Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 6

The Shadow and Substance of the Sabbath

Preached October 28, 1849

  Frederick W. Robertson

“Let no man, therefore, judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of a holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath-days: which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.” - Col. 2:16,17.

No sophistry of criticism can explain away the obvious meaning of these words. The apostle speaks; of certain institutions as Jewish: shadowy: typical: and among these we are surprised to find the sabbath-days. It has been contended that there is here no allusion to the seventh day of rest, but only to certain Jewish holydays, not of divine institution. But, in the first place, the “holydays” have been already named in the same verse; in the next we are convinced that no plain man, reading this verse for the first time, without a doctrine to support, would have put such an interpretation upon the word: and we may be sure that St. Paul would never have risked so certain a misconstruction of his words by the use of an ambiguous phrase. This, then, is the first thing we lay down - a very simple postulate, one would think - when the apostle says the sabbath days, he means the sabbath-days.

Peculiar difficulties attend the discussion of the subject of the sabbath. If we take the strict and ultra ground of sabbath observance, basing it on the rigorous requirements of the fourth commandment, we take ground which is not true; and all untruth, whether it be an overstatement or a half-truth, recoils upon itself. If we impose on men a burden which can not be borne, and demand a strictness which, possible in theory, is impossible in practice, men recoil; we have asked too much, and they give us nothing - the result is an open, wanton, and sarcastic desecration of the Day of Rest.

If, on the other band, we state the truth, that the sabbath is obsolete - a shadow which has passed - without modification or explanations, evidently there is a danger no less perilous. It is true to spiritual, false to unspiritual men; and a wide door is opened for abuse. And to recklessly loosen the hold of a nation on the sanctity of the Lord’s day would be most mischievous - to do so willfully would be an act almost diabolical. For if we must choose between Puritan overprecision on the one band, and on the other that laxity which, in many parts of the Continent, has marked the day from other days only by more riotous worldliness, and a more entire abandonment of the whole community to amusement, no Christian would hesitate: no English Christian, at least; to whom that day is hallowed by all that is endearing in early associations, and who feels how much it is the very bulwark of his country’s moral purity.

Here, however, as in other cases, it is the half-truth which is dangerous - the other half is the corrective; the whole truth alone is safe. If we say the sabbath is shadow, this is only half the truth. The apostle adds, “the body is of Christ.”

There is, then, in the sabbath that which is shadowy and that which is substantial; that which is transient and that which is permanent; that which is temporal and typical, and that which is eternal. The shadow and the body. Hence, a very natural and simple division of our subject suggests itself.


I. The transient shadow of the sabbath which has passed away.

II. The permanent substance which can not pass.


I. The transient shadow which has passed away.

The history of the sabbath-day is this. It was given by Moses to the Israelites, partly as a sign between God and them, marking them off from all other nations by its observance; partly as commemorative of their deliverance from Egypt. And the reason why the seventh day was fixed on, rather than the sixth or eighth was, that on that day God rested from His labor. The soul of man was to form itself on the model of the Spirit of God. It is not said, that God at the creation gave the sabbath to man, but that God rested at the close of the six days of creation: whereupon he had blessed and sanctified the seventh day to the Israelites. This is stated in the fourth commandment, and also in Gen. i., which was written for the Israelites; and the history of creation naturally and appropriately introduces the reason and the sanction of their day of rest.

Nor is there in the Old Testament a single trace of the observance of the sabbath before the time of Moses. After the Deluge, it is not mentioned in the covenant made with Noah. The first account of it occurs after the Israelites had left Egypt; and the fourth commandment consolidates it into a law, and explains the principle and sanctions of the institution. The observance of one day in seven, therefore, is purely Jewish. The Jewish obligation to observe it rested on the enactment given by Moses.

The spirit of its observance, too, is Jewish, and not Christian. There is a difference between the spirit of Judaism and that of Christianity. The spirit of Judaism is separation - that of Christianity is permeation. To separate the evil from the good was the aim and work of Judaism: - to sever one nation from all other nations; certain meats from other meat; certain days from other days. Sanctify means to set apart. The very essence of the idea of Hebrew holiness lay in sanctification in the sense of separation. On the contrary, Christianity is permeation - it permeates all evil with good - it aims at overcoming evil by good - it desires to transfuse the spirit of the day of rest into all other days, and to spread the holiness of one nation over all the world. To saturate life with God, and the world with Heaven, that is the genius of Christianity.

Accordingly, the observance of the sabbath was entirely in the Jewish spirit. No fire was permitted to be made on pain of death: Exod. 35:3. No food was to be prepared: 16:5, 23. No buying nor selling, : Nehemi. 10:31. So rigorously was all this carried out, that a man gathering sticks was arraigned before the congregation, and sentenced to death by Moses.

This is Jewish, typical, shadowy; - it is all to pass away. Much already has passed: even those who believe our Lord’s day to be the descendant of the sabbath admit this. The day is changed. The first day of the week has taken the place of the seventh. The computation of hours is altered. The Jews reckoned from sunset to sunset - modern Christians reckon from midnight to midnight. The spirit of its observance, too, is altered. No one contends now for Jewish strictness in its details.

Now observe, all this implies the abrogation of a great deal more - nay, of the whole Jewish sabbath itself. We have altered the day - the computation of the hours - the mode of observance: What remains to keep? Absolutely nothing of the literal portion except one day in seven: and that is abrogated, if the rest be abrogated: For by what right do we say that the order of the day, whether it be the first or the seventh, is a matter of indifference, because only formal, but that the proportion of days, one in seven, instead of one in eight or nine, is moral and unalterable? On what intelligible principle do we produce the fourth commandment as binding upon Christians, and abrogate so important a clause of it as, “In it thou shalt do no manner of work?” On what self-evident ground is it shown that the Jew might not light a fire, but the Christian may; yet that if the postal arrangements of a country permit the delivery of a letter, it is an infraction of the sabbath?

Unquestionably on no scriptural authority. Let those who demand a strict observance of the letter of scripture remember that the Jewish sabbath is distinctly enforced in the Bible, and nowhere in the Bible repealed. You have changed the seventh day to the first on no clear scriptural permission. Two or three passages tell us that, after the Resurrection, the apostles were found together on the first day of the week (which, by-the-way, may have been Saturday evening after sunset). But it is concluded that therefore probably the change was apostolic. You have only a probability to go on - and that probability, except with the aid of tradition, infinitesimally small - for the abrogation of a single iota of the Jewish fourth commandment.

It will be said, however, that works of necessity and works of mercy are excepted by Christ’s example.

Tell us, then, ye who are servants of the letter, and yet do not scruple to use a carriage to convey you to some church where a favorite minister is heard, is that a spiritual necessity or a spiritual luxury? Part of the Sunday meal of all of you is the result of a servant’s work. Tell us, then, ye accurate logicians, who say that nothing escapes the rigor of the prohibition which is not necessary or merciful, is a hot repast a work of necessity or a work of mercy? Oh! it rouses in every true soul a deep and earnest indignation to bear men who drive their cattle to church on Sundays, because they are too emasculated to trudge through cold and rain on foot, invoke the severity of an insulted Law of the Decalogue on those who provide facilities of movement for such as can not afford the luxury of a carriage. What think you, would He who blighted the Pharisees with such burning words, have said, had He been present by, while men, whose servants clean their houses, and prepare their meals, and harness their horses, stand up to denounce the service on some railway by which the poor are helped to health and enjoyment? Hired service for the rich is a necessity - hired service for the poor is a desecration of the sabbath! It is right that a thousand should toil for the few in private! It is past bearing in a Christian country that a few should toil for thousands on the sabbath-day!

There is only this alternative: if the fourth commandment be binding still, that clause is unrepealed - “no manner of work;” and so, too, is that other important part, the sanctification of the seventh day and not the first. If the fourth commandment be not binding in these points, then there is nothing left but the broad, comprehensive ground taken by the apostle. The whole sabbath is a shadow of things to come. In consistency, either hold that none of the formal part is abrogated, or else all. The whole of the letter of the commandment is moral, or else none.


II. There is, however, in the sabbath a substance, a permanent something - “a body” - which can not pass away.

“The body is of Christ;” the spirit of Christ is the fulfillment of the law. To have the spirit of Christ is to have fulfilled the law. Let us hear the mind of Christ in this matter. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” In that principle, rightly understood, lies the clue for the unravelling of the whole matter. The religionists of that day maintained that the necessities of man’s nature must give way to the rigor of the enactment: - He taught that the enactment must yield to man’s necessities. They said that the sabbath was written in the book of the Law; He said that it was written on man’s nature, and that the law was surely meant to be in accordance with that nature. They based the obligation to observe the sabbath on the sacredness of an enactment; He on the sacredness of the nature of man.

An illustration will help us to perceive the difference between these two views. A wise physician prescribes a regimen of diet to a palate which has become diseased: he fixes what shall be eaten, the quantity, the hours, and number of times. On what does the obligation to obey rest? On the arbitrary authority of the physician or on the nature with which that prescription is in accordance? When soundness and health are restored, the prescription falls into disuse: but the nature remains unalterable, which has made some things nutritious, others unwholesome, and excess forever pernicious. Thus the spirit of the prescription may be still in force when the prescriptive authority is repealed.

So Moses prescribed the sabbath to a nation spiritually diseased. He gave the regimen of rest to men who did not feel the need of spiritual rest. He fenced round his rule with precise regulations of details - one day in seven, no work, no fire, no traffic. On what does the obligation to obey it rest? On the authority of the rule or on the necessities of that nature for which the rule was divinely adapted? Was man made for the sabbath, to obey it as a slave or, was the sabbath made for man? And when spiritual health has been restored, the Law regulating the details of rest may become obsolete; but the nature which demands rest never can be reversed.

Observe, now, that this is a far grander, safer, and more permanent basis on which to rest the sabbath than the mere enactment. For if you allege the fourth commandment as your authority, straightway you are met by the objection no manner of work.” Who gave you leave to alter that? And if you reply, works of necessity and works of mercy I do, for Christ excepted these from the stringency of the rule, again the rejoinder comes, is there one in ten of the things that all Christians permit as lawful really a matter of necessity?

Whereas, if the sabbath rest on the needs of human nature, and we accept His decision that the sabbath was made for man, then you have an eternal ground to rest on from which you can not be shaken. A son of man may be lord of the sabbath-day, but lie is not lord of his own nature. He can not make one hair white or black. You may abrogate the formal rule, but you can not abrogate the needs of your own soul Eternal as the constitution of the soul of man is the necessity for the existence of a day of rest. Further still, on this ground alone can you find an impregnable defense of the proportion one day in seven: - on the other ground it is unsafe. Having altered the seventh to the first, I know not why one in seven might not be altered to one in ten. The thing, however, has been tried; and by the necessities of human nature the change has been found pernicious. One day in ten, prescribed by revolutionary France was actually pronounced by physiologists insufficient. So that we begin to find that, in a deeper sense than we at first suspected, “the sabbath was made for man.” Even in the contrivance of one day in seven, it was arranged by unerring wisdom. Just because the sabbath was made for man, and not because man was ordained to keep the sabbath-day, you can not tamper even with the iota, one day in seven.

That necessity on which the observance leans is the need of rest. It is the deepest want in the soul of man. If you take off covering after covering of the nature which wraps him round, till you come to the central heart of hearts, deep lodged there you find the requirement of repose. All men do not hanker after pleasure - all men do not crave intellectual food. But all men long for rest ; the most restless that ever pursued a turbulent career on earth did by that career only testify to the need of the soul within. They craved for something which was not given: there was a thirst which was not slaked: that very restlessness betokened that - restless because not at rest. It is this need which sometimes makes the quiet of the grave an object of such deep desire. “There the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary are at rest.” It is this which creates the chief desirableness of heaven: “There remaineth a rest for the people of God.” And it is this which, consciously or unconsciously, is the real wish that lies at the bottom of all others. Oh! for tranquility of heart - heaven’s profound silence in the soul, “a meek and quiet spirit, which in the sight of God is of great price!”

The rest needed by man is twofold. Physical repose of the body - a need which he shares with the animals through the lower nature which he has in common with them. “Thou shalt do no work, nor thy cattle,” - so far man’s sabbath-need places him only on a level with the ox and with the ass.

But, besides this, the rest demanded is a repose of spirit. Between these two kinds of rest there is a very important difference. Bodily repose is simply inaction: the rest of the soul is exercise, not torpor. To do nothing is physical rest - to be engaged in full activity is the rest of the soul.

In that hour, which of all the twenty-four is most emblematical of heaven, and suggestive of repose, the eventide, in which instinctively Isaac went into the fields to meditate - when the work of the day is done, when the mind has ceased its tension, when the passions are lulled to rest in spite of themselves, by the spell of the quiet star-lit sky - it is then, amidst the silence of the lull of all the lower parts of our nature, that the soul comes forth to do its work. Then the peculiar, strange work of the soul, which the intellect can not do - meditation, begins. Awe, and worship, and wonder are in full exercise; and Love begins then in its purest form of mystic adoration and pervasive and undefined tenderness - separate from all that is coarse and earthly - swelling as if it would embrace the All in its desire to bless, and lose itself in the sea of the love of God. This is the rest of the soul - the exercise and play of all the nobler powers.

Two things are suggested by this thought.

First, the mode of the observance of the day of rest. It has become lately a subject of very considerable attention. Physiologists have demonstrated the necessity of cessation from toil: they have urged the impossibility of perpetual occupation without end. Pictures, with much pathos in them, have been placed before us, describing the hard fate of those on whom no sabbath dawns. It has been demanded as a right, entreated as a mercy, on behalf of the laboring man, that he should have one day in seven for recreation of his bodily energies. All well and true. But there is a great deal more than this. He who confines his conception of the need of rest to that, has left man on a level with the brutes. Let a man take merely lax and liberal notions of the fourth commandment - let him give his household and dependents immunity from toil, and wish for himself and them no more - he will find that there is a something wanting still. Experience tells us, after a trial, that those Sundays are the happiest, the purest, the most rich in blessing, in which the spiritual part has been most attended to - those in which the business letter was put aside till evening, and the profane literature not opened, and the ordinary occupations entirely suspended - those in which, as in the temple of Solomon, the sound of the earthly hammer has not been heard in the temple of the soul: for this is, in fact, the very distinction between the spirit of the Jewish sabbath and the spirit of the Christian Lord’s day. The one is chiefly for the body - “Thou shalt do no manner of work.” The other is principally for the soul - “I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day.”

The other truth suggested by that fact, that the repose of the soul is exercise, not rest, is, that it conveys an intimation of man’s immortality. It is only when all the rest of our human nature is calmed that the spirit comes forth in full energy: all the rest tires, the spirit never tires. Humbleness, awe, adoration, love, these have in them no weariness: so that when this frame shall be dissolved into the dust of the earth, and the mind, which is merely fitted for this time-world, learning by experience, shall have been superseded, then, in the opening out of an endless career of love, the spirit will enter upon that sabbath of which all earthly sabbaths are but the shadow - the sabbath of eternity, the immortal rest of its Father’s home.

Two observations, in concluding.

1. When is a son of man lord of the sabbath-day? To whom may the sabbath safely become a shadow? I reply, he that has the mind of Christ may exercise discretionary lordship over the sabbath-day. He who is in possession of the substance may let the shadow go. A man in health has done with the prescriptions of the physician. But for an unspiritual man to regulate his hours and amount of rest by his desires, is just as preposterous as for an unhealthy man to rule his appetites by his sensations. Win the mind of Christ; be like Him; and then, in the reality of rest in God, the sabbath form of rest will be superseded. Remain apart from Christ, and then you are under the law again; the fourth commandment is as necessary for you as it was for the Israelite - the prescriptive regimen which may discipline your soul to a sounder state. It is at his peril that the worldly man departs from the rule of the day of rest. Nothing can make us free from the law but the Spirit.

2. The rule pronounced by the apostle is a rule of liberty, and at the same time a rule of charity: “Let no man judge you in respect of the sabbath-days.” It is very difficult to discuss this question of the sabbath. Heat, vehemence, acrimony, are substituted for argument. When you calmly ask to investigate the subject, men apply epithets, and call them reasons: they stigmatize you as a breaker of the sabbath, pronounce you “dangerous,” with sundry warnings against you in private, and pregnant hints in public. The apostle urges charity: “One man esteemeth one day above another: another man esteemeth every day alike.”. . . “He that regardeth the day, regardeth it to the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he regardeth it not.” Carry out that spirit. In the detail of this question there is abundant difficulty. It is a question of degree. Some work must be done on the sabbath-day: - some must sacrifice their rest to the rest of others; for all human life is sacrifice, voluntary or involuntary.

Again, that which is rest to one man is not rest to another. To require the illiterate man to read his Bible for some hours would impose a toil upon him, though it might be a relaxation to you. To the laboring man a larger proportion of the day must be given to the recreation of his physical nature than is necessary for the man of leisure, to whom the spiritual observance of the day is easy, and seems all. Let us learn large, charitable considerateness. Let not the poor man sneer at his richer neighbor, if, in the exercise of his Christian liberty, be uses his horses to convey him to church and not to the mere drive of pleasure; but then, in fairness, let not the rich man be shocked and scandalized if the overwearied shopkeeper and artisan breathe the fresh air of heaven with their families in the country. “ The sabbath was made for man.” Be generous, consistent, large-minded. A man may hold stiff, precise Jewish notions on this subject, but do not stigmatize that man as a formalist. Another may hold large, Paul-like views of the abrogation of the fourth commandment, and yet he may be sincerely and zealously anxious for the hallowing of the day in his household and through his country. Do not call that man a sabbath-breaker. Remember, the Pharisees called the Son of God a sabbath-breaker. They kept the law of the sabbath, they broke the law of love. Which was the worst to break? Which was the higher law to keep? Take care lest, in the zeal which seems to you to be for Christ, ye be found indulging their spirit and not His.