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Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 02/19/1997
"Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days shall you labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, you male or female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the 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."
If the First Commandment (to have no other gods) is the most difficult to keep perfectly, striking as it does at the very root of our sinful tendency to rebellion against God; if the Second (to have no graven images) is the most difficult to apply in contemporary terms; if the Third (not to take His name in vain) is the most pivotal after the first, dealing with the honor God deserves from our tongue, which James says is the most difficult member to tame; then the Fourth (to remember and keep the Sabbath) is probably the most controversial, because of excesses in its interpretation and application and reactions against them. Let me therefore develop it today in terms of the questions most frequently asked about it.
The answer to this question is clearly "No." The "Ceremonial Law" is a phrase for those requirements (such as the dietary rules, the Temple practices, and circumcision) that were practiced in the Old Testament but were superceded by the New Covenant as being no longer needed now that Christ had come. Now, it is true that this commandment has a ceremonial element. That is why the details of the Old Testament Sabbath are not binding on Gentile believers in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul makes this clear in Col. 2:16-17, where the Jewish Sabbath is included in a list of things with reference to which we are not to allow men to judge us or bind our consciences because they were only "shadows" of Christ who was to come. What this meant practically was that the Gentiles were not to let the Jews judge them on how they kept the Sabbath as if the outward details were still binding--for example, what day of the week was to be set aside for worship, the First according to New Testament practice, or the old Jewish Seventh (Rom. 14:5).
But while there was a ceremonial element in this commandment, there was also an eternal moral principle. New Testament believers were still supposed to set aside one day a week as a special day for rest and worship. The mere presence of this commandment in the Ten, in the Decalogue--with more space devoted to it than any other--is one clue to that fact. It thus is found at the moral core from which all the commandments are elaborated. The Decalogue is not just a set of ten arbitrary rules, but is rooted in the very character of God. And this commandment is explicitly grounded in God's practice of resting on the seventh day after his six days of labor. So to keep it is to imitate God, to be like him. Moreover, our need for regular times of rest, refreshment, and worship did not cease with the coming of Christ (as the need for the sacrificial system, for example, did). Therefore, we may safely conclude that it is still the will of God that one day in seven be set aside as a special day for rest and worship.
It seems to us that our brethren, such as the Seventh Day Adventists, who insist on Saturday worship, have missed the point, which is not a particular day of the week but the principle of one day in seven. Creation is indeed given to us as a pattern to follow, but the point is the pattern of six and one, not which day of the week the one falls on. Nobody even knows if our Saturday even is the seventh day counting from creation; our calendars are not that accurate.
Originally, the Jewish Christians of the early Church seem to have continued their regular Jewish Sabbath worship on Saturday, and added a special "Christian" service on Sunday morning to commemorate the Resurrection of Christ, who was raised on the First Day of the week. As the ethnic makeup of the Church shifted from predominantly Jewish to predominantly Gentile, the old Sabbath worship, which had no particular meaning for Gentiles, was gradually dropped and Sunday worship became the standard Christian practice (see Acts 20:7). Now, the important thing to notice about this is that the Apostles approved this change and condemned those Judaizers who insisted on maintaining the Jewish practice of worship on Saturday. Paul explicitly forbids Christians to judge each other on the basis of which day of the week they worship on (Rom. 14:5) and says for everyone to make up his own mind. It was the same Judaizers who wanted to insist that the Gentiles had to be circumcised to come to Christ who were the problem here too. Since the change from Saturday to Sunday was permitted by the Apostles (partly no doubt due to the appropriateness of Sunday as a commemoration of the Resurrection), therefore it had God's approval too. Therefore, to insist on Saturday is legalism, pure and simple. But read Rom. 14:5 very carefully. It is not wrong for Seventh Day Adventists to worship on Saturday; it is only wrong for them to insist that everyone else has to do so too or be disobedient.
The first point to be made here is that we need to realize the importance of this commandment. To set aside one day of the week for rest and worship is not just convenient, good for you, and expedient; it is God's will, his commandment. To neglect it is sin. Do not let the legalistic excesses of either First-Day or Seventh-Day sabbatarians keep you from seeing this.
Let me then make some specific observations about the wording of the Commandment and some practical suggestions flowing from them. What we are specifically told to do is to "hallow" the Sabbath day, i.e., to sanctify it, or, literally, "set it apart." The point here is that it should be different from other days. As far as possible (remembering the "ox in the ditch" principle), the normal business of secular life should not be conducted.
Specifically, then, the Sabbath should be protected from being intruded on by work--the normal work we do the other six days of the week. Not all working on the Sabbath is sin, of course. Ministers of the Gospel can hardly avoid it. And there is the "ox in the ditch" principle" articulated by our Lord in Lk. 14:5. Police departments, fire departments, the military, utilities, hospitals, and emergency medical workers cannot shut down on Sunday, nor should they, though they should provide their employees with regular time off and the opportunity to share the burden of Sunday work so that none of them must miss public worship all the time. A huge problem though is the increasing tendency of our secular society to lose the distinction between that work which is necessary and that which is not. I can remember in my own lifetime when stores were not routinely open on Sunday. An even more disturbing trend is for businesses to routinely schedule board meetings on Sundays because "obviously" no members would have any other conflicts! I once had a song leader who regularly missed Church for that reason. A more pressing issue for many in our congregation would be whether students should study on Sunday. Surely if they budgeted their time wisely the other six days of the week they would not need to.
Now, think of it this way. Is not our failure to safeguard the sacredness, i.e., the specialness, of the Sabbath a trend of secular humanism like any other? Why then should we not resist this one? God is not a hard taskmaster. He has given us six days a week to pursue our careers and make money. Is keeping one day specially dedicated to him too much to ask? And now be prepared to get really uncomfortable. You wouldn't break one of the other commandments for your employer. Why should it be OK to break this one? We are told, "Thou shalt not kill," and I know of medical professionals who have lost jobs in hospitals rather than perform abortions. We are told, "Thou shalt not steal," and my own sister once lost a job because she refused to cheat her customers. So why should we give in to an employer who wants us to miss Church on Sunday to do work that does not really have to be done on that day? Keeping the Sabbath has always required faith. The Israelites had to gather twice as much manna on Friday--they had to believe God, in other words, if they wanted to eat on the Sabbath. Why should it be any different for us?
I think of a great positive example of a person who kept the Sabbath in a right and biblical spirit: my friend Ted Georgian. We were grad students together at the University of Georgia back in the '70's. He was under tremendous pressure to get his dissertation done because he was in the sciences (ecology) and his grant was about to run out--it had not been extended as expected. If he did not finish by a certain date, he would never finish at all. So he was in the lab by 7:00 every morning and did not get home until 9:00 at night, six days a week. His wife brought meals to him in the lab so he would not have to interrupt his work. Even at this schedule it was touch and go whether he would finish. If ever anybody had an excuse to work on Sunday it was Ted. But he did not. He was always in Church, and would usually have other believers over to his home for fellowship after the evening service. And he did not seem at all anxious about the work waiting for him. When someone asked him how he did this, he said, "For this 24 hours, God has given me permission not to worry about it. I am not responsible for what I cannot get done in six days. For this one day, I have God's permission to relax." Do you see? The Sabbath for Ted was not a legalistic bondage keeping him from his work--it was a gift of freedom from God that actually enabled him to survive a very stressful time in his life.
The positive emphasis of the commandment, which Ted understood and practiced so well, has often been missed. We think of it as about what we cannot do (work). But the positive emphasis is on rest, recreation, and refreshment--more so even than on worship, which is not even mentioned in the original wording. When we see rest, recreation, as a positive good preserved for us in our lives by this commandment, we realize how far wrong was the enforced idleness enjoined by our forefathers. You recall Eric Liddell scolding the young lad for playing soccer on the Sabbath in "Chariots of Fire." We honor him for his integrity in refusing to run on the Sabbath, given his convictions--but the legalism of them was a mistake that precisely missed the point of the commandment. Recreation is re-creation, appropriately given the grounding of the commandment in Creation. The emphasis should thus be on celebration and renewal. Worship as part of Sabbath observance should be seen in the context then of celebration and refreshment--it should be part of that emphasis and contribute to it. Therefore, innocent recreation and games are precisely in the spirit of the commandment, not contrary to it, as long as they do not conflict with Church. There is an issue of spiritual priorities there, and we have a separate command not to forsake the assembling together of the saints (Heb. 10:25). And we must also remember that one man's work is another man's recreation, and hence be much slower to judge than our ancestors often were.
What then does this commandment require of us? First, we should exercise a much greater diligence than most of us do to see that the workaday activities of the rest of the week are not allowed to encroach on this special time. We should prepare for the Sabbath and anticipate it. Most of the difficulties we have that lead us to try to justify those encroachments are created by our laziness and disorganization during the other six days of the week. Get to bed on time Saturday night, and get a good night's sleep. Then get up early Sunday morning so you don't have to rush, and can arrive at Church fresh and ready to worship God with your whole heart and mind and body, to give him your best. Then follow through on that worship. Discuss the points of the sermon at dinner. Catch up on your reading of the great Christian classics in the afternoon, perhaps. Above all, enjoy yourself without guilt--God has given you permission to on this day.
The Sabbath commandment is not, then, when properly understood, a burden; it is all about rest, refreshment, freedom, release from the cares of the other six days. It looks back to Creation and the Resurrection and forward to Heaven, to the great "Sabbath rest" we will enjoy there. In this it is just like another great Reminder God has given us: Communion. It is no accident they usually come together, as today. Let us praise God together then for his great mercy and grace to us in the weekly Sabbath and in that rest from all weariness it prefigures, when we see Him face to face.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams