enjoy their creator and his world. The particular development is in the responsibility the command gives for the household head to ensure their children, servants, livestock and guests rest too (v10).[14] This is a logical and necessary extension in the context of community, and may imply that people are not culpable for breaking the command when required to by those in authority over them.

It is unclear whether the call to remember God’s redemption of Israel from slavery is intended to be a reason for this headship responsibility or simply for adherence to the wider command (Deut 5:15). In deciding this, it is noteworthy that in Deuteronomy 5:14 Moses rearranges the parties of Exodus 20:10 to place “servants” immediately before the reminder and then follows it with the general call to obedience. So it is likely that Israel’s redemption is to be causal in both senses. In other words, God rescued Israel from the oppression and toil of Egypt to enjoy the blessing and rest of Canaan. The people are not therefore to be the cause of oppression or toil of those under their authority. Moreover, their redemption was a purchasing of them to be servants of God (Exodus 9:1, 13). It also therefore requires their obedience to the Sabbath command.
Craigie sees the redemption reference as analogous to the creation and a reminder that Israel are dependent on God.[15] However, although we have seen that these links are there in biblical theology, they are not particularly apparent in this text. We should note then, that although the pattern of creation gives weight to the continuity of the weekly Sabbath today, the concept of redemption here does not. It simply asserts the blessing of freedom from oppression, the importance of not oppressing others and of obeying God.

A final comment on the Sabbath in the Decalogue is to note its place. It’s call to keep a day “holy” and “to the LORD” implies the same God-ward focus expressed in the previous three commandments. In this sense it stresses our devotion to God more than our dependence on him. The Sabbath is therefore a day which the faithful would want to use to remember the LORD and have a limit to their productivity that protects them against the idolizing of work[16] (commandment 1) and the coveting of wealth (commandment 10). In this, it provides a fitting pivot between those commands primarily geared towards loving God and those primarily geared towards loving our neighbour. Indeed, the requirement that others must be allowed their Sabbath gives love of neighbour a particular focus.

Second, we see the Sabbath as a particular sign for Israel. Whereas the commandment within the Decalogue simply reaffirms the creation ordinance that stands for all, the LORD supplements it in Exodus 31 in a way that seems intended only for Israel. (1) It is made the paramount commandment, “above all” (v13). (2) The reason for its primacy is that it is to be a sign for Israel; in other words, a visible reminder (v13). (3) It is to signify the Mosaic covenant between God and the nation by which God sets the people apart as his own (v13, cf. v16). In this sense it is a reminder of God’s identity and his purposes for Israel, and of the need for Israel to be faithful and obedient as his holy people. At the same time it is also a reminder that the LORD himself created and then rested and was refreshed (v16).

The close contextual link here with the covenant (v16) suggests that it is not a double sign, but a sign of covenant and creation together. Mackay notes the place of this passage in the book stresses the relation of the Sabbath to the Tabernacle which reflected God’s presence “and anticipated the restoration of the Edenic reality.”[17] As we have seen, in preceding the toil of the fall, this reality was one of rest in the enjoyment of fellowship with the creator and engagement with his creation (Genesis 3:16-19 cf. 5:9). So as the covenant sign, the Sabbath signifies the fact that the LORD is the creator God who has redeemed and set-apart Israel to enjoy his presence and the rest it entails, and which was originally forfeited by Adam (see especially 33v14). Just as Adam and Eve were to keep the weekly Sabbath as a reminder of who their 24/7 Sabbath experience was dependent upon, Israel are therefore commanded to do the same as they are about to enter and enjoy the 24/7 rest of the promised land. Here then redemption and creation are linked. By its theological consequences as a re-creation, Israel’s redemption could therefore be said to affirm the weekly Sabbath pattern first established in Genesis 2:2-3.

(4) The Sabbath is to be observed “forever” (v13, 16). This should not be read as necessarily implying its continuance as the phrase is understood elsewhere as effectively meaning “as long as the covenant stands.” (5) The command is described as “holy for you.” This is deeply interesting. The sense seems to be that “the Sabbath” as a concept was always intended for Israel as opposed to the nations in general. In context however, this probably applies simply to the Sabbath in terms of its significance and regulations in this passage, not least because the creation ordinance seems wider in scope. The point is that observing it as a sign is to be what sets Israel apart.[18] (6) Its fundamental importance warrants the strictest penalty. To disobey the command is therefore a capital offence in which the offender is cut off from the sanctified people by death (v14-15). There is to be no tolerance of Sabbath breakers. (7) It is a day of “solemn rest,” that is to reverent rest out of holy fear.
Third, we now see the Sabbath as a day for religious gathering. Bosman argues that we see no particular cultic activities enjoined upon the average Israelite on the Sabbath,[19] although extra offerings are to be made by the priest (Numbers 28-29). This is not however accurate. We find the Sabbath described as a “holy convocation” alongside Israel’s feasts (Lev 23:2-3). The term seems to be synonymous with “solemn assembly” (v36). Indeed, Wenham notes that the Hebrew words means a ‘call,’ or ‘summons,’ or ‘reading,’ and from an examination of its usage elsewhere, concludes it was a: “national gathering for public worship. Primarily it was an occasion for the offering of sacrifice, but in later times it may also have included the reading and exposition of Scripture (cf. Deut 31:10ff; Neh 8-9).”[20]

Consistent with the sensible use of the day when one considers its nature, it seems then that the Israelite Sabbath was to be marked by an assembly, the concept reflected in the NT term “church.” It was for this reason, one presumes, that first century Jews chose the Sabbath as the day to assemble at the Synagogue.

Fifth, the Sabbath is to be a day of joy. Wenham goes on to show how “the sabbatical principle informs all the pentateuchical laws about festivals.”[21] The first and seventh day of the Passover week (v7-8), the day of the feast of weeks which is to follow a Sabbath day (v21), the first day of the seventh month (v24-25), the first day of the week-long feast of booths (v35), the day after the completion of the booths week (v36), and especially the day of atonement (v28-32), are all to be days in which the people refrain from “ordinary work.” In other words they are to be Sabbath rests (v24, 32, 39). In the feasts of Passover, Weeks and Booths this link gives some precedence to celebrating a Sabbath on the first day of the week rather than the seventh. It also emphasizes the Sabbath not as a day of begrudging boredom, but as with the other festivals, a day for some penitence, but also for celebration and joy as the Lord’s goodness is remembered (Lev 23:40, Deut 16:14). Stressing the centrality of recreation to the Sabbath, Frame makes exactly this point:

But does Scripture merely permit recreation on Sabbath, or is there some positive value to Sabbath recreation in keeping with the nature of the day? I have been greatly helped to see its positive value by Charles L. Jacob’s article, “Eat the Fat, Drink the Sweet, and Be Merry.”[22] The title is based on Neh. 8:9-10, where the Levites are teaching the law to Israel, newly regathered from exile. It is a “holy” day (verse 9), like a Sabbath. There is a solemnity about it, as God convicts the people of sin. But the Levites urge the people to make a feast of it, to enjoy good food and drink and not to mourn. Jacob points out how often God’s holy days are feasts, times of recreation as well as learning and worship. Sabbath, we have seen, celebrates God as creator, redeemer, and consummator of history. Jacob shows that whenever God’s people celebrate these great events, they play. Compare the dancing accompanying the bringing of the ark to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6:12-23), the emphasis in the Psalms on rejoicing before God, the singing and dancing following the deliverance from Egypt (Ex. 15), the rejoicing in the New Testament over sinners lost and found (Luke 15) and Jesus’ partying in the gospels. The eschatological passages of Scripture are full of feasting and song. How can the Sabbath, which celebrates creation, redemption, and consummation, be any different?

So it is important to keep in mind that by its very nature, the Sabbath is a feast, not a fast. It is a time of abundance, not deprivation. It should be a delight, of play, of extravagant joy. There is of course a difference between feasting before the Lord and mere secular entertainment. Since the Sabbath is a holy day unto the Lord (note: a day, not just an hour or two), Sabbath recreation should be focused on him. But there is also a circle around the focus. When people dance before the Lord, they do it in honor of him. But this doesn’t mean that every foot-movement carries religious symbolism. The dance is simply the outworking of a joyful disposition, a playful, happy response to God’s goodness.[23] That circle naturally extends to congregational meals (like the New Testament agape), games for children and adults, times to swim and hike, joking and sharing.[24]The Sabbath applied

Considering the many legalistic applications made by the Pharisees, the OT is actually relatively sparse in the detail it gives on how the Sabbath worked out in practice. Moreover the applications are all in the area of work rather than worship.

The stress on abstaining from “ordinary work” during the feasts probably does not suggest an allowance for some forms of work (other than that of priests) on the Sabbath. It and the day of Atonement are distinguished as days of “solemn rest” in which all work should cease, including urgent harvesting (Ex 34:21).[25] Certainly, it was later understood to forbid Israelites from commercial activity, whether buying from non-Israelites or selling or preparing to sell goods (Neh 10:31, 13:15-22). Through Jeremiah, the LORD condemns those who “carry a burden out of your houses on the Sabbath or do any work” (Jer 17:22). It is impossible to tell whether this forbids lifting anything at all. The context speaks of bringing the burden “in by the gates of Jerusalem” (v21). It probably therefore refers to the bringing of various goods into Jerusalem in order to sell on the Sabbath – the very thing Nehemiah confronts (Neh 13:15-16).
The fullest case study in the application of the command occurs in Exodus 16, before the Sabbath law was actually enshrined in the Decalogue. Whether or not this suggests that the work-rest pattern was already being observed, we have already concluded in our discussion of Genesis 2 that it probably should have been. And here it is re-affirmed: The Lord promises to miraculously enable[26] the people to collect sufficient manna to take the Sabbath as rest (v5). Moses later explains the Sabbath concept of the seventh day, declaring God’s command that it be a “holy Sabbath to the LORD” of “solemn rest.” Food should not therefore be gathered or prepared on that day, but before it (v23-24). The people are subsequently blessed by the LORD, enabling their food to last through the Sabbath in a way that it wouldn’t otherwise (v24 cf. 20). When some still go out to collect manna however, we learn that the Sabbath is categorized as one of God’s commands and laws (v28), and that its form here is specifically “given” to Israel (v29). 

Importantly, this is the first requirement in the book that is actually categorized in this way, confirming that the Israelite Sabbath is given great prominence and portrayed here as part of the Law about to be given rather than as a creation ordinance. Nevertheless, the lack of death penalty for the disobedience hints that it is a temporary penalty instituted only in the context of the official Sinai covenant. Finally we see an interesting take on not “going out” on the Sabbath. It is not a prohibition on “going out” per se, but doing so with the intention to work (v27 and 29).
A similar case is the prohibition on the “kindling of fires” in one’s dwelling place (Ex 35:3). This may also imply that food preparation should not take place on the Sabbath.[27] However, the fact that this rather arbitrary act is singled out may suggest that more than the lighting of a normal fire is in mind.[28] More stark is the man who was executed for “gathering sticks” on the Sabbath (Num 15:32-36). Here the analogy is with the gathering of the manna rather than its preparation (Ex 16:22-30).[29] It is unclear whether the mere collecting broke the Sabbath law, or whether it was the purpose of collecting in order to light a fire for the sake of cooking or some other work. The distinction may be pedantic, although Moses’ consultation with God could have been in order to ascertain the man’s motive. An unintentional act would seem to have allowed for atonement through sacrifice (v27-29). However a blatant and defiant violation of the law clearly warranted death.[30]


A number of lessons can now be gleaned about the Israelite Sabbath, and a glance through them moves us to wonder whether numbers 10-18 are those most particular to Israel and the Mosaic covenant.
1. It is to entail celebration and joy at all God gives.
2. The LORD provides for and blesses those who keep it.
3. It imparts a responsibility to ensure others keep it.
4. It forbids intent as well as actual work.
5. It forbids buying as well as selling.
6. It includes rest from domestic chores such as finding and preparing food.
7. It does prescribe religious assembly.
8. It doesn’t prescribe spiritual instruction per se.
9. It is to be observed very much with a “solemn” focus on “the LORD.”
10. It regulates the creation ordinance.
11. It is one of the Mosaic commands and laws.
12. It is a crucially important above all others.
13. It warrants death if broken.
14. It is “given” to Israel as if a gift.
15. It is a reminder of God’s covenant as Israel’s creator and redeemer.
16. It is to be kept because Israel have been redeemed into rest as God’s servants.
17. It signifies the perpetual rest to be enjoyed in Canaan.
18. It sets Israel apart from the nations.

Isaiah - A future requirement?

The primacy of the Sabbath is confirmed throughout the prophets. Breaking the command is representative of breaking the covenant, and the people are consistently called to “keep the Sabbath.” Two particular passages are however of note.

Isaiah 56:1-8

This passage comes in the context of Israel’s salvation after exile (chapter 52), the servant’s bearing of her infirmities (chapter 53), and an everlasting covenant on offer to those from the whole world (chapters 54-55). In short, it prophetically speaks of the new order found in Christ. And it is here that we see keeping the Sabbath as indicative of “holding fast my covenant” (56v4, 6). Pipa is adamant that this is sufficient to prove that the Sabbath command applies to the NT era.[31] However, this is not as conclusive as it might first seem. Such prophecies could only be given using the religious concepts of the day. This one also therefore declares that the foreigners who “join themselves to the LORD” will have “burnt offerings” and “sacrifices” that will be acceptable on God’s altar (v6-7). Now as this sort of cultic activity does not form part of the new covenant it is clear that the language of this prophecy is not to be taken literally. In other words, Isaiah is using the concepts that accompanied faithfulness under the Mosaic covenant to stress the faithfulness of those under the new. Moreover, in the shorter term this prophecy initially looked to the restoration of the Jews after the exile and declared God’s will for them. It is in this sense that its concepts are to be read literally.

Isaiah 58:13-14

Pipa gives considerable space to a discussion of these two verses. The same dual-fulfillment applies to them as to Isaiah 56 meaning that they should not be assumed to prove a new covenant Sabbath requirement. Nevertheless, they do say much about how the ideal Israelite Sabbath was to be conducted. And such details are important, because if the continuance of the Sabbath can be proved elsewhere, they could need to be applied to it.

Two activities are stressed: Negatively, one is not to do their own “pleasure,” which seems equivalent to “not going your own ways” and includes “not talking idly.” Positively, they are to “call the Sabbath a delight” which is also to “delight in the LORD.” And they are to “call it…honourable” which is to “honour the day” by not going your own ways.

The positive command is consistent with our findings so far. The day is a day for joyfully contemplating God and enjoying his world. Yet we are not given detail on exactly how this should be done. Pipa comments that when God sanctified something in the OT as holy “he set it aside from its everyday common use so that it might be used exclusively in worship.”[32] This definition of sanctification is of course right. However, Pipa’s idea of what constitutes worship is too narrow. He limits it to “spiritual exercises” defined as “worship, fellowship and Christian service.”[33] However, the Bible’s definition can encompass the entirety of life. Indeed, Israel were sanctified as a holy people, so their seven day a week existence actually fit this category. It is difficult then to invest the term “holy” with little more than to say the activities of the Sabbath were to be set-apart as different from the other six days in that it was to be free from work and particularly devoted to God.

As for the negative command. Pipa defines “pleasure” as doing “those things in which one delights.”[34] On this basis, he includes not only business and work, but also play in those activities that are prohibited. “Thus we profane the day by watching television, going to movies or ball games, or using the day for sports.”[35] Again, the only permissible pleasures for Pipa, should be “the peculiar spiritual pleasures of worship and service.”[36] The problem here is in this assumption that “pleasure” should be equated with otherwise permissible enjoyments. In reality, the context suggests “your own pleasure” refers to morally disobeying God. First, the entire chapter is about the contradiction between living an unrighteous life whilst still celebrating God’s feasts. Second, in verse 2 “delighting” in knowing God’s ways and drawing near to him is akin to “doing righteousness” and “not forsaking the LORD’s judgements.” Third, in verse 3-4 “seeking your own pleasure” is explicitly equated with “oppressing all your workers” and “quarrelling and fighting.” Fourth, though the prohibition on “talking idly” in verse 14 is uncertain, throughout the chapter the sinful talk of “quarrelling” (v4) and “speaking wickedness” (v9) has been highlighted. We must conclude then that Isaiah 58:13-14 is not forbidding all enjoyments on the Sabbath, it is forbidding sinful self-gratification, particularly by breaking the Sabbath’s requirements through causing others to work.[37] As Frame puts it: “The constraint in Isaiah 58:13-14 is not between doing pleasant things and unpleasant things, but between doing our will and God’s.”[38] Obviously sin is forbidden on every day. However just as the Sabbath is representative of covenant faithfulness, so it is the appropriate day to mention in asserting the need for righteousness.


Although we do not find clear evidence in Isaiah that the Sabbath should be binding under the new covenant, we do find his understanding of the day is remarkably similar to that already established. It is a day for delighting in the LORD. It is a day in which workers should not be oppressed and in which we should have a particular concern to live in righteousness. Yet beyond this, we are not given specific instructions on what is and is not permissible. Those who love God would undoubtedly make the most of the time to engage with him in public and private worship and faith development. But as long as it does not cause others to work, they are not forbidden from enjoying and honouring him in non-commercial sport or recreation, celebrating an event, having a nap or watching an appropriate film.[39] Indeed, these things could well enhance fellowship between God’s people and refresh individuals so that they are better able to worship and serve with the rest of their day and week. In short, they are matters of conscience and so the motive behind their use would be the determiner of whether or not they are acceptable.
Jesus – a concept reaffirmed?

Westerholm describes the development of the Sabbath up to the time of Christ as follows: "In the Second Temple period (515 B.C.–A.D. 70) the words of Scripture became the object of interpretation by legal experts (see Scribes). Their goal was to spell out the duties of God’s people by defining the terms and limits of God’s revealed commands. The Sabbath provided a significant challenge since, from this point of view, the faithful needed to know precisely what constituted the “work” which was to be avoided if the command was not to be transgressed. Lists were drawn up (Jub. 2:29–30; 50:6–13; CD 10:14–11:18). Scripture itself provided some guidelines. Fires were not to be lit (Ex 35:3). Burdens were not to be carried (Jer 17:21–22), though from this point of view the term “burden” now needed legal definition. Similarly, a general prohibition of travel could be derived from Isaiah 58:13 (and see Ex 16:29). When such a prohibition took on the force of a legal statute, it became necessary to define the limits of a legitimate journey (cf. a “sabbath day’s journey,” Acts 1:12). That sowing and reaping are forbidden could be based on Exodus 34:21 (cf. 16:25–30).

Further problems arose when the prohibition of work on the Sabbath was perceived to conflict with other commands or with considerations of practicality or prudence. The principle that the prohibition may be disregarded when human life is in danger became well established (see 1 Macc 2:29–41). The service of the Temple was conceded to take precedence over the Sabbath (cf. Num 28:9–10; 1 Chron 23:31), as was circumcision. The extent to which considerations of practicality were allowed to influence Sabbath regulations varied considerably with different interpreters.[40]There is no doubt that Jesus challenged the prevailing views of the Sabbath in his day. The issue for us is whether this was simply to correct misunderstanding or also to point to some sort of abrogation of the Sabbath itself that was taken up by the apostles too.

Matthew 12:1-14, Mark 2:23-3:6, Luke 6:1-11 cf. 14:1-6

Jesus certainly attended the synagogue on the Sabbath. However it is unclear whether this was to fulfil the requirement to gather or simply pragmatic. In the above passages however, we get the fullest insight into his understanding of the day.

In each instance the text is split into the events surrounding the disciples’ picking of grain on the Sabbath and those surrounding Jesus’ healing of a man. With regard to the former, Jesus’ justification is complex. First, he likens himself and his disciples to David and his followers who ate bread that it was not “lawful” for them to eat. Second, he likens his disciples serving him to the priests who “profane” the Sabbath as they serve in the temple. It is not therefore too unambiguous what Jesus means when he says: “something greater than the temple is here.” Third, quoting Hosea 6:6 he asserts the importance of faithfulness to God above mere legalistic adherence to the law. Jesus may be hinting here to his own divinity, not least because the temple was the place where God was present. However, even if this was not in mind, the Hosea reference is sufficient for Jesus to declare that his disciples were “guiltless.”

Fourth, the culmination of his argument is that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” The language “made for man” surely refers to Genesis 2:2-3 and so affirms the creation ordinance. The point seems to be that the Sabbath is not intended to be made into a burden but was to be a refreshing joy for man. It was to serve man not vice-versa. Moreover, as Son of Man, Jesus is the supreme and representative man who has authority as “lord” (cf. Dan 7:13-14) to interpret the Sabbath law correctly. This is born out by the context to the passage. The Matthew account is preceded by the call for all who “labor and are heavy laden” to find “rest for the souls” in Christ. Mark and Luke precede their accounts with Jesus’ teaching that new wine should not be put into old wineskins. So Jesus is giving a fresh understanding of the law that releases people from the legalistic burden of the scribal additions.
It is noteworthy that in responding to the Pharisees, Jesus just isn’t prepared to get into a debate about these scribal interpretations. Instead, by arguing from the law and prophets, he makes clear that his view of the Sabbath should not be novel. Rather, it is the true understanding born witness to by the scriptures themselves. Moreover, as he so often does, Jesus frames his argument in such a way that points to his significance as greater than David, the Temple and Adam. The point may be that just as Jesus’ supreme Adamic role qualifies him to interpret the creation ordinance, his supreme Davidic role qualifies him to interpret the application of the law, and his supreme Temple role, to interpreting the law itself.

What then does Jesus teach about the Sabbath? It is clear that he does not abrogate it because his teaching relies on the true understanding of the law. Yet he does not teach that it abides either. His interaction with the Jews on this matter is regarding the true Mosaic understanding, and so should not be assumed to be prescriptive for the church. As to this understanding, Jesus is clear that certain acts taking precedence over Sabbath observance. The issue is more than the commonly cited matters of necessity. The disciples could well have gone without picking the grain and so their act could hardly be said to be a necessity to offset starvation. The options before us therefore seem to be twofold: Either Jesus is simply challenging the Pharisaic legalism and showing that certain acts they forbid just don’t contradict the Sabbath law as God gave it, or he is arguing that service of the kingdom of God takes precedence over Sabbath rest.

In reality, both are probably implied. Both certainly stand for the healing that follows. There Jesus argues that it is always “lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” In other words, the law was never intended to prohibit its foundational principle of love, which is in turn the royal law of the kingdom. The event recorded in Luke 13:10-17 develops this idea further. There, the point is made that one of Jesus’ healings is not urgent (i.e. necessary) and could have been done on any other day. The suggestion is that all acts that lovingly serve the needy are omitted from the OT Sabbath prohibition. Some take this to mean that the Sabbath day should be given to doing such acts.[41] But that is not actually the point and veers towards the creation of yet another scribal addition. The point is simply that “good deeds” are permissible on that day. In other words, if there is no time to do them on other days, if the Sabbath is the most appropriate day, or if a need presents itself on it, there should be no hesitation about acting. Love, or “works of mercy,” take precedence.

John 5:1-18 cf. 7:21-24

A similar event is described here. This time, the Jews charge Jesus with wrong for telling the healed man to take up his bed and walk on the Sabbath. However, Jesus’ readiness to heal also seems to have been an issue with them (v15-16).

Jesus’ response is particularly intriguing: “My Father is working until now and I am working.” We should note first, that Jesus assumes the divine Sabbath of creation is everlasting; second, that Jesus exempts himself from keeping the Sabbath law only to the extent that God is exempted from the rest of his Sabbath.

It is interesting here that the Jews see Jesus’ claim to divinity as tied to his calling God his Father not to his being exempt from keeping the Sabbath. This may be because the exemption itself is not tied to his identity at all. Man was always to pattern his Sabbath observance of God’s Sabbath. So it would seem that man should be allowed to do whatever work on the Sabbath is equivalent to the work God does on his.

And again, we see the “work” Jesus is doing is the work of the kingdom. It is the giving of “life” (v21). It comprises the “works” that bear witness to him (v36), that is, his miraculous signs and the teaching that accompanies them (20:30-31). Although God continues his work of providence, it is the Father’s work of redemption that Jesus therefore focuses on here as having been continued since creation. And the suggestion is that this authorizes his people to do the same.

Matthew 24:20

As mentioned, we find little from Jesus that clearly states whether it should continue in the church – other than the fact that he does not abrogate it. Nevertheless, the above verse is held by some to suggest that Jesus expected the Sabbath to be observed in some way by the early church. Speaking privately to his disciples about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD, he adds: “Pray that your flight might not be… on the Sabbath.” This implies that the stipulation about a Sabbath journey would still stand.[42] However, this should not be taken as conclusive. Jesus could just be using the concept to make a rhetorical point. And seeing what we have, it is unlikely he would so readily sanction the scribal law about a Sabbath day’s journey.

Hebrews 3:7-4:14 – A goal clarified?

This is the great eschatological Sabbath passage. And it confirms all we have established so far. First, the quote from Psalm 95 itself speaks of God working redemptively whilst at the same time speaking of his rest (v9a, v11). Second, we learn that “the promise of entering his rest still stands.” In other words, just as Adam and Eve were to live enjoy God’s rest in Eden, just as Israel were to enjoy a type of it in Canaan (v8), so all God’s people are destined to enter it in the new creation to which these things point.[43]

We should note here that such an eschatological hope does not necessarily make Sabbath adherence obsolete now. Certainly, the typological Sabbath of Canaan and the weekly Sabbath linked to it are to an extent fulfilled in the revelation of Jesus and the Sabbath found in him. Yet Adam and Eve were to take a weekly Sabbath even though their whole lives were to be lived in God’s Sabbath. Likewise, Israel were to do the same whilst enjoying the typological Sabbath of Canaan. So the church now and perhaps even in the new creation, might still be required to take a Sabbath day despite partaking of God’s Sabbath in an ongoing sense. This is simply the pattern of work and rest inherent in our imaging our maker. Moreover, whilst we await the future Sabbath, there could still be a need to have a sign of it in a weekly Sabbath day.

None of this is of course explicit in Hebrews 4. Yet some do argue that verse 9 is more overt. It literally reads: “So then, there remains a sabbatismos for the people of God.” Though the noun “sabbatismos” is used nowhere else in scripture, its verbal forms is used in the LXX where it means “Sabbath-keeping” (Ex 16:30, Lev 23:32, 26:34).[44] Following some of the Puritans, Pipa comments that the writer of Hebrews uses this word rather than his usual word for rest to stress the need for continued Sabbath-keeping in the present. He even cites this as a “clear New Covenant instruction”[45] here. However most modern commentators see the reference as still being future. So one can hardly say that Pipa’s point is clear. Indeed, everything in the wider and immediate context is focused on our eschatological rest. More clearly then, the writer uses the phrase “Sabbath-keeping” to highlight this as the rest to which the Sabbath points. More than that, if we establish that there is no sense in which the Sabbath still stands, it could be the writer’s way of effectively saying that there is a Sabbath-keeping that does however apply, and that is the one to come.

The wider New Testament – A regulation abrogated?

Our study to this point has been detailed and long. A reading of the creation account and the Decalogue alone certainly suggests that keeping a Sabbath day might stand for Christians. Moreover, Jesus’ teaching does nothing to challenge this. Nevertheless, we have seen nothing in the New Testament itself that is conclusive on this matter.

To make matters more complicated, what the NT does leave us with are a combination of passages on one hand that suggest a possible abiding principle and a combination on the other that more strongly suggest the Sabbath’s complete abrogation.

The Lords’ Day

There are hints that the “first day of the wee k” was established during the apostolic era as the regular day for corporate worship (1 Cor 16:1-2, Acts 20:7). The Corinthian instance is particularly significant because it suggests that this was common practice elsewhere. The only other times the phrase is mentioned in the NT refer to Christ’s resurrection (Matt 28:1, Mk 16:2, 9, Lk 24:1, Jn 20:1, 19) making it extremely likely that it was this that governed the choice of day. We should note however that there are no explicit Sabbath inferences in it apart from the fact that the Sabbath was originally the day for corporate worship. Having said that, the resurrection day does have Sabbatical connotations. Just as the Israelite Sabbath was to remember creation and redemption, so the resurrection marked the completion (in potential) of Christ’s work of re-creation and redemption.

It seems that one component of gathering on this day was the sharing of “the Lord’s Supper” (Acts 20:7), and this concept may also be present in Luke’s resurrection account (Lk 24:1, 30). On Acts 20:7 Laansma writes:

The expression “to break bread” is not a typical Jewish expression for a meal (versus “to eat bread”) but is more likely a peculiar way of referring to the Lord’s Supper, in this case probably combined with an actual meal. This likelihood is increased by the combination of “to break bread” with “gathering” (cf. 1 Cor 11:20, 24; Did. 14.1; Ign. Eph. 20.2)[46]

The early establishment of a gathering on the first day of the week which included the Lord’s Supper helps us understand the enigmatic phrase “the Lord’s Day” used only in Revelation 1:10. Some argue it refers to Easter, others to the eschatological day of the Lord. We must accept that it is unclear. However the above does make the first day of the week most likely, and this has some corroboration in post-apostolic history.[47] We might also note that Easter as a day to be celebrated isn’t mentioned elsewhere in the NT, and that the eschatological day of the Lord is nowhere else described using the phrase “the Lord’s day.” Nor is it the initial focus of John’s vision.

As with the “first day of the week” we must also note that “the Lord’s day” has no explicit Sabbatical connotations, although it does imply a “day belonging to God” which, as we have seen throughout, is the sense of the Sabbath being “to the LORD.”[48]
A combination of scattered evidence therefore suggests that the first day of the week very quickly became “the Lord’s day” and comprised the gathering of God’s people and (at least on the occasion of Acts 2:7) the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Having said this, it is nowhere prescribed upon the church nor explicitly said to be the continuance of the Sabbath. Nevertheless the Sabbatical concepts of corporate gathering and holding the day in some way special to the Lord are present.

The days not to be observed

If this was all that was said, we might tentatively at least assume that the Lord’s Day in some way continues the Sabbath principle established by creation and developed in the law. However, where the Sabbatical concepts are only hinted at, the observance of the Sabbath and indeed of any day as especially holy seems to be clearly refuted. The three key passages read as follows:
“Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day - things which are a [mere] shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.” (Colossians 2:16-17)

“But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain.” (Galatians 4:9-11)

“One person regards one day above another, another regards every day [alike]. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God.” (Romans 14:5-6)

A number of things are here apparent: First, the Sabbath, under its Mosaic expression at least is no longer binding. That the seventh day Sabbath is in view in Colossians is clear from the use elsewhere of the threefold expression “festival, new moon and Sabbath.” They are a list of Israel’s feasts, of which, as we have seen, the Sabbath is pre-eminent (Hos 2:11, Ezek 45:17, 1 Chr 23:31, 2 Chr 2:4, 31:3). It just cannot be argued therefore that the term refers to Israel’s yearly Sabbath or some such thing. Now the failure to keep the Sabbath was a capital offence. Yet here it is something not to judge others over. It seems then that some Christians were expecting others to observe the Jewish Sabbath. Paul is clear; this is not necessary. Indeed, it is to look backwards.

Second, the Sabbath is said to be fulfilled not in the Lord’s day, but in Christ. This is important. We just have no clear indication that the first day of the week was to somehow be observed in the Sabbath’s place. Indeed, if it were, then why would the Jewish Christians keep observing the seventh day Sabbath too? And why doesn’t Paul use this understanding of Lord’s Day to refute them? Instead he simply asserts that the Sabbath is fulfilled in Jesus. The key question that remains is the extent to which this is the case. Some reason that it is fulfilled simply with respect to its strict significance, legislation and penalty – i.e. lessons 10-18 from our earlier list.[49] However, these things are not the essence of the law. Its essence is the call to rest one day out of seven as the Decalogue shows (Ex 20:8-11, Deut 5:12-15). And if we are to do justice to the general sense of Paul’s statement, we have to conclude that it is this that he says is no longer required – the Sabbath given at Sinai (Neh 9:13-14). The day was intended to move us to devotion to God and enjoyment of his creation. Yet in Christ, the Spirit moves us to live our entire lives in this way. Certainly there remains a pragmatic need for one day to be given to the gathering of God’s people and for time to be taken to recuperate when necessary. And the Lord’s Day may have developed to meet these needs. However such a day should not be seen as a Sabbath, because it is not required by God nor needed to foreshadow what we have in his Son.

Third, the requirement of Christians to observe “days” is unacceptable. It can hardly be argued in the context of the Jewish issues within the Galatian and Roman churches that the “days” referred to do not include the Sabbath. And in the Galatian passage the issue (as with Colossians) seems to be those who were requiring the observance of days – probably the Jewish festivals – in such a way that enslaved believers in legalism. Now we should note here that the principle is not bound to the specific “days” Paul had in mind. It is that such non-innately-moral regulations are inconsistent with the gospel of grace. In his dealing with our subject John Murray assumes the Sabbath as it is in the Decalogue nevertheless applies fully to Christians. He therefore has to conclude that we should hold no more loosely to it than to the command against adultery.[50] The implication of this of course, is that Christians should therefore refuse to be coerced by the government or their employer to work on Sundays, just as they should refuse to be coerced into sexual sin. Moreover, not to observe the Sabbath would suggest one’s salvation is in peril just as persistent sexual sin does (1 Cor 6:9-10). However, I cannot see how the giving of such weight to the observance of a “day” can be consistent with Paul’s teaching here. Indeed, if the Lord’s Day was so required we would expect to see its observance given a far higher prevalence just as the Sabbath is in the OT. Yet in all the reaffirmations of the Ten Commandments in the NT, the Sabbath is conspicuously absent (Matt 5:17-48, 19:18, Mk 10:19, Lk 18:20, Rom 1:18-32, 13:8-10, 1 Thes 1:9). Murray writes: “It would require the most conclusive evidence to establish the thesis that the fourth commandment is in a different category from the other nine.”[51] Yet it is just such evidence that we seem to have.

Fourth, every day should be devoted to God in the Sabbatical sense. The phrase “for the Lord” (Rom 14:5) strongly suggests the Sabbath, which was said to be “to the LORD,” was included in the issue facing the Roman church. And the Romans passage clearly shows that the issue was not Sabbath or Lord’s Day but Sabbath or every day. Moreover, the parallel with eating or not eating in the wider context portrays the observing of a particular day for the Lord as an accommodation to the weaker Brethren.[52] Again, the principle should not be narrowed to the Sabbath alone. The point is that our freedom in Christ means that every day should be held to the Lord, refuting any suggestion that the early church saw the Lord’s Day as basically Sabbatical.

Fifth, the observance of “days” is nevertheless permissible. This should not be missed in our debate. As long as Christian does not make observing the Lord’s Day a salvation issue, they are at liberty to observe it in a Sabbatical sense as long as they are convinced in their own mind that they should.


The NT evidence does seem fairly compelling. On one hand, though we see the idea of gathering for worship on a certain day carried through, we have no explicit reaffirmation of the Sabbath. And such a reaffirmation would be expected when one considers its centrality throughout the OT. On the other hand, we do have three passages that specifically seem to assume an abrogation of the law and of observing any “days.” We might add here that early church history supports these findings: Laansma argues that the Lord’s Day only became a day of rest in the third century.[53] And even Pipa concedes that we have no link between the Lord’s Day and the Sabbath until circa AD200.[54] Indeed, he writes: "though most did not immediately relate the Lord’s day worship to the Fourth Commandment, the early church believed that the day of worship and rest had been changed to the first day and came to think of this day as the Sabbath… By the fifth century, the Church was firmly committed to this high view of the Sabbath."[55]

Bearing this is mind, it is surprising how strongly Pipa and others assert that Sunday should be observed along the lines of the fourth commandment.

Harmony – a commended pattern.

As our study draws to an end we find ourselves with a dilemma. Much that we found in the OT suggested that the Sabbath would in some way apply. At the very least, it seemed on the pattern of creation that we should image God by taking one day in seven as rest from work in order to enjoy him and his world. Frame asserts this as the “chief biblical argument” for the continuance of the Sabbath principle.[56] Yet our NT study suggests that no such requirement is laid upon us. And we might add that observing a day in this way is next to impossible in a non-theocratic society. As in first century Rome or Athens, so today employers expect their Christian employees to work on a Sunday like everyone else. Frame locates this requirement as a matter of necessity that takes precedence over Sabbath observance; and that may be so. But, in a secular culture such a necessity effectively becomes a norm and so pretty much negates the idea of Sabbath itself.

The three possible harmonies that lie before us therefore seem to be these: First, that we conclude that the creation ordinances themselves are abrogated, whether by the fall or in Christ; second, that the Sabbath ordinance only is abrogated; third, that the Lord’s model of work and rest at creation is not a moral command per se, but more a commended pattern that only temporarily took the form of law.[57]

It would seem most difficult to follow the first option because it would imply that we no longer need to work, raise families or adhere to the pattern of marriage. Yet all three are strongly reaffirmed in the NT. Various arguments are made for the second option. Although he holds to a new first day Sabbath for Christians, the most intriguing comes from Edwards.[58] He highlights that the Christian is to live for the new creation and ultimately forget the old (Is 65:17-18). The seventh day Sabbath of Genesis 2:2-3 no longer therefore applies because its entire intent was to be a memorial of the first creation. This is difficult to refute other than to say the argument is by no means explicit in scripture, and that the reasoning behind the original Sabbath was more to do with imaging God than remembering his creation. 

Failing other alternatives, the third option therefore seems most biblically faithful. And to commend it is the fact that the Sabbath is not put in the form of a command in the Genesis account. The command is to fill and subdue the earth, and this, not the Lord’s Sabbath is the focus of our call to image him. The implication of the Sabbath for this imaging is more derived than stated. In other words, Genesis 2:2-3 is descriptive not prescriptive. Moreover, Nehemiah posits the revelation of the Sabbath itself on Sinai not at creation (Neh 9:13-14).[59] Although this could be said to simply refer to the Sabbath as regulated for Israel, it does suggest it was not binding previously. 

We can only conclude then, that there is no moral requirement for Christians to take one day in seven off from work in order to give particular time to enjoying God and his world. Nevertheless, it is commended to us where possible, primarily by God’s own example and secondarily by the practice of the apostolic church (which should not be discarded lightly even if it is not made binding). Moreover, taking the same day as other Christians is clearly preferable in order to facilitate corporate worship, and the church may therefore require it of us for the sake of church order. Furthermore, those who long to more deeply commune with God would want to take such a day to this end if at all possible, and more than one day if they could. Practically therefore, we suggest that the church should continue its two thousand year practice of gathering on Sunday as the Lord’s Day and encourage people if at all possible to utilize it as described. Nevertheless, what should be clear is that although regular church fellowship is required of the Christian, the day in which it is enjoyed just isn’t prescribed in scripture, nor is the cessation of work or any other activity on that day.

This is effectively Calvin’s position in the Institutes. He writes: "The sabbath being abrogated, there is still room among us, first, to assemble on stated days for the hearing of the Word, the breaking of the mystical bread, and public prayer; and, secondly, to give our servants and labourers relaxation from labour… Who can deny that both are equally applicable to us as to the Jews? Religious meetings are enjoined us by the word of God; their necessity, experience itself sufficiently demonstrates. But unless these meetings are stated, and have fixed days allotted to them, how can they be held? We must, as the apostle expresses it, do all things decently and in orders (1Co_14:40)… Spiritual wisdom undoubtedly deserves to have some portion of every day devoted to it. But if, owing to the weakness of many, daily meetings cannot be held, and charity will not allow us to exact more of them, why should we not adopt the rule which the will of God has obviously imposed upon us?
     …those days are observed by us without Judaism, because in this matter we differ widely from the Jews. We do not celebrate it with most minute formality, as a ceremony by which we imagine that a spiritual mystery is typified, but we adopt it as a necessary remedy for preserving order in the Church… I do not cling so to the number seven as to bring the Church under bondage to it, nor do I condemn churches for holding their meetings on other solemn days, provided they guard against superstition. This they will do if they employ those days merely for the observance of discipline and regular order. The whole may be thus summed up: As the truth was delivered typically to the Jews, so it is imparted to us without figure; first, that during our whole lives we may aim at a constant rest from our own works, in order that the Lord may work in us by his Spirit; secondly that every individual, as he has opportunity, may diligently exercise himself in private, in pious meditation on the works of God, and, at the same time, that all may observe the legitimate order appointed by the Church, for the hearing of the word, the administration of the sacraments, and public prayer: And, thirdly, that we may avoid oppressing those who are subject to us. In this way, we get quit of the trifling of the false prophets, who in later times instilled Jewish ideas into the people, alleging that nothing was abrogated but what was ceremonial in the commandment (this they term in their language the taxation of the seventh day), while the moral part remains, viz., the observance of one day in seven. But this is nothing else than to insult the Jews, by changing the day, and yet mentally attributing to it the same sanctity; thus retaining the same typical distinction of days as had place among the Jews. And of a truth, we see what profit they have made by such a doctrine… We must be careful, however, to observe the general doctrine, viz., in order that religion may neither be lost nor languish among us, we must diligently attend on our religious assemblies, and duly avail ourselves of those external aids which tend to promote the worship of God."[60]

As to how the day should be spent. Again, we must be careful of not becoming modern scribes and Pharisees. Our findings actually suggest we can do anything on the day, even work, as long as we don’t sin. However, if we want to take the Sabbath as a wise pattern, we might try to refrain from all work except those traditionally described as works of piety, necessity and mercy.[61]

Finally, we should note that all this does not mean that the Sabbath is in no way morally binding through Christ. It stresses the importance of devoting set time to enjoying God and his world (in whatever manner we choose) and of lovingly ensuring we give others time to do so too. It also teaches us the wisdom of taking rest, the nature of what it is to keep every day as “holy” to the Lord, the glory of the everlasting rest to come, and the importance of spiritual edification over worldly domination.

1. Bosman, Hendrick L. The New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, CD-ROM
2. Calvin, John. Genesis in The Penteteuch, (Grand Rapids, AP&A)
3. Calvin, John. Institutes: Volume 1, (Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1960)
4. Craigie, P C. The book of Deuteronomy: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1978)
5. Dumbrell, W J. Covenant and creation, (Carlisle, Paternoster, 1984)
6. Durham, John I. Exodus: Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Word, 1987)
7. Edwards, Jonathan. Works: Volume 2, (Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 1974)
8. Enns, Peter. Exodus: The New Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2000)
9. Frame, John. The Doctrine of the Christian Life: Chapters 1-3,
10. Laasnma, J C. “The Lord’s Day” in The Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments, CD-ROM, (Leicester, IVP)
11. Mackay, John L. Exodus: A Mentor Commentary, (Fearne, Christian Focus Publications, 2001)
12. Merrill, Unger F. “The significance of the Sabbath” in BSac
13. Milgrom, Jacob. Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary, (Philadelphia, The Jewish Publication Society, 1990)
14. Moo, Douglas. The Epistle to the Romans: The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1996)
15. Murray, John. Collected Writings of John Murray: Volume 1, (Ediburgh, Banner of Truth, 1976)
16. Pipa, Joseph A. The Lord’s Day, (Fearn, Christian Focus, 1997)
17. Turretin, Francois. Institutes of Eclentic Theology, (Phillipsburg, P&R, 1994)
18. Waltke, Bruce K. Genesis: A commentary, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2001)
19. Wenham, Gordon J. The book of Leviticus: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1979)
20. Wenham, Gordon. Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15, (Waco, Word Publishing, 1987)
21. Westerholm, S. “Sabbath” in The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels ,CD-ROM, (Leicester, IVP)
22. Wright, Christopher. Deuteronomy: New International Biblical Commentary, (Peabody, Handrickson Publishers, 1996)

Appendix: Essay Summary

Genesis: The principle here is to image God by filling and subduing for six days, and resting in completion of the week’s work on the seventh. This seems perpetual, at least until this form of work is finished at the return of Christ.

Exodus: Here for the sake of restraining sin until the time of the Spirit regulations are imposed. Not keeping the Sabbath is on pain of death. On it, the people must engage in worship, making offerings, ensuring they and those under them cease from all hints of work even down to the making of a fire. This is the first use of the title “Sabbath” and is a special sign of the people being set-apart from the nations to be holy and so obedient to the Lord, and of the need for them to set-apart time from business to be devoted to the Lord.

Jesus: He does not abrogate the Mosaic Sabbath so much as correct abuses. He affirms it “is made for man” echoing Genesis and challenges its over-regulation according simply to the commands of man. In this, he affirms that works of necessity and mercy are appropriate on that day when required. It is difficult to grasp how he intends the Sabbath be expressed to the new covenant church other than the principle of greater adherence to the spirit rather than the mere letter of the law. This would suggest the Sabbath points to an everyday willingness to make time for devotion to God, to enjoying his creation and mercifully look out for those who under oppression are prevented from doing such things.

Paul: It is clear that Paul sees the Jewish Sabbath as abrogated in Christ. The issue is to what extent. The only answers we are given are (a) the extent to which it was a shadow (b) the extent to which it was a guardian. It was a shadow in teaching the need to set-apart for obedience to the Lord and in terms of its accompanying rituals. Now however, the crucified old self is set-apart in this way and offers the body as a living sacrifice. It was a guardian in the sense that it held such a strong penalty and perhaps also in its strict requirements. Now however, by the Spirit we give up activity to devote ourselves to worship without legal coercion or compulsion. Where does this leave us? Pretty much back at Genesis again, with a pattern of a day a week to cease from work, enjoy God’s creation and worship him, morally binding in the same sense that the creation mandate is, but providing practical opportunity for these things more than coercing or compelling us to them.

Other: There is sufficient evidence to conclude that the early church held the first day of the week, resurrection day, as “the Lord’s day,” that is, a day set-apart to him. However we must note a number of things: (1) It is never described as a Sabbath, perhaps suggesting its distinctiveness from the Mosaic Sabbath with its signification and regulation. (2) It is not presented as an alternative to the Jewish Sabbath in controversies where Christians were holding to the latter, perhaps again emphasizing this distinctiveness. (3) We are not told of any requirement to rest, perhaps because the lack of Theocracy meant that Christians couldn’t ensure they were not required to work on the first day by their masters. (4) The holding of one day as special to the Lord rather than all days is specifically described as a disputable matter and so non-moral. (5) Hebrews 4v9 seems to suggest that the Sabbath rest that does in fact remain for the people of God is that of God’s their eventual rest from the works of faith, perhaps implying that there is in fact no temporary “Sabbath” for Christians.

Conclusions: (1) All humanity are commended by God’s example to take a day a week for worship and rest. (2) Whereas the creation mandate is morally binding, this day a week is a non-binding but wise pattern. (3) It doesn’t therefore require the strict regulation it did under theocracy and old covenant. (4) However the example of the apostles and early church suggest Sunday is the most appropriate day because it celebrates the resurrection. (5) It is unwise to describe it as the Sabbath because this confuses it with the more binding Jewish festival.

This view it seems is pretty much Calvin’s. The wise principle remains, but the strict requirement doesn’t. The motivation is love for God and man not judicial threat.

We must work out the details then according to the loving principles enshrined in the commandments. Eg. I can see no reason why basic everyday acts of cooking etc should not now be performed on this day where necessary. However, if it meant you really can’t properly rest or get to church, a loving desire (rather than a legalistic regulation) to properly worship on that day and recuperate in order to serve God would cause you to prepare food beforehand. Likewise, it should be a loving concern (rather than legalistic requirement) not to contribute to a 24/7 work culture or potentially cause Christians to increasingly be required to work on this day that should motivate us not to shop or require the official work of others on Sundays. The occasional purchase of something we suddenly need however would not contribute in any measurable way and so would not be a problem.

In short, with anything we consider doing on the Lord’s day we should ask: (1) Will it contribute or detract from my truly resting and worshipping God today? (2) Will it potentially keep others from doing so.

Problem: This is that we see Genesis 2 giving the pattern for the Lord’s day, but suggest the NT is unwilling to call the latter a Sabbath. However, it is undeniable that Genesis 2 is a Sabbath. The wording of the fourth commandment suggests it, and Hebrews 4 pretty much states it by equating God’s rest in Genesis 2 with the Sabbath rest that remains for the people of God. The only reasonable solution is to say that the NT refrains from using the word not because the Lord’s Day isn’t a Sabbath (after all it is a day for resting), but because of a desire not to confuse it with the Sabbath under the Mosaic dispensation.

The question that follows however is this: If God’s rest is the Sabbath rest which remains for the people of God, how can we say the Lord’s Day is a Sabbath rest at all rather than just a useful and significant day to meet for worship? We could say that it is the fulfilment of the Mosaic Sabbath and so in that sense is the Sabbath rest that remains in fulfilment of all Mosaic components. However Hebrews 4 portrays it as fulfilment of the Genesis Sabbath. Perhaps then we can say only that Genesis 2 as moral requirement is fulfilled only in the new creation, whereas Genesis 2 as wise pattern has been adopted by the church as the Lord’s Day. Alternatively, we might say that Genesis 2 has both a temporal and typological dimension. Temporally it provides a morally binding pattern for us. Typologically it points to everlasting rest. And the two are linked. As we enjoy its temporal aspect we taste something of its typological fulfilment. This means that the phrase “there remains then a Sabbath rest for the people of God” does not imply there is no other sense in which the church enjoys a Sabbath rest. But only that there remains one not yet experienced – the new creation.

Key questions therefore revolve around Genesis 2. Does new creation inaugurated eschatology effectively abrogate the moral requirement of the creation mandate?

[1] Bosman, Hendrick L. The New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, CD-ROM

[2] Wenham., Gordon. Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15, (Waco, Word Publishing, 1987), p.35

[3] See discussion below on Hebrews 3-4

[4] Dumbrell, W J. Covenant and creation, (Carlisle, Paternoster, 1984), p.122

[5] Calvin, John. Genesis in The Penteteuch, (Grand Rapids, AP&A), p.15

[6] There is an interesting parallel here with the fact that works of necessity and mercy are allowed on the Sabbath day. It is as if our everyday work in filling and subduing corresponds with God’s work of creation, and our works of necessity and mercy with his works of providence and redemption respectively.

[7] The implications for the Sabbath limiting human productivity is particularly interesting here, because it forces us to remember and rely on God as our ultimate provider.

[8] Frame speculates that the Sabbath may continue in the new creation. This may well be the case if some aspects of filling and subduing continue there as Isaiah 65:17ff seems to suggest. Indeed, having a perpetual time for remembering God as our creator in the new creation would seem no less necessary than it was in Eden.

[9] Waltke, Bruce K. Genesis: A commentary, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2001), p.67

[10] Frame, John. The Doctrine of the Christian Life: Chapters 1-3, p.486

[11] Calvin, Op Cit, p.16

[12] Durham, John I. Exodus: Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Word, 1987), p.289

[13] That of Exodus 16 could be in mind, but is not of sufficient prominence to be referred back to in the Decalogue itself.

[14] Wives are it seems assumed to be included. Some suggest they are not mentioned because they were still expected to work! But it is highly unlikely that wives would be permitted to work to ‘keep the home’ but not slaves on their behalf.

[15] Craigie, P C. The Book of Deuteronomy: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1978), p.157

[16] Wright, Christopher. Deuteronomy: New International Biblical Commentary, (Peabody, Handrickson Publishers, 1996), p.74

[17] Mackay, John L. Exodus: A Mentor Commentary, (Fearne, Christian Focus Publications, 2001), p.517 See also Durham, Op Cit, p.412-413

[18] Ibid, p.518

[19] Bosman, Hendrick L. Op Cit.

[20] Wenham, Gordon J. The book of Leviticus: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1979), p.301

[21] Ibid, p.301


[23] In Contemporary Worship Music (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1997), 59-61, I argue that there is a great difference between worship and entertainment, both in regard to goal and means. Nevertheless, there is some overlap in the values of these two spheres. Both worship and entertainment require clear communication, good preparation, skillful musicians, emotional impact, memorability, positive social interaction, welcome.

[24] Frame, John. The Doctrine of the Christian Life: Chapters 1-3, p.506

[25] Milgrom, Jacob. Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary, (Philadelphia, The Jewish Publication Society, 1990), p.409

[26] Durham, Op Cit, p.225

[27] Mackay, Op Cit, p.579

[28] Ibid, p.579-580, see also Enns, Peter. Exodus: The New Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2000), p.545-546

[29] Milgrom, op Cit, p.408

[30] Ibid, p.410

[31] Pipa, Joseph A. The Lord’s Day, (Fearn, Christian Focus, 1997), p.16

[32] Ibid, p.17

[33] Ibid, p.19

[34] Ibid, p.18

[35] Ibid, p.21

[36] Ibid, p.21

[37] The Jewish scribes even find a prohibition on travel in Isaiah 58v13a and Exodus 16:29. But this hardly fits the intent of either of these passages.

[38] Frame, Op Cit, p.505

[39] Ibid, p.486

[40] Westerholm, S. “Sabbath” in The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels ,CD-ROM, (Leicester, IVP)

[41] Pipa, Op Cit, p.179-180

[42] Edwards, Jonathan. Works: Volume 2, (Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 1974), p.96

[43] There is a good case for holding that v10 refers not to believers, but to Christ’s entering the rest of heaven having completed his works here. Nevertheless, v11 is clear that we are to strive to follow. So v10 (Christ), v11 (us) parallels v14a (Christ), v14b (us).

[44] Pipa, Op Cit, p.117

[45] Ibid, p.118

[46] Laasnma, J C. “The Lord’s Day” in The Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments, CD-ROM, (Leicester, IVP)

[47] Ibid

[48] This may seem explicit in an English translation of Isaiah 58:13 which refers to the Sabbath as “a holy day of the Lord” i.e. “a holy Lord’s day.” However the LXX reads simply: “holy to God” omitting the word day. Whereas Rev 1:10 actually reads “day of the Lord.”

[49] Murray, John. Collected Writings of John Murray: Volume 1, (Ediburgh, Banner of Truth, 1976), p.207, see also Turretin, Francois. Institutes of Eclentic Theology, (Phillipsburg, P&R, 1994), p.88

[50] Murray, Op Cit, p.212

[51] Ibid, p.207

[52] Moo, Douglas. The Epistle to the Romans: The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1996), p.842

[53] Laansma, Op Cit

[54] Pipa, Op Cit, p.136

[55] Ibid, p.139

[56] Frame, Op Cit, p.495

[57] A further argument is that Genesis 2:2-3 is an aside that explains the later institution of the Sabbath under Moses. However Exodus 20:11 is clear that the blessing of the Sabbath came prior to the Decalogue.

[58] Edwards, Op Cit, p.98 He also argues that the OT teaches we should no longer remember the Exodus which the Sabbath also became a memorial of (Jer 16:14f) – p.98. However the entire NT remembers it in some way.

[59] Ibid, p. 96

[60] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, E-Sword, Public Domain

[61] Murray, Op Cit, p.213