I’m Taking a Sabbath (And So Should You)

This is the first thing that came up when I Googled 'Sabbath.' That's culturally-telling.

This is the first thing that came up when I Googled ‘Sabbath.’ That’s culturally-telling.

I’m taking off this week on a little road-trip up to Santa Barbara. We’re packing up 20+ college students to go beach camping for our summer retreat and plan on having a blast. After a couple of days there, my wife and I are taking a mini-vacation for our 2-year anniversary, by sticking around the area in a hotel while the students head back down to Orange County. Needless to say, I am very excited.

This means two things for me: First, I won’t be on the blog much this week. Don’t worry though, I’ve prepped a few posts that are scheduled to go up, so there will be plenty of Reformedish content to read. That said I won’t be sharing them around much (so feel free to share them for me!), nor will I be commenting in response much either. You’ll have to amuse yourselves otherwise.

Second, in light of my own mini-Sabbath, I’ve been thinking about the issue of Sabbath. In fact, that’s the subject of our meditations this week with the students. Americans in general, for all of our leisure, don’t really know how to Sabbath. Surprisingly enough to some, college students are some of the worst offenders I know. They do plenty of random, “non-work” activities, but the actual practice of Sabbath is something that escapes them–so we’re going to talk about it.

Calvin on Sabbath: Too Much to Talk About
Given all these things, I was curious to go back and read what Calvin had to say on the subject. It turns out there was a lot–far too much to review here. Unbeknownst to many, Calvin’s commentary on the Torah is a lengthy Harmony of the Law comprising 4 volumes in which he comments on the narratives in Exodus-Deuteronomy (he has a separate commentary on Genesis) and, well, “harmonizes” the Law by treating the various laws according to groupings and subject matter, while still dealing with specific texts. I don’t have time to go through it all, but you can go read what he does with the Sabbath command at length here.

Thankfully Calvin summarizes a great deal of that in a shorter but still lengthy section in the Institutes as well, which contains a brief commentary on the 10 commandments in Book 2. But, of course, he outlines those comments briefly at the beginning too. That’s what I want to look at. Yes, it’s a summary of a summary, but even that is plenty of Calvin to work with.

Three Reasons
Following the Fathers he thinks that this commandment is “a foreshadowing because it contains the outward keeping of a day which, upon Christ’s coming, was abolished with the other figures” (2.12.28) Now, this is true as far as it goes, but he thinks that when we limit it to this, “they touch upon only half the matter.”

Calvin sees at least three reasons for the Lord’s Sabbath command:

  1. First, under the repose of the seventh day the heavenly Lawgiver meant to represent to the people of Israel spiritual rest, in which believers ought to lay aside their own works to allow God to work in them.” (ibid.) First and foremost the Sabbath is not a work to be achieved on our part, but a promise, a foreshadowing, of God’s Gospel accomplishment on our behalf. God was pointing his people ahead to the day when their own ceaseless and ineffective spiritual labors would cease because Christ the Redeemer had done the great work on our behalf. Of course, for us, this serves as a reminder that the great work has already been done; we rest in Christ. At the same time, there is still an eschatological element to the Christian keeping of the Sabbath as it points to that final rest that we still await. (Heb. 4) Our current Sabbath is a down-payment on eschatological Sabbath to come.
  2. Secondly, he meant that there was to be a stated day for them to assemble to hear the law and perform the rites, or at least to devote it particularly to meditation upon his works, and thus through this remembrance to be trained in piety.” (ibid.) God knows we regularly need to gather, hear the word of the Lord, and meditate on all of his goodness. Sabbath is not mere leisure time, but a specific rhythm by which we set aside time to recall the promises of God, his commandments, and worship Him as he deserves and our hearts were designed to do. The key to remember here is that God does not need this, but we do. He demands it as his due lawful due, but the benefit is ours.
  3. Thirdly, he resolved to give a day of rest to servants and those who are under the authority of others, in order that they should have some respite from toil.” (ibid.) Finally, Calvin notes the very practical nature of the command: physical rest. Even before the Gospel of Resurrection taught us that the Lord is redeeming the body as well as the soul (1 Cor. 6), we see in God’s commands his care for our physical being as well as our spiritual–indeed, the two are indissolubly connected. God knows that we simply need rest from our labors, a time when we simply are still and know that the world will keep turning as we recuperate our strength for the tasks that God has set us to do in this world.

As with all of God’s good commands, there is far more to say, but in obedience to the command, I will cease from my labors and trust that God himself will teach you all that you need to know in this regard. Consider this an invitation to rest in the Lord.

Soli Deo Gloria

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