Studies in the Sabbath No. 4


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We have so far dealt with the theology of the Sabbath Day and in particular its perpetual obligation for Christians. We have to begin there nowadays because so many Christians do not keep the Sabbath day and do not think that they have to. They have been taught, in fact, that to keep the Sabbath is legalism, a denial of the freedom for which Christ has set us free. The Sabbath was for Israel and the Jews, they have been told, not for Christians today. But we said that in two related but different ways, the Bible places the Sabbath and the keeping of one day holy every week in a central place in God’s plan for the life of mankind and, all the more, the life of his people. First, the Sabbath is a creation ordinance, instituted for the life of mankind in Eden before the Fall. It belongs with work, marriage, and family among those fundamental structures of human life as God created it. Mankind is to work and to enjoy a holiday and it was so from the very beginning. That this is written upon the hearts of man as God created him is indicated, of course, by the fact that man does observe holidays – everywhere he observes holidays – it is just that, since the Fall he doesn’t observe holidays as God intended for him to observe them! Second, the obligation to keep the Lord’s Day holy is found in the Ten Commandments, that summary of moral obligation that God laid down for mankind. That we find the Sabbath obligation there, as the fourth of the ten commandments, is a powerful demonstration that at all times and in all places man is to keep one day of the week holy to God.

We then looked at the texts in the New Testament that some have taken to mean that the obligation to observe the Lord’s Day has been either abolished or radically reconfigured in the new epoch introduced by Christ and his apostles. We argued that none of those texts teaches any such thing. They either actually confirm the obligation of Sabbath-keeping (e.g. Hebrews 4) or they speak to the controversy – so widespread in apostolic Christianity – created by Jewish Christian insistence that the Saturday Sabbath be preserved (and perhaps other Jewish holidays) even as the Sunday Sabbath was being celebrated by Jews and Gentiles alike in the expanding Christian church (Rom. 14; Col. 2). Finally, last time, we examined the evidence for the change from Saturday to Sunday, and concluded that though the outward form of this particular obedience had changed – from one day of the week to another – the burden of the 4th commandment remained the same and that the change from Saturday to Sunday could be explained by nothing less momentous than the resurrection from the dead of the Savior of the world.

But as we discussed the question of whether or not Christians were still obliged to keep the Lord’s Day holy I mentioned several times in passing that much of the controversy resulted, in my judgment, from a far too negative view of what it means to keep the Lord’s Day holy. In other words, Sabbath sanctification was widely conceived in Christian circles in an excessively narrow and negative way and that resulted in a prejudice against the day. That prejudice, in turn, provoked the effort to find a reason to think that the obligation of observing the Lord’s Day had been done away with. When keeping the Sabbath is conceived of as an oppressive burden, it is natural to think that the Lord Jesus would have wanted to deliver us from it. We are reminded, in this way, that it is always very important to place a proper construction on the laws of God, to draw out the good in them and the blessing of them, lest people conceive God’s laws in a negative way and find it difficult to imagine that a good heavenly Father would ever demand such grinding misery of his children. All of God’s laws are regarded as oppressive by unbelievers, of course, but it is not the church’s business to make it easier for them to think hard thoughts about God’s commandments and too often the church has done just that!

For example, in Acts 15:10 – in the midst of a discussion of the relationship of Gentile Christians to the Jewish practice of circumcision – we hear Peter say, “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?” Peter there uses “yoke” – with its suggestion of captivity and burden bearing – as a description of the law as it was understood in the Judaism of his time. He is not referring there to the law of God rightly understood, but to the law as it was perverted in the Judaism of his time when obedience to the law was made the principle of salvation. Peter, in other words, was saying the same thing as Jesus said, when he condemned the Pharisees in Matthew 23:4, saying, “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders…” This is not what God’s law did – Jesus was always a defender of God’s law – but what those who misunderstand and misapply the law do. Law conceived that legalistic way is an oppressive burden because no one can keep it well enough. It demands more than we can supply. As the poet has it,

A rigid master was the law,
Demanding brick, denying straw…

What is more, conceived in legalistic terms, the actual commandments are almost always grotesquely misunderstood. In the case of the Sabbath, obedience was conceived by the Jewish rabbinical tradition as the observance of endless regulations that buried the true meaning of the commandment under a mountain of petty minutiae. One has only to read the tractate “Shabbath” in the Mishnah, that repository of rabbinical regulations from the time before, during, and shortly after, the days of Christ and his apostles, to know what Peter was talking about when he spoke of the law as a yoke that neither they nor their fathers could bear. Here is the opening paragraph of that tractate on Sabbath observance in the Mishnah. It concerns the question: what constitutes work on the Sabbath day. If we are not to work, then we have to know what is work and what is not. Exodus 16:29 said, in regard to the regulations for gathering manna, that on the Sabbath day everyone was to stay in and no one was to go out. In the context it was talking about going out to gather manna, but in the Mishnah “going out” is now absolutized and what constitutes any and every kind of “going out” will now be defined.

“There are two (which are, indeed, four) kinds of going out on the Sabbath for him that is inside, and two (which are, indeed, four) for him that is outside. Thus if a poor man stood outside and the householder inside, and the poor man stretched his hand inside and put anything into the householder’s hand, or took anything from it and brought it out, the poor man is culpable and the householder is not culpable; if the householder stretched his hand outside and put anything into the poor man’s hand, or took anything from it and brought it in, the householder is culpable and the poor man is not culpable. But if the poor man stretched his hand inside and the householder took anything from it, or put anything into it and the poor man brought it out, neither is culpable; and if the householder stretched his hand outside and the poor man took anything from it, or put anything into it and the householder brought it in, neither is culpable.”

I confess that I had to read that paragraph carefully a few times before I understood what the distinction was between the actions that were not culpable and the actions that were, the actions that amounted to “going out” and the actions that didn’t. But there is nothing like this in the Bible; nothing remotely like this. The entire spirit of the Bible’s presentation of the law of God is utterly different. The Bible is always concentrating on the main point of the commandment, the principle of goodness and love that is enshrined in the commandment. The Bible never reduces its commandments to a mass of regulations precisely because it never loses sight of the real interest of the commandment as a particular application of the law of love for God and neighbor. But, the fact is, the church has often lost sight of precisely that principle and that main point. I met a fellow in Aberdeen, a university student who hailed from the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. This is a church that historically has imposed a very rigid Sabbath observance upon its members. My friend – who eventually came to the United States to study at Covenant Theological Seminary and then returned to pastor in Scotland – was excommunicated by the Free Presbyterians. What was his crime? What was the offense that they judged rendered his profession of faith in Christ no longer credible? Why was it that they felt free to judge him no longer a Christian? He rode a bus to get to church on Sunday!

I hope we all instinctively realize that there is something very unbiblical about such a view of the Sabbath day because there is in it something very unbiblical about such a view of God’s law. One has to move through a great many steps from any actual statement found in the Bible to the conclusion that one cannot ride a bus to get to church on Sunday. That is the kind of thinking the Pharisees indulged in. They purported to know precisely how far one could walk on the Sabbath day before he had walked so far that his walking amounted to work. This is the famous “Sabbath day’s journey” we read of in Acts 1:12. But, as Charles Simeon once said, “The human mind is very fond of fetters and is apt to forge them for itself.” And over and over again real Christians have slipped into this way of thinking about obedience and about Sabbath obedience in particular. We admire the Puritans and rightly so. We admire the Pilgrim Fathers and rightly so. But it is not hard to detect a ripening legalistic mindset in a judgment rendered in New Haven, Connecticut in 1643 against a couple for kissing on the Sabbath day. [W. Solberg, Redeem the Time, 174]

This is what the Lord Jesus effectively said in Mark 2:27 when he said – on the occasion of some Pharisees objecting to his disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath – “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” That is, if your view of Sabbath keeping is that the Lord’s Day is a burden to be born, an oppression to be endured so as to prove your loyalty to God, then you have badly misunderstood the commandment. The Sabbath is to be a boon to man, not a burden. It is to lighten his life, not make it heavier. The Lord’s Day should be the best day of the week, not the worst. It is, after all, a holiday! The OT calls it a feast! How many of you, for example, just hate the idea of Christmas and wish you didn’t have to celebrate it again this year? The decorations, the music, the family gatherings, it is all a burden to you. Christmas falls on a Monday in 2006 and you wish that you could just go to work as you ordinarily do on a Monday. You wish you could just go to work that day and not have to stay home and open presents and be with the family and enjoy a feast. You don’t think that, do you? Actually some people really do think that way, but do you know why? They hate the coming of Christmas because they are sad about their lives and Christmas is such a time of joy for almost everyone that it reminds them of how sad they are. They regret Christmas precisely because it is a time of joy! Well, Jesus said, so it ought to be with the Sabbath day. It should be a great day for a man or woman, a boy or girl. It ought to be the day you look forward to, the day you regularly regard as the best day of the week. It was made for you. You weren’t made for it!

Whenever Sabbath observance is understood in terms of a growing list of things that cannot be done on the Lord’s Day, the Lord’s emphatic teaching that the Sabbath is intended as a boon for man swiftly recedes from view. Soon it seems clear to everyone that the Sabbath was made for God not for us. He needs his rest, apparently, and we are to keep quiet so as not to disturb him! The simplest, the surest way to keep the Lord’s Day is to do nothing at all – at least nothing interesting. But the Bible never says this, as we shall see, and what it does say lays all the stress on the Sabbath as a day of positive and happy opportunity, not oppressive, dull, and lifeless regulation.

It is this fundamental attitude about God’s commandments that we should have in our hearts and our minds as we begin to ask the question: what does the 4th commandment require of us and how are we to keep the Lord’s Day holy? We will answer that question rightly if we are really seeking to understand what is the best way to get the happiness and the blessing that the Lord has in store for those who keep this commandment?

So now we turn to the question: how does one keep the Sabbath day? What is required to keep the Lord’s Day holy? How is the Christian Sabbath to be observed? We have time tonight merely to begin answering this question and only in the most general way. We’ll begin to look at the biblical data next time. In 1937, a Dutch Reformed pastor by the name of van Selms observed that in Holland there were 10,000 quarrels every Sunday over what behavior is permitted on the Lord’s Day. Nowadays that number is much, much smaller. For such arguments can only take place where the Sabbath obligation is taken seriously. Nevertheless, the fact that there were so many arguments when the Sabbath was taken seriously indicates the challenge that the Sabbath commandment has always posed. How is it to be obeyed? What is required to keep the Lord’s Day holy?

Now I have heard this difficulty of knowing what the 4th commandment requires turned against the Sabbath obligation. I have heard it said that the proof that Christians do not have to keep the Lord’s Day holy is that through the ages no one has ever been able to settle the question of how that is done. If you can’t even define what it means to keep the Sabbath holy then, obviously, it isn’t something that God requires of us. The Lord doesn’t give us commandments we can’t know how to keep!

But that is a very bad argument and a very dangerous one. For the fact is, it can be turned just as easily against any and every one of God’s commandments, and certainly every one of the Ten Commandments. Take, for example, the sixth commandment: “You shall not murder.” Of course, we understand that the sixth commandment, like all the others, is a title for an entire area of duty and morality. We are responsible for the life of our neighbor. We cannot harm him but, as well, we must do him good. Jesus makes that clear in his Sermon on the Mount and the point is elaborated elsewhere in the Bible. Jesus teaches us that anger against our neighbor is a violation of the sixth commandment. And Paul goes on to say that you can’t keep the sixth commandment unless you really love your neighbor. Our Shorter Catechism asks: “What is required in the sixth commandment?” And very helpfully and very biblically it replies: “The sixth commandment requireth all lawful endeavors to preserve our own life, and the life of others.” Alright, what does that require? You have neighbors. What are your obligations to them? You are to love them and to work for the preservation of their lives. In what ways are you to do this, how often, and at what sacrifice on your own part? Well those are not easy questions to answer; they have never been easy questions to answer. Most of us would be very ready to admit that we haven’t done nearly as much for our neighbors as the sixth commandment requires us to do. Most of us wouldn’t hesitate to admit that we find it very difficult to keep that commandment so far as our neighbors are concerned. We would confess that it is even hard for us to know just what the Lord expects of us concerning our neighbors.

The fact that serious Christians struggle to know precisely how to keep a commandment faithfully and thoroughly in keeping with the spirit and the inner meaning of that commandment is nothing more than the demonstration that God’s law is very searching and that human beings are very sinful. In that the 4th commandment, the obligation to keep the Sabbath holy, is entirely typical. There is nothing unusual about the fact that there should be 10,000 quarrels a Sunday over what behavior is permitted on Sunday. Perhaps the larger problem is that there aren’t 10,000 quarrels every Sunday, or every day for that matter, over what behavior is required of us that we might truly love our neighbor!

The fact is that all of the Ten Commandments are general in their scope. They require thoughtful and spiritual application to the thousand and one circumstances of daily life. As I am going to argue throughout our study of the ethics of Sabbath keeping, it is the heart that wants to obey, that wants to please the Lord, that wants to keep the commandment because it knows the commandments of the Lord are not burdensome that will get the obedience right and will also get the blessing of that obedience. It is interesting that in the time of the Reformation and shortly thereafter, it was the Socinians (these were the early liberals; they were Unitarians and rationalists) and the more radical side of the Anabaptists – who threw off the Old Testament as outdated and unchristian – who led the charge against the Sabbath day and the perpetual obligation of the Lord’s Day. They thought the law of God was abolished and that the Christian life was to be lived without rules as a kind of free-flowing following of the Christian’s inner light. They thought that because they saw the law of God as a burden, as an oppression. That is not what the New Testament teaches in any way, shape, or form. It is keeping God’s commandments that matters, said Paul. His doctrine of justification by faith establishes the Law of God it does not abolish it, he wrote. Sin is a violation of God’s law and God’s grace in a life is demonstrated when that person lives in obedience to God’s commandments says John. And that law of God is holy, just, and good, Paul says. Take John, the apostle of the love of God, and consider what he says about the law of God and obedience to that law. In what, I suppose, is regarded as one of the most evangelical documents of the New Testament, his first letter, John says this in 5:2-3:

“This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome…”

Obedience to God’s law is love, John says, because it honors his authority, it presumes upon his veracity and his goodness, because it does his pleasure, and because it seeks blessing and reward from him. And so if we are to obey God’s commands we will surely find that God’s commands are not a hindrance but a help, not a burden but a blessing. God’s commands are as much a burden as wings are a burden to a bird. The laws of God are loves’ eyes as the Puritans used to say. They show us how to love both God and our neighbor. So we are to look at the law of God as always a good thing, a necessary thing, and a wonderfully useful and helpful thing. And we are to look at the 4th commandment in that same way.

It is so important that we do not turn obedience to the law of God into something burdensome for ourselves or for our children. The unbeliever always will because he is a rebel. It is part of his curse that he will not and cannot subject himself to the law of God. He will always find it irksome and intolerable to be required to live according to God’s will. He thinks he will find his fulfillment in adultery, in lying, in wanting what is not his, in treating others with contempt, in worshipping other gods. But he does not and will not. Because God’s law is, in fact, a transcript of the good life as God made it. There is no other good life. All life lived in disobedience must finally come up against the brick wall of reality. Human life will not prosper when it is lived in defiance of God’s law. The misery which eventuates when God’s law is disobeyed is proof enough of its divine origin! It is the Devil’s work to keep men thinking that the law of God is a burden not a boon. That is precisely the lie he told to Eve in the Garden of Eden. God’s law is meant to keep you from pleasure that is legitimately yours. But it was a lie and mankind got not pleasure, but pain from his disobedience. Nevertheless the Devil is telling the same lie still today. Let’s not help him do that work! But this requires some understanding.

The simple fact is that we very often encounter the law first as a bare constraint and prohibition. “Thou shalt not…” So it is with almost all laws for little children. They cannot comprehend the good reason, the blessing in the commandment. They only hear the “No!” And so, too, with other commands as we grow older. The 15 or 17 year old may have some sense of the boon in the 7th commandment but he or she struggles fully to grasp that blessing – the protection, the lasting happiness which God protects and fosters in our lives by demanding sexual purity of us – and only later does it become perfectly clear.

This is why it is so wrong to say, as so many so-called experts do today, that children should not be punished, but rather reasoned with. No! That leaves a child – who is too young to understand the realities of life – vulnerable to a whole set of tragedies he or she will not know to avoid until it is far too late. Children must be taught to obey, even when they do not understand the reason for the obedience – because their welfare depends upon that obedience. Especially when you reckon with the tremendous power of temptation, it becomes only the clearer that a habit of obedience for obedience’s sake is essential. The understanding and appreciation of the commands will come in time. Obedience all along the way will ensure that understanding and appreciation of the wisdom and blessing of the command will not come too late and foster only regret.

A child may encounter some of the Sabbath law first as a restraint. There is that which is not to be done on the Lord’s Day. What he wants to do he may not do. That is unavoidable and no attempt should be made to remove that constraint. To relax the demand to please the child is to undermine the entire principle of obedience to God in his or her life.

But the parent’s task is different. His or her task is, from the beginning of a child’s life, to bring him or her to appreciate, to love, and to be grateful for the commandment that God has given. One wants his children not to lie, to be chaste, not to steal, and so on. But what a Christian parent needs to aim for is that his or her children will come to know in their hearts why we ought to live this way; why God was good to order our lives in this way, and why giving up the deceitful pleasures of sin to obey God’s law is the sure path to true happiness and to the most fruitful life. The law only appears to spoil our fun. It really is designed to foster it. That is what parents are to teach their children when they are sitting, standing, lying down, or walking in the way.

It will soon become a small thing to a child that some things cannot be done on Sunday if other things of great interest and enjoyment and pleasure are regularly reserved for that day! The Sabbath is a holiday and Christian children should encounter it as such. It should be the best day of the week for them. If the Savior said that the Sabbath was made for man, it is our task to show our children how it is so.

We have begun our consideration of the ethics of the Lord’s Day by reminding ourselves that, as a part of God’s law, the Sabbath is designed for our blessing and happiness. It is the oldest error of human life to turn God’s laws into a burden rather than the boons that they are. We will begin our examination of the biblical teaching about how the Lord’s Day is to be observed next time, but with this principle firmly fixed in mind: keeping the Sabbath day is a way to God’s blessing, to our happiness, and to the fulfillment of our lives. We are right to expect that the Bible will show us this in respect to the Lord’s Day and we will not be disappointed.