January 2013 - Vol. 65

Keeping The Lord's Day Holy
A study of the implications of the third commandment i and its 
sanctification of time for the new evangelization
Part 1
by Nico Angleys

This three part series was originally written as a Master's Thesis for a degree requirement at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Seminary in Detroit, Michigan, USA. While it was written from a Roman Catholic perspective, the material can be beneficial for Christians from other traditions as well. The author welcomes input and questions. -ed. 
Western culture has long been preoccupied with the keeping and the measuring of time. Today our technological societies require greater precision in time tracking than ever before. The scientific evolution of our world has reduced matters of time to chronometrical accuracy and has thus obscured the notion that time belongs to God. In his eternal and infinite wisdom, he gave us a command pertaining to time: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8).1 The Psalmist sings of the goodness of the commands of God: “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD” (Psalm 119:1). Jesus upholds this command and is given the title “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28, Matthew 12:8, and Luke 6:5). In the Great Commission, Jesus tells his disciples: “teach them [the disciples of all nations] to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). Thus, in our day, the work of evangelization involves teaching the third commandment and declaring the blessing of sanctified time to a culture fixated on time. 

On several occasions in the last few years the Holy Spirit has led me to read about sabbath-keeping and to reflect on my own practices. He has thus made me more aware of the beauty and purpose of this command. My aim here is to show how the commandment to keep the Lord’s Day holy teaches, heals, and gives rest to the modern person. In this thesis, I will first examine the biblical teaching on the Lord’s Day, noting its roots in the Old Testament, its application in Jesus’ life, and its further development in the New Testament. Then I will observe the theological implications of the third commandment for the modern age. And finally, I shall propose five areas in which this commandment offers insight into the evangelization of our culture.

I. Biblical Teaching on the Lord’s Day

A. Sabbath in the Old Testament
The commandment to keep a day holy is rooted in the Old Testament command regarding the sabbath. The word “sabbath” means to rest or to cease and in all likelihood is derived from the Hebrew word “to stop.”2 Thirteen distinct passages3 instruct God’s people about the sabbath, revealing a rich tradition of making a day holy. From these texts we can identify three distinct reasons for keeping this day holy to the Lord.

1. God Creates

The first mention of the sabbath is at the beginning of the biblical narrative at the conclusion of the creation account. In Genesis 2:1-3, we hear that God himself rested on the seventh day. The first thing to note is that the author repeats several terms in the three short sentences of this passage: the seventh day (three times); God rested (twice); and the work which he had done (three times). 

The repetition of the “seventh day” highlights the significance of the day both because of the use of the number seven4 and because none of the other days in the creation account are mentioned more than once. A philological link between the word “sabbath” and “seven” in Hebrew noted by scholars5 further strengthens the connection between the seventh day of creation and the sabbath. The term “rested” is contrasted with the work God did on the other days, and its primary sense is to “desist from work.”6

Finally, the word for work is the ordinary word for human work. Perhaps, as one commentator suggests, “this word was deliberately chosen to hint that man should stop his daily work on the seventh day.”7

God's purpose of the sabbath day
The second thing to note is that God hallows a day. The first thing made holy in the Scripture is a day, not a created physical thing or a place, as much of the hallowing will be in the rest of the Pentateuch, but a period of time. This means that the seventh day belongs to God in a special way.8  The biblical meaning of the fact that God rested and hallowed a day reveals the initial purpose of the sabbath. Keeping the sabbath means ceasing from work and orienting the day towards the Creator. 

This brief account of the first sabbath places the practice of keeping a day set apart within the very fabric of creation. The sabbath initially, in the order of revelation, is not a result of a special relationship with the God of the covenant, but is rather a part of the natural order of things. As Bruce Vawter writes, the author of Genesis is “declaring the Sabbath rest proper for men in general and not simply an important observance of Judaism.”9

The theme of creation is then revisited in Exodus when the LORD instructs his people on a way of life: his third “word” in the Decalogue is to “remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). The first part of this command is stated in the positive unlike most of the other ten commands. Verse 8 acts as a header for the fuller explanation of the commandment: Israel is to remember and to keep holy. The explanation for this commandment as it is given here in Exodus is based on the example of creation when God rested on the seventh day. 

The people of God, as heirs of Adam and Eve, made in the image of the creator (Genesis 1:26-28), are to rest as well. Both this version of the third commandment and the one in Deuteronomy 5:12-15 list all the members of the household as being under this commandment. Vawter writes that “the later rabbis proposed the sabbath as a mark of man’s basic equality, since on that day all became one, rich and poor, those to whom leisure was a way of life and those for whom it was a surcease from backbreaking labor.”10

Expression of loyalty to God
Brevard Childs affirms that the cause for the sabbath command in Exodus is the creative act of God and thus anchors this hallowing of the seventh day into the “very structure of the universe.”11  One Jewish commentator presents the sabbath observance described in Exodus as an “emulation of God’s activity” and the “quintessential expression of loyalty to God.”12

Creation roots of the sabbath
The creation roots of the sabbath tell us four things. First, the rest commanded by God is for all human beings. 

Second, the seven day pattern of rest is in harmony with the order of the world and more specifically its Creator. 

Third, this commandment hearkens back to the goodness of the Creator and the goodness of creation itself. Keeping this day holy enables God’s people to be filled with awe at “the One who brought all things into being from nothing.”13

Fourth and last, the sabbath recalls a seventh day which in the creation account has no end. Unlike the other six days of creation, the description of the seventh day does not contain the expected formulaic conclusion14  which suggests an open end to the account. As Göran Larsson writes, “it is a day that transcends our temporal existence. It gives a taste of eternity.”15

Sabbath structure of creation
Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) speaks of the “sabbath structure of creation.”16  He describes the sabbath as the day for worship which is a participation in the freedom of God. The sabbath points to the covenant in three different ways. First, the Scriptures tell us in Exodus 31:16-17 that the sabbath is a sign for ever of the perpetual covenant. 

Second, the celebration of the sabbath, from a creation account perspective, is intended to remind and make present the truth that “the worship of God, his freedom, and his rest come first. Thus and only thus can the human being truly live.”17  The covenant reveals the love of God for his creatures and the sabbath is a means to remember this love. 

Third, Scott Hahn proposes audaciously that the word for “seventh” found in Genesis 2:2 is closely linked to the Hebrew word shava, which is the verb for swearing a covenant oath. He concludes that the sabbath is the first swearing of a covenant in the Old Testament: “The seventh day, then, was the sign of the covenant – the sacrament of the covenant. Its name was used synonymously with the covenant.”18

Apart from the sabbath, all other measurements of time in the Scriptures are based on the natural and observable cycles of the created order such as days, months, seasons, and years. The sabbath is the only unit of time that is given by the word of God alone. The sabbath is a revealed unit of time. The creation account centered on God as creator is the first and primary motivation for keeping the sabbath in the Old Testament.

2. God Delivers

When the LORD instructs Israel on the sabbath in Deuteronomy, the reason given for keeping this day holy is because God delivered Israel from Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). This second motivation for keeping the sabbath holy is rooted in God’s salvific action, as distinguished from his creative action. God’s redeeming work is to be remembered and the sabbath is the means by which Israel is to effect this calling to mind. On a weekly basis Israel must remember her Redeemer and all his wonderful works. 

A work of re-creation
This second reason for the sabbath is an extension of the first in the sense that deliverance is the work of re-creation of the fallen human race. Israel’s redemption from Egypt is a sign that the God who created all things is faithful to his promise and he desires to bring his people into the rest of the seventh day. Jeffrey Tigay offers another way of formulating the distinction between the Exodus and the Deuteronomy sabbath command: “Their references are not mutually exclusive but serve different functions: Exodus explains the origin of the Sabbath, while Deuteronomy explains its aims and offers a motive for observing it.”19

A celebration of remembering
In his commentary on this commandment, Pope John Paul II writes that to keep something holy means to remember. He goes further in declaring that the action of remembering is done through celebration.20  Many of the feasts of Israel, described in Leviticus 23, begin or end with a “sabbath of rest” and celebration that commemorate God’s action. In Nehemiah 8:9-12, we read that celebration is the way to keep the feast day holy. God’s deliverance, remembered in the sabbath, is worthy of great celebration and thus the keeping of the day as holy means to celebrate on that day. Walter Bruggemann adds his voice to this view: “The celebration of a day of rest was, then, the announcement of trust in this God who is confident enough to rest. It was then and is now an assertion that life does not depend upon our feverish activity of self-securing, but that there can be a pause in which life is given to us simply as a gift.”21

3. God Provides

The third reason given in the Old Testament for keeping a day holy is the importance of trusting in God. The story of miraculous provision of manna in the wilderness is punctuated by the command to rest from collecting the divine sustenance on the seventh day (Exodus 16:23-29). Even before the third commandment is given, the practice of rest every seven days is instituted. The provision of manna was surely cause for trust in God, yet in his wisdom, he gives twice as much on the sixth day so that Israel would rest on the seventh day. 

On the seventh day, as the people enjoy the sabbath, they are to trust God even more, because their food is from him and will not fail them. Rest is instituted within the framework of complete trust in God for survival in the wilderness. Childs claims that this passage has a joyful ring to it: “The sabbath is not a day to go hungry and mourn. Rather Israel is to eat, for ‘today’ is God’s special day. Later tradition expanded greatly on the theme of the joy of the sabbath, but the kernel of the theme is already present in the manna story.”22

A perpetual covenant and sign forever 
We read in Exodus 31:14-17 that the sabbath is a sign forever of God’s sanctification, of his perpetual and irrevocable covenant with Israel.23  The author restates, in verse 15, the same reason for this commandment as found in Exodus 20, namely the Genesis 2 account of God resting on the seventh day. This is the third text that grounds the sabbath in the creation account. This Exodus passage also has several terms indicating the enduring quality of the sabbath: Israel is to keep the sabbath “throughout their generations” (verses 13 and 16); the sabbath is to be a “perpetual covenant” (verse 16) and a “sign for ever” (verse 17). 

An eternal sabbath
This suggests an eternal sabbath..24  This passage on the sabbath follows a multi-chapter exposition of the building of the tabernacle which began in Exodus 25 and precedes the delivery of the covenant on the tablets of stone. The context is significant because the tabernacle is the spatial, physical dwelling place of God on earth, a God who makes covenant with his people and writes that covenant on tablets of stone. The sign of that covenant is the sabbath.25  In verse 18, the covenant is given on the tables of the testimony, but these do not last very long, as chapter 32 narrates Israel’s rebellion and Moses destroying the tables. 

A sign that endures
The sabbath however is the sign that endures. The enduring quality of the third commandment is a reflection of the faithfulness and steadfastness of the God who makes covenant with his people. Keeping the sabbath holy is an expression of fidelity and trust in the living God. The sabbath is first a sign between God and Israel, so that Israel will know and remember, but it is also a sign to the surrounding nations that God has sanctified Israel.26

As mentioned earlier, there are numerous other Old Testament passages referring to the sabbath. Isaiah, Jeremiah and Nehemiah all offer further insight into the understanding of the sabbath but due to the limited scope of this thesis, these passages will not be addressed here. In the next issue I will study the biblical teaching of the third commandment in the New Testament.

Go to Part 2 >Keeping the Lord’s Day in the New Testament
Nico Angleys grew up in France, just outside Geneva, in the Alps. He is a member of The Servants of the Word, an ecumenical brotherhood of men living single for the Lord. Nico is the UCO director of University Christian Outreach in North America. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. In May 2012 he completed his Masters in Theology at Sacred Heart Seminary, writing his thesis on the Keeping the Lord's Day Holy, copyright © 2012. Used with permission.

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