Remember the Sabbath Day by Keeping It Holy

This past Sunday my wife and I were blessed to hear a beautiful and gracious preaching on the Sabbath and its fulfillment in Christ Jesus and in the Divine Service of His Gospel. I’m guessing that many other pastors using the three-year lectionary probably also preached on the Sabbath, on the basis of the appointed Holy Gospel (St. Mark 2:23—3:6). With that in mind, I’m sharing just a few thoughts on the Sabbath in relation to the rhythms of the Church Year, borrowing and redacting some of what I’ve written in the LSB: Companion to the Services (CPH, 2022):

The cycles of the day, of the week, and of the year with its seasons are all established and rooted in God’s good work of creation. The day and the year are governed by the rotation of the earth and its orbit around the sun. The sun and moon rule day and night in succession, and these two great heavenly bodies, together with the stars, are for “signs and seasons” (Genesis 1:14).

The seven-day week with its concluding Sabbath Day is also determined in its own way by the divine work of creation and the accompanying Word of God. It is not governed by the sun, moon, and stars, but by the pattern established by God in the beginning (Genesis 2:2-3) and then commanded in the Lord’s Covenant with Israel (Exodus 20:8-11; Leviticus 23:2-3).

The New Testament Church Year, although not commanded by the Lord, is nevertheless an ordering and sanctifying of time with His Word in continuity with His Old Testament liturgy. In particular, it is rooted in the person and work of Christ Jesus and shaped by His life, death, and resurrection, which are the fulfillment of all that God had said and done before.

Similarly, the weekly Old Testament Sabbath and its echoes throughout the year point to the true and permanent Sabbath which remains for the people of God in Christ (Hebrews 4:3, 9-11, 14). God’s gift of peace and rest, bestowed by His Word and Holy Spirit, is writ both large and small in His Liturgy in both the Old Testament and the New. It is established forever in Christ Jesus. For Israel, the Sabbath was a recurring aspect and emphasis of each week and of the festivals throughout the year, as also of the Jubilee every fifty years (Leviticus 23). Significantly, the Day of Atonement was a day of absolute Sabbath Rest, in which no one was to engage in any kind of work at all (Leviticus 23:28-32). Atonement is the work and gift of the Lord alone on behalf of His people. In this we see already the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith in the Word and promises of God, apart from any work on the part of the people for themselves.

In the fullness of time, the Sabbath was finally and forever accomplished in the Body of Christ Jesus by the completion of His work of Atonement and Redemption on the Cross, and then also by His rest in the tomb on Holy Saturday. His once-for-all Sacrifice has reconciled the world to God and thus provides true peace and Sabbath Rest to all those who trust in Him. Even death has become a kind of sleep from which His people shall awaken and arise (St. Mark 5:39; St. John 11:11-15; 1 Cor. 15:51-57; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; Revelation 14:13), because He has sanctified their graves by His own burial and rest in the tomb (St. Luke 23:50–56). Therefore, Christ is our true Sabbath, superseding and replacing the Old Testament Sabbath (Colossians 2:16-17).

As the Sabbath defined the Old Testament liturgical cycle (Leviticus 23), so did Sunday, the Lord’s Day (Revelation 1:10), emerge as the defining observance of the Christian Church Year. Despite the similarities, however, Sunday is not another “Sabbath Day.” Instead, it marks the beginning of something new, arising out of the fulfillment and perfection of the old. Even the difference between the ending of the week and the beginning of a new week is significant.

Sunday is the first day of Creation, when God called forth the light out of the darkness (Genesis 1:2-4; 2 Corinthians 4:6); and it has also become the glorious dawning of the New Creation in the Resurrection of Christ Jesus from the dead (St. Luke 24:1; St. John 20:1, 19; 1 Corinthians 15:20-22). As the second-century apologist Justin Martyr so aptly put it, “Sunday is the day on which we hold our common assembly since this day is the first day on which God, changing darkness and matter, created the world; it was on this very day that Jesus Christ our Savior rose from the dead” (Apology I, 67). It is an eternal Eighth Day, “after the Sabbath,” beyond the days and weeks of this old world (St. Matthew 28:1; St. Mark 16:1-2; St. John 20:26; Revelation 21:23-25). Whereas the Sabbath was established by the Law as a day of rest, marking the completion of the old creation and God’s resting from His work, Sunday is celebrated as a joyous feast of the Gospel in the Body and Blood of the risen Lord Jesus, who lives and reigns forever in the Kingdom of His God and Father (Revelation 1:4-18; 5:6-14).

(See “The Church Year,” in Lutheran Service Book: Companion to the Services, edited by Paul J. Grime, Concordia Publishing House, 2022, especially pages 183-186)