Our local assembly has undertaken a study concerning the vexed question of the Lord’s Day. I write these next few articles for their benefit. Hopefully others will profit from them as well.
The Puritan John Owen once remarked that through various controversies the sabbath itself had been given very little rest. We should pray that this will not be the case in our treatment of it. No question but that sabbatarianism has a bad name. Just say the word sabbatarian, and images of purse-lipped Pharisees rise before the mind’s eye. In part this has occurred through the effective slander of popular fiction, but it must also be admitted that numerous purported friends of the sabbath have done their favorite day few favors over the years. Too often questions about the forth commandment deteriorate into whether or not we can ride bicycles in the park on the Lord’s Day, rather than asking the question positively—what are we called to do?
Keep the sabbath day to sanctify it, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee. Six days thou shalt labour, and do all thy work:
But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou.
And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day.
The heart of the command is to keep the day holy through rest. Six days were given for labor, and the seventh is set aside for rest. We learn more about the nature and boundaries of the commandment elsewhere in Scripture, but we must take care not to rush to these other places before noting what the commandment itself expressly requires. We keep the day holy through ceasing from our own vocational business and resting from our labors in the presence of the Lord. The fourth commandment requires that we abstain from our normal labor and work. This is defined by what we do in our vocation six days out of seven. The requirement is that we rest before the Lord. The definition of work comes from the pattern of our lives, not from physics.
Once we have settled this, we ask what the possible relations of work to the Lord’s Day is. What kind of works are lawful on the sabbath? First, one type of work is mandatory on the sabbath—the work of worship. In Leviticus 23:3, we see that part of the sabbath observance was a weekly convocation and feast. This shows us the development of synagogue worship in the Old Testament was not an arbitrary action on the part of the Jews. They were being obedient to His requirement to assemble on the sabbath, and when the jews had settled throughout the land, it was not practical to assemble at the Temple weekly. This is why local places of meeting developed. We have a reference to such meeting houses fairly early, quite apart from the Temple. “They said in their hearts, Let us destroy them altogether: they have burned up all the synagogues of God in the land” (Psalm 74:8).
In many ways, we can see how the synagogue was a precursors for the church. The Temple was in Jerusalem, but weekly worship was in the local synagogue. The Temple is now finds its full expression in Christ and the Jerusalem above, the mother of us all, but worship on the local level is still necessary. So we still have these meeting houses, these churches. As we gather in these places to worship on the sabbath, pious work is necessary. But the Lord tells us that while such works of piety can profane the sabbath, those who do so are guiltless (Mt. 12:5-7). “And immediately on the sabbath He entered the synagogue and taught” (Mk. 1:21).
We are also taught in Scripture that works of necessity and mercy are permitted on the Lord’s Day. The disciples harvested grain in order to eat on the sabbath (Mk. 2:23-28). When the Jews attacked Christ because his disciples plucked grain on the sabbath—they were doing what “was not lawful” (Mt. 12:2)—Jesus does not dispute with them by maintaining that it really was lawful. He was much to shrewd for that. Rather He told the story of David and the shewbread, which was, on one level unlawful for David to do. At the same time, it was necessary and hence justified. This means that it was lawful when all of God’s law was considered. [ Incidentally, David was operating under something of a temporary Nazarite vow which effectively would have given him the authority to act as a priest during this time. It was quite lawfully, under that temporary dispensation, for him to handle the shewbread. But the Pharisees would really need to know their Bible for that bit…]
With regard to mercy, our Lord was not reluctant to heal on the sabbath (Mk. 3:2-5). “Therefore,” Jesus said, “it is lawful to do good on the sabbath (Mt. 12:12). From this we may gather that works of necessity (e.g., food preparation) and mercy (e.g., visiting the sick and hosting guests) are fully lawful.
Consequently, putting this together, we see there are four aspects to proper observance of the Lord’s Day: rest, worship, maintenance, and mercy. Some sabbatarians, unfortunately, leave out the first component, that of rest. They believe that the entire day should be taken up with works of piety, necessity, and mercy, making the taking of a nap, for example, unlawful. Not only is this erroneous, but it is an error that overthrows a central point of the commandment. In essence, this declares a restful obedience to be sabbath-breaking. But man was not made for the sabbath—the sabbath was made for man. (Mk. 2:27-28). God does not command us to work one way for six days and work hard another way on the seventh. The Lord’s Day is a day of rest. But, lest, we forget the meaning of our rest, we worship the Lord so that the Word might accompany the sabbath ordinance in the same way the Word should accompany the sacraments. The day of rest without the Word would soon become something else entirely—a day of thankless recreation.
When we observe the Lord’s Day rightly, we adorn it with our actions, and we make it lovely. When we make it lovely, there will be those who ask us (honestly) for our reasons for this observance. They are not accustomed to sabbath observance, and so they gave some questions. But if we have been pursuing a cranky sabbatarianism, then the questions are likely to be quite hostile. This reveals that many of the sabbath’s worst enemies have been those who have observed it without actually understanding it.
For those who have questions, the answers are available. When the apostle Paul is discussing the law, he says that love is the summary of the law (Rom. 13:10). He lists a number of the commandments by name, but goes on to include “whatever other commandment there may be.” Love does not harm to his neighbor, and therefore love keeps the sabbath. Modern Americans have very little idea how we are wearing one another down, tearing one another apart, through our 24/7 lifestyle. The more I have reflected on this, the more convinced I am that a truly human and Christian culture is simply impossible unless we learn to keep the sabbath as a people. Paul tells us that we do not love if don’t keep the day holy. Of course, as part of the first table of the law, this commandment is primarily directed toward God, but, at the same time, we remember that the sabbath was made for man. We love one another though righteous sabbath keeping. Love is the fulfillment of the law.
This is in keeping with a basic assumption we should have about the New Testament. We should not require that every law or precept in the Old Testament be relegislated in the New in order to have binding authority. Too many Christians today think that the requirements of the Old Testament are not binding unless the New Testament says that they are. Rather we should assume that the Word of God given in the Old Testament is authoritative unless the New Testament says that it does not remain in force. If you as a parent tell your child to clean there room, then the command will still be in force by the time they have walked down the hall—you have no need to say it again every five minutes. Thus, on this basis, we continue to do many things, but we do not sacrifice animals. The same is true about keeping the sabbath holy. This commandment remains in force (albeit modified by the New Testament), because the New Testament does not negate observance of the day.
In churches which have a commitment to the sabbath, or in church which are moving toward such a commitment, it is important to remember that the sabbath has too often been wounded in the house of its friends. As a minister sets himself to preach on the fourth commandment, he must take great care to avoid encouraging the wrong kind of question from the people. Of course, at some point, certain behaviors will be excluded by a right view of the Lord’s Day. But everything depends on how they are excluded. The carnal mind naturally gravitates to a list of rules—don’t do that, and don’t do the other. After his first sermon on the topic of the Lord’s Day, the minister will likely be asked by a concerned mom if it is alright for teenage boy to shoot hoops in the driveway on Sunday afternoon. Of course the question must be answered sometime, but it is being approached from the wrong end.
The day should be filled with rest, worship, things necessary, and things virtuous. In the time left over, the time should be filled with activities that are consistent with the first four, and which the person wants to do having been disciplined and instructed by the first four. If your sermons on the sabbath provoke questions as to whether or not it is lawful to leave the refrigerator plugged in on the Lord’s Day, then perhaps you should back up and punt again. The day is a day of godly celebration, rest, and feasting. Sabbath keeping is the best wine, not tepid water. Observed in the right way, children should grow up longing for the Lord’s Day to come. This is the day which the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
*Next we will attempt an answer as to why we regard the first day of the week as the proper Christian sabbath