Remember the Sabbath
Remember the Sabbath
by William Klock
Last Sunday afternoon I dove into the ocean at Qualicum, along with about sixty other people, and swam a mile in the cold and very choppy waters there. The Ocean Mile Swim has been going on there for sixty-one years. My fellow swimmers at the Aquatic Centre have been bugging me to join them in that swim for about ten of those sixty-one years. I finally decided to join them this year. (I came in second place in my age group.) It was my first time swimming in the open ocean and it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. The best part, though, was when it was over. But was it okay for me to do that on a Sunday? Was it okay for Veronica and I to drive down to Qualicum on the Lord’s Day? Was it bad that we stopped to get hamburgers on the way? Some Christians would say “Yes”. In fact, two Christian friends of mine did just that this week.
I didn’t grow up in a home with strict rules for Sundays. The focus of Sunday mornings was going to church and worshipping with our brothers and sisters. My parents were strict about that—“religious” so speak. Even when we were on holiday, we did the best we could to attend a church service somewhere. But once we got home from church, about the only rule we had was that we weren’t supposed to do homework, but even then, my parents weren’t super strict about that rule.
In contrast, I had a friend whose parents were very strict. Sunday afternoons meant no TV, no riding bikes, no going out to play—he wasn’t even allowed to read secular books on Sunday. The whole family took a three-hour nap after lunch. After that he could do whatever he wanted as long as it involved reading the Bible or some kind of Christian book. Even his mom was spared work on Sunday. Sunday lunch was always put in the Crock Pot before bed on Saturday and for dinner on Sundays they ate leftovers. All of this—his family, my family, my friends who don’t like the idea of swimming a mile in the ocean on Sunday—is in the name of the Fourth Commandment.
So what does the Fourth Commandment mean for us today as Christians? Let’s begin with the text itself. Exodus 20:8-11.
Remember the Sabbath day, to 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. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
On the surface the commandment is pretty simple and straightforward: work six days; don’t work on the seventh. And don’t just dump that work onto your kids or your slaves. In fact, even your animals get a rest on the seventh day. Despite the gallons of ink that have flowed in Judaism in efforts to define exactly what is meant by “work” here, the point of the commandment is very simple. Again, work six days; don’t work on the Sabbath.
We’re not sure about the derivation of the word “sabbath”—whether the noun evolved from the verb or the other way around. Most seem to think the verb came from the noun. The noun “Sabbath” has the sense of “holiday”, but the verb derived from it means to “cease” or to “come to an end”. Because that’s what people did on the Sabbath: they ceased from their work. But what did this look like in ancient Israel? I think a lot of people are under the impression that the Israelites treated the Sabbath much as we treat Sunday: they went to church and then they rested. But there were no churches in Israel. There were feast days during the year when people would go to the temple in Jerusalem, but there was only one temple. Most people couldn’t go there every week and even if they did, it wasn’t like coming to church. Later, during the Babylonian Exile, the synagogue would arise as an alternative to the temple. That did involve a weekly service of praise and prayer and Scripture. In fact, the synagogue service played a big part in shaping the Sunday services of the early Christians. But the synagogue came late in Israel’s history. There are a few passages in the Old Testament that allude to worship on the Sabbath, but it wouldn’t have been worship as we know it in the Church. There was simply nothing like that in their world. The Sabbath was primarily about a rest from work.
Now, that rest itself did take on an aspect of worship. Notice that verse 8 says to “remember” the Sabbath. This act of remembering “kept it holy”. We do the same kind of remembering when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper and “remember” Jesus’ death on the cross. This kind of remembering isn’t just going through the motions. I know that it happens sometimes. We’re here for the Lord’s Supper. We sing the songs, we pray the prayers, we eat the bread and drink the wine, but our minds are elsewhere—maybe on our plans for Sunday afternoon. And so we go through the motions, but we don’t really remember what Jesus did at the cross, we aren’t thinking about what it means, we aren’t reflecting on the love and grace and mercy of God poured out for us there, and so the act of the Lord’s Supper doesn’t really shape us as it should and it doesn’t really honour God as it should.
The same thing often happened with the Sabbath. The prophets repeatedly condemned the people for failing to remember the Sabbath. In many cases people didn’t remember it all and just went on with their business. In other cases, they went through the motions, but their hearts weren’t in it. They were just waiting for the sun to go down so that they could get back to their work.
But what were they remembering when they did remember the Sabbath? What was it about the Sabbath that made it holy and worthy of rest? That’s what verse 11 is getting at: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” This is the bit that’s not quite so straightforward—although I think that’s just for us because we no longer swim in the same cultural river as the Ancient Israelites. But the Lord explains this ceasing from work as a way of “remembering” his own ceasing from work.
Now, before we move on we need to be clear. Israel’s ceasing from work on the Sabbath is not an imitation of the Lord’s ceasing from work after he had created the cosmos. Remembering isn’t about imitation; it’s about recalling and living in light of something. In the Lord’s Supper, when we “do this in remembrance” of Jesus, we don’t imitate his death. No, we recall his death in such a way that its reality, its benefits, and the love and grace and mercy of God shown in his death are driven deep into our hearts and minds so that they shape our whole lives and who we are and how we think and approach the world and other people—and how we think about and relate to God himself. The cross changes everything and our participation in Lord’s Supper reminds us of that.
Remembering the Sabbath did something similar for Israel. It was a reminder that the Lord was the Creator of the cosmos and, most important in this case, that he is sovereign and in control. This is where we need to get back into the thought world of Israel and the ancient world. Being modern, post-Enlightenment people, we think of creation in scientific terms. We want to know how it happened. What were the mechanisms involved and that kind of thing. But that’s not where the focus was in ancient peoples’ thinking. They thought mostly in terms of “why”. We think in materialistic terms. They thought in terms of function. And so in creation stories across the Ancient Near East, we see the emphasis on gods bringing order out of chaos. We see this in Genesis. It doesn’t start with nothing and then God creates something—that’s what’s important to people with a material way of thinking, like us. No, Genesis starts with a world that is formless and void. It has no purpose. It’s not suitable for life. It’s chaos. And then the Lord speaks and shapes what was formless and fills what was void and makes it good. Creation, for the ancient Israelites, was about order. Chaos was bad; order was good. And when order had been established, the Lord rested.
You might remember back when I preached on Genesis, that for the Lord to rest isn’t what we usually think of as rest. It’s not about disengaging the way you or I might disengage after a week of work by taking a nap or zoning out in front of the TV. For the Lord to “rest” was for him to take up his rule over the world he had ordered. The Lord has been out creating and now we see him moving into his throne room to supervise and to maintain that order. I think the best way of thinking of the Lord’s rest is to think of his rule. He created and now he’s sovereign over his creation. He doesn’t disengage like the divine clockmaker of the Deists; he’s always and everywhere engaged, plugged in, holding it in his hands, and caring for it.
And that means—back to the Sabbath—that for the Israelites to work six days and then to observe a day of rest was to remember that the Lord is sovereign, that he reigns over his creation and is specifically King in Israel, and that he cares for his creation and his people. To rest from work on the Sabbath drove home this point. Other peoples worked seven days a week to survive, but the Lord’s people took off one day in seven as a testimony to themselves and to the world that the Lord rules his Creation and cares for his people.
It also drove home the point that they as a people and the land they lived in were not their own. When Moses reiterated the Decalogue to the people in Deuteronomy 5, just before the next generation entered the promised land, he gave this reason:
You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. (Deuteronomy 5:15)
The Sabbath also reminded the people that they had been freed from bondage in Egypt. The Sabbath was a reminder of the Lord’s claim on Israel: “I will be your God and you will be my people”. The Sabbath was a reminder of the Lord’s salvation.
This goes deeper when we consider that the Sabbath principle was bigger than just one day in seven. Later in Exodus and when we get into Leviticus we see that every seventh year was to be a “sabbath” year. The land, itself, was to have a rest. Whatever it produced that year, uncultivated, was freely available to everyone. Now, as much as it’s good farming practise to allow land to lie fallow on a regular basis, this wasn’t the point. The sabbath year reminded the Israelites that the land belonged to the Lord. It was his. The people had merely what the civil law tradition calls “usufructuary rights”—the right to enjoy the fruits or profits of someone else’s land without having real ownership of it. Every seven years the Lord called in his land as a reminder. To drive the point home even further, after every forty-ninth year (seven sevens) there was a jubilee year in which any property that had been sold or traded away was returned to its original family or clan.
We see this principle at work with the people as well. In Deuteronomy 15, for example, the Lord commanded that all debts were to be cancelled in the seventh year. So with slaves, if you bought a fellow Hebrew as a slave, he was to be set free in the seventh year. Just as the land belonged to the Lord, so did the people themselves. If Pharaoh could not claim the Lord’s people as his slaves, neither could they claim each other. Yes, provision was made for the payment of debts, but not to the point that a fellow Israelite became permanently indebted or enslaved. All of these things reminded the people of the Lord’s rule over them and of the Lord’s redemption of them.
This all highlights, once again, that these commandments were specifically part of Israel’s covenant with the Lord. The Decalogue and the rest of the torah are relevant to us as God’s revelation within the context of his covenant with Israel, but it’s not normative for us. These aren’t rules that we can apply directly to ourselves.
So what does this mean for us? Christians have disagreed on this. On the one hand you have the Westminster Confession—the Presbyterian tradition in which my childhood friend was raised—which takes a very hard line, taking Sunday as a “Christian Sabbath” and insisting it be set aside from all “worldly employments and recreations”. (No Ocean Mile Swims or drive-thru hamburgers!). Then you’ve got the Heidelberg Catechism, which calls it a festive day of rest, but puts the emphasis on honouring the Lord every day. Or the Second Helvitic Confession, which says, “We do not account one day to be holier than another, nor think that mere rest is of itself acceptable to God. Besides, we do celebrate and keep the Lord’s Day, and not the Jewish Sabbath, and that with a free observation.” And then there’s our own Anglican tradition which doesn’t address this at all except in the second book of homilies, which is out of print and that almost no one reads. If you do read it, it says to go to church on Sunday and to rest from your weekly and workday labour. In doing that we “declare ourselves to be loving children”.
But the thing to note is that differences in all of these doctrinal confessions lie in the understanding of what it means to rest. (It seems this has always been a problem. It was for the Jews and now it is for us.) I stressed the differences, but what they all universally agree on is that Sunday is the Lord’s Day and that it’s a day on which God’s people are to gather together for corporate worship.
Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, the great Presbyterian scholar put it well when he said, “Christ took the Sabbath into the grave with him and brought the Lord’s Day out…on the resurrection morn.” Jesus has change everything. Yes, the first Christians continued to observe the Sabbath and to worship in the synagogues, but they were Jews. The New Testament witness tells us that they also gathered on Sundays to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and to share the Lord’s Supper. As the Church became increasingly made up of Gentiles, Sabbath observance and synagogue worship became less common, although it was a sticking point for many. Paul wrote to the Colossians:
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17)
Jewish believers were welcome to continue their observation of torah—including the Sabbath—but there was no obligation to do so and, certainly, no one was to impose such an observance on anyone else, because Jesus has inaugurated the reality of which the torah was a shadow.
I think this is where we need to begin in understanding what the Sabbath means for Christians. The Old Covenant was taken into the tomb with Jesus and something new came out with him. There’s continuity, but it’s also new. Jesus has transformed Passover into the Lord’s Supper. Jesus has transformed circumcision into baptism. But these aren’t the only covenant signs that he’s transformed. He took the seventh day of the week into the grave with him and burst forth alive on what the early Church called the “Eighth Day”. The Sabbath commemorated the Lord’s creative work in the beginning and the Lord’s Day now commemorates his work of new creation in Jesus. When we gather on the Lord’s Day we’re reminded that we worship the God who has fulfilled his promises, who has inaugurated new creation, and in that we have reason to hope in him, trusting that he will make all things new. Our worship on Sunday declares that Jesus is Lord.
And that gets at how, I think, we ought to approach this issue. As Israel was the people who knew that the Lord was the creator and sustainer of the cosmos and the people called to live in such a way that his good rule was on display to the nations, so we Christians are the people who know that Jesus is the world’s true Lord, that his kingdom has come, and that his new creation is breaking into the world. And so we set aside one day each week in which we remember and celebrate his rule and his redemption. On that day we gather together to praise, to pray, to hear his word, and to meet him at his Table. But it’s also a day when, like the Israelites, we acknowledge his loving care by taking a break from our weekly and workaday routine as much as we are able. Just as in the Old Covenant, sometimes there’s work that must be done. Emergencies happen. Children and the sick need care. But if we are so committed to our work that we refuse to take off a day for the sake of the Lord, we really need to evaluate what we’re worshipping and where our hearts are. As Christians we worship the God who has ordered and sustains the cosmos and who has redeemed us from our bondage to sin and death. Can we not trust him enough to witness his sustaining care and his good rule to the world by devoting a day to him and to his kingdom? If we can’t, we need to look into our souls and ask some serious questions.
Now, that said, I’m not sure that our struggle is with rest. In the ancient world, most people laboured sunup to sundown seven days a week. You had to in order to survive. Today the government mandates our employers give us two days a week of rest. Leisure time isn’t the problem for most of us. And yet, with leisure time at our disposal like no other people in history, what do we do with it? Brothers and Sisters, does your leisure distract you from remembering the Lord’s Day? This may be a greater problem than the refusal to take a break from our work. It’s one thing to be absent from the corporate gathering of the saints because you’re struggling to make ends meet. But in our modern, wealthy society it’s not the “necessities” that take us away, but our leisures. That’s an even greater problem and it’s one you need to seriously think on if your leisure activities cause you to be regularly absent from the church. Again, where are your priorities? Who or what do you worship?
Friends, it’s about hallowing the name of the God who has created us, who sustains us, and who has redeemed us. And it’s about living out the role he has given us to proclaim and to spread his rule and his kingdom. In one sense, this ought to translate into every aspect of our lives everyday. But the witness of Scripture is that God’s people also set apart one day each week on which to honour him. It ought to be motivated by our love for the one who creates, sustains, and redeems us. If it isn’t, we need to reflect more on the love and the grace he has poured out on us. We ought to reflect on the redemption he has brought us through the death of his son on the cross. And we ought to think on the fact that in that redemption he has bought us. We belong to him. Through Jesus, we have been adopted. The loving Father has made us his sons and daughters. As that old Anglican homily says, by our observance of the Lord’s Day we show that we love our Father. But that day is also a witness to those around us. Parents, first and foremost, that’s your kids. What priorities are you instilling in them? If you are regularly absent from the weekly gather of the saints, you’re instilling in them a greater love for work or for leisure than you are a love for God and for their brothers and sisters in Christ.
But the world watches as well. Our families, our friends, our neighbours, our coworkers. By taking a break and trusting in God’s provision for our needs, by taking a break from the things we love because we love God more than everything else, and by taking a break to gather with this motley and diverse group of people with whom we may have nothing else in common, we proclaim the good news that Jesus is Lord. Jesus says to the world, “Come to me, all who labour and our heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Brothers and Sisters, when we remember the Lord’s Day we remember the rest that Jesus has given. We live it out. We drive the reality of it deep into our hearts and minds. And we witness to the world the joy and the hope and the peace of God’s new creation.
Let us pray: Loving Father, in Collect we asked for a measure of your grace that we might keep your commandments. In the death of Jesus you have delivered us from our bondage to sin and you have poured your Spirit into us, writing your law on our hearts. You have made us new. You have renewed our hearts and minds. And yet we still struggle to obey the law of the Spirit. Make each Lord’s Day, we ask, a reminder of your salvation, a reminder that we are your children, a time to reflect on your goodness, grace, mercy, and love that we might always respond to you as loving children. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.