“Thus said the LORD to me: ‘Go and stand in the People’s Gate, by which the kings of Judah enter and by which they go out, and in all the gates of Jerusalem, and say: “Hear the word of the LORD, you kings of Judah, and all Judah, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, who enter by these gates. Thus says the LORD: Take care for the sake of your lives, and do not bear a burden on the Sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem. And do not carry a burden out of your houses on the Sabbath or do any work, but keep the Sabbath day holy, as I commanded your fathers. Yet they did not listen or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck, that they might not hear and receive instruction” ‘ ” (Jeremiah 17:19–23).
I believe the paramount application of Jeremiah 17:19–27 is this, for the sake of your lives, hear the word of Yahweh. Listen. Do not stiffen your neck. “Yeah, but what does this mean for us today in connection to the Sabbath?” Towards finding an answer, there are three ways of reading the Scriptures that will lead to three different answers. Frequently, before we can address our disagreements as to what the Scripture says, we must first agree on how we are to listen.
First, there is the dispensationalist view, which, to put it simply, would say that the Sabbath and the old covenant do not pertain to the church at all. On a scale of discontinuity to continuity, the dispensational hermeneutic (their way of interpreting the Scriptures) would be in the red, heavy on discontinuity.
Second, there is the classical reformed or covenantal view. Historically, covenant theologians have strongly emphasized continuity between the old and new covenants. This is even true of our baptist forefathers who thought their presbyterian brothers overemphasized continuity in connection to circumcision. Despite this, they were in agreement concerning the continuity of the Sabbath, celebrated by the church now, because of Christ, on the Lord’s Day. For example, the Second London Confession differs very little from the Westminster Confession on this point. Chapter 22, section 7 of the 1689 Baptist Confession reads:
“As it is of the Law of nature, that in general a proportion of time by God’s appointment, be set a part for the Worship of God; so by his Word in a positive-moral, and perpetual Commandment, binding all men, in all Ages, 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 is called the Lord’s day; and is to be continued to the end of the World, as the Christian Sabbath; the observation of the last day of the week being abolished.”
This is known as the Sabbatarian position. Additionally, some argue for a seventh-day Sabbatarian position, to gather for worship on Saturday. These positions lean toward continuity side of the scale.
Third, there is what we might call the fulfillment position. Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17–18). Contrary to the dispensationalist, Jesus didn’t say the law was irrelevant for His disciples. Yet, contrary to the classic covenant view, Jesus didn’t say He simply came to ensure the law’s unaltered perpetuity. He came to fulfill the law. Craig Blomberg captures the significance this has for how we read the Old Testament well.
“Pervasive throughout the NT is the concept that Christians live in the era of the fulfillment of everything to which every part of the Hebrew Scriptures pointed. Every portion of the law remains an inspired, relevant authority for believers; but none of it may be applied properly until one understands how the new covenant has fulfilled that particular law or part of the law. A new age has been inaugurated that potentially changes everything. In some cases the application of a segment of Hebrew Scripture involves appreciating how it is fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus so that we obey certain OT laws simply by trusting in Christ for our salvation. In other cases, especially with broad moral principles, applications may remain virtually unchanged. In many instances there will be both continuity and discontinuity of application. We dare not assume in advance where on this spectrum Sabbath observance in the NT era will fall by some methodological presupposition that would a priori push obedience to this command to a particular place on our spectrum of possible applications. We must rather turn to the specific NT texts that impinge on the issue of Sabbath-keeping and see what pattern, if any, emerges from their teaching”‘
In recent years I’ve encountered some, who I think are reacting against the densely dispensational atmosphere they grew up under, who say evangelicals today set aside the law altogether. They are as equally offset by my bacon eating as my Sabbath breaking. They will accuse both of dispensational and covenant theologies of antinomianism, though, I think in general, they know far less of covenant theology. While I share their distaste for dispensational theology’s shoddy dismissal of the law, I think they do so as well.
Fulfillment is not about less, but more. I agree that the law is written on the heart, but shadows are also replaced by substance. Noon has all the Sun that was present at dawn, plus some. When I turn from the shadow of my spouse to embrace her, I haven’t lost but gained. To continue staring at the shadow would be the loss. When the bud blooms into fruit, I have all that the bud was and more. I don’t want to eat sour buds. I appreciate the bud because it will become fruit. It’s the fruit I’m after. So when I speak of the Sabbath being fulfilled, there is a way that I believe I keep it better than those who insist that a day be kept. I am zealous to celebrate the Sabbath. I believe it is a critical matter of life and death. One must take care or they will die.
What fulfillment means is that there is both continuity and discontinuity. Jesus Christ and His accomplished work is now the lens through which we must read all the Old Testament. The kind of approach I’m advocating here is that which I believe the New Testament itself models. It’s akin, though not identical, to the approach our Baptist forefathers used when considering the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant—circumcision. I only wish wish that when it came to the sign of the Mosaic Covenant, the Sabbath, that they would have been consistent. The issues are more complex than this, but that is another discussion.
The Sabbath is a sign (Exodus 31:12–12). As a sign it looked back to creation (Exodus 20:8–11) and to Israel’s redemption (Deuteronomy 5:12–15). Still, as a sign, the Sabbath is also a shadow. It not only looks back; it looks forward. Paul warned the Colossians, who were in danger of being influenced by a kind of Jewish mysticism, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:16–17, emphasis mine). The Sabbath anticipates. It is the bud. Where is the flower? The substance belongs to Christ.
If you want to learn how to read your Old Testament, read Hebrews. Hebrews takes you again and again from shadow to substance. For instance, why don’t we have priests? Because we have the Great High Priest. Why don’t we offer sacrifices? Because the point of all those do-nothing sacrifices was to point to the do-all sacrifice of Christ. Hebrews makes this plain. Concerning the rest which Israel was to enjoy in the land, and the warning to listen, lest they fail to take part in it, Hebrews tells us:
“For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:8–11).
Where is this rest found? It is found in Christ. Sabbath is found, not in a particular day, but in the risen Son. The day was a sign and a shadow. Christ is the substance. He worked so that we might rest. Still, I must add the caveat, there is a day, when the Son will shine in glory and the saints will fully enter the rest they already partly enjoy in Christ.
In the New Testament every command from the decalogue is repeated save this one. This makes sense because it is the only one of the ten that is also a sign of the old covenant. In the new covenant two signs are expressly given to the Church in light of Christ fulfilling the promises of the old—Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Church, here’s your signs.
So then, what does it mean for us to hear, to listen, and to take care in the light of Christ and His accomplished work? Chiefly it involves gathering in obedience to our Lord as a church, to rest in Christ, worshipping Him as He is ministered to us by God’s Word and the sacraments. The author of Hebrews, having unpacked the priesthood of Christ, admonishes us:
“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:19–25).
Saints and sinners, hear this. Listen. Take care, for hearing God means rest. Our Lord Jesus Christ today by His word says, “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” (Matthew 11:28–29). Truly the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. There is rest in Him, and Him alone.