All this is a nice story about the Sabbath’s significance, but it doesn’t apply to us, right? There’s a very common assumption that the Sabbath, the 4th Commandment, is abrogated (repealed or done away with). It seems typical of evangelicals to believe that the 4th Commandment doesn’t apply to Christians. Various lines of justification are given: we are not under law but grace, Christ is the Sabbath, the Sabbath was a Jewish thing, etc. Christ fulfilled the Sabbath (fulfilling the civil and ceremonial laws), and so Jesus is our “Sabbath.” We’re merely resting in him. Christians, after Christ, are under no obligation to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. That’s an Old Testament, Israelite thing, right?
Ever heard that perspective? Perhaps you think that.
Charles Hodge lays that notion to rest (I’m not sorry for that one), in his Systematic Theology:
The Sabbath was instituted from the Beginning, and is of Perpetual Obligation.
1. This may be inferred from the nature and design of the institution. It is a generally recognized principle, that those commands of the Old Testament which were addressed to the Jews as Jews and were founded on their peculiar circumstances and relations, passed away when the Mosaic economy was abolished; but those founded on the immutable nature of God, or upon the permanent relations of men, are of permanent obligation. There are many such commands which bind men as men; fathers as fathers; children as children; and neighbours as neighbours. It is perfectly apparent that the fourth commandment belongs to this latter class. It is important for all men to know that God created the world, and therefore is an extramundane personal being, infinite in all his perfections. All men need to be arrested in their worldly career, and called upon to pause and to turn their thoughts Godward. It is of incalculable importance that men should have time and opportunity for religious instruction and worship. It is necessary for all men and servile animals to have time to rest and recuperate their strength. The daily nocturnal rest is not sufficient for that purpose, as physiologists assure us, and as experience has demonstrated. Such is obviously the judgment of God.
It appears, therefore, from the nature of this commandment as moral, and not positive or ceremonial, that it is original and universal in its obligation. No man assumes that the commands, “Thou shalt not kill,” and “Thou shalt not steal,” were first announced by Moses, and ceased to be obligatory when the old economy passed away. A moral law is one that binds from its own nature. It expresses an obligation arising either out of our relations to God or out of our permanent relations to our fellow-men. It binds whether formally enacted or not.
—Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 pg. 323
Was it unique to Israel? No. The Sabbath is not merely anchored to the Mosaic Covenant, but to creation. Both creation and redemption from bondage are cited in the giving of the 4th Commandment. God himself set forth the Sabbath immediately after he completed his work of creation. “So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.”
The Sabbath law is abiding and obligatory because it is from creation. Secondly, the 4th Commandment is not a civil or ceremonial law. If it were, then it would be limited to Israel as a political and religious entity, and Christ’s fulfillment of it would do away with it. But it’s the 4th Commandment, part of the Ten Commandments. That’s the moral law, which doesn’t change and is not limited to a specific time or place in Redemptive History. Are any of those other laws only for Israel? Murder? No idols? Do not covet? No, of course not. Neither is the 4th Commandment. The Decalogue is a unity, a unit. It is a body, not fragmented. “The Law” is the Decalogue. It is announced by God and not repealed. It is assumed in the New Testament. The Lord Jesus did not explicitly reenforce the 4th Commandment in so many words, but neither did he reenforce the commandment against worshiping idols! Are we to conclude that that is now abrogated? Nonsense.
What Christ did do was rebuke the traditions of men regarding the commandments (especially the Sabbath), without any implication that the law itself is no longer in force. Pipa notes that:
Christ taught about murder on only one occasion and three times on marriage, but six times He taught about the Sabbath. If this commandment were destined for the dustbin of ceremonial law, why do the Gospel writers devote so much attention to it? Is there any ceremonial law regarding which Jesus spent so much time correcting misunderstandings? No, but on six occasions He cleared away the accretions to the Sabbath commandment in order to establish the proper use of the Sabbath. (pg. 136)
It would have been easy enough for Jesus to say that the Sabbath law was no longer in force, but he didn’t. Again, the Decalogue remains the law of God.
Hodge comments: “2. The original and universal obligation of the law of the Sabbath may be inferred from its having found a place in the decalogue. As all the other commandments in that fundamental revelation of the duties of men to God and to their neighbour, are moral and permanent in their obligation, it would be incongruous and unnatural if the fourth should be a solitary exception.” (Hodge, pg. 324)
Likewise, Joseph Pipa says “it is contrary to all sound reason to wrench out one commandment, claiming it was ceremonial and consequently no longer binding.” (Pipa, pg. 124)
Along with the two above, Hodge offers two more reasons in support of the 4th Commandment being of perpetual obligation:
3. The death penalty for violating the commandment. “The violation of no merely ceremonial or positive law was visited with this penalty.” (Hodge, pg. 324)
4. “We accordingly find that in the prophets as well as in the Pentateuch, and the historical books of the Old Testament, the Sabbath is not only spoken of as “a delight,” but also its faithful observance is predicted as one of the characteristics of the Messianic period.” [Is. 58:13, 14] (Ibid.)
“These considerations, apart from historical evidence or the direct assertion of the Scriptures, are enough to create a strong, if not an invincible presumption, that the Sabbath was instituted from the beginning, and was designed to be of universal and permanent obligation.”
—Ibid., pg. 325
Hodge stands in continuity with the Puritans. According to Beake, Jones, and Packer, John Owen and his contemporaries
“insisted, with virtual unanimity, that, although the Reformers were right to see a merely typical and temporary significance in certain of the detailed prescriptions of the Jewish Sabbath, yet the principle of one day’s rest for public and private worship of God at the end of each six days’ work was a law of creation, made for man as such, and therefore binding upon man as long as he lives in this world. They pointed out that, standing as it does with nine undoubtedly moral and permanently binding laws in the decalogue, it could hardly be of a merely typical and temporary nature itself.”
—J. I. Packer, Quest for Godliness pg. 237 (cited in A Puritan Theology)
The abiding, perpetual obligation of the Sabbath law is not a novelty.
What about our obedience to the 4th Commandment, our observation of the Sabbath? That is the difference. All the Ten Commandments were applied in ways particular to that point in Redemptive History. Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers are full of case laws which are applications of the Decalogue to specific occasions. The 4th Commandment as well had applications particular to God’s people when the church and state were one.
Charles Hodge expounds this:
There are no doubt positive elements in the fourth commandment as it stands in the Bible. It is positive that a seventh, and not a sixth or eighth part of our time should be consecrated to the public service of God. It is positive that the seventh rather than any other day of the week should be thus set apart. But it is moral that there should be a day of rest and cessation from worldly avocations. It is of moral obligation that God and his great works should be statedly remembered. It is a moral duty that the people should assemble for religious instruction and for the united worship of God. All this was obligatory before the time of Moses, and would have been binding had he never existed. All that the fourth commandment did was to put this natural and universal obligation into a definite form.
—Ibid., pg. 323-324
Now, the way Hodge is using the word “positive” is evidently the same way the English Puritan John Owen used it. Owen made a distinction between “moral” law and “positive” law. The former is grounded in the nature of God himself (and therefore cannot be changed) and “positive” laws have no reason for them in themselves and can be changed (like many of the laws in the Old Testament that are no longer).
Owen views the Sabbath as a moral law in its substance, which means the obligation to keep this commandment is universal. Yet the specific day to be sanctified is positive, thus explaining how the Sabbath can be moved from the seventh day to the first day of the week.
—Jones and Beeke, A Puritan Theology kindle loc. 24714
In short, moral law abides, so the command to remember the Sabbath abides forever (just like having no other gods and not lying). The observation of it, though, is what is different. The rigorous civil and ceremonial requirements attached to the Sabbath belong to that Redemptive Historical context. The moral law of one day in seven, however, is consistent throughout Redemptive History, since Adam.
Whatever modifications (i.e., positive laws) were made to the fourth commandment, Owen argues that that is no reason for suggesting that the substance of the commandment was not given to Adam and the patriarchs after him.
—Jones and Beeke, A Puritan Theology kindle loc. 24701
One more citation from Hodge, though his whole treatment of the subject in his Systematic Theology is well worth the read.
It is a strong argument in favour of this conclusion, that the law of the Sabbath was taken up and incorporated in the new dispensation by the Apostles, the infallible founders of the Christian Church. All the Mosaic laws founded on the permanent relations of men either to God or to their fellows, are in like manner adopted in the Christian Code. They are adopted, however, only as to their essential elements. Every law, ceremonial are typical, or designed only for the Jews, is discarded. Men are still bound to worship God, but this is not now to be done especially at Jerusalem, or by sacrifices, or through the ministration of priests. Marriage is as sacred now as it ever was, but all the special laws regulating its duties, and the penalty for its violation, are abrogated. Homicide is as great a crime now as under the Mosaic economy, but the old laws about the avenger of blood and cities of refuge are no longer in force. . . . The same is true with regard to the Sabbath. We are as much bound to keep one day in seven holy unto the Lord, as were the patriarchs or Israelites. This law binds all men as men, because given to all mankind, and because it is founded upon the nature common to all men, and the relation which all men bear to God. The two essential elements of the command are that the Sabbath should be a day of rest, that is, of cessation from worldly avocations and amusements; and that it should be devoted to the worship of God and the services of religion. All else is circumstantial and variable.
—Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 pg. 329
We are not a part of that old covenant context. We are distanced from that context by Jesus Christ. Through the lens of Jesus Christ, we (the modern audience) understand the fuller meaning of the Sabbath, and also how we are to remember it. We understand it better, and observe it differently, than those before Christ.