There is a tendency among modern Evangelicals to get red in the cheeks over whether or not the Ten Commandments are displayed down on the courthouse lawn. The more pious among us seem to think that it is a good idea. They be the very words of God after all. But ask that same zealot which of them that he or she actually believes and you might find that they breathe a sigh of relief to see the Ten Words carted off public property. We actually prefer an abridgment; a reader’s digest version of the Commandments wherein all of those hard bits are taken out. This is especially true when considering numero cuatro. Those of us who love the fourth commandment do not need to be reminded how much God’s word is openly disregarded at this point. Business as usual down at the mall is the order of the day, and the frantic 24-7 pace of American life shows no sign of slowing down. There is no rest, as it was said, for the wicked (Is. 57:21).
But within the Reformed world, we need to concern ourselves with sabbath-breaking by those who believe in the fourth commandment. Quite often the weekly sabbath rest suffers the same fate as the Lord which it typifies—it is “wounded in the house of his friends”. This is particularly the case for those churches just coming to settled convictions on the sabbath. Overreaction is a very real temptation. The nature and limits of our sabbath convictions are very important, because like skinning felines, there is more than one way to break a commandment.
When Jesus had His famous dust ups with the Pharisees over sabbath-keeping, He was not dealing with people who openly rejected the legitimacy of the commandment. He was in a conflict with those who would be called sabbatarians. In these various gospel narratives, more is taught to us than the fact that Jesus was exonerated from the false charge of sabbath-breaking. The wisdom of His responses showed that His opponents, filled with scruples about the fourth commandment, were the real sabbath breakers. Not only was Christ exonerated on the charge, His adversaries were convicted by the very charge they leveled against Him.
So we see that the sabbath can be broken, not only by those who walk away from it in contempt, but also by those who swing it around in such a way as to bloody the noses of others. The problem of sabbatarian sabbath-breaking can begin very subtly. It has taken hold when the first question asked is, “What am I not allowed to do on Sunday?” The desire for such direction is a very natural one, but if we are not careful, the end result will be a rabbinical ruling on whether it is lawful to turn cartwheels in the driveway, or push buttons on the microwave. Of course, we will at some point choose to avoid certain things on the Lord’s Day, but we must ensure that it is the natural result of what we have embraced – because the sabbath is a positive ordinance.
Within our reformational ranks, a common understanding of the Lord’s Day follows the Westminster Confession when it says that the sabbath should be filled up with three kinds of work – works of necessity, works of piety, and works of mercy. As the Confession puts it, in righteous sabbath-keeping, men “are taken up the whole time in the publick and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy” (XXI/viii).
But something is missing here – rest. This rest is the centerpiece of the commandment. The Bible does not say that we are to work for six days, and then on the seventh day, we are to, well, work ourselves into a frazzle at the other jobs. We are commanded to rest.
Perhaps a better statement of our obligation with regard to the commandment would be this: on the first day of the week, we are commanded to rest before the Lord (Ex. 20:8). In addition, we are commanded to interrupt this rest with time set aside for corporate worship (Lev. 23:1-3). This worship is celebratory, and so for most of the participants it is another form of rest. Those, like ministers, who have to work during this time are nonetheless guiltless, because the work is required of them by God (Matt. 12:5). Throughout the rest of the day, works of necessity are of course permitted (Mk. 2:27), as well as works of mercy and kindness (Mk. 3:4). These latter two works are permitted, not required.
Another problem can develop as well. Among many sabbatarians, a minimalist and negative approach to the commandment has taken root. To take a swing at one of our favorite whipping boys, this amounts to gnostic sabbatarianism. “Spiritual” observance minimizes physical activity, as though work is defined by a high school physics textbook – the mere expenditure of energy. But this would exclude preparation of a nice meal, kissing, or walking in the park. Bit by bit, the ideal sabbath becomes a day of staring at dull wallpaper, sipping tepid water and nibbling on a cracker.
But the passage in Leviticus shows us that the weekly sabbath was one of their holy festivals. It was a feast. The early Christians carried this same idea over, feasting together on the Lord’s Day. Paul urged feasting on the Lord’s Day. “Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5:8). This exhortation was necessary in Corinth because their sabbath feasting had apparently gotten out of hand (1 Cor. 11:20-22). Jude wrote to some Christians who had to deal with false teachers intruding upon the holy festival (Jude 12).
So the church should of course urge and teach faithful sabbath keeping. But it should be done positively. First, leave room for rest. The programs of the church should not fill every little nook and cranny of the day. And the worship should be the kind of worship the saints look forward to all week. For the remainder of the day, the teaching should emphasize that this is a day for joy, gladness, hot food, good wine, fellowship with friends, singing psalms, reading books, and reciting poetry.
In the time left over, arrange the couch so it is near a window in the middle of your loveliest sun puddle. And take a nap.