Russell Rendall
December 6, 2000
Prof. Don Westblade
18th Century Theology - Jonathan Edwards


The Sabbath: a Delightsome Duty

"If because of the sabbath, you turn your foot from doing your own pleasure on My holy day, and call the sabbath a delight, the holy day of the honorable, and shall honor it, desisting from your own ways, from seeking your own pleasure, and speaking you own word, then you will take delight in the Lord and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; and I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken." (Isaiah 58:13-14)

The doctrine of the sabbath has been central to Jewish and Christian practice for thousands of years. Recently, both sacred and secular culture has become less concerned with the observation of such a day. In fact, the modern church seems to be relatively unfamiliar with the history and substance of the sabbath. So, what exactly is the sabbath and how do we observe it? The holy scriptures describe it in the following ways: a day of rest, a holy day, a gift of the Lord, a sign of sanctification, a celebration, a sign of the covenant, a permanent statute, a day of humiliation and cleansing, a holy convocation, a day of atonement, a remembrance of deliverance, and a delight.

It is clear that the sabbath played a very important role in the relationship between God and his people Israel. The Old Covenant punishment for violation of the sabbath was death. (Exodus 35:2-3, Numbers 15:32-36) Work and other secular concerns were strictly prohibited. The day was to be devoted to rest, remembrance of deliverance, and worship to God. Profanation of the sabbath is several times cited by the prophets as a major, and even primary, source of Godís wrath upon Israel. (Jeremiah 17:21-27, Ezekiel 20:10-20) The holy day was a sign of the covenant and an exercise of covenant duties, rejection of such a day was tantamount to rejection of God.

The sabbath appears much less prominently in the New Testament and some would assert that it is not necessary for Christians to observe such a day. However, Jonathan Edwards would beg to differ. He expounds his view of the sabbath in a three part series called "The Perpetuity and Change of the Sabbath" (Vol. 2, pp. 93-103). The central doctrine is as follows: "It is the mind and will of God, that the first day of the week should be especially set apart among Christians, for religious exercises and duties." (2:93)

Edwards divides his topic into two propositions. First, he argues that "It is sufficiently clear, that it is the mind of God, that one day of the week should be devoted to rest, and to religious exercises, throughout all ages and nations." (2:94) Second, he continues that "It is sufficiently clear, that under the gospel-dispensation, this day is the first day of the week." (2:96) Essentially, he establishes the validity of the sabbath for every period and people and then explains the role it plays in the New Testament.

With regard to the first proposition, Edwards argues both from the nature or state of mankind and from direct revelation (scripture). Edwards finds it reasonable that "certain fixed parts of time should be set apart," (2:94) for rest and the pursuit of religious exercises. Man, according to his own nature and that of his environment, is occupied by the duties and concerns of the world. It is only proper that he set these aside at certain times in order to honor his creator God. It is important that these times be fixed and regular, so that men devote themselves to God with consistency and do not interrupt one another in their endeavors.

It is clear that one proportion of time is better than another. Gathering once a year certainly would be inadequate, men would quickly neglect religion. Likewise, meeting too often would render man unable to fulfill his earthly responsibilities. But, man with his limited faculties and warped perspective is unable to determine an accurate and edifying proportion. We must rather trust God to determine the proper time and proportion for the sabbath.

He provides us with an example that we ought to follow in Genesis chapter two. "Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made." (Genesis 2:3) God, when he blessed and hallowed the sabbath, did so with respect to mankind. It is absurd to think that he blessed and hallowed it only with respect to himself, or in order to observe it within himself. It is also unlikely that he blessed and hallowed it only with respect to the Jews, who did not exist as a nation until several thousand years later. No, he intended rather for all men to follow his lead, resting one day in seven.

Continuing in defense of the first proposition, Edwards presents evidence from direct revelation. He asserts that the fourth commandment reveals Godís desire that "not only the Israelitish nation, but that all nations, should keep every seventh day holy." (2:95) Just as the other nine commands inscribed in stone, the sabbath has not been abolished with the coming of the New Covenant. "For it is the very design of the command, to fix the time of worship. The first command fixes the object, the second the means, the third the manner, the fourth the time." (2:95) The chief objection against the perpetuity of the command is that it is not a moral command. (According to Edwards, a moral command is one "whose obligation arises from the nature of things, and from the general state and nature of mankind, as well as from God's positive revealed will." - 2:95) These objectors deem the sabbath an arbitrary institution which should be abdicated along with the ceremonial law.

Edwards responds that one cannot assume that a command is not perpetual simply because it is not moral. It is conceivable that an arbitrary institution could exist until the end of the age. That being said, Edwards then asserts that the sabbath is moral. Its foundation, as recently demonstrated, "arises from the nature of things, and from the general state and nature of mankind." The specific proportion of time (one day in seven) is also rooted in nature, despite the fact that we cannot determine it of ourselves. (For a fuller treatment of Edwardsí opinion on moral and non-moral commands, see Miscellany 4.)

Edwards further defends the perpetuity of the sabbath by pointing out the great weight placed upon it in comparison to the ceremonial precepts. As mentioned earlier, the punishment for violation of the sabbath was death. (Numbers 15:32-36) In addition, sabbath profanation provoked the wrath of God towards Israel. Ezekiel 20:10-14 portrays the gravity of the precept:

"So I took them out of the land of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness. And I gave them My sabbaths to be a sign between Me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them. But the house of Israel rebelled against Me in the wilderness. They did not walk in My statutes, and they rejected My ordinances, by which, if a man observes them, he will live; and My sabbaths they greatly profaned. Then I resolved to pour out My wrath on them in the wilderness, to annihilate them. But I acted for the the sake of My name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, before whose sight I had brought them out."

It is unlikely that God would give a ceremonial or arbitrary law such prominent covenant significance.

In addition, it appears that Isaiah 66 speaks of the sabbath in the context of New Testament blessings and duties. Verses 18 and 19 discuss the gathering of all nations and tongues, and the glory of the Lord being declared among the gentiles. Verses 22 and 23 continue as follows, "'For just as the new heavens and the new earth which I make will endure before Me,' declares the Lord, 'so your offspring and your name will endure. And it shall be from new moon to new moon and from sabbath to sabbath, all mankind will come to bow down before Me,' says the Lord."

Edwards second proposition is that, "It is the will of God, that under the gospel dispensation, or in the Christian Church, this day should be the first day of the week." The Old Testament sabbath was a type, it has given way to the anti-type.

After God created the earth, he rested on the seventh day. It was not long before his creature shunned the good gifts of the Lord and plunged the world into death and sin. One consequence was a world devoid of rest, "Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you will eat of it all the days of your life." (Genesis 3:17) Sin proliferated and marred the old creation beyond repair. "For My people are foolish, they know Me not; they are stupid children and have no understanding. They are shrewd to do evil, but to do good they do not know. I looked on the earth, and behold, it was formless and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light." (Jeremiah 4:22-23)

God was not content to see his creation destroyed by sin and so he has accomplished a new creation. "Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come." (2 Corinthians 5:17) God has brought light out of darkness, just as he did in the first creation. The brilliance of this new creation far outstrips the old and the memory of the old fades in comparison. "For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things will not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem for rejoicing and her people for gladness." (Isaiah 65:17) If God expected that we commemorate the old creation, how much more now the new!

Christ has rested from his work of new creation just as the Father rested from the old. "So there remains a Sabbath rest (lit. Sabbatism) for the people of God. For the one who has entered His rest (Christ) has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His." (Hebrews 4:9-10) Christís rest came about at the resurrection. He his labor of redemption was on the cross and in the grave. The resurrection was the completion of and rest from that work. He purchased our eternal rest through the supreme labor of love. "Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." (Matthew 11:29) Just as Christ rose on the first day, we ought to celebrate that redemption on the same day.

Edwards continues his exposition of Old Testament types with the Israelite exodus. Deuteronomy 5:15 says, "You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day." The Jewish sabbath was ordained for the remembrance of Godís mighty deliverance from the Egyptian bondage. It is widely accepted that the Exodus was a shadow and type of Christís deliverance. "Therefore the words, as spoken to us, are to be thus interpreted, Remember, thou wast a servant to sin and Satan, and the Lord thy God delivered thee from this bondage, with a mighty hand and outstretched arm; therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day." (2:98) The glory and power of the second deliverance dwarfs the first. Even so, the parallels between the two are striking.

Though we are pursued by the chariots and horsemen of sin, God has led us out of the land of bondage to the land of song and sabbath rest. What becomes of our sins? They, like the Egyptian horsemen, are drowned in the Red Sea flowing from our Saviorís five wounds. As Moses encouraged Israel, so now does Christ encourage us, "Do not fear! Stand by and see the salvation of the LORD which He will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you have seen today, you will never see them again forever. The LORD will fight for you while you keep silent." (Exodus 14:13)

Since Christ rose on that first day, defeating his enemies (death and sin), we ought to hallow that day and remember the great deliverance he has wrought. The Jewish sabbath is left behind, eclipsed by the glory of Christ. "Therefore behold, days are coming, declares the LORD, when it will no longer be said, 'As the LORD lives, who brought up the sons of Israel out of the land of Egypt,' but, 'As the LORD lives, who brought up the sons of Israel from the land of the north and from all the countries where He had banished them.'" (Jeremiah 16:14-15) It appears from the discussion of Gentile ingathering in verse 19 that Jeremiah here refers to the New Covenant. God will be exalted primarily for his spiritual redemption ("from the land of the north") rather than the Israelitish deliverance.

Edwards asserts that it would be improper for us to continue to celebrate the Jewish sabbath, since Christ lay in the grave on that day. Rather, we should commemorate his day of triumph, the first of the week. Christ provided confirmation of this day by sending his spirit on the day of Pentecost, which was the first day of the week. (see Leviticus 23:15-16) In addition, we are given proof that the disciples gathered on the first day. "On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight." (Acts 20:7) It seems that the practice was consistent since Paul commanded the Corinthians, "Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I directed the churches of Galatia, so do you also. On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come." (1 Corinthians 16:1-2)

Since it is evident from scripture and reason that we ought to commemorate Godís great deliverance, the question arises, in what manner should we observe the sabbath? Certainly we ought to lay aside our carnal concerns and spend the day in rest and remembrance of the great redemption provided through Christ. One excellent means of doing so is joining the convocation of the saints and worshipping God as a body. We ought also to pursue the knowledge of God, through preaching and study of scripture. God made the sabbath for man! It is for our renewal, edification, and enjoyment. We must be wise and faithful stewards of this gift.

We should be especially careful to guard our hearts against sinful tendencies on this holy day. On a day specially set apart, our hearts ought to be specially set apart. The sabbath is a day of focus on our Almighty Creator and Deliverer. We profane Godís name and cheat ourselves of the full benefit of the day when we are distracted by sinful desires.

Edwards eloquently summarizes our positive sabbath duties:

"We should on this day contemplate the wonderful love of God and of Christ, as expressed in the work of redemption; and our remembrance of these things should be accompanied with suitable exercises of soul with respect to them. When we call to mind the love of Christ, it should be with a return of love on our part. When we commemorate this work, it should be with faith in the Saviour. And we should praise God and the Lamb for this work, for the divine glory and love manifested in it, in our private and public prayers, in talking of the wonderful works of God, and in singing divine songs." (2:103)

Too often our perception of the sabbath is terribly limited. We see it only as a burden, and focus on the things we must exclude. But, the sabbath is ever so much more gift than burden. God has granted us an entire day to wash our palate of the bitter residue of the world and more fully "taste and see that the Lord is good." (Psalm 34:8) The command to observe the sabbath is comparable to a father commanding his child to stop cleaning his room and instead play catch with his father. The child will delight to carry out such a command unless there is something wrong with him. God has commanded the sabbath because he understands that we are so dense and nearsighted that we will neglect this delight and privilege. We trade the highest joy in God for the truly mundane pursuits of earth, we forsake the substance of happiness and grasp at a mirage.

The sabbath is at the very heart of religion and indeed life itself. "To serve and worship God is that for which we were made, and for which we had our being given us. Other business, which is of a secular nature, and on which we are wont to attend on week days, is but subordinate, and ought to be subservient to the higher purposes and ends of religion." (2:101) On the Lordís day our hearts should be overflowing with thanks for our redemption, which will spill forth from our lips in songs of praise. At the same time our minds will yearn for fuller knowledge of this awesome Being and the preaching of his Word. "Eat, O friends! Drink, yes, drink deeply, O beloved ones!" (Song of Songs 5:1) The sabbath is a day of feasting for your spiritual appetites! As we more fully comprehend and enjoy the excellency of Christ's redemption, then we will observe the sabbath as God intended.



Edwards, Jonathan. The "Miscellanies": 1-500. Edited by Thomas Schafer. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Edwards, Jonathan. Miscellanies 501-1360. Currently unpublished, made available for the class by Don Westblade.

Edwards, Jonathan. The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Edited by Edward Hickman. Vol. 2, The Perpetuity and Change of the Sabbath. London: Banner of Truth, 1979.

References to The Works  in this paper include volume number followed by page number.

Scriptures quoted in this paper are in the New American Standard Version.