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Doing the day – keeping the Sabbath day

Category Articles
Date March 21, 2002


Doing the Day

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work…” What do you do with the day the fourth commandment (Exodus 20:8-11) calls us to keep holy? It would seem that many Christians would prefer not to think about it, and if they do, they find it such thought vexing and perhaps painful.

There was a time when I thought that this day was like what teenagers of my day called “restriction.” When your parents put you on restriction you couldn’t go anywhere but church and often the rest of the time you were confined to your room deprived of TV, stereo (isn’t that a dated term?) and anything else you might be liable to enjoy.

Some offer us a “theological way” out of worrying about the Sabbath by arguing that the Sabbath was a part of the Old Testament ceremonial laws which have served their purpose and now after and in Christ are fulfilled and of no continuing obligation for God’s people. But it seems to me that this argument just does not work for three reasons: First, the Sabbath command predates sin, Israel, and the giving of the Law at Sinai. “So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation” (Genesis 2;1-3). In Genesis 2 we find three “creation ordinances” (also marriage and labor) which seem to be part of the “fabric of the universe” which apply to all creation and to all people of all times. We might say of these ordinances, “Ignore at your own risk!”

Second, the Sabbath is the fourth of the Ten Commandments. It seems to me impossible to separate it out from the other Ten as though it were to abolished or subject to radically different rules of interpretation than the other nine. It is interesting that many Christians get quite exercised in favor of the public display of the Commandments and against attempts to remove them, but are themselves unable to recite the short form of them, and, when it comes to the fourth, their keeping seems to be based on a misreading of the text: “Forget the Sabbath day and about keeping it holy.” The historic Reformed (and I believe correct) way of understanding the Law is that the Ten Commandments are a summary, taking into account the fact of sin, of the Law which Adam knew intuitively and kept instinctively and which remains written on the heart (though obscured) of Everyman. For us the fourth command like the other nine reveals God’s will for man as man, convicts us of sin and drives us to Christ for forgiveness and righteousness, and then for the Christian becomes a guide to the showing of gratitude.

Third, the Apostle John tells us that he “was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day.” For him to say such must mean that there was a day known among first century Christians as the Lord’s in a way different from every day being the Lord’s. When we put his with the New Testament references to the distinction of the first day of the week as a day for Christian gathering and worship (Acts 20:7, 1 Cor. 16:2) we conclude that this must have been the Lord’s Day, the day the Christians treated as what the Westminster Confession calls the “Christian Sabbath” (not the same as but continuous with the Jewish Sabbath). As J.I Packer writes, weighing this evidence: “… this can only mean one thing: that by apostolic precept, and probably in fact dominical (that is, by the Lord Jesus Himself) injunction during the forty days before the Ascension, this had been made the day on which men were henceforth to keep the Sabbath of rest which the fourth commandment prescribes.”

Well then what will we do with the day? At this point our minds may rush at ask the inevitable “What am I going to have to give up?” and so we start thinking about TV, and baseball, and picnics and the like. I say we begin with what we know are the positive purposes of the day: 1 It is a day for God and his worship. 2. It is a day for us and our good. The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) What is the good? I can suggest several aspects: a) It gives us rest from our work and the hectic place of life. We have both permission and command to put these things aside for one whole day out of seven. We are not slaves to our work, nor do we find our whole identity in our callings and labor. And we are neither so important or busy that life has to be lived at breakneck pace 24/7. b) We have a day that is protected so that we have space in our lives to gather with God’s people in God’s presence or worship Him, which is our greatest duty, highest privilege, and most fulfilling delight in this world. c) We have a day to reorient ourselves to the great realities which are so easily forgot. We are created by and for God in His image for fellowship with Him. We sinners who are redeemed by Christ and so called to rest from our feverish efforts to save ourselves and to find rest for our souls in the Christ and grace of the Gospel which on every Sabbath is proclaimed. d) We look to the future for “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Heb. 4:9). The day will come when we will enjoy the eternal Sabbath of rest from sin and all its evil effects and the present “little Sabbaths” are a foretaste and pledge of the perfect rest to come with Christ’s coming. All this and more God gives us as the gift of the Sabbath if we choose to give it to Him as holy.

We have no civil laws today to protect the Lord’s Day. In 21st century America it is a day for business and for organized commercial (as contrasted with familial and recreational) sports more than for worship That means that, if we keep it, we will chose to keep it for God’s glory and our own good. We will keep it, not because the stores are not open and the baseball and soccer leagues don’t play, and not because our neighbors will sanction our failure to keep the Day, but because we want to please God. This gives us an opportunity to exercise faith (does God know best?) and obedience (will we submit to God’s will?).

We can make a beginning of Sabbath keeping just by determining that we will on this Day rest from our work and busy lives and will let nothing ( absolutely nothing save providential hindrance) keep us from participation in the public gatherings for worship. When we’ve made a beginning there will be plenty of time, and the right frame of heart and reference. To consider what else we will and will not do to observe the Day the Lord Jesus calls His own.

Pastor of Westminster PCA Huntsville, Alabama

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