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What is the Sabbath? Dr. Guy Waters

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Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Waters about the Sabbath.

Topics of conversation include:

  • The beginning of the Sabbath at creation
  • The significance of the Sabbath commandment
  • The distinction between laws unique to Israel and moral laws continuing into the New Testament
  • Why the death penalty was required for violating the Sabbath
  • Why it is important for Christians today to practice the Sabbath

Dr. Guy Prentiss Waters is the James M. Baird, Jr. professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary. He also serves as a teaching elder in the PCA, and is the author of many books, including The Life and Theology of Paul (Ligonier Ministries, 2018), For the Mouth of the Lord Has Spoken: The Doctrine of Scripture (Mentor, 2020), and, as part of the Short Studies in Biblical Theology series, The Sabbath as Rest and Hope for the People of God (Crossway, 2022).


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Intro (00:00):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:17):

There’s a famous story of an Olympic runner named Eric Liddell who competed in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. What gained him international attention—aside from winning a gold medal in the 400 meter race—was that he refused to run his preferred race, the 100-meter dash, because it was on a Sunday. Later he served as a missionary in China, having grown up there as a missionary kid, and he would die in a Japanese internment camp, full of the Holy Spirit. His last words were, “It’s complete surrender.” Surely surrendering a gold medal in a 100-meter race is part of his life of total surrender to Christ. Was he right not to run on Sunday? Well, in some sense—yes. You must follow your convictions. However, would a Christian Olympian be in sin if he ran on Sunday today? This raises a whole host of questions.

Brian Arnold (01:05):

What is the Sabbath? Is the Sabbath the same as the Lord’s Day? Do Christians need to protect the Sabbath as a holy day in the way that Israel was commanded in the 10 Commandments? Must we preserve the Sabbath? Should we preserve the Sabbath? All under the broader question of—what is the Sabbath? Well, here to help us answer that question today is Dr. Guy Prentiss Waters. Dr. Waters is James M. Baird, Jr. professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, and also serves as a teaching elder in the PCA. He’s the author of 15 books, including The Life and Theology of Paul, For the Mouth of the Lord Has Spoken: The Doctrine of Scripture, and most recently he’s written The Sabbath as Rest and Hope for the People of God, published with Crossway’s Short Studies in Biblical Theology series. Dr. Waters, welcome to the podcast.

Guy Waters (01:52):

Thank you for having me, Brian.

Brian Arnold (01:54):

So we always ask our guests one big question, today that question is—what is the Sabbath? And just a place to maybe start is most Christians probably think of the 10 Commandments, where the fourth commandment is about keeping the Sabbath holy. But you actually go back further into the story. You see this as something beginning in creation, as the commandment even draws out. So that’s where you start this question of where’s the Sabbath? So take us back to creation, so that we can get the kind of foundational pillar of the Sabbath.

Guy Waters (02:24):

Great question, Brian. And I think it helps to work backwards. We start, just as you said, in Exodus 20, where so many do. That is where we see the Sabbath in living color. But it begins, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” suggesting that’s not the first time we’ve been introduced to the Sabbath. And if you go back four chapters to Exodus 16, God tells Israel, I want you to gather manna. You can gather it six days, but on the seventh day, I don’t want you to gather it. I’ll give you a double portion on the sixth day. And then that pushes us back all the way to creation, which is mentioned explicitly in Exodus 20. God creates the world in six days. He rests the seventh. He blesses that day, declares it holy—that’s worship language in the Old Testament—not for his benefit, but for our benefit. He wants for us, as image bearers, to work six days and to devote that seventh day to him, as a day of rest and worship. That’s a pointer to why God has made us, and what he ultimately intends for us as image bearers.

Brian Arnold (03:40):

And so one thing I’ve heard some commentators say about this is, you know, creation kind of ends with that Sabbath rest for God, and he is continuing in that state of Sabbath rest. Is that how you understand that? Or how should we think about being in that seventh day of creation?

Guy Waters (03:56):

Well, I think we get an important clue in Genesis two, where God puts Adam in the garden. And Adam is representing not just himself, but the human race descending from him ordinarily. Everyone except Jesus Christ. And he is told in no uncertain terms—I don’t want you to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And there is this Tree of Life that’s in the garden as well. And to compress the story, if Adam had obeyed—which he did not—he would have been ushered into confirmed and full life, consisting in glory and fellowship and communion with God. And that’s what the Sabbath day was pointing towards. Now, all of that was lost in Adam. But in the last Adam, Jesus Christ, by his death and resurrection, he brings all who trust him into that life. And we are told that the rest of the seventh day is a Sabbath rest in Hebrews four. It awaits us. It is in the future. So we continue to observe the weekly Sabbath in anticipation of that final rest that lies ahead of us in Christ. So that Sabbath rest continues from creation, through the fall, through redemption, all the way to consummation.

Brian Arnold (05:29):

It is one of those key themes in Scripture, right? I love this biblical theology series that Crossway is doing that this book is in, to really kind of show how these key themes march their way out through Scripture. Well, one of the most important places we see the Sabbath is in the 10 Commandments. Why is it so important for Israel to have it there in the 10 Commandments? I mean, you think—you’ve got only 10 of these, and these are going to be some of the most significant things that God can communicate to his people. How do you kind of situate it there within the two tablets, and understanding its connection for Israel in particular?

Guy Waters (06:02):

Great question. So Israel is God’s redeemed people, and he gives them the 10 Commandments, two tables—the first table addressing particularly our duties to God, second table, duties to other people, human beings. And if you look at those first four commandments, you’ll notice they all have one thing in common—worship. And what the fourth commandment addresses is the day on which God would have us to gather with his people and to worship him. Now the form that’s given is particular to Israel, but the commandment, as you said a moment ago, runs across the history of humanity, and particularly redemptive history, because God is setting apart a people for himself to worship. So the importance of the Sabbath commandment is that it points to the most important thing we can do as human beings, and that is to worship the God who made us, and in Christ to worship the God who redeemed us.

Brian Arnold (07:07):

Yeah, I mean, God builds it into the DNA of Israel, right? Like it’s the number one commandment of…even as Jesus says, when he’s asked—what is the most weighty matter of the law? And it’s—love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. And then God builds in a whole day of the week in order to help us focus our attention on worship, and communing with him in that unique way. So this is interesting, right? Because the Sabbath holds such a significant place in the life of Israel, that to violate this commandment can result in death. And so you see the same things I do today, where people will come against the Bible in some of these ways—their hermeneutic is not very good in terms of how they’re interpreting Scripture—where they’ll say, “Well, if you want to have…you know, if you think abortion, for instance, is wrong, well then why don’t we take all the commandments back from the Old Testament, and let’s start stoning people to death if they violate the Sabbath command.” Have you heard these kinds of things before?

Guy Waters (08:10):

Oh, yes, very much so. And that reflects a failure to draw out the distinctions that God himself puts in the Law. So clearly, the 10 Words, the 10 Commandments, given at Exodus 20 at Sinai, repeated at Deuteronomy five, I mean, this is the foundation for the whole law code that God gives Israel. And if you read the New Testament, that foundation carries over. But on that foundation, God builds a structure of laws, many of which deal with worship that was unique to Israel, many of which deal with laws concerning justice and property that were unique to Israel, that were intended to point or shadow the work of Jesus Christ to come. And the punishments that you’re talking about are among those laws. They don’t carry over into the New Testament. They fulfilled their purpose. But the underlying moral laws very much continue on into the New Covenant. They didn’t originate with Israel—they go back to the creation. They don’t end with Israel—they continue with human beings until Christ returns.

Brian Arnold (09:24):

So let’s highlight kind of that death penalty piece for violating the Sabbath. I do want to talk about the New Covenant piece—Jesus being the Lord of the Sabbath—we’ll move there. But why the death penalty for violating the Sabbath?

Guy Waters (09:40):

Well, it’s among a number of instances where we see transgressions punishable by death in Israel. It wasn’t happening all the time, or for every violation of a law, but you see it in the case of adultery. You see it in the case of a disobedient son. You see it in the case of a Sabbath-breaker. And I think what those instances were to impress on Israel—and us—is that death is the consequence of sin. And for those who sin against God, that carries with it the penalty of eternal death. Now you have to couple with that the whole sacrificial system, in which God is providing substitutes in animals which are pointing to the work of Christ, the substitute for God’s people, who will die, who will shed his blood—bearing the curse on their behalf and bringing blessing to them. So those two lessons have got to be kept together. And God is, through those laws, and through the execution of those laws, impressing on his people those fundamental spiritual principles.

Brian Arnold (10:58):

And what you even mentioned there is the seriousness of sin. I think so many people—believers and unbelievers alike—just don’t take sin that seriously, as violating God’s holy commands and his holy character. And so when sin is taken lightly, Jesus’s sacrifice doesn’t seem as significant. But when we see sin for what it is, all of a sudden the Son of God dying on our behalf, making a way back to a holy God, is put in its proper perspective. So that, you know, violating the Sabbath’s command means you’re not worshiping God as he ought to be worshiped. And that is a cosmic treason, in and of itself. And so it’s, I think, powerful to see things like the Sabbath, that God created for our good. Not just for worship, but for rest. And to recognize that we can rest in him, and not feel the burden to always be at work.

Brian Arnold (11:51):

You know, that’s another place I want to talk to you further about after we hit the New Testament—is how that is lived out today in a world of just constant busyness, and noise, and distraction. But I do want to turn to the New Testament, and if I may, read a passage of Scripture from Mark chapter two.

Guy Waters (12:08):

Mm-hmm. <affirmative>

Brian Arnold (12:09):

Starting in verse 23, we read, “One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’ And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?’ And he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.'” So this is obviously an important passage. Mark wants to include it here—that Jesus and the disciples are doing something that the Pharisees are looking down on as a violation of the Sabbath. So what is Jesus doing in this passage? Why is this such a significant piece of the New Testament?

Guy Waters (13:06):

Well, it…I’m glad you read that passage, because it brings out so many important things about the Sabbath. Just to start where Jesus ends, the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus is asserting his authority as the divine law giver, and he is the one who determines what is or is not permissible activity on the Sabbath. So what you’re seeing in that passage is a clash of authorities. The Pharisees are rising up, and they are presuming to judge Jesus for allowing what they think is impermissible. Jesus says—you don’t understand. And he makes the definitive pronouncement as the Son of Man as to what is or is not permissible. And then you notice he addresses the purpose of the Sabbath—man was not made for the Sabbath. The Sabbath isn’t some crushing burden that God puts on human beings to punish them.

Guy Waters (14:04):

Rather, the Sabbath was made for man. It is intended to be a help, and a blessing, and refreshment. So the Pharisees, in the way that they’re legislating the Sabbath—mis-legislating the Sabbath, we should say—have completely missed the purpose and intent of the day. And what Jesus does is to defend what his disciples are doing as permissible on the Sabbath day. But as always, Jesus takes instances like that to open up wider spiritual issues in the hearts of those around him—the way they look at God, the way they look at God’s law, and the way they look at him.

Brian Arnold (14:45):

And he’s…yes, and of course, interpreting this through his own person of now he’s the Lord of the Sabbath, and what does that mean? And how has the whole Bible, again, this biblical theology of what the Sabbath was supposed to mean for Israel, how the Pharisees misunderstood it, and then what completion in Christ looks like. So let me ask you this question. I think this is kind of at the heart of the New Covenant question I feel like of the Sabbath. And it’s one that has had no shortage of debate in the last 2000 years. And that is—is the Sabbath still on the books, if you will, for Christians today?

Guy Waters (15:24):

I would answer yes—two ways. In the first instance, the Apostles will point us, in passages like Romans 13 and Ephesians six, to the 10 Commandments as the rule of life for human beings, generally—for Christians, particularly. And that includes the fourth commandment. But more particularly, we see the church, under the Apostles, gathering together for worship, just as Israel did, on a weekly basis. The difference being—Israel gathered on the last day of the week, the church gathers on the first day of the week. So the command remains the same, but the form of the command—the particular day—has changed. Why would that be? Well, I think the answer is given us in the New Testament itself. What’s significant about the seventh day of the week in the Old Testament? It commemorates the finished work of creation. What’s significant in the New Testament about the first day of the week? It is the day in which Jesus Christ rose from the dead. There’s new creation. So we remember what God has done in Christ, by his death and his resurrection, to bring about new creation for his people. And because of what has happened now in Christ, this great leap forward in God’s purposes in history, the command stays the same, but the day has adapted, is adjusted, to reflect what God has done.

Brian Arnold (17:08):

So I’m imagining that there would be a lot of questions about this. And maybe even some gentle pushback from some folks who might say—why is this Sabbath a command that’s not really brought back up in the New Testament? Like, all the other commands we kind of see somewhere else explicitly taught in the New Testament. But where would you point somebody then, in the New Testament, to say—here’s where I think the Sabbath in particular is highlighted? Now, I know you mentioned the first day of the week that the apostles are meeting on, but it seems like to be such an important command in the Old Testament, we would have something more explicit.

Guy Waters (17:45):

Well, I think…I certainly appreciate and am sensitive to where that concern is coming from. And I wouldn’t, you know, be hasty to discount the first day of the week evidence as important in this question—not that you were, Brian, of course—but I think that is an important clue we need to reckon with. And the church was gathering, not because it was convenient, but out of a sense of conviction that this is what God has called us to do. I do think that Hebrews four, “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God.” While it is not talking about the weekly Sabbath, is identifying with the Old Testament, the rest of the seventh day—Genesis two, verses one to three—with Sabbath. And that is a rest we have yet to enter into. It remains for us. And if Israel needed a weekly Sabbath in anticipation of—and in preparation of—that eternal Sabbath rest, we still need it as well. According to Hebrews, we, like Israel, are a pilgrim people. We have left Egypt. We are on our way to Canaan. And we need the refreshment of that weekly Sabbath, as we prepare to enter into that eternal Sabbath rest that Christ has won for us.

Brian Arnold (19:14):

I’ll be honest with you, I think this is the best I’ve ever heard this argument made. I mean, the Puritans make it a lot, and I’ve read pretty deeply in the Puritans, but I think you’ve articulated it so well. What would you say to somebody who might use Romans 14 as another kind of question about the need for the Sabbath today, where Paul writes, “One person esteems one day better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.”? I’ve heard that as a verse used kind of against the idea of a Christian Sabbath, even as celebrated in the Lord’s day. What would you say to that?

Guy Waters (19:52):

Great question, and let me throw in Colossians two, where Paul mentions sabbaths—it’s plural in the Greek, it’s often singular in translation—is that which we have nothing to do with. I think both of those passages admit of the same answer. Remember in Israel’s calendar that there were many holy days that God set apart. And if you look at a concordance, and you look up the word sabbath, you’ll see that there were sabbaths other than the Sabbath of the first day of the week. God would call certain days in that calendar, associated with the feasts and festivals of Israel, sabbaths. And so the issue in Romans 14 and Colossians two is not the weekly Sabbath, but are we, as New Covenant Christians, to live under the Old Covenant calendar that God gave to Israel? And the answer in both instances is—no. That’s not what God has given to us to do. In Romans 14, Paul is addressing a question of the stronger and weaker Christian. But it’s clear, as a matter of principle, New Covenant Christians are not bound to observe those old feasts and festivals. So that’s what passages like Romans 14 and Colossians two are talking about. The weekly Sabbath is a different question altogether.

Brian Arnold (21:25):

I think those are really helpful responses to that. I want to maybe shift in the last couple minutes we have today, and talk about why it’s so important for Christians to practice a Sabbath in our daily lives. You’ve kind of hinted at it here and there as we’ve talked today, but just want to kind of give you the floor, and make a case for how significant this idea of rest is. And that God is really promoting this for our good.

Guy Waters (21:53):

Boy. Great question. I mean, we live in a 24/7 culture. People are exhausted. And people are frayed at the edge. And you don’t have to look far to see that. And there are cries from non-Christian quarters, from secular quarters—we need rest. And people are even invoking sabbath of some kind, for some kind of respite from this treadmill that we’re on. And that speaks, I think, to the wisdom of God. The Sabbath is inbuilt at the creation to our humanity. We are image bearers. We need the Sabbath. We are not meant to go 24/7. We need rest from the six days of labor. But there’s something even more important that God is saying. God did not make us merely to go to work, to get married, have children, and die. We do those things, and we do them to the glory of God.

Guy Waters (22:54):

But he made us for fellowship with himself. He made us for worship. And the weekly Sabbath is a reset where we remember—yes, this is what God made me to do. And yes, this is where I’m going. This is what eternity is going to be like. We should be getting—when we gather with Christians in worship, when we enjoy fellowship with Christians after worship, and serve our brothers and sisters in Christ after worship—we should be getting little tastes and hints of heaven to come. And that will invigorate us to serve God better in the week ahead. It helps us to understand—my work is not ultimate, though it is important to God. What is ultimate is my fellowship and communion with him, which I will enjoy supremely in glory with Christ.

Brian Arnold (23:48):

Well. Amen, Dr. Waters. That is definitely, I think, a salve for many busy souls today that find themselves on—like you said—on the treadmill. Just constantly trying to grind out whatever they’re doing in work and life, and all of a sudden, the Lord is on the periphery. And God has given us the reset weekly to think about how we might worship him, commune with one another, fellowship—all to his glory. You’ve given me a lot to think about. I appreciate this and the other works you’ve written. I commend this book again to our listeners on The Sabbath as Rest and Hope for the People of God. Dr. Waters, thank you so much for joining us today.

Guy Waters (24:28):

Thank you for having me, Brian. I really appreciate it.

Outro (24:31):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we’ve been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you’re called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can’t join us on campus, I’d like you to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you’ve heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online.

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