The Puritan John Owen once remarked that through various controversies the Sabbath itself had been given very little rest. We should pray that this will not be the case in our treatment of it. In this installment, we will outline some of the basic principles concerning the Lord’s Day, and in the next we will consider some of the objections that have been made to the very idea of the Lord’s Day.
The basic command is given in two places. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor 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” (Ex. 20:8-11).
We see it again in Deuteronomy. “Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor 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 ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there by a mighty had and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Dt. 5:12-15).
The observance of the commandment is the same in both places, but the reasons given for it vary. In Exodus, the commandment is grounded in the creation order. In Deuteronomy, it is grounded in the redemption of the people of Israel from Egypt. In this, the commandment is anchored to the redemptive order of things, which has obvious ramifications when we consider the creation of the new heavens and the new earth in Christ.
How are we to understand the change in the day, from the seventh day of the week to the first day of the week? First, we may not object to changes in the Ten Commandments (provided they are changes made by God, and not on the authority of man). We should remember that the Ten Commandments are summary law (Ex. 34:28). They summarize all of God’s covenant with Israel. This means that the Ten Commandments summarize both creation law and redemptive law — remember that some obedience looks the same, and some looks different. As a summary of both kinds of law, we should expect changes. When Christians today refrain from adultery or stealing this obedience looks just like a similar obedience five hundred years before Christ. This is creation law. But when we keep the Passover by getting rid of the yeast of malice and wickedness, this obedience looks very different than observance of the Passover five hundred years before Christ. Our observance of redemption law looks different, and we have to note that the Fourth Commandment contains elements of this kind of redemption law. It is linked to redemptive history. This can be seen in how this particular commandment changes in its form in the short time between Exodus and Deuteronomy. This sort of thing should not trouble us at all. For example, another clear change is made elsewhere in the Ten Commandments (see Ex. 20:12; Eph. 6:3).
This said, Christians have observed the first day of the week as holy, as the Lord’s Day, since the first century. Why have we done this? First, before all other considerations, Christ hallowed this day through His resurrection (Heb. 4:10). Second, the prophecy of Isaiah includes modified Sabbath observance in the time of the New Covenant (Is. 66:22-23). Third, the Holy Spirit empowered the church on this day (Acts 2:1). Fourth, the apostle mentioned that there was such a thing as a “Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10). Fifth, the apostles set a pattern for us in meeting on this day (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2). And sixth, the first Christians self-consciously saw the Lord’s Day as the Christian Sabbath.
So how should we honor the Lord’s Day? There are three basic principles involved.
The first is that the fourth commandment requires that we abstain from our normal labor and work. This is defined by what we do in our vocation six days out of seven. The requirement is that we rest before the Lord. The definition of work comes from our lives, and not from a physics textbook.
The second principle is that there are three exceptions to rest that are expressly warranted by Scripture, i.e. three situations are listed where work is permitted. Note that this kind of work is not the requirement of the commandment; rest and recreation are the requirement. Three kinds of works are the permitted exceptions to this general patten of rest and recreation. There is one kind of work which does not violate the Sabbath at all, and this is works of mercy — “Therefore,” Jesus said, “it is lawful to good on the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:12).
There are also several kinds of work which violate the Sabbath, but which violate the Sabbath, but which do not incur guilt for the violators. The fist in this category would be works of piety. “. . . and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and taught” (Mark 1:21). “Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless” (Matt. 12:5)? The second kind of work in this category would be works of necessity. When the Jews attacked Christ because his disciples plucked grain on the Sabbath — they were doing “what was not lawful” (Matt. 12:2) — Jesus does not dispute with them by maintaining that it really was lawful. Rather he told the story of David and the showbread, which was unlawful for David to do. But though it was unlawful, it was necessary, and Christ commended it. What all this means is that the Sabbath was given to us for our rest before the Lord, and this is the central requirement. Three kinds of work may punctuate this rest on the Lord’s Day, but it would be unwise (and a form of Sabbath-breaking) to have the entire day committed over to such works.
The third principle is that as we remember to obey this commandment, we must not turn aside either to the right to the left (Dt. 5:32). Those who carry on business as usual (Neh. 13:15), and those who are “righteous over-much” about Sabbath concerns (Ecc. 7:16), are both sabbath-breakers.