The Sabbath as a Creation Ordinance
Joseph A. Pipa, Jr.
From the time of the Reformation until the middle of the twentieth century, the great majority of Protestants held fairly strict views regarding the use of Sunday. With the encroachments of liberalism, the rise of dispensationalism, and the ubiquitous presence of television, Sabbatarian practice has so declined that today only a small minority of Christians in the West hold to it. Most Christians today argue that Sunday is a day of worship, but that the Christian is not obligated to observe it according to the fourth commandment. Who is correct? Does the Bible require us to observe one day in seven, or are all days equal? Is Sunday to be observed according to the fourth commandment, or are we free to spend the day as we please, so long as we worship?
My thesis is that we should restore the Sabbath to its purpose and uses as described in the Westminster Standards (CF, 21; LC, 115-21; SC, 57-62). The exegetical and theological basis of this position is the institution of the Sabbath in Genesis 2:1-3. God instituted the Sabbath, along with work (Gen. 1:28; 2:15) and marriage (Gen. 2:18-25), to govern the lives of all mankind. Just as the ordinances of work and marriage are permanent, so is the ordinance of the Sabbath.
God instituted the celebration of the Sabbath, both by his example and by his words of institution. First, he established the principle of Sabbath keeping by resting on the seventh day: "And by the seventh day God completed His work which He had done; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done" (Gen. 2:2). The term Sabbath is derived from the word translated "rested" in verse 2. By resting on the seventh day, God established the principle and practice of Sabbath observance. In order to understand the Sabbath ordinance, we first must consider why God rested.
First, by resting, God declared that his work as Creator was completed, as we observe in Genesis 2:1, where God pronounces that he has completed his work as Creator: "Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts." The words "heavens," "earth," and "hosts" encompass all the results of God's creative work.
God's rest, however, was not a cessation from all work, for he continues to work in providence (SC, 11), governing the processes of life and all aspects of his created order. He has also worked in accomplishing redemption, and continues to work by calling his people unto himself and sanctifying them. Hence, God did not rest from all his work, but only from the work of creation (John 5:17).
Since he continues to work, why is there this emphasis on rest? When God rested from the work of creation, he declared that it was completed, exactly as he had intended. Never again would there be need for this work. It was finished! He bids us to worship him as Creator of heaven and earth.
Second, God's rest expressed his delight in creation. Moses amplifies this concept in Exodus 31:17: "It [the Sabbath] is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor, and was refreshed."
What a delightful statement: "God ceased from labor and was refreshed." But what does it mean? Certainly God did not have to rest because his creative work had wearied him. The refreshment of God on the seventh day was through joy as he contemplated the beauty and perfection of all the creation: at the conclusion of the sixth day, "God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good" (Gen. 1:31). Just as one steps back to contemplate with pleasure something built or accomplished, God stepped back to contemplate his work with pleasure. By resting on the Sabbath, God reflected on the beauty and glory of his completed work, taking joy in it.
Third, by resting on the seventh day, God pictured the rest that he would provide for his people. He offered Adam and his descendants life (eternal rest), so if Adam had not fallen into sin, he would have entered into that rest without passing through death. God, by resting on the seventh day, pictured the promised rest, our eternal rest.
The Creator's example of rest explains why the end of the seventh day is not recorded. The first six days were concluded by the cycle of evening and morning, but the ending of the seventh day is not recorded. For Adam and Eve, the seventh day ended as had the previous six days; the cessation of the day, however, is left unspecified to picture the eternal rest that God would provide for his people.
God graciously did not cancel the offer of rest after the Fall. Rather, he renewed the promise of life, not through Adam's obedience, but through a Redeemer. According to God's eternal purpose, the day of rest became a weekly promise and reminder to sinners that he would provide redemption and rest.
By resting, therefore, God declared that he had finished his creative activity, reminding us that he is the all-powerful Creator who completed his work and has authority and power to govern it. He contemplated with joy the finished work of creation, and now he calls us to seek our rest in him, as we contemplate his goodness in the beauty of creation and his mercy in the gracious offer of redemption. He gave us a picture of the eternal rest that belongs to his people; he promises the reality of entering into his eternal rest. In our Sabbath keeping, we celebrate the fact that God's works of creation and redemption are finished, we contemplate the complex beauty of his works and are refreshed in communion with him, and we anticipate our eternal life with him.
Having demonstrated these truths by his own rest, God explicitly consecrated the seventh day for man to keep the Sabbath. In addition to giving us the example of his rest, "God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made" (Gen. 2:3). In this dual action of blessing and sanctifying the day, God instituted the pattern of six days of work and a seventh day of rest.
Some suggest that God blesses his eternal rest, not the seventh day. In the fourth commandment, however, God bases our responsibility to sanctify the seventh day on his blessing of the Sabbath day: "therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy" (Ex. 20:11). We conclude that God specifically blessed the seventh day in the weekly cycle.
By blessing the day, God assigned it a special purpose. In the creation account, when God blesses something, he establishes its purpose and endows it with the ability to fulfill that purpose. For example, when God blesses the animals in Genesis 1:22, he establishes their purpose of multiplying and filling the earth and endows them with the inclination and ability to procreate, so that they might accomplish their purpose (see also Gen. 1:28). In like manner, when God blesses the seventh day, he gives it a purpose and the ability to fulfill that purpose.
Furthermore, God promised that he would bless those who would follow his example by resting every seventh day. So by blessing the day, he made the day a blessing for man. Surely Christ had this blessing in mind when he said, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27).
God's purpose in blessing the day is made clearer when we understand what is meant by his "sanctifying" of the day, his declaring it to be holy. When God sanctifies something, he removes it from its common use and sets it apart for a special religious use connected with his worship and service. For example, he declared to be holy, or sanctified, the garments of the priest, the altar, the sanctuary, and all the furnishing and utensils used in the tabernacle and later in the temple. On account of this sanctification, these things were to be used only for the holy purposes of worship (e.g., Ex. 30:37-38).
How then do we understand the sanctification of the seventh day? We may reasonably assume that in the same way that God set aside certain things for his special use and service, he also set aside the seventh day for the special purpose of worship and service. This is not to deny that the other six days are holy and are to be used for God's glory. Christians are to glorify God in all of lifeeverything we do is to be a holy service unto the Lord. However, he established the seventh day as a holy day, set apart for special purposes.
By blessing and sanctifying the day, God communicated to Adam and Eve, and through Scripture to us, the principle of Sabbath keeping. We are to treat as holy what God declares to be holy. We conclude that the observing of one day out of seven is a perpetually binding moral obligation because of this creation ordinance.
Although God has changed the day, the obligation and privilege of Sabbath keeping remain. How are we to keep the day holy? The Westminster Standards are a faithful, biblical guide, directing our steps in glorifying and enjoying God on the Sabbath.
The author is president of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He quotes the NASB. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2009.