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Keeping the Christian Sabbath

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Date April 29, 2008

Several years ago while living in Jerusalem I noticed how the Jews kept the Sabbath. Around 3 p.m. on Friday afternoons the weekend rush hour traffic would increase as workers made their way home. Most of the working mothers were trying to arrive at the market in time to buy needed supplies. This frenzied pace would crescendo by 5 p.m. By 6 p.m. everything would be shut down. The stores closed and traffic would slow to a trickle. Not everything closed of course, but for the most part Jerusalem was quiet, at rest. It wasn’t until Saturday evening around 7 p.m. that the bus lines resumed even limited service.

Contrast that to our nation. Sunday, it seems, is just another day of the week. Most shops are open. People are busy buying and selling, working and making money. Even Christians are getting caught up in the world’s relentless pursuit of profit and gain. Just a few years ago a major Christian book dealer announced that they would be opening their doors on Sunday to take advantage of increased sales to the church. Their argument was that Sunday was a prime day to ‘minister’ to their target market. So they proclaimed that by keeping the doors open on Sunday they were doing a service.

As a pastor, this slide away from the practice of keeping the Sabbath disturbs me. It is understandable that the world would turn away from God’s law, but it is heart-breaking to see the church do so. The church has either forgotten or ignored the commandments. If it was important to us to keep the Lord’s Day, then the retailers in our communities would not find profit on Sunday. The marketplace is simply responding to the consumer.

Today, the Lord’s Day is anything but a day of rest. We are busy with shopping and recreation. We are setting aside time for family and friends. Even our children’s sporting events are scheduled on Sunday. We sleep late on Sunday because we played late on Saturday. We use the day as a catch-up day for all the things we could not get done during the week. We plan our travel schedule on Sunday so that we are not interrupting the work week. All the while the worship of God is forgotten and there is no rest to be found. The Westminster Shorter Catechism reminds us that,

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 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 (Question 60).

So why should we keep the Sabbath day holy? Are we after the approval of God by doing something meritorious? As the Apostle Paul might say, ‘God forbid.’ We do not keep the Law so as to be right with him. We all remember Paul’s words, ‘Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in his sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin’ (Romans 3:20).The Law points to our need for Christ. It shows us our sinful condition and our inability to win the favour of God by any merit of our own.

Yet, the Law plays a role in the life of every believer. If we are to live a life of holiness based on a biblical ethic it must begin with the commands of God. Those commands as framed by the Decalogue make up the foundation of holy living for every believer. That being true, one way holy living is practiced is by keeping the Sabbath. Consider the Lord’s words to Moses:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it (Exodus 20:8-11).

John Bunyan’s character ‘Wiseman’ in his book, Journey to Hell, correctly points out,

The Lord’s Day is a kind of symbol of the heavenly Sabbath above, and it clearly reveals the heart’s attitude toward eternal holiness. More is seen in one’s observance of the Sabbath than one’s performance of earthly activities.1

What do our earthly activities point out? They certainly seem to suggest that we have no regard for the Lord’s Day, and if ‘Wiseman’ is correct then we have lost our way toward eternal holiness.

Can we live a life of holiness if our ignorance or forgetfulness causes us to set aside his commands? We must stop and reconsider where we are. I don’t want to go back to the time when Sabbath breaking was punishable by law. However, I would like to hear our pulpits cry out against the apathy that relativism has generated in the pews. Could we live a life of simple holiness where the commands are followed as an act of adoration and devotion? I believe that with the Lord’s help we could. What a beautiful thing that would be!

I would love to see in our land – at least among believers – the same kind of respect paid to the Sabbath as is common in Israel among the Jews. What can we do? As with most things the answer lies first of all with the pastor. We must watch ourselves because we set the example. Somehow we have reasoned away Sunday as a Sabbath because it has been seen in modern times as a work day for the clergy. We must be the first to make sure we live by our own teaching. Again the Westminster Shorter Catechism instructs us,

From the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, God appointed the seventh day of the week to be the weekly Sabbath; and the first day of the week, ever since, to continue to the end of the world, which is the Christian Sabbath (Question 59).

If it is not the Christian Sabbath to us then it will never be to our people.

The second thing that can be done is to catechize the flock over which we have been appointed. We have been for too long silent on this issue. It is time to strengthen our people and feed them truth. Because we have been lax in teaching this doctrine, a weakness has gripped the church. It has hindered our ability to stand for what is right. In The Reformed Pastor Richard Baxter describes the very condition that we have allowed:

It is a very sad thing for Christians to be weak: it exposeth us to dangers; it abateth our consolations and delight in God, and taketh off the sweetness of wisdom’s ways; it maketh us less serviceable to God and man, to bring less honour to our Master, and to do less good to all about us.2

It is time for us to take our positions upon the wall, like Nehemiah, and stand for the keeping of the Sabbath day so that we might follow after eternal holiness:

So it was, at the gates of Jerusalem, as it began to be dark before the Sabbath, that I commanded the gates to be shut, and charged that they must not be opened till after the Sabbath. Then I posted some of my servants at the gates, so that no burdens would be brought in on the Sabbath day (Nehemiah 13:19).


  1. Journey to Hell is a revised and edited version of Bunyan’s The Life and Death of Mr Badman, which can be found in Volume 3 of The Works of John Bunyan published by the Trust. The quotation (in its original wording) is on page 600 of this volume.
  2. The Reformed Pastor is published by the Trust in the Puritan Paperback series. The quotation can be found on page 97 of this edition.

David B. Smith is Pastor of Creek Road Baptist Church in Cincinnati, OH, USA. This article is reprinted from The Founders Journal, Spring 2007, by permission.

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