Dr. Benjamin Shaw, Associate Professor of OT at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, has written some very helpful blog posts regarding the continuation/cessation of the Sabbath from the oft cited passage in Colossians 2:16. You can read the first post here, the second here, and the final post here.
I will be the first to grant that the Fourth Commandment is not a peculiarly easy subject to tackle these days given the widespread rejection of it in evangelical circles. In addition there is the theological difficulty of defending the perpetual nature of something that had a clear ceremonial element to it (i.e. the seventh day) and the redemptive-historical shift that occurs from the seventh to the first day of the week in the New Testament. Still the biblical data, coupled with the historical work on this subject lends a much greater weight to the idea that the fourth commandment is still binding (not in any justifying sense) on God’s people, than that is has passed away.
The greatest reservation we ought to have in throwing away one of the Ten Commandments is that by doing so we are necessarily tampering with the doctrine of atonement. The New Testament writers are abundantly clear that we know sin by the Law (i.e. by the moral law of God summarized in the Ten words). The apostle John summed it all up succinctly when he wrote, “sin is lawlessness.” In the Old Covenant era, the blood of the sacrifice was taken into the Most Holy Place and sprinkled on the mercy seat that covered the golden box with the tablets of the covenant (i.e. the Ten Commandments) within. This act symbolized the blood of Jesus covering the people’s transgression of the Law of God. The thing that stood between the law of God and the presence of God was the sin of the people. Their violations of the Ten Commandments made communion with God impossible. The blood of the sacrifice was interposed so that when God looked at His people in light of His holy standard He saw the blood that made atonement for their sins. There is no Christian who would argue that idolatry, false worship, taking the Lord’s name in vain, dishonoring parents, killing, stealing, bearing false witness and coveting are not still binding commandments that need to be covered by the blood of Jesus. But when we come to the fourth commandment (God’s requirement of a portion of our time to give Him the worship due to His name) suddenly many Christians forget what it was for which Christ had to die.
Of course, when we enter into this subject we have to ask what Adam was at creation. As an image bearer he had the Law of God written on his heart. Paul makes this very point in Romans 2 when he explains how Gentiles who were not given the Law externally, the way that Israel had received it, still had the law written on their hearts. All men are descended from Adam. All men have a conscience. That conscience should serve to convict them of right and wrong. They know right and wrong by natural law. Now, it is true that the same men suppress the truth in unrighteousness. By common grace they get some things right, while rejecting other moral requirements. Their consciences “either excuse or accuse them.” This is why we need an external promulgation of the Law. Indeed Adam had such an external promulgation of God’s moral will for him. While God only gave Adam one explicit commandment, all of the moral obligations he owed to God were bound up with it. Had Adam cut down the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, made a bat out of it and killed Eve with the bat it would have been murder—a violation of the sixth commandments. Had Adam cut down the tree, carved an idol out of the wood and bowed down to worship the idol it would have been idolatry—a violation of the first and second commandments. In the same way, had Adam decided not to set aside a seventh of his week to the worship of God it would have been a violation of the fourth commandment. So it is for any who reject the moral obligations of the fourth commandment.
One of the promises that God made to Israel in the Old Covenant was that He would make a New Covenant in which He would forgive their violations of His law and then write that law on their hearts. If you were an Old Covenant Jew, what law would you have understood the LORD to be referring to? Clearly it would have been the moral law, as contained in the Ten Commandments. All the other laws given to Israel were developments and applications of the 10 commandements to their ceremonial and civil standing before God. Surely, a believing Jew would have understood that the Sabbath command was part of the law that God would write on the hearts of His people in the New Covenant era.
There were distinct ceremonial Sabbath days at the end of festivals and ceremonies throughout the Mosaic economy (Ex. 23:10-11; Lev. 23; . They were additions to the fourth commandment Sabbath Day. When Paul says “let no one judge you in festivals, new moons and Sabbaths” (Col. 2:16) he seems to have all of the special festival and ceremonial Sabbaths in mind. To be sure, there was a ceremonial element to the fourth commandment. The fact that the day was the seventh–from creation until the coming of Christ–is indisputable. This was anticipating the finished work of redemption, when Jesus rested in the grave from the work of the new creation on the Old Covenant Sabbath day. This explains why the New Covenant saints worshiped on the first day of the week. On a seven day structure, the first and the eight day are the same day. Interestingly, during the Old Covenant ceremonial system, there was to be eighth day Sabbath days of celebration (Lev. 23:36, 39; Num. 29:35). This, I believe, was pointing forward to the new creation brought about through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead on the “first/eighth” day. It also explains why He showed Himself to His disciples on every eighth day. This would also account for why Paul tells the Corinthians to give in worship when they were gathered together on “the first day of the week.” The ceremonial purpose of the Old Covenant Sabbath was fulfilled in Jesus and is celebrated now on the New Covenant Sabbath Day (i.e. the first day of the week). This also accounts for why one day is explicitly mentioned as distinct from the others in the last book of the cannon when we read of John being “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day.” This is a reflection on the fulfillment of the redemptive-historical purpose of the OT Sabbath in the resurrection of Jesus. Far from allowing us to now give God one day in seven to worship and praise Him for redemption we now recognize that this redemption was fulfilled in the resurrection of our Savior. The Lord’s Day is the day of rejoicing and praising our Savior who has finished the work of redemption.
The Westminster Divines summed up so well the creational, moral and redemptive historical dimensions of the fourth commandment when they wrote:
As it is the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in His Word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment binding all men in all ages, He has 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, in Scripture, is called the Lord’s Day, and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath. (WCF 21.7)
Jesus is our Sabbath rest! He finished the work of redemption and rested in the grave on the Old Covenant Sabbath so that we might have rest for our souls through faith in Him. Though He has fullfilled the righteous requirements of the law, and taken the curse of our violation of it, we are still expected to honor the Lord of the Lord’s Day by setting aside one day in seven to worship Him and find spiritual and physical rest. We ought to long for everyone to rest from the physical labors and to enter into His spiritual rest. I have yet to find anyone who opposes the fourth commandment in the New Covenant who can explain what “the Lord’s Day” mentioned in the book of Revelation is. In the Old Testament the “Day of the LORD,” was a common way of speaking of the Sabbath Day–as well as the eschatological reality to which it pointed forward. The “Day of the LORD” was not simply the one day in seven in time and space in which God’s people were to rest and worship. It was also the eschatological day of salvation and judgment. That day was realized for salvation in the day of Christ (John 8:58) and will be fully and finally realized in the consummation. Until then, there “remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.”
For more on this subject, I recommend Iain D. Campbell’s outstanding book On the First Day of the Week, as well as Francis Turretin’s treatment of the fourth commandment. You can also read a post I wrote in response to Justin Taylor’s post on this subject.