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Faith and Learning - Sabbath Keeping

Exodus 20:8-10a
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.... For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath and made it holy.
Hebrews 4:9-11a
There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest.

Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 103

Q. What is God's will for you in the fourth commandment?
A. First, that the gospel ministry and education for it be maintained, and that, especially on the festive day of rest, I regularly attend the assembly of God's people to learn what God's Word teaches, to participate in the sacraments, to pray to God publicly, and to bring Christian offerings for the poor.  
Second, that every day of my life I rest from my evil ways, let the Lord work in me through his Spirit, and so begin already in this life the eternal Sabbath.

What does it mean to observe the Sabbath?

In an academic setting like Calvin where Monday signifies not only the beginning of a new week but the onslaught of classes to teach, tests to take (or give) and general all-around busyness, is it really realistic to rest from your work on Sunday? Is it even biblically mandated for the New Testament church?

In his book, Catch Your Breath: God's Invitation to Sabbath Rest, Don Postema points out that that "the hectic pace of contemporary life makes the idea and practice of sabbath rest enormously attractive." Yet this same hectic pace also, on the other hand, makes it incredibly difficult to slow down, let alone cease from the normal concerns of everyday life. In light of these considerations, two key questions must be answered: Why should Christians observe the Sabbath and how?

Theological Guidelines

Christians have long debated the issue of Sabbath observance and the significance of the fourth commandment for today. [1] Opinions vary not only on questions of what it means to keep the Sabbath holy, but also on what the term refers to—Sunday? Saturday? A Principle? Traditionally, many Reformed Christians have emphasized both the need for a literal day of rest and worship to be celebrated on Sunday and the fact that the Sabbath serves as a typological pointer to the eternal, eschatological rest decreed by the Father, provided by the Son, and lived in the Spirit. Moreover, among these two purposes, it has been the opinion of many that the latter purpose should actually come first as we think theologically about the Lord's Day. Nevertheless, both are for our comfort. Calvin explains the reasons for the giving of the fourth commandment in this way:

"First, under the repose of the seventh day the heavenly Law-giver meant to represent to the people of Israel spiritual rest, in which believers ought to lay aside their own works to allow God to work in them. Secondly, he meant that there was to be a stated day for them to assemble to hear the law and perform the rites, or at least to devote it particularly to meditation upon his works, and thus through this resemblance to be trained in piety. Thridly, he resolved to give a day of rest to servants and those who are under the authority of others, in order that they should have some respite from toil." (Calvin, Institutes, II.viii.28)

To read more about the theology of the Sabbath, check out some of the books on our Recommended Reading list below.

[1] At one point in 17th C. Holland, debates over the Sabbath had become so heated and disruptive that legislators actually issued a law making it illegal to discuss the Sabbath in public forums.

Practical Guidlines

If Sabbath is to serve as both a weekly rhythm-setter and an eschatological pointer, how practically speaking, should it be lived?

In his small group study guide Catch Your Breath, Don Postema lists six dimensions of the Sabbath to meditate upon:

  1. Sabbath as Mindfulness
  2. Sabbath as Rest
  3. Sabbath as Refreshment
  4. Sabbath as Receptivity
  5. Sabbath as Release
  6. Sabbath as Refocusing

Under each of these headings, he suggests meditating upon a particular Scripture passage for 5-10 minutes, then reflecting upon the particular topic for the week either in conversation, in a journal, and/or in prayer, and then finally ending with 10 minutes of "Sabbath Time," a time for quiet prayer and contemplation of God's presence.

Other helpful ideas for making the Sabbath a restful celebration and an effective reminder of your eternal rest:

  1. Read a larger portion of Scripture than you would on another day. Suggestions: Psalms 11-118; Hosea; Philippians; 1 John.
  2. Read a shorter portion of Scripture than you normally would, maybe just one verse. Suggestions: Psalm 46:10; Isaiah 66:1-2; Zechariah 4:6; John 14:1; Colossians 2:13; Revelation 15:3-4.
  3. Spend some time meditating on heaven.
  4. Treat yourself to an early bedtime on Saturday.
  5. Try to get to church 5-10 minutes early and find a quiet place where you can prepare to worship the living God.
  6. Plan to spend some time visiting with friends and family.
  7. Plan to be involved that day in a mercy ministry.
  8. Visit a nursing care facility and sit with someone older and wiser than you.

Recommended Reading

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Trans. by Ford Lewis Battles. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960. (multiple other editions and translations)
* Read Book II, Ch. 8, sections 28-34.

Dawn, Marva J. Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.

Douma, Jochem. The Ten Commandments: Manual for the Christian Life. Trans. by Nelson D. Kloosterman. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1996.
* Read especially his chapter on the Fourth Commandment.

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Sabbath. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc., 1951, 1979.

Jewett, Paul K. The Lord's Day: A Theological Guide to the Christian Day of Worship. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971.

Peterson, Eugene. "Confessions of a Former Sabbath-Breaker," Christianity Today (Sept 2,1998), 25-28.

Postema, Don. Catch Your Breath: God's Invitation to Sabbath-Rest. Grand Rapids: CRC Publications, 1997.

Isaiah 58:13-14
If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the LORD ,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.