Learning from the Sabbath

If we had lived only a hundred years or so ago, we would have probably accepted the common view that Sunday was to be held as a Sabbath. The word comes from the Old Testament and means “rest.” This would have entailed ceasing from all work and other activity in order to gather with God’s people at church - twice, devote the day to deepening our faith and that of our families, and give time to serving the needy. The rise of secularism has almost totally eroded these convictions, not least because many Christians are required to work on Sundays and all sorts of activities can only be entered into on that day too.

This has led to a re-evaluation of what exactly scripture teaches in order to ask what is actually required of Christians on Sundays, and whether we are wrong to make this day pretty much like any other.

My own conviction is that this re-evaluation has been healthy and has highlighted an unhelpful legalism in how Sundays were regarded. Having said that, as is so often the case, there is a danger that the pendulum swings too far, and we forget the principles that led the church to act as it did and that are for our benefit.

This booklet is intended to help you consider the issues so that we can frame our lives in our secular world in such a way that more fully honour God.

The creation
There were two stages to the development of the Sabbath in the Old Testament. The first is recorded in Genesis 2v2-3. God worked for six days, creating the watery chaos of the earth and subduing and filling it. He then rested on the seventh day and set it apart as “holy,” which means especially devoted to him.

We also learn that he commissioned humanity in Eden to image him by filling and subduing the earth too. The sense is that our own work in the world should be patterned on his. In other words, we should take one day in seven to rest and enjoy the creation in such a way that we are appreciating God as our creator and our ultimate destiny of sharing his rest in paradise.

The law
The second stage was the fourth of the ten commandments and how it was applied in Israel. This refers back to the creation but is more prescriptive. It was a joyful occasion devoted to delighting in the Lord and remembering his deliverance of Israel from slavery and his gift of rest in the land of Canaan. Nevertheless, because of Israel’s tendency to sin and so fail to devote the day to the Lord, it required a rigid rest that did not allow buying or selling, or even domestic chores such as preparing food. It also required that God’s people gather for worship.

Does the pattern of creation apply?
Both Jesus and the apostles affirm the creation account and humanity made in God’s image as foundational for Christian living (Matt 19v4-6). On this basis, it would seem that the pattern of work and rest that is based on creation and reflects life in God’s image still applies.

Nevertheless, we are told that the actual “Sabbath” that remains for the people of God is not a specific day, but is to enjoy the rest God has enjoyed since creation in his coming kingdom (Heb 4v1-11).

Do the principles of the law apply?
This is understood most clearly from Jesus in Matthew 5-7 and from letters of Galatians and Hebrews. We learn that the Christian is not under law as the Israelites were. We are not required to obey its rigid requirements and so are not burdened by the sense of failure that led to because of sin (Gal 3v125, 5v1-26). Rather, the fuller work of the Holy Spirit means that we should no longer need such tight rules to ensure we honour the Lord. We obey him not because we have to in the legal sense but because we now want to as his children. We therefore do so not out of fear but out of love. It is this “want” and “love,” that are the marks of true faith and the signs of the Spirit’s work.

Yet there is still a place for the law in guiding these desires. We are told that the Spirit has now “written” the law on our hearts (Heb 8v10). The sense is that the renewed image of God in us somehow reflects the law. By studying the law we should therefore see something of a blueprint of what God is building in us and that we should therefore seek to be and do.

Obviously not every detail of law reflects God’s image. It is its principle rather than its letter that does – the love for God and neighbour that it applies. When coming to an Old Testament law we should therefore consider not just how it might be point to or be changed by the work of Christ, but what it might teach about life in Christ devotionally and ethically. It is in these senses that Christ fulfils and affirms the continuance of the law (Matt 5v17-48). So we should ask what principles of love for God and his creation the law portrays and what of love for our neighbour and community?

Think of ten rules a parent pins on the wall to ensure order in their house. They reflect the principles of care and respect. There is a sense in which their unruly children are under law. If they disobey they will be disciplined. If they obey all will be well. When the children grow up, the time of the list has passed. They are no longer under law. The reason is that as adults, they should not need rules because they should now want to live with care and respect. Nevertheless, the rules can still remind them of these principles and how they might be applied.

With respect to the Sabbath law, we might note its concern to ensure others have a day off, and that the Israelite would so devote their time to God that they use their rest day to gather for worship and celebrate all they have been given. It is true that such things are not legally required of the Christian, but the New Testament view of the law inscribed heart suggests that we should at least want to match them.

The Sabbath in the New Testament
Interestingly, the New Testament’s teaching on the Sabbath leans towards just this. Paul in particular states that observing the Jewish Sabbath is no longer required (Col 2v16-17), suggesting that its rigid requirements are not either. Indeed, he stresses that keeping a specific day entirely devoted to the Lord is a matter of freedom for Christians (Rom 14v5-7).

Having said that, going beyond the Sabbath, the principle of devoting time every day to the Lord is affirmed, and a daily meeting with God’s people is displayed (Acts 2v46). Yet a set day for formal worship is also given. So the apostles designated Sunday “the Lord’s day” (Rev 1v10). This is significant in that this has Sabbatical connotations. It was the day of Christ’s resurrection and so of remembering God’s new creation. And as the phrase suggests it was therefore a day that was in this sense at least particularly for the Lord.

This did not mean that the apostles required people to rest on that day. Indeed, in Roman and Greek society many would have had to work. Nevertheless, they did expect the early Christians to prioritize their time in order to meet together on Sundays, even if it meant meeting through the night (Acts 20v7-12)! Moreover, we cannot assume that if they had lived in a more Christianized society that they would not have encouraged people to ensure they take a day of rest to remember God and creation, and do so on the day of the Lord so that it might include church.

In short, the picture we have is twofold: First, an abiding call to take one day off in seven to enjoy the creation and remember the creator. Second, a suggestion that although the Mosaic Sabbath no longer binds us, we should want to adopt its principles if we can.

Applying this today
For clarity the following are stated as commands, but we have learnt that they should reflect our heart’s desire.

1)   Take a day off each week on the pattern of creation.  We are commanded to image God in our work, and just as this requires us to do our bit in subduing and filling the earth, so it requires us to ensure we and any employees have a day off from our usual work-like activity each week to appreciate God’s gift of this world and the coming rest in the next.

We need to hear this in a society that fills every moment with busyness to the detriment of our health and our families. It takes faith to trust that God will enable us to do whatever is necessary in six days. But we are called to trust him, and taking a day off seems to be more a matter of obedience than an option. This really is good news!

2)   Above all else prioritize time for formal worship with God’s people each week. This also a matter of obedience (Heb 10v24-25). What does it say of our love for God and his people when we allow activities that really are not necessary to prevent us from doing this? And what does it say to our children? If the early Christians forfeited sleep to gather together it would have been inconceivable for them to miss the gathering for the sake of a hobby or because they would not schedule a trip around church.

It is of course extremely difficult to pull out of hobbies and habits that are already formed and keep us from church. It is especially difficult to gently but firmly encourage our children to do so too. But our love for God, his people and our children’s good, really leaves us no option.

3)   Maximize the free time you can use to appreciate all God gives and to deepen your relationship with him. This is surely the primary principle of the Sabbath law written on our hearts. Of course we are called to be industrious for six days of every week and need time for other things. But we should long to create ‘Sabbath-time’ every day to look to God. Moreover, in following the Mosaic principle, if possible we should want to take our day off on the day we gather with God’s people. This would enable us to meet more than once and help motivate us in the very aspects of devotion to God in the rest of the day that we rarely have time for otherwise.

It is here that the swing from a rigid Sunday Sabbath has surely gone too far. We may not be required to devote a whole day a week to the things of God, but in our hearts we should surely want to at least approach this. Nothing is prescribed, but we might give time to Bible study, prayer, praise, teaching our children the faith, visiting someone who is struggling, hosting a church family or simply being with our own. Yet in all this, we must not forget just enjoying God’s creation and reflecting on the creation to come.

As our culture gives two days off a week, we actually have a luxury Israel didn’t have that means that we are able to do necessary chores and extra socializing on one day in order to maximize our use of the other one. Our problem is perhaps that we expect too much time for ourselves and so resent devoting such a portion to these things.

4)   If at all possible, do all these things on a Sunday. This is not commanded but it is commended by the apostles and the early church designating Sunday “the Lord’s day.” When one consider its allusion to new creation and the lengths people went to in order to meet on this day, we really should be cautious of having no preference for Sunday as our day off nor assume it doesn’t matter which day of the week our main church gathering takes place on. Moreover, meeting on the same day other Christians do creates a habit in our week that makes it easy for us to attend another church if we move, and shows a concern to make it easy for those moving from elsewhere to attend ours.

5)   Limit other activities even though they are not forbidden. It is not wrong to do chores, play sport, further a hobby, travel or even buy something on our day off or on a Sunday. We are not under Old Testament law and are not responsible for others having to work on any particular day unless they are our employees. In fact, some of these activities can mean enjoying the things of creation, and the Sabbath never required spending every moment in ‘spiritual exercises.’

But we should remember the rigidity of the law was required because human beings do not easily prioritize God. So we might well want to make some personal commitments about what we will not do on our day off, to stop everything else encroaching on our time at church and focused on the Lord.

6)   If you are truly unable to do these things, be sure you are not sinning. In a secular society many Christians are required to work on Sundays and some not even be allowed one day off in seven. Others may be kept from these things by other necessities such as being a full time carer or having to maintain peace with a non-Christians spouse. Now some may be able to come to an agreement with their spouse or change their job or situation. But those unable to would just want to work out the above principles as best as they are able.

The point throughout is that we should not let the busyness of life keep us from obeying God’s call to rest for a day each week and gather with his people for worship. In our hearts we should also want to maximize time on our rest day in focusing on the things of the Lord, and keep other things from dominating. More than that, we should prefer to do this on Sunday if we can.

We are each responsible before God for what this means in practice for us and our own families and it may be depend on the sort of week we’ve had and the situations we face. But each of us should examine our conscience before God and pray he would give us a greater love and longing for him so that we would carve out more Sabbath-time and delight in doing so.