Studies in the Sabbath No. 5


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After having made the argument that the obligation to keep the Lord’s Day holy remains for Christians today, we have begun our consideration of how precisely that is to be done. We said last week that we must begin with that general understanding of God’s law that we are taught everywhere in Holy Scripture, viz. that obedience is the path to blessing and happiness and not some misery that the Lord imposes upon his children to prove their loyalty to him. Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. He said that in the context of parting company with a community of church members who had turned Sabbath-keeping into a matter of observing a host of regulations touching what might and might not be done on the Sabbath Day. He was saying that those regulations had hidden from sight this fundamental truth: that the Sabbath was to be a blessing for us, not a burden. If we lose sight of the fact that the Lord’s Day was given to us as a gift and was meant for our blessing and our happiness, we must go astray in understanding how to keep it. The Pharisees did precisely that and Christians have done the same over and over again. It is a very natural error, which explains how it can be so often committed by people who believe the Bible and want to do the will of God. It is a short step from Puritanism to the puritanical! In any case, much of the prejudice against the Lord’s Day in evangelical Christian culture is due to the fact that Christians have too often been led to believe that one must turn the Lord’s Day into the most boring day of the week in order to keep it holy. As we begin, we know that is not right. As the Bible says in many different ways, “In keeping the commandments of God there is a great reward.” We are to ask not so much: what may I do and what may I not do on the Lord’s Day? – the Bible actually says comparatively little in that way – but how may I get the blessing, the happiness, and the help that the Lord has given me in this holiday every week? We are to speak this way and to ask ourselves such a question concerning every one of the commandments of God. In this the fourth commandment is no different.

And if you are asking yourself why we are spending so much time on this issue – this is the fifth in our series of messages on the Lord’s Day – the answer is very simple. The Bible teaches us that the Lord’s Day, at least when rightly practiced, is one of the great engines of the Christian life. The Lord’s Day rightly kept may have much more to do with your holiness and happiness than any number of things that you think are more important. There is a promise of blessing attached to the sanctification of the Sabbath day and I want that blessing for you all. Moreover, inasmuch as hardly anyone is talking about keeping the Lord’s Day holy and many are speaking against it, it was necessary to spend some time laying the foundation before we could build our practice upon it.

So now we turn to the biblical data themselves. What precisely are we told about observing the Lord’s Day and keeping it holy? What are we commanded to do and not to do? I think it will be interesting for many of you to find that the Bible speaks only very generally about this and then gives us some interesting illustrations of people both breaking the commandment and keeping it. From this data the godly are to find direction for themselves. This too is typical of Holy Scripture. General principles and a little bit of case law are what we are given and, sometimes, an illustration or two. So is the case with the Sabbath.

We begin where the Bible does with the Sabbath day as a day of rest from work. We are not to do our daily work on the Lord’s Day. This is the burden of the first mention of the Sabbath, in Genesis 2:2-3, where the seventh day was made holy for us because on it God rested from his work of creating the world. He worked six days and rested the seventh.

This is also the burden of the 4th commandment itself.

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath – remember, the Hebrew word Sabbath (שבת) means “rest” – to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” [Exodus 20:8-11]

The Sabbath is a day of rest from the work of the remainder of the week. The fact that servants and animals are included underlines that point. It is a day of rest, not another day for work. That point is confirmed repeatedly in the Law of Moses. The first mention of anyone observing the Sabbath after Genesis 2 is in Exodus 16 in connection with the regulations given there for gathering manna in the wilderness. The miraculous food that the Lord provided for his people in the desert was to be collected on six days of the week. Remember, it could not be preserved, so had to be collected every day. When they tried to collect enough to keep for more than one day’s eating, they found that by the next morning it was full of maggots and had begun to smell. However, on Friday, the day before the Sabbath, an amount double in size was to be collected. That manna – and only that manna – did not spoil and could be eaten on the Sabbath day. In that way the Lord reinforced the Sabbath as a day of rest. One didn’t have to work because on that day alone the food collected the previous day could be eaten. In an agricultural economy as Israel’s was, to gather food was the ordinary work of daily life. It was done on six days of the week but not to be done on the seventh. Of course, already we get the obvious point: it’s very nice not to have to work every day of the week. It’s nice to have a holiday. The Lord has given it to us: a day of the week in which we do not have to do our ordinary work. In this case it should be very easy to translate the “Thou shalt not…” of God’s commandment into a “You get to…” or “You don’t have to…”: very positive and happy ideas.

In any case, it is on this point – that the Sabbath is to be a day of rest from work – that the Law speaks most often and most emphatically. We noted, for example, in our recent studies in Exodus that on several occasions the requirement not to work on the Lord’s Day was mentioned in connection with the instructions for building the tabernacle and the furniture that it would contain. Lest anyone think that work on the temple would surely continue on the Sabbath day, it is expressly said that it should not. [Ex. 31:14-16; 35:2]

It is, by the way, in this context [Exodus 32:3] that we read, “Do not light a fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day.” In the context it refers not to any fire, but to a fire necessary for the doing of work. The very next verses speak of the precious metals that were to be used in the construction and furnishing of the tabernacle, all of which would have to be melted. Interestingly, there is a text from Ugarit that speaks of a fire burning for six days before the construction of a sanctuary to Baal. It will be different in Israel. They will rest on God’s holy day, not work; not even to build his sanctuary. But we are reminded here of the importance of reading the Bible contextually. It flies in the face of everything we read in Holy Scripture to imagine that the command not to light a fire in one’s dwelling on the Sabbath day meant that to keep the Lord’s Day holy on a cold day, one’s family must shiver away the hours waiting for the moment when a fire could be lit!

This understanding of the regulation against building a fire is important because it affects our understanding of Numbers 15:32-36, the famous account of the man who was ordered to be executed for gathering wood on the Sabbath day. That has seemed to a great many a very harsh punishment for a minor infraction and perhaps no other text in the Bible has been so influential in forming the opinion in many Christian minds that the OT Sabbath, the Jewish Sabbath law was harsh and oppressive. So many Christians have thought that the Pharisees were actually pretty close to getting the OT Sabbath right: it was an oppressive yoke and a heavy burden to bear. And it was the idea of the stoning of this poor man for gathering wood that convinced them that it was so. No wonder, then, that the Lord Jesus should deliver us from the Sabbath of the Law of Moses. How useful to us could a law be that required the execution of a man simply for gathering wood? But that is a very serious misunderstanding of the passage.

First, we can be fairly sure that the man was gathering wood not to keep his family warm but to do work. So he was violating the commandment that God had given to Israel and was doing so in a public way. He was throwing the Lord’s holiday back in his face. Second, and much more important, this account of the man caught gathering wood comes immediately after an explanation of the two kinds of sins that there are: unintentional sins as the NIV has it, and defiant sins. Indeed, the words immediately before Numbers 15:32 are these:

“But anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or alien, blasphemes the Lord, and that person must be cut off from his people. Because he has despised the Lord’s word and broken his commands, that person must surely be cut off; his guilt remains on him.”

The man gathering wood then is offered as an example of a defiant sinner. Unintentional sins in the Law of Moses are not sins that one commits by accident – they can be, as when someone touches an unclean thing unawares – but primarily they are the sins that Christians commit every day, the sins of frailty, the sins of our weak and unreliable flesh. Defiant sins, on the other hand, are the sins of the apostate; the unforgivable sin because it amounts to a rejection of the Lord and his covenant. As we read also in the New Testament, the man who sins that way will not be renewed to repentance. The sin itself can be any sort of sin; it is the attitude of apostasy in it that makes it a defiant sin, its character as a rejection of the authority of the Lord and as a willful repudiation of his covenant. That is the sin of the man who was gathering wood. He serves as an illustration of the defiant sin just discussed. It is no surprise that shortly after giving the law there should have been an exemplary punishment meted out to someone who sinned in that defiant way. It served as a warning for Israel as to the absolute necessity of their remaining faithful to the covenant, which even weak and sinful people can do!

And lest you think that event something still peculiar to the ancient epoch, let me remind you that shortly after the inauguration of the new epoch, a similarly defiant sin was punished in the same stern way. Ananias and Sapphira were executed directly by the Lord for lying about their tithe. That also has seemed to many Christians to be too severe a punishment for a small offense. But, of course, taking the Bible together, their sin was so severely punished because it was motivated by and expressed a spirit of apostasy. And Luke makes a point of telling us about it precisely for its exemplary value, for the way it warns us against allowing a spirit of disloyalty to God to take root in our hearts. So, taking all of this together, the execution of the man gathering wood in Numbers 15 says a great deal about the difference between unintentional and defiant sins, between Christian frailty on the one hand and apostasy on the other. It says virtually nothing about how to keep the Sabbath except to reinforce the general prohibition against working on the Lord’s Day.

Later references to the Sabbath in the Old Testament also primarily focus on it as a day of rest from work. For example, in Jer. 17:19-27 Jeremiah promised his contemporaries that if only they would keep the Sabbath holy God would bless Judah and make it prosperous. By keeping the Sabbath he meant, he said, “be careful not to carry a load out of your houses or do any work on the Sabbath day…” And in Neh. 13 we read of Nehemiah finding the men of Judah “treading winepresses and bringing in grain and loading it on donkeys, together with wine, grapes, figs and all other kinds of loads.” In other words, he found them doing their ordinary work on the Sabbath day and he rebuked them and ordered them to stop it. He even had the gates of the city shut so that no one could bring a load into the city on the Sabbath day. We might call that Jerusalem’s blue law! And when some merchants spent the night outside the wall, so they could get a jump on business as soon as the Sabbath was over – a spirit that revealed no love for the Lord’s Day or interest in its blessing – he warned them that if they did that again he would “lay hands on them.” All of this is to the original point: the Sabbath is a day of rest from work. That is the first thing the Bible tells us about how to keep the Lord’s Day holy: don’t do your ordinary work on that day.

Second, the Sabbath is a day of worship. This is the second great emphasis of the Bible’s instruction regarding the keeping of the Lord’s Day holy. Here we find the reason why the Bible speaks of the Lord’s Day as a Sabbath to the Lord your God. This is the idea of the original statement in Gen. 2:2-3. There we read that God sanctified the seventh day. To sanctify something means to set it apart for use in the worship of God. And that is exactly what we find in the rest of the Bible. In Leviticus 23:3 we read:

“There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, a day of sacred assembly.”

A sacred or holy assembly is an assembly for worship. We don’t rest from work simply to take time off. We rest from work so as to be free to do something else, viz. worship God. Other days of worship – Day of Atonement, Passover, Tabernacles, etc. – were also called “Sabbaths” because they were not only times of holiday from work but were times of worship, of the assembly of the people of God in the presence of God.

In Lev. 19:30 we have the same connection between the Lord’s Day and the worship of God:

“Observe my Sabbaths and have reverence for my sanctuary.”

In the Law of Moses there were special offerings in the temple for the Sabbath day (cf. Num. 28:9-10; 1 Chron. 23:31; 2 Chron. 8:13). In Ezekiel’s vision of the future in chapter 46 we read that it will be “on the Sabbaths and New Moons” that the people will worship in the presence of the Lord. Psalm 92 is identified by its title as a “Psalm for the Sabbath Day” and it is very clearly a psalm for the worship of God’s people. Interestingly, it speaks of worship both morning and evening. In Isaiah 1 we read of the Lord’s anger at his people precisely because they were giving him insincere and hypocritical worship on the Sabbath.

And typical of the Bible, we are given little anecdotes that confirm its teaching. Do you remember 2 Kings 4 and its account of the woman to whom Elisha promised a son? And do you remember how that son later got sick and the woman was desperate to take him to the prophet.

“She called her husband and said, ‘Please send me one of the servants and a donkey so I can go to the man of God quickly and return.’ ‘Why go to him today?’ he asked. ‘It’s not the New Moon or the Sabbath.’”

In other words, in those days, the pious in Israel went on the Sabbath day to hear the prophets preach. They spent their Lord’s Day as Christians do: they went to church and heard the Word of God. And so it continued to be. Jesus would characteristically go to the synagogue on the Sabbath day. The early church worshipped on the Lord’s Day, we saw the evidence for that in Acts. And in the materials of early Christianity we learn that it was on the Lord’s Day, the Christian Sunday, that the church gathered for worship.

Now those are the two main foci of the Old Testament’s teaching about keeping the Lord’s Day holy: it is to be a day of rest from work and a day of public worship. But it has been thought by many that the Old Testament says one thing more about keeping the Lord’s Day holy. And that one more thing has, I think, created all manner of problems.

It is revealing that the detractors of Sabbath sanctification in the 17th century debate regularly accused the upholders of the fourth commandment’s perpetual obligation of seeking to reintroduce Judaism — Judaism in the sense of an Old Testament form of obedience – as if that form of obedience were in some important way contrary to the liberty of the Christian man, a kind of slavish tutelage that contributed to what certain older writers, who should have known better, referred to as “the galling yoke of the Mosaic law.”

It was this perception of obedience in the ancient epoch that led the influential theologian Johannes Cocceius to express his understanding of the change of circumstances introduced by Christ and his apostles by the axiom: “non lex abrogata est, sed dominitio [sic, dominatio: i.e. despotism, irresponsible power, mastery].” In other words, he was claiming that there was a strictness to the law in the ancient epoch that made it quite oppressive or burdensome. And it was that strictness of obligation, that domination of the law, that was done away with by Christ and his apostles.

To put the point in a more homely way, the detractors of Sabbath sanctification and even some of its upholders to far too great a degree seemed to accept that true obedience to the fourth commandment, as it was revealed to Moses, would indeed require Laura Ingalls Wilder to sit silent in a straight-backed chair all Sunday afternoon, listening to her father read the Bible, speaking only when asked questions concerning the text or to recite the Shorter Catechism, and struggling all the while with her childlike longing to be running free out on the prairie.

But where does the Bible say this? From what texts might we extract any such concept of Sabbath sanctification? Surely it must be admitted, if that is what Sabbath sanctification amounted to in the ancient epoch, it is not hard to see why many of our theologians might have thought that Christ would deliver us from it. But are we ever taught anywhere in the Bible to view the sanctification of the Lord’s holy day in this way? Were pious Israelites required to suffer the Sabbath in this way? Did God give this law to test his people; to find out if they were willing to be miserable once a week for his sake?

Well, some thought that that was precisely what the Bible taught and they took that teaching from three texts. Two of them we have already considered: the text in Num. 15 about the man gathering wood on the Sabbath day and the text in Exod. 35 forbidding the lighting of a fire in one’s home on the Sabbath day. In context, none of those texts teach a strict and oppressive Sabbath sanctification. But the most important text was not those two but Isaiah 58:13-14.

We are familiar with this beautiful text.

“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”

A great many interpreters have taken these words to provide a transcript of Sabbath sanctification, a definition of the holiness of the Lord’s Day. “Not going your own way and not doing as you please” is taken to mean not doing things that would be entirely proper on the other six days of the week but which would be improper on the Sabbath because they are not directly a service offered to God. “Speaking idle words,” still more fatefully is taken to refer to words that would be entirely appropriate any other day of the week, but which are inappropriate on the Lord’s holy day because insufficiently serious: chit chat about business and the weather and the like. This was a fateful interpretation because, I suspect, it was the source of a way of looking at the Sabbath that was then imported into many other texts that, in fact, say no such thing about Sabbath sanctification. It is this text, more than any other, for example, that lies behind the Shorter Catechism’s definition of Sabbath sanctification: “the Sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days and in spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.” That phrase “spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship” is, in effect a deduction based on what they took to be the meaning of Isaiah 58:13-14. If you can’t do anything else, then what is left is worship.

A more careful look at Isaiah 58:13-14, however, reveals that this is a mistaken view of Isaiah’s meaning. In the context of this portion of Isaiah, of the prophecy as a whole, and of the prophets as a whole, “not going your own way” and “not doing as you please” do not mean doing things that are perfectly righteous in themselves but inappropriate on the Lord’s Day. These phrases refer to sinful things, behavior that is sinful any and every day of the week (56:4; 57:17; 58:2-3; 59:8; 66:3). “Idle words” does not refer to chit chat or a casual jest; it refers to dishonest and unholy speech, what G.B. Caird describes as “deedless [words], loafers which ought to be up and busy about what they say, the broken promise, the unpaid vow, words which said ‘I go, sir,’ and never went” (59:3; Hos. 10:4; Deut. 18:20 [the last two being the other instances of the same idiom “speaking words” in the Hebrew Bible]; [The Language and Imagery of the Bible, pp. 21-22]

Isaiah, in this part of his prophecy, is contesting the spirit that led Israel and Judah to suppose that liturgical performances such as fasting and Sabbath-keeping (the two subjects of chapter 58) acted as a kind of talisman, protecting them from the consequences of their general indifference to the will of God and unconcern for a life lived in loving and grateful devotion to him. They were the fathers of those vast multitudes throughout the centuries who have sown their wild oats through the week and then gone to church on Sunday to pray for crop failure. Neither a true Sabbath nor a true fast can be kept by one who does not tremble at God’s Word and desire to do God’s will in all things for love’s sake. But, promises Isaiah, let a man keep his fast or his Sabbath in the context of a believing, devout, gracious, and obedient life, and he will have blessing and pleasure of the purest kind. In other words, verse 13 does not tell us how the day itself is to be observed. It tells us rather what is the presupposition of Sabbath keeping, its essential prerequisite, viz. true faith and a godly life.

The last thing Isaiah intends in these verses, in this context – addressing as he is people who exploit their workers, quarrel and fight, give themselves to malicious talk, and oppress the poor but who all the while complain that God is not rewarding them for their fasts and their Sabbaths – I say, the last thing Isaiah intends is to tell his hearers exactly what particular works of Sabbath sanctification they need to concentrate on.

So we are done surveying the data of the Old Testament. We’ll take up the Lord’s teaching and example next time. But having before us the OT data, let me repeat my application from last time but now in regard to what we have been told about Sabbath keeping. I want to repeat it because it is the main point of this entire study and if you take this away from our studies of the Sabbath in the Bible, I will be very happy and very satisfied.

What does it mean to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy? Well we know that it is a day of rest from work. This is the Bible’s first great emphasis. We know it is a holy day, a day set apart. We know it is the day of assembly (Lev. 23:3), the day for the house of God and the church’s regular worship of God. We know it was the day for the stated preaching of the Word as part of that weekly worship (2 Kgs. 4:22-23). We know, at the last, that it is the Lord’s Day. It a particular way it is a day to be spent with him and for him, a day that belongs to him in a way that other days do not.

Apart from some additional details we will find in Jesus’ teaching, the Bible tells us very little about how God expects us to spend our time on that holy day. But, there is nothing unusual about that! That is the nature of the law of God and its revelation to us in Holy Scripture. The Bible contains some casuistry for each of the Ten Commandments, indicating in a broad way how to apply the law to the thousand and one cases of conscience we face every day. But, as a result, most is left for us to conclude from our own application of the law. And what the Scripture always teaches us in this regard is that it is pure and grateful motives, it is believing and faithful intentions, it is the desire to do the right for God’s sake, for love’s sake, that is the only reliable guide to the proper application of God’s law to particular questions and cases.

I considered the sixth commandment last time as an example of this. Take a still better example. What of the first commandment, which Paul says forbids all forms of greed? Which purchases that I make violate that commandment and which do not? How much may I spend for my home, my car, my books, my clothes and not make of them a god to myself? The Bible gives us no such formula, only the searching requirements of the law. We make the law so superficial and righteousness so superficial. No wonder we are so self-righteous and so defensive in the face of criticism. We have such a childish view of what it means to live a righteous life. Every time you pull an item down from the shelf in the store you are either keeping or breaking the first commandment! Every thought about your clothes, your books, your home, your wife and children, is either the breaking or the keeping of that commandment. And all the books in all the worlds could not contain enough direction to tell you how each of those thoughts should be thought. Everything depends upon the spirit, the hunger and thirst for righteousness, and the motive with which I come to that commandment to seek direction. John Newton put it best: “Love is the best casuist!” Real love for God and for man applied with willing submission to the law and commandments of God is what obedience to any and every commandment mostly requires.

Now, with this approach to the commandments in mind, return now to the fourth commandment. We all want a simple explanation of what Sabbath observance requires. This is what we are always arguing about in the church. This is what many of you have requested from me. But the Bible says very little in answer to such questions. It doesn’t tell us about sports and recreations, about eating out, about traveling on Sunday, etc. We must answer those questions ourselves. But who will answer them rightly? The man who, if the truth be told, wants as much of the day for himself and his own interests as the law will permit him, the man who wants only to know what he is absolutely required to do, how little he may do and still be regarded as having obeyed, or the man who loves God’s law, who wants dearly to keep the commandments for love’s sake, who knows that those commandments are not burdensome and that in the keeping of them there is a great reward, who hungers and thirsts for the holiness of those commandments in his own heart and life, who treasures the difficulty of obedience if only it will please God the more, and who, in the matter of any and all of the commandments of God wants nothing less than to put his ear against the doorpost of God’s house that he might pierce it through with an awl?

But, you see, if you approach the law in this way of free love, you may find that the same activity is rejected on one Sabbath, for one reason, and accepted as good and right, on another Sabbath, for another reason. This is exactly the mind the Pharisees did not have and, alas, neither have too many Christians, even Reformed Christians. Many of them saw this to a certain extent, of course, but still too dimly.

Think, for example, of Eric Liddell, the hero of the movie “Chariots of Fire.” He was famous for refusing to run in an Olympic Race on Sunday. I believe he did right in that and chiefly because his motives and intentions were so faithful to the principle of the Sabbath day. But, in a Japanese prison camp in China, where he eventually died of a brain tumor, some young people who had none of Liddell’s enthusiasm for the Sabbath day played soccer on a Sunday and fighting broke out because there was no referee. Next Lord’s Day Liddell served as the referee, to keep a handful of bored, imprisoned youngsters at peace with one another. Was that a violation of the Sabbath, or was that keeping the Sabbath day in the very same way his refusal to participate in sports on Sunday had been years before? I think he kept the Lord’s Day holy both times. And, I think the man who may now be thinking, “Aha, I can play basketball Sunday afternoon or watch TV football,” is not a man who is likely to keep the day holy or to get its blessing for himself or his family.

The man who really wants to keep the law is the man who will keep it wisely and well.

Do you take my point? It is the motive, the interest, the purpose one has in looking to the law that so much determines both its application and whether one will, after all, offer a true obedience. The law’s reach is absolute. Every commandment’s reach is absolute, including the fourth. Every single thought and attitude must be made captive to Christ, every choice, every decision, whether in reference to the sanctification of our bodies, according to the seventh commandment, or our possessions, according to the eighth commandment, or our words, according to the ninth commandment, or our time, according to the fourth commandment.