- Sunday off?
You may remember the story of Eric Liddell (photo), the runner who was featured in the movie ‘Chariots of Fire’. Eric was born in 1902, and in his words ‘born to run’. Eric trained for the 100 metres in the 1924 Olympics. But the heats were on a Sunday. Eric was a committed Christian, and believed that the 4th Commandment meant he ought not run on a Sunday, so he didn’t – instead he went to church and preached there. Instead of running in the 100 metres he entered for the 400 metres instead, an event for which he hadn’t trained, and ended up winning the gold medal. The year after the Olympics, in 1925, Eric went to China as a missionary, where he died some 20 years later serving his Lord.
Would you have done that? What would you have said to Eric if he had asked your advice? Why did he do it on Sunday, when the Sabbath is historically Saturday? How do you view the 4th Commandment – remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy?
It’s the Commandment we come to look at today as we continue our series from the 10 Commandments.
And I need to say it is a commandment about which many Christians, Bible-believing Christians, disagree.
So for instance, in May 1995 the Sydney Diocesan Doctrine Commission reported on whether there is ‘a biblical mandate obliging Christians to observe Sunday, the first day, as the Lord's Day or as a "Christian Sabbath", and whether the individual Christian is thereby precluded from engaging in business activities on that day?’ They couldn’t reach an agreement. Some found the New Testament supported a pattern of Christians gathering on the "first day of the week" namely Sunday, and use this as a basis for meeting on Sunday as a normal pattern for Christian practice. Others don’t. Some linked the Christian "first day" for church gathering to the seventh day of the biblical creation narrative, making Sunday a "Christian Sabbath." Others don’t – believing there is no such explicit teaching in the New Testament and that Sunday as a "Sabbath" only became a possibility after the post-Constantinian settlement in the fourth century. Their conclusion then – ‘It appears to us, therefore, that each Christian, and each church or denomination, must read the Bible and exercise Christian wisdom and responsibility in regard to these matters, and that the individual Christian must reach his or her own decision in regard to engaging in business or paid employment on Sundays.’ Having said that they noted three other considerations -
(a) love for neighbour requires us to consider whether the good of our society as a whole is best served by a common day of rest in each week;
(b) whatever we decide we should be mindful of the need to act in fellowship including in regard to the "weak brother"; and
(c) a pattern of regular gathering for believers is desirable
I don’t claim nor pretend to have better insight than such a learned body. So today I want to think through what the Command means, so you can make a more informed decision about how to apply it.
- God’s rest and the Old Testament
And it is all to do with rest – God’s rest that is – point 2 on your outline.
The word ‘Sabbath’ is Hebrew. As a verb it means to put an end to, or to come to an end, or to cause to cease. So the Sabbath day puts an end to the week.
And God’s command comes – on this day which ends the week you are to rest, and not work. Sounds very straightforward and simple doesn’t it. Work 6 days, don’t work 1 day. Given in God’s kindness so his people must rest – for rest has many good aspects to it.
Yet not just given for our rest, because there is another reason given in the Commandment. And indeed as we look through the Old Testament there are at least 4 reasons why the Sabbath, and the command to remember it, was given -
- creation: Ex 20:11 – ‘for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.’ Exodus 20 ties the Sabbath into creation. God rested, he sabbathed that’s the word used, on the 7th day of creation after 6 days of work. All the things God made on the first 6 days he called good, but only the 7th day he made holy. The climax of creation is not then humanity, but rest – God’s rest. Creation has a beginning and an end – rest is stitched into the very fabric of creation. Having the 7th day off is not an arbitrary decision – it is patterned on God’s own work. Remembering the Sabbath by not working is an invitation to rejoice in creation. In Lev 23:2 the Sabbath is noted as one of God’s appointed feasts – a feast day! Not a no-fun day. But Ex 23:12 a day that they may ‘be refreshed’
- redemption: the repetition of the law in Deut 5 ties the fourth commandment into something different – that is redemption. So Deut 5:15: ‘observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy… remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.’ On the Sabbath Israel is to remember that God is a redeemer and liberator and rescuer. And remember the purpose of redemption – to bring Israel into the Promised Land that they might have rest. Same aim as creation isn’t it? We can see some logic then as Christians for making Sunday a day of rest, for Sunday marked Christ’s resurrection, and the guarantee of our salvation.
- social reasons: it gives labourers a day off – Ex 20:10 – ‘you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, not your manservant, or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates.’ Expanded in Deut 5:14 to add ‘so that your manservant and maidservant may rest, as you do.’ All are equal before God and all deserve a day of rest, even dependents in society, even the animals. Helps keep work and rest in some sort of balance. And to not work one day reminds me that my ultimate trust is in God not in myself.
- finally, the Sabbath is a sign of the covenant – Ex 31:16-17 ‘The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever.’ So the Lord reminds Ezekiel in Ezek 20:12 ‘I gave them my Sabbaths as a sign between us, so they would know that I the Lord made them holy.’ The Sabbath then joins the rainbow in Noah’s day, and circumcision in Abraham’s day, as signs of the covenant. Signs by their nature point towards something. Once we have the reality we no longer need the sign. One I arrive in Berowra I no longer need to follow the sign on the Freeway that says Berowra. Jesus was able to act and do miracles and so on on the Sabbath, because the reality to which it pointed was here.
We may well ask if we are not obliged to keep the sign of circumcision, then why keep the sign of the Sabbath? We’ll come back to that. But it helps us understand why profaning the Sabbath is worthy of death in Ex 31:14-15 – ‘anyone who desecrates it (the Sabbath) must be put to death… anyone who does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death.’ To break the Sabbath is to break the covenant, which is to reject Yahweh. As long as Israel observes the Sabbath she affirms her loyalty to Yahweh and guarantees his saving presence. Such is not the case for Christians – God’s promises have been finally fulfilled in a person – the Lord Jesus Christ. So we turn to reflect on God’s rest in Christ.
- God’s rest in Christ?
In Jesus all the signs of the Old Testament give way to reality. So Paul writes in Col 2:16-17 – ‘do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality however is found in Christ.’ The Sabbath is about God’s rest, and it is only in and through Jesus that we enter into God’s rest - which is relationship with God himself. The physical Sabbath in a temporary land is a sign and a shadow of God’s permanent spiritual rest in the new heavens and the new earth.
If we look back to the creation account we see the pattern of creation is broken on day 7. The first 6 days – God said, there was, evening, morning, day 1. God said, there was, evening, morning , day 2. and so on, until day 6 – God saw all he had made and it was very good, evening, morning, day 6. Thus, Gen 2:1 the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. V2 by the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.
But there is no end to this seventh day. The implication is that it is still open, even though the work of creation is over, and even after the Fall. God is in his rest, and invites us and all creation to join him in it. This is the goal of creation – to be with God in his rest forever.
And so even in the Old Testament – Ps 95 – David still looks for the true Sabbath rest for God’s people. It’s not about the land of Canaan. It’s something far more profound than that.
And this is why Heb 4 tells us that God’s rest is still open. Look with me at Heb 4. v1 – since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. Why would they fall short of God’s rest – not by not observing the Sabbath, but by not believing the gospel and having faith in Jesus – so v6, those who formerly had the gospel preached to them did not go in because of their disobedience. So, v9 – there remains then a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest so that no-one will fall by following their example of disobedience. How do we rest from our work as the 4th Commandment calls us to do – again not by observing the Sabbath, but by entering God’s rest, which we do as we put our trust in the Lord Jesus. In Revelation 14:13 John hears a voice from heaven say ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes’ says the Spirit ‘they will rest from their labour for their deeds will follow them.’ They will rest because they are Christians.
And so it is that Jesus says in Matthew 11:28-29 – ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’ We enter God’s rest as we come to Jesus. Interesting then that the next section of Matthew’s gospel records Jesus dispute with the Pharisees over the Sabbath. The Pharisees who tried so hard to keep the Sabbath, but whose principles of interpretation were seen as wrong. The Pharisees enslaved man to the Sabbath, rather than seeing the Sabbath as God’s gift to humanity.
So why a day of rest? God has built a need for rest into creation. We need rest, animals need rest, even the land needs rest according to Lev 25 – so 1 year in 7. Life is to some extent cyclical – work, rest, work, rest. We need to avoid workaholism – so must rest one day, after 6 days of work. And we need to avoid laziness – so must work 6 after 1 day of rest. A day that is different to the others. We need it physically.
And we need it spiritually – we need to remember that God through Christ is our creator and Redeemer, he is our reason for living, we need to remember that we are totally dependent upon him not ourselves and our own labours, we need to remember that God’s ultimate rest is coming, that we are living for heaven and that this life is not all that matters, it is a day for refreshment and enjoyment.
And if we are in that rest then we can have one day, any day, to stop and remember it, as we are in his rest every day, and every day is to be special and holy to the Lord. Are you in that rest?
And we need to encourage one another in these things. So Heb 10:25 – let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching. So Sunday becomes a good day – we can remember creation and new creation, we can remember redemption and resurrection, we can look forward to heaven, we can be renewed and refreshed for serving God in the week ahead, and we can do it together, encouraging one another. That is why we meet together – not so much to have my needs met, as to encourage my brothers and sisters in Christ to keep going. Sunday becomes a great day to do it, but it is not the only day on which we could do it. In this new age we consider every day alike, every day is sacred, every day should be a Sabbath spiritually for us. The key is to do it, to fulfil the essence and underlying principle of the commandment.
Friends the 4th Commandment is not about our rest as much as it is about God’s rest. I suggest to you that God’s rest has come to us fully in Jesus, and so the sign and the shadow of the OT sign are no longer binding on us. But Christians differ on this. Which doesn’t mean we ignore it, but rather that I do not judge you, and we do not judge one another, if we are fully convinced in our own minds about the Sabbath, having properly informed our consciences by God’s Word and Spirit, and then do what we think is right - so Rom 14:5 – ‘one man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special does so to the Lord.’
What we do need to do is take time out during our ever busier lives, a day off, to rest, and to remember our Lord, and express again our commitment to Him - our creator, our redeemer, our rest!