Recently, I read a transformative chapter in A Quest for Godliness by J.I. Packer on the Lord’s Day. In particular, how the Puritans viewed the Lord’s Day. Right off the bat, I know some may say of the Puritans, “LEGALISTS!” Maybe at times this can appear to be a fair critique of the Puritans, although I think it is a gross misunderstanding of who they were and what they stood for. I think Puritans held to a high view of personal holiness and corporate or community holiness, so much so that at times it appears (especially to our more post-modern, antinomian minds) to be that the Puritans were legalists. This is an especially important point for the Fourth Commandment. Let’s remind ourselves of the Fourth Commandment:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11, English Standard Version)
Now, the Reformers and the Puritans generally agreed on much, but as far as the Sabbath, the Puritans (who came after the Reformers), had what Packer calls “a corrected view of the inconsistent view” that the Reformers held of the Sabbath. Packer goes on to say,
They (Puritans) insisted, with virtual unanimity, that, although the Reformers were right to see a merely typical and temporary significance in certain of the detailed prescriptions of the Jewish Sabbath, yet the principle of one day’s rest for public and private worship of God at the end of each six days’ work was a law of creation, made for man as such, and therefore binding upon man as long as he lives in this world...In fact, they saw it (the Fourth Commandment) as integral to the first table of the law, which deals systematically with worship: ‘the first command fixes the object, the second the means, the third the manner, and the fourth the time.’ (A Quest for Godliness, page 237, emphasis my own)
The Puritans agreed with the Reformers that the Sabbath was and is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ. This point rests in the fact that the Jewish work of keeping the sacrificial system (old covenant) is replaced and trumped by the “Great High Priest” (Hebrews 4:14) Jesus Christ, who became the sacrifice Himself (new covenant), and was accepted by God on behalf of, or for, His people. Yes and amen!
But the Puritans pushed the Fourth Commandment further than only being a ceremonial law, and much of the emphasis came from the context of the other nine commands in the Decalogue – namely, that the other nine commandments are moral in nature and thus still binding on believers in the New Covenant. The Puritans saw all ten of the commandments as binding – especially the fourth. Packer says of them,
(The Puritans argued) that the seventh-day rest was more than a Jewish type; it was a memorial of creation, and a part of the moral law, and as such it was perpetually obligatory for all men. So that when we find the New Testament telling us that Christians met for worship on the first day of the week (Acts 23:7; 41; 1 Cor. 16:1), and kept that day as ‘the Lord’s day’ (Rev. 1:10), this can only mean one thing: that by apostolic precept, and probably in fact by dominical injunction during the forty days before the Ascension, this had been made the day on which men were henceforth to keep the Sabbath of rest which the Fourth Commandment prescribes. (A Quest for Godliness, page 238)
I think the wording of the Fourth Commandment in Exodus 20 is especially important for the New Testament believer in relation to purpose of the Sabbath and function of the Sabbath.
1. Purpose of the Sabbath – To keep it holy and to remember that which is holy
“The seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God…” On this day, there is a specialness that ought to invoke a remembrance, memorial, and worship which is different and of more importance than the other six days of work. Now, make no mistake, I am not saying that our “normal labors” are not an act of worship – they certainly are – but only that they are a different kind of worship. Our “normal labor” is done by those who were made to work and as those who are given the charge to work. These six day serve the purpose of worship through obedience – both in obeying the command of the Lord to work and in fulfilling the imago dei in which God has made us to work.
But the Sabbath day, the seventh day, is a different kind of worship, a special worship, a worship in which we explicitly and purposefully set aside all other work to do. This worship is for the purpose of magnifying Christ and serving as a community expression of the gospel – namely, that God has saved sinners and gathered them together, that they will be His people and He will be their God. This is an “already” aspect of the already-not yet aspect of the eschatological (end times) people of God. We are already the people of God and we have God as our God, but we await the day of the New Jerusalem, where it will only be God and His people.
There are some special things, then, to do on this Lord’s Day. In the entirety of the Holy Scriptures, we time and time again read of God’s people gathering to hear the Word of God spoken to them. This comes in various forms, granted, and today specifically and primarily through the preaching of the Holy Scriptures. Throughout Scripture, it sometimes came as verbal, or from the mouth of God Himself. Other times it came prophetically, or from God to His messenger (the prophet, such as Moses, Isaiah, etc.), and from His messenger to His people. Other times it came expositorally, or from the written Holy Scriptures, to the apostles or pastors/elders, and then to God’s people (this is primarily the New Testament method).
This shows in form the purpose of the Sabbath – to learn “thus saith the Lord” – and as we hear what God has said to us as His people, we are formed, or shaped, by it. This leads us to function of the Sabbath.
2. Function of the Sabbath – to be Shaped and Formed in community by God through the Word of God
“On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates…” There is community language in the Fourth Commandment – clearly as written to the community head. The head has the responsibility to see that no one in the household (in those days, it would have included servants, sojourners, children, etc.) does anything except that which is used by God to make them holy.
I agree with the Reformers that the Sabbath is fulfilled in Christ in ceremony, and thus He is our rest, and via union with Him, we (the church) are in His rest also. In the Fourth Commandment, what was it that God was making to be holy? It was the Sabbath – the rest. In the New Covenant, what is it that God makes to be holy? It is those inside of His Sabbath – those united with the fulfilled Sabbath, which is Christ. So, Peter says to the church, “as obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy'” (1 Peter 1:14-16, ESV).
The Sabbath day is unlike the other six days. What does this mean spiritually? Those in the Sabbath – those in the rest that is Christ – are to be unlike those who are “conformed to the passions of ignorance”. Those in Christ are to be holy, as our rest (CHRIST!) is holy. The function, then, of the Sabbath, is to be the day that households gather together to meet with God, and are shaped and molded and formed by the Word of God to be made holy.
The Puritans understood this. There was a ceremony, a specialness, a uniqueness to the Sabbath. They approached the Sabbath expectantly. They prepared for it on Saturday by praying and meditating on Scripture, and by going to bed early so that they would be in full faculty for their community worship gathering on Sunday. They knew that this was a grace given by God to His people. We don’t have to wonder when God is going to move – He is going to move in His people when they gather.
The Puritans not only approached Sunday differently than us, they treated Sunday differently than us. After the service, the fathers would review their notes with their families to the point of meditation and memorization. This would take place all day on Sunday, and Sunday dinner was spent discussing points of application from the sermon. The pastor, later in the week, would visit different homes and quiz families on his sermon from earlier in the week. This led to intense understanding and personal, as well as corporate, holiness, for the people of God were truly being shaped and formed by the Word of God.
What about you? How do you view the Sabbath? I welcome your comments in the comment section, and please share if you found this helpful.