Nov 1, 2023

How Is the Sabbath a Sign of the Covenant?

5 Min Read

It has become increasingly common for business professionals, life coaches, and pastors to talk about embracing sabbath or taking a sabbatical. The idea is that people need prolonged seasons of rest and refreshment. The focus on taking a sabbath is, of course, that people would become more productive in their employments while also caring for their spiritual, physical, and emotional well-being.

While sabbaticals may address a common, therapeutic need for rest, God has given us the Sabbath day to serve as a sign of the greater spiritual need we have for the rest that He provides in Christ alone. From the beginning of time, the Sabbath day was set as one of God’s creation ordinances (Gen. 2:2–3). In redemptive history, it was the fourth of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:8–11; Deut. 5:12–15). Both at creation and in the fourth commandment, the Sabbath served as a covenantal sign holding out the promise of a greater Sabbath rest.

After creating a world in which His image bearers could dwell, the Lord set apart the seventh day as the Sabbath day. The Sabbath day served numerous purposes at creation. It was to be a day of worship and rest. It was also a reminder that mankind is finite and dependent. Since we are dependent creatures, God saw fit to give Adam this creation ordinance to remind him of his need for rest from his physical labor. Adam was to set apart the Sabbath day to worship the God who “gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25).

However, it was not simply a day in which man was to cease from his labors and embrace physical and spiritual rest; it was a sign pointing to something higher—the hope of entering eternal rest. The eschatological-sign nature of the Sabbath day was tied to God’s covenantal dealing with man in the garden. In Eden, God condescended to initiate a covenantal relationship with Adam. Had Adam obeyed the command related to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, it’s likely he would have secured an eternal dwelling place for righteous image bearers to reflect the holy character of God. Had he obeyed, he would have gained a right to eat from the Tree of Life. The two trees in the garden served as signs and seals of the covenant of works, together with the Sabbath day. That is, the Sabbath ordinance was one of the signs and seals of this covenant in Eden. The Sabbath was a sign insomuch as it pointed to the promise of the eternal rest that man would have entered had Adam obeyed the demands of the covenant of works.

In redemptive history, the Sabbath prominently resurfaced again as a covenantal sign in the Mosaic covenant. Within the context of the Mosaic covenant, the Sabbath day continued to point to the promise of eternal rest. These two elements of the Sabbath day—creation and redemption—are found in the distinct reasons added to the fourth commandment in Exodus 20:11 and Deuteronomy 5:15. Creation and redemption form the background for the significance of the Sabbath day as a covenantal sign. The Sabbath day reminds image bearers of their obligation to worship and serve the Lord, and to trust God for the redemption that He freely provides in Christ alone. Where Adam failed in the covenant of works, Christ succeeded.

While we worship Jesus Christ the Lord of the Sabbath on the first day of the week in commemoration of His resurrection glory, we eagerly await the full revelation of the One who secured Sabbath rest for us by His death and resurrection.

As the last Adam (Rom. 5:12–21), Jesus came to secure the eschatological Sabbath rest for His people. Jesus performed numerous healing miracles on the old covenant Sabbath day, revealing Himself to be the One who alone can provide rest for the souls of His people. The restorative Sabbath-day healings foreshadowed the ultimate healing that Christ secured for believers in the resurrection on the last day. The Sabbath healing of the man with the withered hand (Matt. 12:9–14) was tied to Jesus’ gospel invitation: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28–29, emphasis added). Jesus purchased eschatological Sabbath rest for His people by taking upon Himself the judgment they deserve when He hung under the wrath of God on the cross. Picking up on Psalm 95:7–11, the writer of Hebrews alluded to the abiding hope of entering into eternal rest in glory with Christ, since Jesus entered into His everlasting rest (Heb. 3:7–4:12).

The circumstances surrounding the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ provide further basis for our understanding of Jesus as the Rest Provider. Just as He looked back over His newly created world and pronounced it good, the Son of God looked back over the completed work of redemption and cried out, “It is finished” (Gen. 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31; John 19:27). Having finished His labor to provide redemption, Jesus rested as His body lay in the ground on the old covenant Sabbath day. When He rose on the first day of the week, Jesus ushered in the Christian Sabbath (i.e., the Lord’s Day of Rev. 4:3).

In the New Testament, the saving work of Christ forms the basis of the change of the Sabbath day from the seventh to the first day of the week. Just as Jesus rose on the first day of the week, so He appeared to the disciples on the first day of each subsequent week (Luke 24:1; John 20:26). As the Westminster Confession of Faith explains:

As it is of the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in his Word . . . he hath particularly appointed one day in seven for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto him: which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week; and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week, which, in Scripture, is called the Lord’s Day, and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath. (21.7)

The covenant Lord continues to call us to set apart one day in seven to worship on the new covenant Sabbath. Just as the creational Sabbath served the purpose of holding out the hope of an eternal blessing, the Sabbath continues to be held out as it helps us reflect more purposefully on the heavenly nature of the worship we bring to God and the Lamb. While we worship Jesus Christ the Lord of the Sabbath on the first day of the week in commemoration of His resurrection glory, we eagerly await the full revelation of the One who secured Sabbath rest for us by His death and resurrection.

This article is part of the Signs of the Covenant collection.