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A Theology of the Sabbath (2): John Owen on the Sabbath Command in the Covenant of Works

So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of GodFor the One who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His” (Hebrews 4:9-10).

The Law Written on the Tablet of the Heart: Image from Samuel Bolton, True Bounds of Christian Freedom (Banner of Truth)
The Law Written on the Tablet of the Heart: Image from Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom (Banner of Truth)

All quotations are from John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews: Vol. II (Grand Rapids: Baker), Reprinted 1980.

For a summary of Owen’s argument, see HERE. For part 1 of this series of posts (Owen on the Moral and Mosaical elements of the fourth commandment), see HERE. For part 3 (Christ’s fulfillment of the Sabbath in the Covenant of Works and its Mosaical Elements) HERE. For part 4 (on the New Covenant Sabbath) see HERE.

Owen contends that the fourth commandment, ‘Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,’ is rooted in the original creative work (six days) and rest (one day) of God. The ‘rest’ of God on the seventh day is not primarily a cessation of activity, according to Owen, but instead marks the satisfaction of God that his works were indeed “very good” (Gen. 1:31). God was completely satisfied with his work:

God originally, out of his infinite goodness, when suitably thereunto, by his own eternal wisdom and power, he had made all things good, gave unto men a day of rest, as to express unto them his own rest, satisfaction, an complacency in the works of his hands…(p. 266, emphasis added).

He later clarifies this interpretation:

And the expression of God’s rest is of a moral and not a natural signification; for it consists in the satisfaction and complacency that he took in his works, as effects of his goodness, power, and wisdom, disposed in the order and unto the ends mentioned. Hence, as it is said that upon the finishing of them, he looked on “every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” Gen 1:31, —that is, he was satisfied in his works and their disposal, and pronounced concerning them that they became his infinite wisdom and power; so it is added that he not only “ rested on the seventh day,” but also that he was “refreshed,” Exodus 31:17, —that is, be took great complacency in what he had done, as that which was suited unto the end aimed at namely, the expression of his greatness, goodness, and wisdom, unto his rational creatures, and his glory through their obedience thereon, as on the like occasion he is said to “rest in his love,” and to “rejoice with singing,” Zeph. 3:17 (p. 334).

In light of God’s action in creating the world, and his satisfaction with his creation, which is called his ‘rest,’ God mandates the observance of a sabbath for all mankind, in Adam, as a part of his original Covenant of Works. The Westminster Confession (which shares much in common with Owen’s teaching), describes the Covenant of Works in this way:

The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience (7.2).

Owen writes,

God originally, out of his infinite goodness, when suitably thereunto, by his own eternal wisdom and power, he had made all things good, gave unto men a day of rest, as to express unto them his own rest, satisfaction, an complacency in the works of his hands, so to be a day of rest and composure to themselves, and a means of their entrance into and enjoyment of that rest with himself, here and forever, which had ordained for them (p. 266, emphasis added).

Later, he puts it this way:

For the Sabbath was originally a moral pledge and expression of God’s covenant rest, and of our rest in God…(p. 390).

The sabbath command, in relation to the Covenant of Works, entails the principle that through his continued obedience, in his perfect state, he was, after a time, to enter into the perfect blessing and rest of God (shabbat, shalom):

Thirdly, Man is to be considered with special respect unto that covenant under which he was created, which was a covenant of works; for herein rest with God was proposed unto him as the end or reward of his own works, or of his personal obedience unto God, by absolute strict righteousness and holiness. And the peculiar form of this covenant, as relating unto the way of God’s entering into it upon the finishing of his own works, designed the seventh day from the beginning of the creation to be the day precisely for the observation of a holy rest (p. 338, emphasis added).

And again,

…Whereas the covenant which man originally was taken into was a covenant of works, wherein his obtaining rest with God depended absolutely on his doing all the work he had to do in a way of legal obedience, he was during the dispensation of that covenant tied up precisely to the observation of the seventh day, or that which followed the whole work of creation. And the seventh day, as such, is a pledge and token of the rest promised in the covenant of works, and no other…(p. 345, emphasis added).

And then,

Hence did he learn the nature of the covenant that he was taken into, namely, how he was first to work in obedience, and then to enter into God’s rest in blessedness; for so had God appointed, and so did he understand his will, from his own present state and condition. Hence was he instructed to dedicate to God, and to his own more immediate communion with him, one day in a weekly revolution, wherein the whole law of his creation was consummated, as a pledge and means of entering eternally into God’s rest, which from hence he understood to be his end and happiness (p. 346, emphasis added).

As such, the sabbath in the Covenant of Works has a threefold purpose:

First, That we might learn the satisfaction and complacency that God hath in his own works…And our observation of the evangelical Sabbath hath the same respect unto the works of Christ and his rest thereon, when he saw of the travail of his soul and was satisfied…Secondly, Another end of the original sabbatical rest was, that it might be a pledge unto man of his rest in and with God; for in and by the law of his creation, man had an end of rest proposed unto him, and that in God…Thirdly, Consideration was had of the way and means whereby man might enter into the rest of God proposed unto him. And this was by that obedience and worship of God which the covenant wherein he was created required of him (pp. 335-336).

It is vital that the presence of the sabbath command in the Covenant of Works be understood for at least three reasons: 1) it grounds the command primarily in the principle of God’s rest apart from specific applications made to the Israelites in the Mosaic covenant, 2) as such, it establishes the primary intention of the sabbath as a pledge and picture of God’s offer of rest and satisfaction and blessedness in him, and 3) it sets the ground for Christ’s work of re-creation which is the basis for the transfer of the day of rest from the last day of the week to the first in order point to the rest that may be found in him as Lord of the Sabbath.

In the next post, we will deal with Owen’s argument for Christ’s fulfillment of the sabbath as a principle of the Covenant of Works, of his fulfillment of the Mosaical (ceremonial/civil) elements of the fourth commandment in principle. From there we will take up Owen’s argument that, having fulfilled those elements of the Covenant of Works and Mosaic Law, Christ, entering into the rest of God, establishes a new sabbath for his people. These points will be vital 1) for a proper understanding of what is offered to us in the gospel, 2) for a proper understanding of the purpose of the Lord’s Day or Christian Sabbath, and 3) in light of those points, for guarding us against keeping ourselves under the sanctions of the Covenant of Works. As Owen puts it:

And those who would advance that [the seventh] day again into a necessary observation do consequentially introduce the whole covenant of works, and are become debtors unto the whole law; for the. works of God which preceded the seventh day precisely were those whereby man was initiated into and instructed in the covenant of works, and the day itself was a token and pledge of the righteousness thereof, or a moral and natural sign of it, and of the rest of God therein, and the rest of man with God thereby (pp. 345-346).

Death and Resurrection: The Story of God and Man in a Garden

After God created Man, He placed him in a garden in a placed called Eden (literally, Paradise or Delight). There God communed with Adam, promising him life for obedience and death for disobedience to his commands. After the Fall, Genesis records,

And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden (3:8).

There is debate about whether or not the English phrase ‘cool of the day’ is a proper translation. Some scholars have argued that the phrase should actually be rendered, ‘And they heard the sound of the Lord God in the garden in the wind of the storm…’ That’s quite different from ‘in the cool of the day.’ You can read about the translation issues HERE. If the phrase, ‘in the wind of the storm’ is accurate, it only serves to emphasize the judgement that was impending for Adam and Eve.

That judgement included the several curses listed in Genesis 3, along with expulsion from the garden:

He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life (3:24).

From the flaming sword of Genesis 3, thousands of years, and the entire Old Testament, pass before God is seen again walking with man in the garden. That brings us to John’s Gospel and Jesus’ betrayal by Judas Iscariot:

When Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the brook Kidron, where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, for Jesus often met there with his disciples (John 18:1-2).

Jesus Christ, the man who is God, met with his disciples in a garden called Gethsemane; it was there that he wrestled with God over the judgment that was to be poured out upon him at the cross. It was there that he sweat, as it were, drops of blood for the sake of sinners:

For me it was in the garden he prayed, ‘Not my will but thine.’
He had no tears for his own grief, but sweat drops of blood for mine.

That wasn’t the last we would see of God in a garden. Somewhere near Golgotha he was laid to rest in a garden tomb:

Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. 42 So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there (John 19:41-42).

And because he was laid to rest in a garden, he was resurrected in a garden. In fact, the first eyewitness of the resurrection, Mary, mistook him to be a gardener:

Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away” (John 20:15).

She mistook him for the gardener of that particular place at that particular time, but we make no mistake in realizing that he is the great Gardener. His resurrection opens the doors to paradise for all those who rest and trust in him as he is offered in the gospel. G.K. Chesterton comments on this passage:

On the third day the friends of Christ coming at day-break to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realized the new wonder; but even they hardly realised that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but of the dawn (The Everlasting Man, p. 214).

The resurrection begins the new creation, and each of us who trust in that resurrection are already a part of it, awaiting its ultimate consummation. John’s Revelation points to the consummation of the new creation in a city; but assuredly it will be a garden-city, for in it is Eden’s Tree of Life:

…through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:2).

From one angle, the Bible is the story of Paradise, Paradise lost, Paradise regained, and Paradise restored. And it tells us that in order for that restoration to happen, man has to pass through the flaming sword of God’s judgment (Gen. 3:24). Beginning with Gethsemane, to the cross, Jesus did precisely that. Adam forfeited his life in the garden when he ate the forbidden fruit, Jesus gained it back for us when he took the foreboding cup of God’s wrath. Adam betrayed God in a garden, Jesus was betrayed by Judas in a garden (for the sake of the children of Adam). Then he was buried in a garden to rise in a garden that he might open the doors of paradise for all who would trust in him.

Everyone desires paradise. Eden is programmed into our system. Whether it’s a snow-capped mountain, a warm beach, a cabin on the lake, or a rock concert, we all want it, and we all know that it is lost. We may have glimpses from time to time, but we can never lay hold of it. Jesus in the garden of resurrection assures us that when the Christian thinks about paradise, it is not simply a tragedy of the past, lost and almost forgotten; rather it is our hope for the future.

In Order to Wrestle You Must Embrace

If you’ve ever watched a wrestling match, you’ve seen that the very nature of the sport is grappling. The competitors hod, twist, pin, and muscle each other around until one of them gives. They are forced to embrace each other in order to wrestle.

– Anonymous, Embracing Obscurity, p. 86.

I had a long post on this quote planned, but I can’t quite wrap my head around all of the implications at this point. Hence what follows is a hodgepodge of semi-related thoughts.

As I read this passage, I initially thought of C.S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism and Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book. They both stressed the need to get out of the way and let a book have its way with you. Lewis called this ‘receiving’ a narrative. Embrace the narrative before you begin to judge it. If you cannot sympathize with a story in some way you do not truly understand it. G.K. Chesterton put it this way:

When the Professor is told by the Polynesian that once there was nothing except a great feathered serpent, unless the learned man feels a thrill and a half temptation to wish it were true, he is no judge of such things at all (The Everlasting Man, p. 101).

I also thought of Jacob’s wrestling match with the Angel of the Lord in Genesis 32. Jacob was in some ways forced into this match to be sure. But as he embraced the struggle, he had to make a commitment to hang on. It was through that commitment that the event became a wrestling match rather that a mere beat-down. One must commit before the true wrestling begins.

This line of thinking picks up on clear lines of thought as old as Augustine and Anselm:

As the right order requires us to believe the deep things of Christian faith before we undertake to discuss them by reason (Anselm, Cur Deus Homo).

Another line of thought related to this quote is covenantal: commitment comes before intimacy.

Light Before Sun, Idea Before Incarnation

In an essay on Charles Dickens, G.K. Chesterton picks up an interesting line of thought. He notes the fact that the Book of Genesis records the creation of light occurring before the creation of the sun (Gen. 1:3-19).

To many modern people it would sound like saying that foliage existed before the first leaf; it would sound like saying that childhood existed before a baby was born. The idea is, as I have said, alien to most modern thought, and like so many other ideas which are alien to most modern thought, it is a very subtle and very sound idea.

Chesterton then delivers this sound meditation on the creation narrative:

Whatever be the meaning of the passage in the actual primeval poem, there is a very real metaphysical meaning in the idea that light existed before the sun and stars. It is not barbaric; it is rather Platonic. The idea existed before any of the machinery which made manifest the idea. Justice existed when there was no need of judges, and mercy existed before any man was oppressed.

Like Dorothy Sayers in The Mind of the Maker, he relates the idea to literature:

The whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists, as a mother can love the unborn child. In creative art the essence of a book exists before the book or before even the details or main features of the book; the author enjoys it and lives in it with a kind of prophetic rapture. He wishes to write a comic story before he has thought of a single comic incident. He desires to write a sad story before he has thought of anything sad. He knows the atmosphere before he knows anything. There is a low priggish maxim sometimes uttered by men so frivolous as to take humour seriously – a maxim that a man should not laugh at his own jokes. But the great artist not only laughs at his own jokes; he laughs at his own jokes before he has made them.

He continues,

The last page comes before the first; before his romance has begun, he knows that it has ended well. He sees the wedding before the wooing; he sees the death before the dual. But most of all he sees the colour and character of the whole story prior to any possible events in it.

(G.K. Chesterton on The Pickwick Papers, from In Defense of Sanity, pp. 127-128)

I do not know if there is a better illustration for the foreknowledge of God than the mind of the writer, the mind of the maker. I saw an interview with J.K. Rowling a while back in which she discussed how she first created the Harry Potter character. As she rode in a train, he essentially just appeared in her imagination, and she knew his destiny right away. C.S. Lewis wrote of his recurring vision of a fawn with an umbrella carrying parcels in the snow. They knew their own characters before they ever set pen to paper. God did too.

  • For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…(Rom. 8:29).

Or as one translation puts it:

  • For those on whom he set his heart beforehand, he did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son.

The Sinner’s Bones

[The humble man] sees that sin is so bred in the bone, that till his bones, as Joseph’s, be carried out of the Egypt of this world, it will not out.

-Thomas Brooks, The Unsearchable Riches of Christ, from Works vol. 3, p. 28.

Sin is so deep that until our bones be brought out of the grave and into the Promised Land they will never truly have rest. We’ll go to the grave in this world, but we will not be content to let our bones remain there. And we must have a greater Joshua (Joshua 24:32) to finish that work and plant us where we belong.

  • By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones (Hebrews 11:22).

Except Your Brother Be With You

An humble soul knows that since he broke with God in innocency, God will trust him no more, he will take his word no more; and therefore when he goes to God for mercy, he brings Benjamin, his Jesus, in his arms, and pleads for mercy upon the account of Jesus.

-Thomas Brooks, The Unsearchable Riches of Christ from Works vol. 3, p. 20.

  • And Judah spake unto him, saying, The man did solemnly protest unto us, saying, Ye shall not see my face, except your brother be with you (Genesis 43:3).

As the brothers of Joseph could not come before him without Benjamin, so we will not come before the Father without Jesus as our Brother.