Of the Ten Commandments, which is the one that most people, including perhaps many of us here today, think really doesn’t apply to us? Which one do we think we is least important for us today? It’s really not that big of deal. Without a doubt it is the fourth commandment regarding the Sabbath. Over time many in the church have attached less and less importance to this commandment. Someone has said that our great-grandfathers referred to the seventh day as the Holy Sabbath, our grandfathers called it the Sabbath, our parents referred to it as Sunday, and now it’s simply the weekend. It has lost its spiritual significance.
Oh, we’d never come out and say that we don’t think it’s important for us to pay attention to this commandment. But if we examine our lifestyle, the way we live just might reveal that this commandment is simply not a priority for us. And we may hardly see the need for it.
Other commandments – even if we struggle with obeying them – we recognize the worth of. That we should refrain from lying, stealing, adultery, and murder is something that we would all affirm. Allowing nothing to usurp God’s rightful place as central in our lives is a commandment that may not always come easily for us, but we surely acknowledge that is how we should live. But when it comes to the fourth commandment, maybe we’re not so sure. What difference does it make, what harm is done if we don’t slow down one day a week and really focus on God and His goodness to us?
Let’s read exactly what this commandment states, as found in Exodus 20:8-11:
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but 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 animals, nor the alien within your gates. 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.
This commandment is rooted in creation, for it speaks of God resting after His creative work was finished. Now, we need to be clear that God did not rest in the way we might rest after an exhausting activity. God was not tired and so needed to take a breather, for God is omnipotent. God is all-powerful all the time, and thus His power is never depleted by His divine activity. God doesn’t have less energy today than yesterday because of the work He did then.
But God rested in the sense that when He finished His creative work He stepped back and delighted what He had done. It was a rest of joy and satisfaction. Even as we enjoy a sense of satisfaction upon successfully completing a task that demanded the best of us (garden, artwork, woodwork, a challenging assignment at work, a home repair project, even reading a thoughtful book), so God took time to enjoy the work of His hands. And as He did so, He was able to say, “It is very good.”
In giving us this command, God is merely asking us to follow His example. When we follow this command – assuming we do so in the right spirit – we are being godly, for God did this very thing. There is something good about this practice, for the passage for today ended by saying, “Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” The Sabbath has God’s blessing.
There are two key words we need to understand to help us grasp what God is asking of us in this commandment. Those words are Sabbath and holy. For the commandment states, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” The word sabbath literally means “to cease” or “to stop.” In the Hebrew it is also the root of the words for seven and rest. Put all that together and it speaks of stopping to rest on the seventh day. The Sabbath does not necessarily call us to inactivity but to cease from our regular daily work, even as God ceased his creative work at the end of the sixth day. So there is something different about the seventh day.
And the word holy literally means to set apart, specifically to be set apart for the purposes of God. God made the seventh day holy by setting it apart from the other six. So the command is telling us that we need to set apart one day from all the others. And the way we set it apart from the others is by ceasing from our regular day-to-day activities, which for most of us will center around work – whether that is work outside the home or work in the home for which you are not paid but for which you probably should be paid for it is at least as demanding and important as work done outside the home.
So in addition to what this commands, it is also teaching us something about life. It tells us that there is a rhythm to life, for that is the way God created it. It is a rhythm of work and rest, of activity and ceasing from the normal, day-to-day activities. God acknowledged this rhythm by resting, or ceasing from His creative work on the seventh day. If we are to live healthy and whole lives we must incorporate this rhythm of work and rest into our lives, for as I said, this is rooted in creation. This is how God created the world and us – with a need for rest.
The Ten Commandments are repeated in the book of Deuteronomy, and there we find one additional reason for the Sabbath. After commanding the Israelites to observe the Sabbath by keeping it holy, Deut. 5:15 goes on to say: “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.” So in addition to the need for rest, God gave us the Sabbath so we would remember God’s saving activity.
Imagine the sense of joy the Israelites must have felt when God gave them this command. We may see this as the least appealing of the Ten Commandments. The Israelites would have seen this as the most appealing commandment, because for generations they had been slaves, forced to work all the time. Recall how the Pharaoh increased their workload after Moses asked Pharaoh to let the people go. And now God tells them that one day out of seven they are to do no work. What a relief! The Sabbath wasn’t seen as a burden, as it sometimes is today because we think there are things we cannot do. No, to the ancient Israelites the Sabbath was a gift. They didn’t have to work and no one could make them work.
But it was more than just a day off. During that day they were to specifically remember how God acted to free them from their slavery. It was a day to express their thankfulness to God for redeeming them, and as they relived that event each week, their faith in God and their gratitude to God would be renewed. So the Sabbath was a day not only of physical rest, but also of spiritual joy and renewal from reflecting on God’s goodness and faithfulness to them.
By the time of Jesus, unfortunately, this gift from God had been consumed and controlled by legalistic thinking. What was intended to bring balance and wholeness and renewal of mind, body, and spirit ended up oppressing people with its strict and endless obligations. There was one commandment – remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. To guide the Israelites in keeping this commandment, over time 39 general prohibitions were added regarding proper or improper activities on the Sabbath, which were then further explained by 1,521 specific things that were forbidden. As you would expect, some bordered on absurdity.
Of course, work was supposed to be refrained from but what constituted work? All these regulations tried to spell that out. For instance, you were permitted to dip a radish in salt and eat it, but only if you didn’t leave the radish in the salt too long. For then it might begin to pickle, and that would constitute work.
Here’s another example of how the rules governing the Sabbath were taken to an extreme by the time of Jesus. It was forbidden to look in the mirror on the Sabbath. Why? Well, a woman might be tending to her personal appearance, notice a gray hair and be tempted to pluck it out, and that would be considered work.
It was also forbidden to pick up rocks, for that would be working. It was permitted, though, to pick up your child, even though the child may weigh significantly more than a rock. But if your child was clutching a rock – even a small pebble – then you could not pick up your child for that would be working.
So ironically, the Sabbath was to be a day in which you did not bear any burdens, yet it became so filled with rules that the Sabbath itself became a burden. What was to be a day of joyful renewal by remembering God’s goodness and celebrating God’s faithfulness became a day of legalistic oppression.
Jesus, of course, got into trouble with the Pharisees over the Sabbath because He did such things as heal the sick on the Sabbath. Yet Jesus never rejected the importance of the Sabbath but only the legalistic interpretations of the religious teachers regarding the Sabbath. Jesus affirmed that the purpose of the Sabbath was to lead to greater wholeness for our lives, and healing the sick certainly did that. If it was a day to remember God’s goodness, why could one not express or extend that goodness to those who needed it, such as the sick.
Jesus said in Mark 2:27, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” In other words, God gave us the Sabbath for our benefit. It is something that we need. It is something that is good for us, something to be observed and celebrated for what it offers us.
What about us today? We are not Jewish, so we don’t look back on the exodus from Egypt as our redemptive event. Are we still to observe the Sabbath? Obviously so, even though we will do so in a way different from the ancient Jews. For we have the same need for balance in our lives, the same need to experience wholeness and renewal by abiding by the natural rhythm of work and rest, of activity and reflection, of toil and worship.
What will it look like for us today? I think several things are important. First, as the word Sabbath implies, we need to cease from our normal, work-related activities. God did not make us to work non-stop, seven days a week. I hope that sounds like good news to you. To the workaholic it may not sound so good, but it’s true. God did not intend for us to work all the time. That’s not good for us physically, emotionally, or spiritually. We all need to cease from our regular work activities one day a week and do things that are restful, renewing and relaxing.
What this will look like will vary from person to person. What works for me may not work for you. What is it that refreshes you? It could include such things as a walk in the woods or a bike ride in the countryside, reading, relaxing conversation with friends or family, sleeping in, engaging in a hobby like gardening, painting, or woodworking, having a leisurely, uninterrupted meal, or turning off your smart phone (the world will carry on without you picking up your smart phone for a day, and you will actually get along quite well if you ignore your phone for a day, or at least for a good part of the day!).
A biblical Sabbath is not the same as simply having a day off from work but then on this day we hurry from one activity to another, going to football practice and then to the mall and then grocery shopping – all before lunch. We need to slow down and relax, for that is how God made us. We need that balance, and God gave us the Sabbath so we can experience that.
And then, along with this physical renewal, there needs to be an element of worship. Actually, some may separate rest and worship, like pastors. We work on the day we worship, so the Sabbath rest may have to come on another day. If you work in the medical field you may have to sometimes work a Sunday shift. That’s okay because the Sabbath is not about legalistic rules. It’s about God offering us the opportunity to be physically and spiritually renewed.
But if that’s to happen, we must include worship in our weekly routine. Actually, we need to incorporate worship into our daily routine, but at least once a week we need to set an extended time aside to worship God. As the passage from Deuteronomy stated, the Israelites were to celebrate their redemption from slavery on the Sabbath so they would never forget God’s goodness and faithfulness. And not simply so they would not forget intellectually but also so that they would never forget experientially. Because they weekly reminded themselves of God’s goodness they would be equipped to live each day – no matter what they were facing that day – with the assurance that God would be with them and would be faithful to them.
And so we celebrate our redemption in Christ. We need unhurried time in which to reflect on God’s greatness and give thanks for God’s goodness to us. We need to draw near to God so we can be encouraged by His love, strengthened by His promises, guided by His word, and renewed by His Spirit.
This is not a religious duty we are bound to fulfill but a gracious opportunity to be nurtured in our faith as we are reminded of the greatness and goodness of God, so we can face all of life with the confidence that we matter to God and that God will never waver in His love for us. As Jesus said, we were not made to keep the Sabbath but the Sabbath was made for us. God gave it to so we could be physically restored and spiritually renewed. It’s for our good.
Since the days of the early church followers of Jesus have worshiped on Sunday because it is the day Jesus rose from the dead. Thus every Sunday is a day to celebrate our redemption in Christ through His death and resurrection. R. W. Dale, a nineteenth century English preacher, was so convinced of this that every Sunday he had his congregation sing a resurrection hymn to help the people remember and live in the joy of what God had done for them in Christ. Our Sunday worship should be marked by joy and gratitude for God’s grace toward us in redeeming us through Christ!
Now as we seek to observe the fourth commandment, we must heed a certain warning. The lesson from the Pharisees during the time of Jesus is that we must be careful to avoid becoming legalistic in our application of this command, for again, Jesus didn’t disagree with the Pharisees over the importance of the Sabbath but only in their legalistic approach to it.
Unfortunately, throughout its history the church has often succumbed to legalism, just like the Pharisees during the time of Jesus. Church attendance was mandatory, maybe twice or even three times on Sunday. There could be no recreational activities – only church, prayer, Bible reading and discussion. Some would prepare food on Saturday so no food would have to be prepared on Sunday. Instead of being a day of rest and joyful renewal, this special day for many became a day of solemn duty.
I read about one Scottish preacher who, many years ago, had to travel some distance to his church. There was a river that ran near both his house and the church. One winter day when the river was frozen solid he decided to ice skate to church. When he arrived the members were aghast that their pastor skated to church.
This incident sparked quite a debate. The elders met and discussed the matter at great length. Was it proper or acceptable for the pastor to skate to church on the Sabbath? Finally the minister was asked, “Did you enjoy skating up the river?” as if enjoying an experience would run counter to the Sabbath! No wonder the wife of C. S. Lewis, Joy Davidman, commented that some have rewritten the fourth commandment to mean, “Thou shalt not enjoy life on Sunday.” That is not the reason God gave us the Sabbath!
The Sabbath, rather than being an obligation we must more or less reluctantly and solemnly observe, is really a gift to us. Earl Palmer describes it like this:
The law has in its way paid to man and woman and the created order they occupy a rich compliment. We human beings are not mechanical, timeless creatures that can grind on endlessly at work. We need quality time to collect our thoughts and our dreams. We need time to “cease” and to wonder about the deep meanings of life. We need to remember our history and to worship the Lord of life. Though the fourth commandment is an imperative, it is an imperative that leads us toward freedom.
Thus the Sabbath is not a heavy or unrealistic burden for us to bear, but it is a gift from our Heavenly Father for our own good. It is to help us live a balanced and meaningful life. Listen to how God speaks of it in Isaiah 58:13-14:
“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.” The mouth of the Lord has spoken.
God said the Sabbath is something we should delight in, and that He gave us the Sabbath so that we might find our joy in the Lord. And not only that we might find it, but that we might continue in His joy, week after week after week as each Sabbath we cease from work-related activities and draw near to God.
The Sabbath, regardless of the day we celebrate it, is a gift from God, for it gives us the opportunity to stop, rest, and worship. It is a gift because it enhances our dignity as human beings by delivering us from meaninglessness – from the meaninglessness of life being no more than endless toil and sweat. It enhances our dignity by affirming that God sees each of us as a person and not simply a producer. It is a gift because it frees us from the tyranny of time. We only have so much time and we can easily succumb to the pressure of having so much to do in so little time that our lives become frantic. But by ceasing from work-related activities one day a week we are declaring that time will not rule over us. We are free from compulsion.
The key to observing the Sabbath is not about following a prescribed list of dos and carefully avoiding a prescribed list of don’ts. Rather it’s about the spirit with which we approach the Sabbath. The key is receiving it as an opportunity to renew our minds, restore our bodies, and refresh our spirits. It is a day to reflect on and be encouraged by God’s incredible love for us as we remember our redemption in Christ – that He died for us to give us life. And so the Sabbath is not only a command to be obeyed, it is a gift to be received, and received with joy.