7 Thoughts on Sacred Time
Among the diverse and manifold truths revealed in the Genesis account of Creation, we discover that God set apart two spheres of worship–sacred time and sacred space. Since all that God created was created in time and space, it should stand out to us as a matter of supreme importance that He then set apart a certain portion of that time and space in which man might worship Him. While the idea of sacred space surfaces in the account of God’s planting of the Garden of Eden–the prototypical Temple from which all the other sacred spaces from Creation to New Creation in Scripture take form–sacred time is first discovered when God set aside one day in seven for His image bearers to come together to worship Him. As Iain D. Campbell has so helpfully pointed out, “As God gave man sacred space in Paradise, and sacred time in his weekly cycle, he gave him a constant reminder of what he had made him for.” The idea of sacred time is one of the most significant–and yet, one of the least understood and embraced–needs of our lives as creatures. The teaching of Scripture as to the usefulness and purpose of the Sabbath Day helps us better joyfully embrace our need for sacred time in our relationship with the Lord. Here are 7 things to remember when approaching this subject:
1. God set apart sacred time for the feeding of the souls of His people. The Puritans used to refer to the Lord’s Day as the “Market Day of the Soul.” It was to be a day of feasting in which His people fed on the word of God and the Gospel. The fact that the Lord’s Supper is to be observed when God’s people gather together on the Lord’s Day further serves to note this point. Coming to the table together with the people of God, helps us better feast together on Jesus Christ. We ought to see the good intentions of our God in giving us a day of full feeding and feasting on Him and His grace in Christ–through His word and sacrament. God longs to satisfy His people with the joy that they obtain when He is the glorious object of their worship. Instead of viewing the Sabbath Day as something cold and restrictive, we should view it as sacred time in which we get a foretaste of the eternal joy we will have worshiping God in His eternal glory. God is glorified; man is satisfied. The day of worship is meant to be cherished and longed for as the
2. God set apart sacred time in order to help His people, with all their spiritual weaknesses, keep their focus on Him. John Calvin explained this so well when he said:
Why did He sanctify…the day? It was to gather us all together so that we might not be distracted, for it takes little to misdirect our senses, which are already predisposed to self-interest. Upon the arrival of the slightest inconvenience…we hurry and flurry about, and God is forgotten. Consequently, because we are so weak and fragile and fickle, God has given us a day to help us sustain ourselves for the remainder of the week…Without a particular day, after eating and drinking, we would choose between sleeping and letting our minds drift idly, and the rest of the day would be used in frivolous activities, and the Creator would be disregarded all the time. But since we have one day, it is as if God, seeing us going in all directions, says to us, ‘Come now! Stop! Listen to me!’ so that He might speak to us…When God sees that we are going astray, that we are often lost, and that we turn our backs on Him, He calls us back to Himself and sets apart one day for us, as if to say, ‘Now then, it is no longer a matter of having a good time–as you are doing–for you must be attentive to considering My works, which guide you to adore My glory and My majesty and to learn to subject yourself to Me.
3. God set apart sacred time to remind His people that He is the Creator and that they are creatures. Just as Scripture contrasts the Lord’s constant activity with our need to sleep and cease from our labors, so He set aside one day in seven so that we would remember that He is the Lord and we are finite, dependent creatures. When we work constantly, we are essentially trying to usurp the role of God in the world. Ceasing from work–and helping others cease from work–on the Lord’s Day is one of the best reminders that we are “frail children of dust and feeble as frail.” With the setting apart of a Sabbath Day, man is to “copy God in his course of life.” Even the pattern of working six days and resting one is a pattern of remembrance.
In the Creator/Creature relationship that God sustained to Adam, there was also a Father/Son relationship. The pattern of working six days and resting in the worship of God on the seventh laid the groundwork for Adam to realize that he was to emulate His Father. Sinclair Ferguson explains this principle when he observes:
In creation, man was made as God’s image — intended “naturally” as God’s child to reflect his Father. Since his Father worked creatively for six days and rested on the seventh, Adam, like a son, was to copy Him. Together, on the seventh day, they were to walk in the garden. That day was a time to listen to all the Father had to show and tell about the wonders of His creating work.
Thus the Sabbath Day was meant to be “Father’s Day” every week. It was “made” for Adam. It also had a hint of the future in it. The Father had finished His work, but Adam had not.
4. God set apart sacred time to gather His people together and remind them of His having separated them from the world for Himself. Just as the Lord separated light from darkness on the first day, so He separates His people from other creatures, activities and–after the fall–from the unbelieving world around them on the Lord’s Day. It is a Day of holy consecration, as is seen in the language used of in the Law (see Leviticus 23:3). It is for the purpose of gathering believers out from their worldly engagements unto our God who dwells in heaven (Hebrews 12:12-24).
5. God set apart sacred time to strengthen and equip His people for their labors throughout the forthcoming week. While the Old Covenant Sabbath ended the week and the New Covenant Lord’s Day stands at the head of the week, they both served to carry God’s people on from week to week and from strength to strength. Just as the show bread was made fresh ever week–symbolizing the need for God’s people to enter the holy place and feed on the Bread that came down from heaven, Jesus Christ, week after week. In a sense, the first day and the eighth day are one and the same (on a seven day week structure); and the first and the seventh day are one and the same when we work six and rest one. Jonathan Edwards unpacked the latter idea when he wrote:
The Christian Sabbath, in the sense of the fourth command, is as much the seventh day as the Jewish Sabbath, because it is kept after six days of labor as well as that. It is the seventh reckoning from the beginning of our first working-day, as well as that was the seventh from the beginning of their first working day. All the difference is that the seven days formerly began from the day after God’s rest from the creation, and now they begin the day after that.
6. God set apart sacred time in order to teach His people to cease from their labors and enter into His everlasting rest.
At creation, God set before Adam a prospective reward for his labors. The number 7 denotes completion or perfection in the Scriptures. From the very beginning, God was showing His image bearer that there was a completion or consummation goal for man and for all of creation. If Adam had obeyed the test not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, he then would have entered into the everlasting rest–together with all those who would descend from him, as the covenantal representative of humanity. God was showing Adam that there was an eternal reward set before Him. The condition of his entering into this rest was perfect and continual obedience. Adam failed to do this so God instituted the second Covenant and sent His Son as the last Adam who labored for our redemption. Now, we enter into that eternal rest that is set before us by faith alone in Christ alone (Hebrews 4). Heaven is a place of rest, a holy place and a place of blessing. At creation, God rested from His labors and blessed and sanctified the Sabbath Day. All of these descriptions are descriptions of Heaven–a place of rest, holiness and blessing. All those in Christ will “enter into” God’s rest, holiness and blessing. When we meet together to worship God in Christ, we have a foretaste of that heavenly rest in the here and now. Geerhardus Vos expressed this idea about the Sabbath Day so well when he noted that “although it is in a certain sense the image of higher rest and heavenly bliss, it was at the same time a foretaste of that rest and insofar the signified thing itself.”
7. God set apart sacred time to help us better see our need for Jesus Christ, who entered into time and labored in agony on the cross to secure that rest for our souls. Jesus worked for our salvation; then, He rested from His labors on the Old Covenant Sabbath as He lay dead in the tomb. In His work and in His rest, we have had our salvation accomplished for us. As Israel was commanded to “stand still and see the salvation of the Lord” as they faced what seemed like their inevitable destruction (i.e.trapped between the Egyptians and the Red Sea), so we are to do the same as we face the inevitability of the eternal judgment that we deserve for our sin. In the same way, Israel was told, on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16), “you shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all” (Lev. 16:29). When we hear the Lord Jesus crying out “It is finished,” and are told that “He by Himself made purification for our sins” we are assured that He is able to provide what He promised when He said, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28-29).
Jonathan Edwards summed up the rest-providing nature of Christ’s redemptive work when he wrote:
Christ’s resting from the work of redemption is expressly spoken of as being parallel with God’s resting from the work of creation. Heb. 4:10, “For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his.”
Now Christ rested from his works when he rose from the dead, on the first day of the week. When he rose from the dead, then he finished his work of redemption. His humiliation was then at an end: he then rested and was refreshed. — When it is said, “There remains a rest to the people of God;” in the original, it is, a Sabbatism, or the keeping of a Sabbath: and this reason is given for it, “For he that entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his.”