In order to talk about the application of the Sabbath to the Christian, we first have to see it in its biblical-theological context.
When speaking of the Sabbath, most Christians think of the 4th commandment. If this is all that there is to the conversation, it is like watching a snippet from the middle of a movie expecting to understand what that movie is about. It is absolutely essential that we understand how the Sabbath fits into the story of the whole Bible. So here is part one of a brief summary beginning at the beginning.
The Sabbath is first introduced to us in creation. The opening verses of Genesis 2 contain the following:
Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.
By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.
Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.
God creates for six days and rests on the seventh day, blessing it and calling it holy. This is a well-known passage in the Bible mainly because of its place in the debates about evolution and the age of the earth. We’re going to put all of that aside for a moment and focus on the significance of the seventh day.
Notice that unlike the other days, the Sabbath “day” is not accompanied by the refrain “there was evening, and there was morning.” The Sabbath day is not a day in the conventional sense…a 24 hour period. Rather this day is eternal.
However, the absence of the refrain “there was evening, there was morning” is important for more than chronological reasons. The symbolism of the refrain is reminding us of the constant movement from the darkness to light. Creation begins with a description of a world covered in darkness, without form and empty. After every act of creation, we move a little further away from that. God forms in days one to three and fills in days four to six. After every act of creation, he declares that it is good. Finally, after day 6 is complete he declares that all of creation is very good. Creation is a movement from darkness to light, from chaos to order, from evil to good, from evening to morning. The Sabbath is, therefore, an eternal state of blessing, holiness and rest in the finished work of the Creator.
Lastly, it is also important to note that there is no hint of a commandment at this point in the biblical narrative. True, the original biblical audience of Genesis would have already known about the Sabbath Day command in Exodus 20, but we should be careful not to read the passage anachronistically. We need to see how the drama of redemptive history unfolds.
Adam and Eve’s enjoyment of the Sabbath at this point did not involve obedience to a command to observe a “day” but rather to live (and work) in a state of constant blessing and holiness. This was God’s purpose for his creatures.