In the past few weeks, as we have studied what the Bible says about the Sabbath, we have seen the importance of the Sabbath in the Old Testament, and that it was more than a ceremonial “shadow” which would pass away with the advent of Christ; that it was a moral law with lasting significance, deeply rooted in God’s heavenly rest and redemptive work. Therefore, it was no surprise that the Sabbath continued for the first-century church in the form of the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week, Sunday.
Finally, last week’s article considered some obvious objections to the idea that the Fourth Commandment still applies to New Testament Christians. We finished up that examination with Paul’s exhortation in Romans 14, “The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord,” a declaration which raises the obvious question: How should we “observe the day” in 21st-century America?
To answer that question, we must take one last survey of what the Bible has to say about the Sabbath…
The Day Matters
In the Old Testament, it was quite clear that the Sabbath was the seventh day of the week. An observant, God-honoring Jew would not have dreamed of substituting another day in its place. Then, in the New Testament, when the only man with the right to alter the Sabbath—Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath—inaugurated a new day for it, once again the particular day of the week was emphasized.
The shift from the last day of the week to the first was not arbitrary or coincidental. While Old Testament life was lived looking forward to a Sabbath rest, New Testament life is lived in light of a rest which has already been won for us. And the importance of the symbolism is reflected in the emphasis which the new day receives in the New Testament, as the first day of the week is repeatedly pressed upon our awareness as the day Christ rose, the day he met with his disciples, and the day upon which the early church gathered.
This understanding of the significance of the Lord’s Day means that Sunday, the first day of the week, was chosen by God himself as the New Testament Sabbath. And that would mean that accommodations which arbitrarily shift Sabbath observance onto another day of the week, like Saturday evening worship services, deviate from God’s design for New Testament believers.
So what are we to do on the first day of the week? The most obvious element of the Fourth Commandment is simple: rest. Exodus 20:9-10 declares, “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.” One book later, God elaborates, “Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to the Lord in all your dwelling places” (Lev 23:3).
The frequency with which the prophets would later rebuke Israel for failing to rest on the Sabbath underlines both the importance of the command and the counterintuitive difficulty we have always had with it. The human addiction to busyness did not begin with the invention of automobiles and smartphones, and the Sabbath has always challenged busy people to set all their goals and projects and deadlines aside so they can sit with Mary at Jesus’ feet.
But we must be careful to properly understand the meaning of the Sabbath rest. It is all too easy to let the cessation of labor become a merely negative thing—to see the fresh white canvas it creates and imagine that blankness is the goal rather than an opportunity.
So we need to notice a second essential theme which runs through biblical discussions of the Sabbath. The Fourth Commandment begins, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” and ends its explanation of the meaning of the Sabbath with the words, “Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” In Isaiah, God exhorts his people to “call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable” (58:13). Ceasing from work clears space for us to delight in what is good and holy.
The most obvious way in which the Sabbath clears space for holy delight is in corporate worship. In Leviticus 23:3, God says his Sabbath is to be “a holy convocation.” A special offering was to be part of the temple worship on the Sabbath, and the Jews would gather together to hear the Scriptures read and explained (a tradition which Luke tells us Jesus regularly took part in). This practice of corporate worship continued in the New Testament church on the first day of the week.
Plainly, the Sabbath should include corporate worship, but there is more to it than that. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees had turned the Sabbath into nothing but corporate worship surrounded by a legalistic void of activity that had none of the richness of true Sabbath rest. In response, Jesus vigorously pushed back to clear space for what theologians call works of necessity and mercy.
Matthew 12 offers examples of both, as Jesus heals a man of a physical deformity, defends his disciples’ “work” of plucking grain to eat as they walk, and, in the course of the ensuing debate over Sabbath-keeping, implicitly justifies helping an animal which had gotten itself in a bind. Jesus wanted his followers to understand that simple acts of daily necessity like preparing a meal or washing dishes did not violate the Sabbath’s call to rest. And, more importantly, he wanted them to understand that acts of love and care for one another were most emphatically appropriate for the Sabbath, as God’s people followed his example on his day (cf John 5:2-17).
But what of other things? Daily activities which fall somewhere between the poles of “go to the office” and “visit a nursing home”? As we step beyond the bounds of what Jesus explicitly taught, we must do so with humility, care, and respect for those who reach different conclusions, but the Bible has given enough direction for us to draw some reasonable inferences.
It seems clear that our Sabbath should include corporate worship and should not include the regular labors which fill our workweek. That is the most clear and basic application of scriptural teaching. Additionally, I believe we ought not ask others to work on our behalf, which is why Leah and I do not eat out on Sundays, for example. It is worth noting that the Fourth Commandment emphatically insists that servants, some of whom would have been unbelieving Gentiles, should also be given a day of rest. If we believe the Sabbath is a moral command, then it applies to all people, like the rest of the Ten Commandments, and we should not ask others to break it—even if they don’t object to doing so.
That being said, we must avoid a Pharisaical attitude which defines Sabbath observance in terms of what we don’t do. If the Sabbath offers a foretaste of heaven, as the author of Hebrews teaches (3:7-4:11), then it ought to be the richest and most joyful day of our week. (Of course, our tastes are not yet what they should be, so the Sabbath will not always delight us, but we should expect to delight in it more and more as we grow more and more like Christ over the course of our Christian walk.) We should expect, with a little thought, planning, and prayer, to be able to fill our Sabbath hours in ways that honor God, sanctify the day, and increasingly delight our own hearts.
A good place to start, of course, are the works of mercy which Jesus so emphatically commends to us. But there are other good options as well. Read a good book. Go for a walk, or simply sit and enjoy the quiet which our busy days so eagerly chase away. Have a real conversation with family or friends. Go somewhere quiet to pray more deeply or more broadly than you might otherwise have time for. Putter around with a hobby you love. There are a thousand rich ways to fill a day of holy rest, but we should particularly seek those things which remind us of the Father who has given us all good gifts, including a day to whet our appetite for that future day when we will fully enjoy the greatest of all gifts—the Giver himself.