READ : Exodus 20:8-11
The Sabbath is a day for resting from labor. The Lord’s Day is for celebrating Jesus’ resurrection.
Welcome to this fourth in our series on The Ten Commandments. I’ve so enjoyed preparing for these. I hope you enjoy hearing them even a fraction as much. Remember again today how all the commandments come from the God of grace who first shows his love for us in saving action and then gives commands. His commands and prohibitions are not to restrict and imprison us but to release and free us. They are for our good always. Today we’re going to see how that is true for the Fourth Commandment. Listen:
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
Exodus 20:8-11, nrsv
Why God Gave the Sabbath
Now a careful look at this Fourth Commandment. The Sabbath, in other words, is a day to be recognized. Remember to keep it holy. It is to be brought to mind and especially thought of each week. No one is to ignore or forget it.
The word holy in the scriptures does not mean “religious,” as though the whole day should be spent in “spiritual” pursuits. It means literally “set apart” from common use for God’s purposes. It’s a special day, unlike the other six.
You shall not do any work. The other six are to be days for labor but this one is for rest. No one is to work – family, servant, guest, beast of burden. All are to have a day of rest and refreshment. Isn’t that, as our grandchildren say, cool? Yes, no one is to work. We’re to remember God’s creative work and his loving work of deliverance, again stressing relief from drudgery. What a gift this commandment is that people don’t have to ceaselessly toil.
Now notice, nothing is commanded here but rest from ordinary labors. Only one thing: rest from toil. What a welcome, happy command! Worship is not commanded. It’s wonderful on this day and every day but it’s not commanded here. In fact, until after Israel’s captivity there was no regular Sabbath worship.
Religious gatherings are not commanded. People aren’t required to have religious meetings. Those came three times a year in Israel. They’re always appropriate but they’re not commanded here.
And neither are good works commanded on the Sabbath. Any day is a great day for doing good but there’s no special order to do this on the Sabbath.
Nothing is forbidden as we’ve seen but customary work. On the other side this command doesn’t rule out anything but the ordinary work of the other six. That’s liberating too, isn’t it? It doesn’t rule out recreation and vacations. You can enjoy recreation. You can take a vacation. You can be refreshed in a host of ways. It doesn’t rule out parties and celebrations. You can have a party, a celebration, a wonderful family gathering. No one is forbidden to dance! Just don’t plow! Neither are sports and games forbidden. We’re not forbidden to take part in sports and games of our liking or to watch such contests, say on TV. All God wants to forbid is wearisome toil.
How We Miss the Point
Now we wonder, if that’s true, how did restrictions on Sabbath observance arise? Not from Old Testament teaching. The profaning of the Sabbath that’s talked about there and excoriated by the prophets is when people just can’t wait for the Sabbath to be over so they can be back to their money making.
Perhaps it came from rabbinic carefulness in defining work. Where the legalistic requirements come in, the rabbis want at all costs that they and especially others should keep every jot and tittle of the law.
So in order to avoid breaking it, they build what might be called a “hedge” around it so that no one can even get close to disobedience. So people are told not to light a fire on the Sabbath. It’s too much like work. In wartime don’t fight. And they had some disastrous results from that.
The question even arose: how far can you walk on the Sabbath before it’s work? By careful calculation, they concluded 2000 cubits, about a thousand yards.
And then, reaping and threshing. When the disciples are hungry and they’re walking through the fields and they pick a head of grain here, the Pharisees see that as “reaping and threshing.” It’s work (Mk. 2:23-24), they say.
And then even rabbinic carefulness restricted acts of mercy and healing. That was the worst perversion – when works of mercy and healing were condemned (Lk. 13:14).
And we have cultural attitudes like that. When I was a pastor, I was always eager to get my people to bear witness to their faith and share the gospel with their neighbors. One day I had a lady come up and tell me that she had witnessed to her neighbor, and I said, “Wonderful, tell me about it!” “Well,” she said, “he was outside and washing his car on Sunday, and I told him he shouldn’t do that.” And I kind of groaned within. That was her idea of witness, that you tell somebody not to do a certain thing on Sunday.
Jesus’ Teaching on the Sabbath
Now what was Jesus’ attitude to such restrictions? We read in Mark 3:5, he was grieved. He was angry at their hardness of heart because they objected to somebody being healed from a dreadful affliction on the Sabbath day because it didn’t chime in with the restrictions that they sought to place on that day. He looks around with grief and anger. They’d rather see their restrictions served than that someone suffering be relieved. And because of it they were ready to kill him over this.
And he pointed out that the restrictions were inconsistent and hypocritical (Mt. 12:11, Luke 13:14-16). People treated their beasts better. They would lift their ox out of the ditch but they wouldn’t be content to have someone healed.
And with Jesus, human need always takes priority (Mk. 2:23-26). He always quoted Hosea 6:6, “God wants mercy and not sacrifice.” And he said this remarkable thing that the Sabbath was made for humankind (Mk. 3:27). This is another powerful, life-changing word. We were not created so that we could obey the law, so that we could keep the Sabbath. It was made for us. Think that one through. It’s to be a blessing for people and not a burden. We sometimes get it all wrong. Now if this is the case, if the Sabbath commandment is meant for human joy and refreshment, then the disciples’ eating grain is blameless.
Then the Son of man to whom all dominion belongs says that he’s Lord of the Sabbath (Mk. 2:28). His vision of what it means is authoritative. His way of honoring and observing it is God’s intended way, not a long list of man-made restrictions.
This further stresses the great point here that all the commands and promises of the Old Testament find their final interpretation and fulfillment in Jesus. Listen to what he says in Matthew 11:28-29.
Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me and you will find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Jesus is speaking to those who labor and are heavy laden under a yoke. He invites them to come to him, take on his mild yoke and find rest. In a real way, he offers himself as the true Sabbath rest, a foretaste of the everlasting rest.
Now in the New Testament Jesus and his apostles did observe the Sabbath. They went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day. Paul and other apostles in the early days of the church regularly preached in synagogues (Acts 13:13-16; Acts 17:1-3). But neither Jesus nor Paul lists Sabbath keeping among the commandments (Luke 18:18-20; 13:8-10). Jesus refers to several commandments on a number of occasions and Paul cites a number of them. John warns against idols. Jesus honors the name of God but Jesus never teaches his disciples or the multitudes that they should keep the Sabbath. Perhaps with many of them that was assumed.
None of the Epistles in the New Testament mention it as a requirement for Gentile believers. In all the ethical requirements laid down for Gentiles this is never once mentioned as a requirement. Again, this is an argument from silence, but it is worth pondering. All the other nine are reinforced in the New Testament.
Why We Have a Lord’s Day
Now, the Lord’s Day. What is that? We remember that the Gospels and all the New Testament writings appeared after Jesus’ resurrection. By this time we begin to notice a change. The resurrection of Jesus was indeed the pivotal point in all human history. There was a wonderful Newsweek article around Easter time that underlined that. He (the author) said that after what happened on that first Easter, things would never be the same. And one of the things that would never be the same after the Resurrection was the day on which Christians worshiped. The first day of the week was Resurrection Day!
Remember how his appearances came then? It was on the first day that he first appeared, the evening of the first Easter. And again a week later. And by John’s time, writing in the book of Revelation, it was already called “the Lord’s Day.”
In early church practice in 1 Corinthians 16 and Acts 20:7, it’s assumed that this is the day when Christians gather, to lay by them in store what will be an offering for the poor saints. The Acts passage lists this as a day when they gather to break bread and for Paul to teach and preach.
Now, the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day. They’re similar. They’re both weekly, both celebrating God’s mighty works. The difference is the Sabbath was by divine appointment from Sinai on tablets of stone. There’s no divine command for a Lord’s Day.
The emphasis on rest, no work, is the Sabbath, the emphasis on celebration in the light of Jesus’ resurrection.
The Sabbath remembered creation and the exodus. The Lord’s Day remembers resurrection.
Fidelity to God in Both
Now how do we deal with differences among believers on this issue? It has been one of those sharply controverted doctrines for centuries, and there’s evidence to be cited on both sides. I would say to anybody who wants to observe the Sabbath as the Jews did, God bless you. You certainly have biblical grounds for that. But I would say also: I hope that you will feel that we who celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on the Lord’s Day are walking in the ways of God, too. It’s certainly God’s will that we observe a day of rest. And it’s surely his will that we celebrate the risen Jesus.