Keep Sunday special? - Deuteronomy 5:12-15
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
The last 12 months have been something of a boom time for British Sport English footballers are moving towards qualification for the World Cup, even our Cricketers have started winning (last week hopefully a blip). But surely the highlight has been the Olympic successes.
GB won more Gold medals than (I think) for almost 100 years away from home soil. The best known winners were of course the rower Steve Redgrave, Denise Lewis in the Heptathlon & Jonathan Edwards in the Triple Jump.
I can't exactly say Jonathan Edwards is a friend of mine but we have friends in common & I have met him several times when we both lived in Newcastle.
Jonathan became famous before his World Record & Olympic triumphs for his refusal to take part in athletic events on Sunday. He is a committed Christian & thought it inappropriate to, as he saw it, break the 4th Commandment by competitively jumping on the Sabbath.
We should all admire the way he was prepared to follow what he understood to be the Bible's teaching despite other's misunderstanding but was he right? Is this a right application of the 4th Commandment for Christians?
What was the Sabbath?
Deut 5 v12 p 184 'Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you'
The command is clear. Part of how God wanted his redeemed OT people to live was to keep a Sabbath rest day. He wanted them to observe it & keep it 'Holy'; Making it a special day for his honour.
That meant v13 'Six days you shall labour and do all your work, 14but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor the alien within your gates, so that your manservant and maidservant may rest, as you do.'
The people were to do no work so that they might rest. Indeed the word 'Sabbath' means to 'cease' or 'rest'. God commanded his people to keep a Sabbath as the 7th day after 6 days of work.
It was seen as a positive day for rest & specific recognition of the Covenant God's reality in different ceremonies (eg Num 28:9-10), Indeed it was to be a sign of the special covenant relationship Israel had with the LORD God (Ex31:17) [& there were severe penalties for breaking the Sabbath regulations (egEx 35:2)]
When God's people were removed from the Promised Land & in Exile, their leaders began formulating lots of legal restrictions on top of the OT itself. Extra regulations for what could & could not be done on the Sabbath were developed & passed on down the generations.
It is these kinds of legalistic restrictions Jesus condemned so strongly in the gospels. Many in Jesus day seemed to regard the Sabbath as an end in itself, whereas Jesus taught (Mark 2:27) that the Sabbath was made for benefit of people not people for the Sabbath. And in our NT reading Mt12:11 Jesus argues 'It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath'; people's needs must take precedence over the law of the Sabbath.
Perhaps most significantly for us as we think of the 4th Commandment today Jesus said, v8 'the Son of man, himself, is Lord of the Sabbath' & in the same reading as he discusses the OT system of the Temple, sacrifices & Priests he says 'I tell you that one greater than the Temple is here'.
The whole OT pointed forward to something greater, to the messiah, who would save his people from their sins. That means the Temple ceremonial is now obsolete because its purpose was to point forward to Jesus the ultimate sacrifice for sins. Similarly the tight lists of things forbidden on the Sabbath were instituted to point forward to something more; the experience of the rest with God Jesus makes possible for all believers. They were not to be followed once their fulfilment in Jesus had come.
So the Apostle Paul tells the Colossians 2:16,17 '..do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festivala Sabbath Day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come, the reality however is found in Christ'.
Perhaps this is why the 4th commandment is the only one of the 10 not to be clearly reaffirmed in the NT & why the Apostle Paul was very concerned about early Christians who sought to enforce special holy days as if observing them gained favour from God. (Gal4:8-11).
It is these reasons why the great Reformer John Calvin said ' ..to overthrow superstition, the Jewish holy day was abolished.
If you think about it the vast majority of Christians don't keep the Sabbath as the OT prescribes. The Sabbath was to be on the last day of the week; Saturday, whereas the 1st day, Sunday, has become the Christian special day. From very early on, Sunday was the preferred day of church gatherings. Sunday was the 'Lord's day' because Jesus rose on Easter Sunday & the Holy Spirit was given to all believers in a new way on Pentecost Sunday.
The early Christians wouldn't have been able to make Sunday a Sabbath, as they would have had to work. It was only 300 years after Jesus that for many Sunday became rest day as well as Church day.
What are we to make of the 4th Commandment then is it now irrelevant? No. As one contemporary writer puts it for the Christian 'Sabbath rules are dead, but Sabbath principles remain'.
There are some vital principles behind the commandment, principles which have significant applications to us & our world;
These are seen in the motivation for keeping the Sabbath we find in our passage in Deut 5 & in the account of the 1st giving of the 10 commandments in Ex 20. We shall consider both;
1)Truth of God's creation; God rested after making the world, we must rest. (Ex 20:11)
Ex 20 v11 '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.'
The principle here is one from the way God made the world. There was to be a Sabbath rest for people because God rested on the 7th day. Just as God finished creating the world in 6 days & rested after its completion on the 7th, so a Sabbath day is blessed by God for humans.
Because this is something about how God made the world, a 'creation ordinance', it is relevant to all human beings.
Take a break from work.
In Exodus there is this remarkable imagery of Almighty God being a worker & not only that but needing a break! Later in Exodus (31:17) we read 'in 6 days the LORD made the heavens & the earth & on the 7th day he abstained from work & rested ' literally the Hebrew goes like this; God 'abstained from work & got his breath back'!! God is deliberately modelling in his own actions, a human need.
In the rhythm of labour (paid work or other activity) we need a regular break from doing it & preferably a break that reflects at least a one in seven pattern.
It was Leonardo da Vinci who is reported to have said 'Every now and then go awayeven briefly, for when you come back to your work your judgement will be surer; since to remain constantly at work will cause you to lose power.'
This principle is particularly important in our time. We live in what has been called the age of the 'workaholic & economaniac'.
For those who are working modern expectations are very high. Many people seem to think they are working harder than ever & stress levels have increased significantly. Apparently 60% of successful professionals say they are suffering chronic stress or depression. The top 48% of American Corporate professionals say their lives are 'empty & meaningless' because they are drained by work.
The pressures are keenly felt because working longer gets more done or impresses the boss which can seem necessary to keep your job on occasions.
How much then do we need to follow the Maker's instructions in this regard & be disciplined in taking time off? One Medic has said 'We doctors in the treatment of nervous diseases are now constantly compelled to prescribe periods of rest. Some periods I think are only Sunday's in areas'.
This application of the need for a break from work helps us see where the 4th commandment fits in with the earlier ones. The 1st 3 commandments are essentially to maintain the honour of the true God YHWH by protecting people from false devotion & speech & particularly idolatry.
Idolatry is giving ultimate value to what is not God. Given that we've all rebelled against God & fallen into sin we quickly fall into idolatry. In our sin instead of rightly working the earth as we were made to in partnership with God, we give work in itself significance beyond what it was made to have.
We define each other by 'What do you do?' & what we have & own, rather than having God as our source of fulfilment & contentment, our source of rest.
Diane Fassel in her book 'Working Ourselves to Death' says 'Work is god for the compulsive worker, & nothing gets in the way of this god'. So often work becomes our God as it dominates all we are & do. However if we have to rest at least 1 day in 7, there is a break in this compulsive process. We are reminded that like the earth, time belongs to God not us.
A Sabbath rest day then holds back the idolatrous instinct & brings into our everyday experience the concerns to honour the true God that the early commandments make.
Need for change.
The principle of a rest day has wider application than work. It is about patterns of change in routines. You may not have a paid job but there will be something that is your main duty or responsibility. It is beneficial to have periods where we experience a change. We need to balance our primary responsibilities with some secondary activities to maintain a healthy balanced lifestyle.
Allow all people a break.
There is a social application of this principle of rest from routine. When Israel was given this command they were in a different world to before. They had been rescued from Egypt & given a new land. They were free, no longer slaves, no longer suffering the indignity of belonging to others & at their mercy.
Now they were free they were to avoid the exploiting of others, they had experienced themselves; Deut 5 v13 'Six days you shall labour and do all your work, 14but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor the alien within your gates, so that your manservant and maidservant may rest, as you do.'
The Sabbath rest was for all across the board. It was not just for the better off who owned land but their employees too & there servants & even the foreigners non Israelites amongst them. This was very unusual.
In most human societies things are divided along class lines; Slaves, women & lower classes work whilst the more privileged enjoy more leisure time. But the Sabbath shows God's concern for 'ordinary' workers, in particular the most vulnerable.
There are issues here for our society & Employment law. Perhaps you are an employer. How do you encourage time off for your staff? The Sabbath principle is good for society. It can be a brake on the tendency of human society to exploit & oppress.
We've just elected a Prime Minister in last few days Harold Macmillan the Prime Minster in the 50s & 60s is reported to have said that the Sabbath was the 1st & greatest worker protection act in history.
What we've seen here is a reminder it's still worth arguing for a common day of rest. We have the heritage of special Sundays in this country when most people are off (not all). A common day off provides important time together with friends & for families with many off at the same time.
God knows what's best for us & others 4th Commandment is in a way God ordering us to take a break! There's also a 2nd Principle;
2) Truth of God's Rescue; God has saved us, we must take time to remember Him. (Dt 5: 12)
v 15 '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.'
The reason given for Israel to observe the Sabbath was as a reminder of the rescue from slavery God gave them from the hands of the Egyptians.
The Sabbath was to be a constant reminder of God's great love & power in freeing them from slavery. That meant no Sabbath was to be without an opportunity for joyful corporate worship. For them this involved special ceremonies to keep before them the special relationship with God they had.
Here there is another principle for us from the 4th Commandment. The need for regular times to celebrate with others the even greater act of redemption God has done for us in Jesus.
The Bible has many reasons why Christians should meet together; to learn from the Bible, to encourage each other to pray together & praise God.
There's a reminder in the 4th Commandment that there is great wisdom in having fixed times for Church meetings otherwise people don't know when they are & also if we leave it up to how we feel easy not bother.
Recent research on church attendance figures has shown that many people considering themselves 'regular' church members actually come to Church 2 out of 4 Sundays a month or even only I out of 4. Now we're not commanded in the Bible to attend Church every week & sometimes there are reasons why it's not possible, but I wonder whether this lack of regularity has less to do with mitigating circumstances & more to do with our culture.
Today's world, particularly the rising generation is characterised by lack of interest in organisations & resistance in commitment to groups could it be that many Christians are simply becoming worldly & going with the flow? The Sabbath principle points to the value of regular, disciplined patterns that we stick with, unless there is a good reason not to.
This reminds us that joining with others as Church weekly is a priority so for example at this time of year when there are so many more leisure activities at weekends, we'll do what we can to come back to make the evening service.
Making some of our rest period a time of specifically focusing on God corporately & individually is good for us. Making & using time to study the Bible less hurriedly or reading a Christian book is a reminder of the priority of our relationship with God in our busy day & age it's so easy to squeeze out focused time for God & yet how we can be strengthened by it too.
A man once challenged another to an all-day wood chopping contest. The challenger worked very hard, stopping only for a brief lunch break. The other man had a leisurely lunch and took several breaks during the day.
At the end of the day, the challenger was surprised and annoyed to find that the other bloke had chopped substantially more wood than he had.
'I don't get it,' he said. 'Every time I checked, you were taking a rest, yet you chopped more wood than I did.'
'But you didn't notice,' said the winning woodsman, 'not only did I benefit physically from my breaks but I was also sharpening my axe when I sat down to rest.'
We began with Jonathan Edwards not jumping on a Sunday. You may know he changed his mind about his refusal & has been prepared to compete on Sundays for several years now I'm not sure why, but it does seem the 4th Commandment's application to Christians under the new Covenant of Jesus is not really about not enjoying recreation on a Sunday.
The Jewish Sabbath is not directly transferred to the Christian Sunday. We should be careful to avoid legalistic attitudes like those of the Pharisees attitudes Jesus so strongly condemned - yet there are important principles for us from this commandment.
The Israelites were to stop all work on the Sabbath because God in creating the world rested. We too need to take a breather we're made to function with work interspersed with rest. A day off in 7 should be our aim.
The Israelites were to remember on the Sabbath what God had done for them in rescuing them. We should do that corporately & individually to enjoy what the writer to the Hebrews calls the 'Sabbath rest for the people of God' (Hebs 4;9). That is the rest of relationship with God through Jesus who says 'Come to me all you who are weary & burdened & I will give you rest', rest now & fully fulfilled, in heaven.
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