A Brief History of the Sabbath

With an eye to establishing its significance for the Church in the light of Christ

© 1997 by William J. Baldwin

The Sabbath Establishes a Creation Ordinance

This is a standard observation and it's worth making. God's final work of creation is to rest from all the work that he has done. The Sabbath is rooted in creation itself by God's own example. This institution cannot be done away with, even by the Fall of man or by the different covenants by which God administered his grace. For the force of this argument, consider the creation ordinances:

1) Marriage. Marriage is clearly a natural institution, one that survives the Fall and endures through the different administrations of God's grace. Moses teaches us how to understand this creation ordinance: "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). He takes it for granted that God's creating the woman out of the man is a story with a moral. Jesus makes the same assumption when questioned about the propriety of divorce:

Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate. (Matthew 19:4-6)

The story of how God created man establishes an institution, an ordinance, an obligation. This must teach us how to understand all creation ordinances. It is equally necessary for us to hear that God rested on the 7th day and to conclude: "Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh is a Sabbath to the Lord your God" (Exodus 20:9).

2) Childbearing. God tells the man and woman to "be fruitful and multiply" that they may have dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:28). Again, no one argues that childbearing must cease after the Fall or in any of God's covenants.

3) Work. God put man in the garden to tend and keep it (Genesis 2:15). Man's original creation mandate from God is to work. For help in this, Marriage is established so he may have a suitable helper. And Childbearing is commanded so the work may expand to fill and subdue the whole earth. All these things are definitely affected by the Fall, but none of them is taken away.

4) Rest. Consider: We have Marriage and Childbearing, Work and . . . Rest. What is childbearing without marriage? What is work without rest? You need both. It is natural and necessary that this ordinance should continue as well.

The Sabbath Makes a Perpetual Moral Obligation

The usual argument against a Christian Sabbath rests on a false assumption: namely, that the Sabbath was instituted under Moses as a part of the ceremonial law of Israel. If this were so, that would indeed warrant the conclusion that the Sabbath has been abrogated. We have established above that the Sabbath in fact was established at creation. We can further establish that the Sabbath is not only rooted in creation, it is a tenet of God's unchanging law.

The fourth commandment requires the people of Israel to "remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy" by working six days and resting the seventh (Exodus 20:8). And we will consider this in a moment in the context of the Mosaic law. But consider it first in a broader context, the moral law. Look at the company it keeps: You shall have no other gods before me, you shall not make idols, you shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, honor your father and mother, you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness, you shall not covet. Does the New Covenant repeal this standard, making us free to murder and fornicate and steal and lie and spit in the face of God? We shudder to think that and cry out to God to deliver us from these and all evils to which we are tempted.

Adam would have clearly understood his obligation in all these regards. Creation clearly reveals God's standard (Romans 1:18ff.) and, before sin, Adam would have had no reason to suppress the truth in unrighteousness. That is, he knew from the beginning not to murder or to lie or to worship another God. He knew as well, then, that a portion of his time ought to be set aside to rest and worship God. But apart from special revelation, he would not know the length of time of worship or the interval between those times.

Perhaps an analogy between the 4th and the 2nd commandment will help. The 2nd requires that we not make idols, i.e. that we not worship God according to our own imaginations but only as he has instituted in his word. So Adam would not have known from creation how God ought to be worship. But he would have known the 2nd commandment required him to seek God to discover how he ought to be worshiped. In the same way, he would know that "a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God" (Westminster Confession of Faith 21.7) and would have sought God to discover what proportion of time that was.

When God rested on the seventh day, he answered that question. He blessed the seventh day and made it holy. This is more than simply making one day in seven holy. He made the seventh day holy. And he revealed that fact to Adam.

Clearly the question cannot be should the Christian seek to remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy? That's like asking if the Christian ought to abstain from murder. The question must be what proportion of time are we to remember and how? (And, getting ahead of ourselves, seeing how the commandment was kept under Moses does not answer the question. They worshiped very differently in the days of Moses, even though they had the same 2nd commandment we do today.)

The Sabbath Established for the Sake of Man

When God rested from his work of creation, it was not because he was tired. He did it for Adam's sake and ours. He knew that Adam was a creature of dust who would grow weary if he did not rest. The Sabbath was for his good.

Through that rest, God invited Adam to worship him. Yet God is not worshiped by men's hands, as though he needed anything. He himself gives life and breath to all. But we live and move and have our being in him (Acts 17:24ff). We need to worship God; we were created for that very purpose. So again, the Sabbath was for Adam's benefit.

As Jesus said, "The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). Yet so many wish to discard this ordinance, or, seeking to keep it, they saddle it with extra-Biblical requirements and a legalistic strictness. It is unfortunate that, of all God's ordinances, we should be most willing to pervert the one that was given specifically for our benefit.

The Sabbath Establishes a Covenant between God and Adam

The Sabbath is a creation ordinance. It is a moral requirement. And it is for our good. Any of these would be enough to establish the necessity of keeping it. Yet even when taken together, these three reasons do not exhaust the meaning of that original Sabbath. This is the basic meaning: God, in resting on the 7th day, extended to Adam an offer that he might enter into that rest forever. In other words, the Sabbath established the covenant of works. The Sabbath says to Adam, come and enter my rest. It says to him, I have worked and now I rest; if you work, you will rest.

This is the unargued presupposition of Hebrews 4:3-6a.1 Read through it cold and see what kind of sense it makes:

For we who have believed do enter that rest, as He has said:

"So I swore in My wrath,

'They shall not enter My rest,' "

although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. 4For He has spoken in a certain place of the seventh day in this way: "And God rested on the seventh day from all His works"; 5and again in this place: "They shall not enter My rest." 6Since therefore it remains that some must enter it....

What on earth is going on here? Try inserting the thought offered above: When God rested on the 7th day, he extended a promise of rest to his people. Here's how it would read then:

For we who have believed do enter that rest, as He has said:

"So I swore in My wrath,

'They shall not enter My rest,' "

[Even though by resting on the 7th day he made an offer of rest.] 4For He has spoken in a certain place of the seventh day in this way: "[And God made an offer of rest by resting on the 7th day]"; 5and again in this place: "They shall not enter My rest." 6Since therefore it remains that some must enter it....

Do you see the argument? 1) God's Sabbath made an offer of rest. 2) Unbelievers may not enter it. Conclusion) Therefore it is believers who enter that rest.2

So the Sabbath invited Adam up into the heavenly rest. It was the testimony to him that God had made a covenant with him, upon condition of perfect obedience, to confirm the work of Adam's hands and establish Adam in a righteousness from which he could never fall.

The Sabbath Promise is Re-Extended after the Fall on Condition of Faith

So we might conclude that the meaning of the Sabbath disappeared when Adam forfeited his right to enter God's heavenly rest. Even if that were so, the moral requirement would necessarily remain.

However, there would hardly be an incentive to keep the Sabbath if all its promissory elements had disappeared. Adam and Eve and their posterity, if they broke the Sabbath in such a condition, would be like the Death Row inmate who kills a guard. What has he got to lose?

But God did not leave Adam in that desperate situation. He descended from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and the trumpet of God. He came as the Spirit of the Day3 of the Lord. Yet he did not end history and bring in the final judgment. He came with a curse, and in the middle of that curse, he inserted a blessing. To the serpent, he says, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel" (Genesis 3:15). There it is, the glorious gospel of Christ. The serpent shall not have the last laugh. He shall be crushed by the seed of the woman, Jesus the Savior. That seed will be the second Adam; he will restore everything that Adam lost.

Understanding this, laying hold of the promise by faith, Adam renames the woman, "Eve [Life], because she was the mother of all living" (Genesis 3:20). The "living" are those who enter eternal life, the heavenly Sabbath rest of God. In this faith, Adam and Eve continue the creation ordinance of marriage. They continue as well the ordinance of childbearing. Eve, bearing Cain, says, "I have begotten a man, the Lord,"4 expressing her hope that the promised seed had come. And they continue to work according to God's appointment.

Clearly, even if it is not mentioned, the hope of that Sabbath rest continues. But it is mentioned. Eight generations later, Lamech bears a son and, remembering the promise, names him Noah, i.e. "Rest." "This one will comfort [give us rest] concerning our work and the toil of our hands, because of the ground which the Lord has cursed" (Genesis 5:28). Surely, with such a promise of rest, they would have continued to celebrate the day on which that rest was offered. This would be a symbol of Lamech's hope, that they had not forfeited forever that which the Sabbath represented.

Man's Ability to Rest on the Sabbath Compromised in the Fall

The Fall plunged mankind into futility. No longer could he work and expect to stand back and admire the work of his hands and say, "That's done." But thistles and thorns would rise up and thwart the very work of gardening for which Adam was created. Thus, emergencies and obstacles to rest might arise. Adam would not be able to enjoy the Sabbath day as fully as he would have in Paradise. There he would have rested and worshiped peacefully, knowing that all his work had been good and it would stay good until it was time to work again. After the Fall, things went wrong. And those things might require his attention, even on the Sabbath. If his ox fell into a ditch, Adam would have to pull him out. Nevertheless, these things would have been regarded as intrusions. The desire to keep the Sabbath would always have been there. And Adam and his posterity would have known that God called them to keep it as faithfully as possible.

The Sabbath Seals a Covenant between God and Israel

This is not always recognized, even though Scripture states it plainly.

Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. 17'It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.

Exodus 31:16,17

I suspect that many Sabbatarians prefer to ignore this aspect of the Sabbath because it provides an argument for the opposition: If the Sabbath is a sign of the Mosaic covenant, it has disappeared with the end of that administration.

Three observations on that score: 1) Considering the wealth of evidence above, a single, simplistic argument cannot relieve us of every obligation with respect to the 4th commandment. 2) If we ignore this aspect of the Sabbath-that it is the sign of the Old Covenant-we are in danger of misunderstanding the entire doctrine, because 3) The "opposition" argument cited in the previous paragraph is almost exactly right: Inasmuch as the Sabbath is a sign of the Mosaic covenant, it has disappeared with the end of that administration.

The Sabbath did double duty in the Garden of Eden. As a creation ordinance, it was a moral obligation created for Adam's good. But it also signified and established the covenant between God and Adam. When Adam fell, that second duty became moot; Adam had forfeited any right to enter God's rest on the basis of that covenant. But the creation ordinance establishing a moral obligation for his good remained.

From (post-Fall) Adam to Moses, the Sabbath did that single duty. As of Moses, it took on a second duty again, signifying the Mosaic covenant to the people of God.5 It is vital, then, that we distinguish between the ceremonial elements of Sabbath rest that pertain only to the Mosaic covenant, and the absolute elements that pertain in any administration.

The Sabbath Takes on the Mosaic Veil (Typology and Severity)

Paul reminds us of how Moses looked on God and had to veil his face lest the reflected glory, "the end of what was passing away," prove too much for the people. He speaks in that context of the glory of God being veiled in the Old Covenant, which was a "ministry of death." He says in the New Covenant, we all look "with unveiled face" at the glory of the Lord, revealed in Christ our Savior (2 Corinthians 3:7ff). So a description of the difference between the Mosaic and the New Testament Sabbaths must take into account this veil. The veil descends in two particulars: typology and severity.

1) Typology. The Mosaic covenant was a typological covenant. The Promised Land was a picture of eternal life. The tabernacle, the temple, and especially the Holy of Holies within the temple, were pictures of heaven. And the sacrifices were pictures of Christ. Their (imperfect) obedience to the Law, by which they retained the Land, was a picture of the perfect obedience of Christ-the true Israel and the 2nd Adam-by which he obtained eternal life. Consequently, the rest in which the Israelites engaged on the Sabbath emphasized the typological as well. That is to say, it emphasized physical rest, the rest of the body. This was a picture of the rest attained when one enters into the worship of God in heaven. This bodily rest was worship, properly offered to God. Our bodily rest on the Lord's Day does not seem to me so much an act of worship in its own right. Rather, we abstain from worldly labors in order to enter into the heavenly rest by faith, through corporate and individual worship.6

John Owen is very helpful here in volume 2 of his Commentary on Hebrews:

[The Sabbath] was made a part of their law for religious worship in their typical [what I mean by "typological"] church-state; in which and whereby the whole dispensation of the covenant which they were under was directed to other ends. And so it had the nature of a shadow, representing the good things to come, whereby the people were to be relieved from the rigour and curse of the whole law as a covenant. And on these reasons new commands were given for the observation of the Sabbath, and new motives, ends, and uses were added thereunto.... (p.392).

2) Severity. The whole Mosaic Law, as a ministry of death and condemnation, had an aspect of severity to it that is lifted in the bringing in of the new covenant. As a typological republication of the covenant of works, the Law naturally emphasized the no-mistakes-allowed aspect of that original covenant with Adam. The Sabbath, as a sign of that covenant, partakes of this severity. The children of Israel find a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath. They ask Moses and Aaron what to do. Moses consults God and receives this reply: "The man must surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp" (Numbers 15:35). No second chances. No opportunity for repentance (of a sort that would retain his earthly life). No mercy.

And this is simply a faithful application of the character God imparts to the Sabbath when he makes it a sign of the Mosaic covenant: "You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people" (Exodus 31:14).

Again, I'll allow John Owen the last word:

Hence was the sanction of the transgression of [the Law] to be punished with death. So was it in particular with respect unto the Sabbath, Numbers. xv. 32-36, partly that it might represent unto them the original sanction of the whole law as a covenant of works, and partly to keep that stubborn people by this severity within due bounds of government.... This also made the Sabbath a yoke and a burden, that wherein their consciences could never find perfect rest. And in this sense also it is abolished and taken away.... [I]t was a yoke and burden to the people, because that dispensation of the law gendered unto bondage, Gal. iv.24; for it begot a spirit of fear and bondage in all that were its children and subject unto its power. (p. 392,402).

Jesus Establishes the Meaning of the Sabbath as He Prepares to Lift the Veil

A minister I know-who did not acknowledge the previous point-used to defend the continuing obligation of the 4th commandment by noting that Jesus taught more on the 4th commandment than on any of the others. This is true. He also taught differently on this commandment than on any of the others. He defends his disciples for "working" (by threshing grain in their fingers) on the Sabbath. This is a work of necessity, he says. He defends himself for healing a man on the Sabbath. It is a work of mercy. Indeed he ironically chides the pharisees because they would have mercy on an ox that had fallen into a ditch, but won't let him have mercy on a man with a withered hand.

Jesus doesn't do this with respect to any other of the commandments. He doesn't need to. Only the Sabbath command has been impressed into this double duty where it also signifies the typology and severity of a covenant that is passing away. And Jesus is therefore removing all the typology and severity. He is preparing the people of God to enter the glorious freedom of the New Covenant, not by teaching them to be Sabbath breakers, but by teaching them how to use the Sabbath as grownups for whom it was made rather than as slaves to it.

The Resurrection Brings True Sabbath Rest

When Jesus rose again from the dead, he rose into a new life, into a new creation, into the realm of the Spirit, into heaven itself. He had completed his task as the 2nd Adam, a task in which the 1st Adam had failed. He had worked and now his work was finished. And like God at the end of creation, he contemplated his work which he had done. And it was all very good. And he rested. He entered into that heavenly rest, forfeited by Adam, but promised again to the seed of the woman. Everything that the Sabbath had held out to Adam was gained by Christ when he rose again from the dead.

The Day of Sabbath Rest Changed to Commemorate the Resurrection

For this reason it was not only proper but necessary to change the day on which the people of God rested. God rested on the 7th day and blessed and sanctified it. Jesus rested on the 1st day, having inaugurated a new creation. This act is as authoritative as the original 7th day act of God. It is clear that Jesus' act has the effect of consecrating a new day for rest and worship for three reasons:

1) The Gospel writers all see fit to mention that it was on "the first day of the week" that Jesus rose again from the dead. This is hardly accidental. Their culture, unlike ours, did not have a fussy preoccupation with time. In other words, they are not just "setting the scene" like some ancient voice-over of Sergeant Joe Friday: "Sunday. 5 a.m. Still dark." They never mention that something happened on a Tuesday. So to mention the day is to suggest it has some significance.

2) The book of Acts tells us that significance. It mentions several times that the early church met to worship "on the first day of the week." Again, this is not setting the scene. If it weren't significant, Luke wouldn't tell us. Specific acts of worship-the apostles' teaching, the breaking of bread, fellowship, and prayer-are assigned to that day.

3) Paul, as well, assigns a specific act of worship to the first day of the week: "Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also: 2On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside" (1 Corinthians 16:1,2). Philo and Josephus (Paul's unbelieving contemporaries) tell us that taking a collection was part of the synagogue worship. Paul has here "given orders" that this act of worship ought to be done on the new day. It is as clear as if he had said, "The first day is now the day of rest and worship."

This day change is perfectly possible, by the way, because there is nothing inherent in the moral requirement of the Sabbath (the 1st use) that specifies a certain day (or even the interval of one in seven).

The Sabbath Grows Up

Or, really, the Church grows up. We are no longer slaves, but sons and heirs. We are no longer under a yoke of bondage (Galatians 4:7,5:1). And this changes the way we interact with the 4th commandment:

The Moral Obligation Remains-This should be obvious, but it needs to be said. God's character has not changed. His people are still required-indeed, invited-to come and rest and worship.

But the Sabbath Loses the Mosaic Veil (Typology and Severity)-Bodily rest is no longer the emphasis; spiritual rest-the preaching of the word, sacraments, prayer, and fellowship-is. And it is no longer a sin requiring death (or excommunication) to pick up sticks on the Sabbath or to light a fire.

Requiring 7th Day Observance Becomes a Symbol for that Veil-This is the significance of the trio of verses usually leveled against the thought that an obligation to the 4th commandment remains.

Galatians 4:9,11: "But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? 10You observe days and months and seasons and years. 11I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain."

Romans 14:6: "He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks."

Colossians 2:16,17: "So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, 17which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ."

In essence, these verses are all saying that the Mosaic veil has been lifted and all of its ceremonies are no longer required, including its Sabbath. Note well, if you say these refer to having any day set aside, you prove too much. For then we must also say the Church may not insist on Baptism (a ceremonial ritual) or the Lord's Supper (ceremonial food and drink).

Free Children Receive Greater Discretion in Pursuing the Day's Purpose-This is a consequence of the lifting of the Mosaic veil. It does not mean that we are encouraged to break the 4th commandment. But it means that the purpose of the day-entering the heavenly rest by faith in worship-is commended to us and we are encouraged to seek that out according to the will of God. This means that I do not-and must not-come to you with a long list of don'ts concerning this day. What I must commend to you is the purpose and meaning of the day that you may love it and seek it. And I commend your consciences to God not to cheat yourselves of the smallest of the day's blessings.

The Christian Sabbath Inaugurates Actual Entrance into that Rest

This is the "2nd" use of the Sabbath again. The 7th day Sabbath was a moral requirement and, additionally, a sign of the covenant of works and the Mosaic covenant. In the same way, the Lord's Day is a sign of the New Covenant. But unlike those old signs, which spoke of the future, the Lord's Day speaks of the present-the eschatologically present, if you'll permit me to be pretentious for a moment.7 On this day, you don't look forward to what will happen, you enter into what has. The book of Hebrews is your manual on what this means. Here is it's own summary: "But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, 23to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, 24to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel" (Hebrews 12:22ff). This is what happens each Lord's Day as by faith you go up to heaven to the eternal rest where Christ is.

The Sabbath Will Consummate that Rest when Jesus Appears

The only thing that remains is for faith to become sight. This will occur when our Lord returns to bring us, body and soul, into his blessed presence, his eternal rest. Amen! Come quickly, Lord Jesus.


  1. A bit of pedantry here: "Unargued" does not mean nobody argues about it. It means the writer assumes something which he does not prove by reason. If I say, "All men are mortal; therefore Socrates is mortal", I have two unargued premises: 1) All men are mortal. I don't prove this with reason, I state it as a fact. 2) Socrates is a man. I don't state this at all, yet the argument collapses if it is not true. It is this second kind of premise-unstated and therefore unargued-that we're hunting down in Hebrews 4. [Return to Text]

  2. A second unargued premise is also necessary. Namely, that when Adam forfeited his right to enter that rest by his own works, God re-extended the offer upon another condition. That premise will be taken up a little later. [Return to Text]

  3. The correct translation of "cool of the day" in Genesis 3:8. [Return to Text]

  4. Again, the correct translation of a frequently mistranslated verse. [Return to Text]

  5. Interestingly, the warrant for this is that God created the earth in six days and rested the 7th. This is yet another argument that the Mosaic covenant is a republication of the covenant of works. [Return to Text]

  6. This is all with respect to the "2nd use" of the Sabbath. (Hey! I invented a new term.) That is with the Sabbath as it signifies a covenant between God and his people. With regard to the 1st use, the moral, the Sabbath is given to us to allow us to rest our bodies physically. So please feel free to take a nap, but not during your exercise of the 2nd use (i.e. in church). [Return to Text]

  7. Like you can stop me. [Return to Text]

By William J. Baldwin © 1997

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