Since the development of theology is a historical process, it becomes necessary, before we embark on a study of the theology of the Lord’s Day, to sketch briefly the historical background of the observance of the Christian Sabbath. Whatever we may think of Sunday today, or its relevance to contemporary thought and life, its presence in history calls for an explanation. It challenges thought and enquiry. How has it come to be there as a day apart, a stream that refuses to get lost amidst the arid sands? What is its origin, its purpose, its meaning?
It is comparatively easy to trace it back to the Christian era: it is inextricably bound up with Christian worship and Christian witness. Beyond that, we can still trace it as figuring prominently in the history of ancient Israel, in the message of its prophets and the rites of its sanctuary. We can trace it back to the foundation of the Jewish nation as a Theocracy, a Kingdom under God. It had a place on its Statute Book, and it was placed there not as a new institution, but as a Law already known and to some extent obeyed.
And then we find traces of it among non-Jewish peoples. Many primitive races – like the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Persians, Babylonians, Peruvians – have a holy day, a portion of time set apart for sacred or religious uses. It is interesting that the Chaldeans, who came from the same stock as the Hebrews, had a division of time into seven days, with the seventh day set apart for a religious purpose. In that case, Abraham must have been familiar with it when he left his home town of Ur.
The conclusion is borne in upon us that it, somehow or other, entered into the consciousness of primitive man: there are so many traces of it in the mind of primeval man.
And at this point we catch up with the Biblical record in Genesis which tells us that it was coeval with man, and thus became, not a dead tradition, but an organic thing, something that entered into the living stream of the human story. The Genesis record – even if you treat it as mere hieroglyphics – is deeply interesting and suggestive. God made man different. He had a link with the animal creation, but he had something they had not got. The Bible says he had the image and likeness of God, giving him moral and spiritual capacities for communion and fellowship with God.
And God revealed Himself as just such a God: ‘Let Us make man in Our image and after Our likeness’ was the formula used in introducing the new departure in creative activity – the creation of man. It is the first hint of plurality in God, the first revelation of God as a fellowship of Life and Love within Himself. Thus He expressed His desire to lift man into that fellowship and make him partaker of His blessedness. And as He gave him the capacity for this, so He gave him the opportunity, a day set apart, a period of leisure, of rest, and of peace. On that day man was to realise his true destiny. And so we believe that the need for this day is interwoven in the constitution of man’s nature, moral, spiritual and physical. It is man’s birthright and he is less than man if he disowns it.
All that was clearly seen by the leaders of men throughout the ages. By none more clearly than by the leaders of the Hebrew race who had so acute a sense of spiritual values. From them, it was picked up, again and yet again, through the ages, re-emphasised, reinterpreted and reasserted.
Our Lord and His Apostles also gathered it into the stream of the Christian movement, when its observance became the distinctive badge of the early Christian believers as they gathered in fellowship and worship. From them it was taken up by the Primitive Church to be the inseparable companion of the gospel; and its history henceforward is the history of the Church’s spiritual vitality and life. Its worthy observance became the barometer of the spiritual life, and its obedience the expression of the Church’s loyalty to her Living Lord.
Its first and perhaps its deepest spiritual significance is, that it brings eternity into time, the spiritual into the material, the presence and power of God into human life. It is true that the categories of time and eternity, of spiritual and material, are not presented in the Bible as the clear-cut divisions that we make them. They are seen to interpenetrate. There God is in time and man is in eternity, so close is the relationship between the two, so thin the partition that separates time from eternity. And the Sabbath institution is a weighty case of this interpenetration.
God has reserved for Himself one day in seven, a day He has sanctified, or set apart for a holy use, in order that man might recognise for at least one day that he is a citizen of eternity.
Throughout the Bible God often seeks to convey this truth to man, and men who are spiritually sensitive to the divine movements become acutely conscious of this. On a memorable occasion, at Caesarea Philippi, our Lord announced to His disciples ‘Verily, I say unto you, that there be some of them that stand here which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the Kingdom of God come with power.’ And immediately after this we read: And after six days Jesus taketh with Him Peter and James and John, and leadeth them up into an high mountain apart by themselves; and He was transfigured before them (Matthew 16:28-17:2). It is perhaps gratuitous to assume that the lapse of six days indicated that this event took place on the seventh. And there the chosen three disciples had witnessed the partition between the spiritual world and the material break down, the veil rent, and the Kingdom of God, that was behind the scenes, break through in power.
Now that is the spiritual import of the Lord’s Day to us: it is an outpost of heaven, pledging to us the certainty that the Kingdom of God can break through in power. Of this break-through we have the notable example of the experience of Pentecost, which it would appear, coincided with the Lord’s Day, or the First Day of the week. This serves to heighten the spiritual significance of the Day as a dynamo of divine power. It proclaims to us that God has a stake in time, that at any moment, God can break through, to make time and eternity one. Thus the Lord’s Day, through all the ages, is God’s also, the pledge of His claims upon all the days and hours of man’s existence.
We note, in the second place, that the Sabbath introduces us to the deep secret of the sanctification of human character. It is noteworthy that the first occasion on which the familiar Biblical word sanctify occurs is in connection with the institution of the Sabbath. We read: ‘And God blessed the Sabbath Day and sanctified it, because that in it He had rested from all His work which God created and made’ (Genesis 2:3).
When God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, He lifted it up above the other days, fenced it off as sacred, and set it apart for a revelation of Himself, the Creator and benefactor of men. In the six preceding days He revealed His power as Almighty Creator, on this day He was to reveal His character as holy. And He also revealed His will that man should be partaker of His holiness by entering into His rest. Throughout the other days, the key word of the sacred narrative is ‘God created’; on this seventh day it is ‘God sanctified’. And as Creation was the forthputting of His power, so sanctification is the imparting of His fellowship. Man as a creature of God was already perfect, man as a child of God was capable of development in the likeness of God and in capacity to receive His fellowship. And so the Sabbath day was sanctified, made holy, as the day on which man was to be sanctified and made holy.
And that is surely the meaning of God’s rest. For six days He had put forth His might in creation, on this day He releases, as it were, into His own blessed fellowship the work of His hands and is pleased thus to lift man into His communion and the contemplation of His works.
While we know that sin marred God’s work, and soiled the creature He had made in His image, we also know that God undertook another creative work, that of redemption, regeneration and restoration. And the completion of that work, too, is marked by a rest day in which man can once again enter into the rest of God, the Christian Sunday. That is appropriately now the Lord’s Day, the Day on which the Redeeming Lord entered into His rest, and He has left it to us – significant and meaningful as the first rest day, but stripped of all the accretions that it had gathered throughout the centuries – to be the gateway into His own rest, the rest of His completed redemption. And we who believe do enter into this rest, and find the Lord’s Day a means of grace and a divine instrument for our sanctification. This sanctification is a work of God in the souls of His people, and it is intimately associated with the rest, the worship, and the fellowship of the Lord’s Day. It is there for the sanctification of human character.
Thirdly, the Sabbath also has a deep ethical significance in defining alike our duty to God and our duty to our fellows.
The placing of the Sabbath Law among the Ten Commandments has presented to many minds a serious difficulty. Its ethical significance is not clear, and there is more than a suspicion that it is out of place in a code of moral behaviour.
Let us glance, then, at the place and significance of the Moral Law in the Christian life as in every other moral life. It is apparent that in the giving of the Moral Law Moses was not conscious of doing anything that required justification, or even explanation, beyond the intimation: ‘God spake these words’. It can easily be seen how this was so, since the coded precepts of the Moral Law were but a republication of truths and standards already known to man, engraven on the constitution of his nature when he was made in God’s image and after His likeness. And we are expressly told that the Fourth Commandment had been so revealed to primeval man. So it was gathered up in the Ten Words that govern the conduct of man’s moral and spiritual life in his relationship to God and to his fellows.
As the Moral Law reflects the moral character of God, so it governs the moral behaviour of men. Christ employed the commands of the Decalogue as a means of testing the character of man in his relation to God. With that character the gospel can no more interfere than it interferes with the nature of God or the constitution of our humanity. The Ten Commandments embody the abiding realities of the moral universe and the grace of God in Christ is given to us, not that we may bypass the moral demands, but that we may satisfy and fulfil them.
The Fourth Commandment falls most fittingly in place at the end of the First Table of the Moral Law and as a link with the Second, in as much as in its very terms it links together our duty to God and our duty to our fellows. It puts morality on a spiritual basis. Only in the realisation of the spiritual values of his existence in contact with God in worship, can man have restored to him his sense of moral and ethical values in his relation to his fellowman. As the counter-part of his spiritual relationship to God there is his moral responsibility to man, and this commandment extends to both. It claims for man – for man at every social and economic level – the greatest of all his liberties, that which is basic to every other liberty, his liberty one day in seven to worship his God unashamed. As it stood in its original constitution as a Divinely ordered release from the tyranny of things material, and for the emancipation of the spirit in the service of God, so it stands still as the charter of man’s spiritual liberty.
As it enjoins upon man not only to yield to the claims of God, but to respect the spiritual rights of his fellowmen, so it puts man’s social responsibility on a sure spiritual basis.
Before we come to discuss the theology of the Lord’s Day in detail, let us glance at the origin of this cycle of labour and rest. When we read that God ‘rested on the seventh day from all the work which He had made’ we have a reference, not to a day in our cycle, but to the seventh day in the sphere of God’s action. In the realm of God’s activity in creating the heavens and the earth there were six days of creative action and one day of rest. Whether this Sabbath day of God’s rest is still going on is a matter on which Biblical scholars are not agreed, though the inference from the Biblical account is that the end of the sixth day saw the completion for all time of God’s creative activity in the realm of matter.
That man’s day, or his weekly cycle of days, is but a reflection on a scale appropriate to man’s short span of life, of God’s day is but reasonable to suppose. It bears out the fact that man’s life in the world, and with dominion over the world, was meant in the divine plan to be a reproduction, on an infinitely reduced scale, and with all the limitations bound up with our finitude, of God’s own life.
What is important to note, however, is that the Sabbath of God’s rest is the reason given for man’s rest. As He made the six days of His creative operation the pattern of man’s weekly labour, so He makes the seventh day of rest the portion of man’s rest. What then are we to understand by the rest of God?
God’s rest is not one of inactivity, though it may indicate the cessation of His creative activity. We read: ‘And the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh, God finished His work which He had made’ (Genesis 2:1-2). God’s rest is the rest of contemplation on the work that He has made, with all the penetrating influence, and sustaining power, and blessed oversight, that the divine contemplation must involve. And so we read ‘And God saw all that which He made, and behold it was very good’ (Genesis 1:31).
It is evident that the season of labour and rest prescribed for man is based on the pattern of God’s own example both in His creative activity and in His contemplative rest. Six days of labour, one day of rest seems thus by the highest of all precedents to be God’s will for man on earth. It follows, then, that man is expected to employ his rest as God employed His, not in useless inactivity, but in the exercise of his higher powers of reflection and contemplation, bearing with it the two-fold duty of worship towards God and the expression of sympathy and goodwill towards man. And this would seem to delineate exactly Christ’s teaching and practice on the use of the Sabbath Day. It also squares with what the Fourth Commandment expressly commands and forbids, the service of God and our fellows and the cessation of the toil of the six days.
We may not be able fully to present a satisfactory rationale for this sequence of labour and rest for man – beyond saying that God Himself followed this sequence. But we can at least study its abiding implications for the spiritual. As it gives man a vision of the majesty of his God, so it bestows upon him his responsibility towards the several strata of society of which he forms a part. Thus we shall find that as we exercise our spiritual citizenship, we shall not be unworthy citizens of this world. Thus it is that our social, political and economic liberties are bound up with our spiritual liberty in our relationship to our God. And the Sabbath Day is the custodian of that. Cut it out of the Decalogue and there is no bridge between our duty to God and our duty to our fellows; no understanding of the true basis of morality, no sense of responsibility that makes us answerable to God for our fellows, no protection for the liberty that is basic to all the liberties, the liberty of worship in which all men are on a plane of spiritual equality.
Fourthly, the weekly Sabbath has also its eschatological significance. It not only points forward to a future state of blessing, but is itself the pledge that there is to be such a state for man, and perhaps for the earth which he inhabits. It remains in time as God’s visible claim upon the order below, as the earnest of His coming reign, and the pledge that there shall be a new heaven and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness.
That the fullness of that promise of rest and restoration is exhausted by the redemptive rest that is ours here and now in Christ we cannot agree. Much of this so-called realised eschatology is based on what seems an unsound exegesis of Hebrews 4. The writer in that chapter undoubtedly deals with the rest into which the believer enters by faith. He uses two exalted illustrations of it: the rest that God entered into on the completion of His work of creation, and the rest of Christ on the completion of the work of redemption. These two he brings together in one verse: ‘He’, referring to Christ, ‘that is entered into His rest, He also has ceased from His works as God did from His’. This is clearly a reference to the Redeemer’s rest and the Creator’s rest, and on this two-fold analogy there is based the announcement that ‘there remaineth, therefore, a Sabbath unto the people of God’. In this context we have here a reference, not to heaven as the eternal rest of the believer, but to the rest here below, described as a Sabbatism, a Sabbath of rest. Nor is it specifically a clear reference to the rest of faith into which the believing people of God enter here and now; rather does it seem to point to the continuance of the weekly rest day as a present possession and an earnest of a rest that is to come. There remains the keeping of a Sabbath to the people of God, having its roots in the two great facts, that Christ rests from His work of redemption as God rested from His work of creation.
Whether this particular context actually refers, as we think it may, to the Christian Sabbath as we now have it, or to the gospel Sabbath following on Christ’s finished work, or to the Sabbath of the eternal state, we have evidence elsewhere that the Sabbath of the Old Testament and the Christian Sabbath of the New have a typical significance as pointing to the day when the Sabbath of grace is transformed to the Sabbath of glory, and the Lord’s Day of earth becomes the Day of the Lord in all its fullness of light and life and blessedness. And as man on his primeval Sabbath was called into the fellowship of God and the contemplation of His character in His works, so there is a Sabbath to come when God shall be worshipped in His spiritual temple and the light of an accomplished redemption shall shed its illuminating radiance on all the works of God. In that day God shall be advanced in His saints and glorified in all them that believe.
In the theology of the Christian Sabbath we have these abiding realities associated with the observance of this day. It stands here in time for the abiding reality of eternity, it summons man into the rest of God that alone ensures conformity to His character, it places the ethical distinctions of our morality on eternal foundations, and on a spiritual basis that has its support in God, and it inspires and comforts man with the hope of a state of rest, and fellowship, and service, that is the consummation and goal of our discipline, and training, and aspirations here below.