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The Christological Sign of the Sabbath

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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. 20:8–11Deut. 5:12–15). Both at creation and in the fourth commandment, it 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. It 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. It 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. It 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.

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).