A Tomb with a View Ceremonial is out the back window, Resurrection life out the front
A Tomb with a View Ceremonial is out the back window, Resurrection life out the front
When I open my eyes on Sunday morning, am I looking at a day that is different from the rest of the week? The sun rises, the coffee brews, just like any other day, but where do I go from here?
We all know what it is to awaken to a special day. In our initial moments of consciousness the anticipation returns to tell us that it is Christmas or a birthday. The child within us leaps with joy. Everything is different on these days. They are set apart. They are unique.
And yet what about Sunday — every Sunday? Does God regard it as special in any way? Does He want us to? Should the fourth commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8), have any relevance for the pattern of our lives and how we treat the first day of the week?
Clearly, the Christian church throughout its history has regarded Sunday as the day for gathering together. Despite the remonstrances of the Seventh Day Adventists, the fact remains that from the resurrection of Christ to March 2005, Sunday is the day of the church. As Richard Gaffin has ably demonstrated, a “Reformed consensus” on the theology of the “Lord’s Day” or “Christian Sabbath” emerged in the 17th century. It is beautifully framed in such documents as the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. But should it be? Is all this simply an effort to justify a convention — a tradition — that ought to be discarded like last year’s calendar?
As long as we are in this world, we are going to face this issue at least once a week. The answer will not be found in any perception of ours when we awaken on a Sunday morning, but in how Jesus viewed the day of His resurrection. It is this event and His perspective that defines the first day of the week for us. Who cannot smile widely as we sing, “Low in the grave He lay, Jesus my Saviour, waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord”? With gusto we rejoice: “Up from the grave He arose!” What a magnificent occasion! By faith we visit and celebrate the moment when the miracle of glorification envelops Jesus’ body. His heart muscles contract. His lungs expand. His eyes open. His fingers curl. He is alive! And He walks out of the grave and surveys a future — an eternity — that begins on none other than the first day of the week. As we will see, the future we have in Jesus and His purpose for the first day of each of our weeks are inextricably entwined.
Paul says that we, as believers, have been buried and raised with Christ (Rom.6:4). We can only properly understand anything about our identity and function as we recognize our place “in Him”. In the new birth, we step out of the tomb with Christ and enter into the realm of the new creation. We should now see everything from this vantage point, including Jesus’ pattern for our days.
So, what do we see? To answer this we need to examine what Jesus left behind in the tomb, what He brought with Him, and what He introduced in relation to the Sabbath day.
Firstly, what did Jesus leave behind in the tomb?
It is not without significance that the only 24-hour period that Jesus lay in the tomb was the seventh day — the Old Testament Sabbath (Mark 15:42-16:2). In this and so many other ways Jesus shows us that He is the fulfilment of all that was anticipated in the rituals and illustrations of the Old Testament. For the detailed account, see the Letter to the Hebrews. All that figurative expectation now lies buried because the reality has arrived and salvation has been achieved. And so on any given Sunday we can know that Jesus does not want us going through ceremonial observances that say “We’re waiting for the Messiah to come.” The interwoven chain of ceremonial Sabbaths we read about in Leviticus lies broken and obsolete in Jesus’ grave. Everything that people stopped to wait for in picture form has come to us in Him. Whatever we do, we must not march back into the tomb and thump on the back wall trying to return to what is now irrelevant and irretrievable. Paul’s attitude to such ritual — whether in diets, festivals, new moons, or Sabbaths — is plain. They were “a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Col. 2:17).
Secondly, what did Jesus bring with Him through the tomb?
We should recognise that Jesus, as the Word who created the universe, is the Lord of time. This is charted very systematically in Genesis 1:1-2:3. God has a plan and He works to a calendar. We observe that He has divided time into what we could call “general” and “special” categories, and the special day He calls the Sabbath (Ex. 16:22-30).
Jesus said “The Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28). He gave no indication that He was about to resign this position or render it redundant. He is the Master of each aspect and every moment of our existence (Rom. 12:1-2). He has the authority to regulate our diaries, and the designation of “special” time is His prerogative. In other words, Jesus’ lordship over time is timeless. It always remains the same. He brought that with Him through the tomb. He applies it differently in this new era: not in ceremonies of anticipation but in feasts of celebration, as we shall see.
On this side of the grave Jesus also retains, of course, His eternal divine character — a character that is reflected in His creation and, in certain respects, is sewn into our human identity as creatures made in God’s image. The fabric of creation still exists, and creational significance remains tied to the Sabbath day. The fourth commandment, as recorded in Exodus 20:8-11, requires us to recall the example of our Creator: “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.”
God has designed man to follow His example in a special day of rest. Man needs it (Mark 2:28). He also needs, for example, to be faithful to his spouse (seventh commandment), to respect the possessions of others (eighth commandment), and not to tell lies (ninth commandment). The resurrection of Jesus does not remove these moral responsibilities from His people. Rather, since we now know of Jesus’ faithfulness to His Father, of His purchasing us to be His possession, and of His complete revelation of the truth, we have an even greater responsibility to honour Him in all these areas. In the same way, the fact that Jesus has secured our redemption means that we can and ought to rest — more definitively and completely, and with greater knowledge, benefit, and appreciation than those who lived before. What a wonderful promise is held in Jesus’ words: “Come to Me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”! (Mt. 11:28, emphasis added).
Thirdly, what has Jesus introduced as He emerges from the tomb? Very importantly, we should notice Jesus’ own pattern. He gloriously and repeatedly reveals Himself on the first day of the week, both before His ascension (Mt 28:1-8; Mk 16:1-8; Lk 24:1-49; An 20:1-29) and afterwards (Acts 2; Rev. 1:10). This is why the early church continued to meet on the first day (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2). In the same way that Jesus visited His disciples, we are to expect a special visitation from Jesus as we gather with His people to meet with Him. This is why this occasion is called the “Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10).
The Sabbath command in Exodus 20:8-11 requires us to recall our Creator’s example, and in the New Testament we find that our Re-Creator has given us a new example to follow. We do not merely collapse longing for rest amongst life’s endless cycle of labour. No, we feast and rejoice that this rest has come! We enter heaven on earth in worship, in fellowship, in song, and in sacrament. We meet with the Word — not just as the One who walked in the garden with Adam and Eve, but as the One who walked out of the tomb, and who walks with us in the gospel, preached and believed.
In Leviticus 23:3 we are told that the seventh day was an occasion for “holy convocations” or “sacred assemblies”. Jesus clearly holds His primarily on the first day of the week. The relevance and importance of this transfer of distinctly Sabbatarian activities from the seventh day to the first day, entirely on the basis of Jesus’ example and ministry, was not lost on the early church. It must not be discounted by us either. There is as much, if not more, evidence in the New Testament for this distinctive of Reformed theology as there is for other defining doctrines, such as covenant baptism to name just one. It is not an imposition on the text, but the necessary conclusion of a consistent reading.
We should also recognise that this first day celebration of redemption is an expansion and fulfilment of the second purpose of the Sabbath command, given in Deuteronomy 5:12-15:
And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.
The redemption we have received in Christ is in fulfilment of the same covenant of grace displayed in God’s mighty acts of deliverance. As a covenant institution it applies not only to the individual but to the community. Therefore, I cannot say, “I’ll have my Sabbath on this day and you can have yours on another.” No, it is a communal occasion that we share together on the first day of the week. In Hebrews 4:9 we read: “There remains therefore a rest for the people of God.” This is the great shared rest of eternity that we now enter in Christ, that we celebrate with Him on the Lord’s Day, and that we look for in all its fullness at the culmination of the Last Day.
The New Testament shows us how the new creation is formed in the reverse order to the old creation. It begins with rest and celebration, on the first day of the week, with the victory provided in Christ’s finished work, continues with the life and service of the kingdom on the other six days, and will culminate at the end of history in the final renewal of the heavens and the earth (cf. Genesis 1:1 and 2 Peter 3:13).
In summary, then, what do we see with Christ as we leave the tomb? We witness the fulfilment of everything ceremonial and ritual in the Old Testament. We recognise Jesus as the Lord of time and of the Sabbath who has decreed a day of rest for His people. Ultimately, this is a gospel rest that is linked to everything we celebrate on the “Lord’s Day”. We behold Jesus meeting with His people on the first day in worship, in fellowship, and in blessing. We observe His people going forth to serve Him and gathering again each “Lord’s Day” — this feast day of the Saviour — to rejoice in the victory that is His and theirs and that will be revealed completely when the very “Last Day” comes.
May we all open our eyes this Sunday to this breathtaking scene. If we are “in Christ” we do not need to step into it. We are already there.
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