Grain-Gleaning and Sheep-Rescuing: Sabbath Works of Necessity
“The danger is very real that the Christian pilgrim as he lives his life in this world will adopt the habits of the world. That this is more than an imaginary danger among us ... is quite evident from a growing number of undesirable practises and habits which are a hindrance to the proper observance of the Lord’s Day. For example, (a) the enticement to unnecessary Sunday labor is increasingly heeded; (b) the number of habitual “onecers” at divine worship is apparently growing...”
These words were published in The Messenger of March 1963. They are a quotation of the Christian Reformed Classis of British Columbia report of September 1962. This issue is even more timely today. We need to ask: What does the Lord consider “unnecessary Sunday labour”?
Rest and Work
The fourth commandment states: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work...” As the very word “Sabbath” indicates, this day is a day of rest. We are to rest from our daily work for several reasons: to be refreshed physically; to find rest for our souls in Christ Jesus; to seek, experience and praise God for His work; and to have a foretaste of that rest that awaits the people of God. This first day of the week is set apart from all the other days and devoted to God as an especially blessed gift of God. As the Church Father, Chrysostom, said, “the Sabbath was not allowed for idleness, but that men being withdrawn from the cares of temporal things, its rest should be spent in spiritual things.” 1
A simple reading of the commandment might suggest that all work is to cease on this day. However, the standard clarification is that no work is to be done on the Lord’s Day except for “works of piety, charity, and necessity.” For example, the Synod of Dordt (1618/1619) made an official statement that, “This same day is thus consecrated for divine worship, so that in it one might rest from all servile works (with these excepted, which are works of charity and pressing necessity) and from those recreations which impede the worship of God.” 2The Westminster Shorter Catechism confesses, “The Sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.”
A commonly cited proof text for works of necessity is Matthew 12:1-12. The first verses of this passage recount how the Lord Jesus was walking with his disciples through the fields on the Sabbath. As they walked, the disciples reached out to “harvest” heads of grain, rub them between their fingers to “thresh” them, and then pop them into their mouths. The Pharisees confronted the Lord Jesus with this Sabbath desecration by harvesting. They must have appealed to the instruction of Exodus 34:21: “on the seventh day thou shalt rest: in earring time and in harvest time thou shalt rest.”
The Lord Jesus responds by reminding them of how the hungry fugitive, David, came to the tabernacle on the Sabbath and ate the shewbread which was only intended for the priests. He argues from the lesser to the greater: If David was allowed to violate a ceremonial law when he was on the Lord’s business on the Sabbath, surely Christ and his followers may break a man-made law about the Sabbath. As “Lord of the Sabbath” he teaches that we may lawfully perform those things which are needful for the welfare of our bodies.
In this same passage Christ shows it is lawful to perform work directly related to the worship of God. A butcher was not allowed to kill animals, but a priest was commanded to do so as part of the Sabbath worship of God (Matt. 12:5). He also concludes that, since the Lord desires “mercy and not sacrifice,” it is “lawful to do well on the Sabbath” and alleviate suffering.
Works that Promote the Sabbath
How have “works of necessity” been defined? Zacharias Ursinus, an author of our Heidelberg Catechism, wrote: “works which carry out (the Sabbath’s) true intention and so establish it, as all those works which so pertain to the worship of God or religious ceremonies, or to the duty of love towards our neighbor, or to the saving of our own, or the life of another, as that necessity will not allow them to be deferred to another time, do not violate the Sabbath, but are especially required in order that we may properly observe it.” 3An important element here is that, to be a necessary work, a work must promote the sanctity of the Sabbath day as well as love to God and our neighbour.
Necessary work promotes the overall rest and worship of the day. One Puritan catechism asks, “What servile works are permitted on the Sabbath? A. 1. Such as further the proper works of the Sabbath.” Activities that facilitate and promote the actual Sabbath work of worship are appropriate for the Sabbath. Such labours relate directly to the worship of God and the care for our bodies and animals. The Lord is not like the Egyptian taskmasters who demanded bricks without giving straw. He provides for our daily needs on His day to enable us to seek and serve Him.4
Works that Cannot Wait
The Puritan, John Wells defines “works of absolute necessity” as those “which could neither be done before the Sabbath, nor deferred till after.” He gives as examples treating wounds, fighting house fires, or defending the nation. These works display God’s love, rather than break God’s law.5Some of these works are foreseen. The Lord Jesus gives the example of the farmer who lets out his ox and leads him to water (Luke 13:15). The ongoing care of your family and animals is a regular work of necessity.
Other necessary works are unforeseeable. The Lord Jesus refers to the one who rescues his sheep which has fallen into a pit (Matt. 12:11). He does not know the day before that his sheep will fall into the ditch and would be cruel to leave it in the pit until the next day. Jesus also instructed the church to pray that their flight from danger would not be on the Sabbath day (Matt. 24:20). Flight is necessary because flight cannot be postponed to the next day. Work that results from sudden calamities like floods, fires, storms, illnesses, or accidents is necessary because the Lord desires mercy and not sacrifice. John Murray infers from Matthew 12:3-4 that “dire necessity warranted the doing of something which under normal conditions would have been a culpable violation of divine prescription and restriction.” 6
Sometimes, your daily work may seem a “dire necessity” that cannot wait till Monday because you need to have it done before a set deadline. A student has a project due Monday, a businessman has a deadline to meet, another has a meeting on Monday morning. They justify working on the Lord’s day by appealing to God’s will that we keep our commitments. However, the problem here is a failure to plan properly ahead of time and be diligent before the Lord’s day. The man who collected firewood on the Sabbath should have planned ahead (Num. 15:32). We are to “remember the sabbath day” ahead of time and plan accordingly.
If we do not prepare for the day, we ought to be willing to suffer the consequences, rather than let the Lord’s day rest suffer. When lack of foresight makes a work necessary, such as when we have failed to have enough gas in the car and need to buy it on the Lord’s day, the Puritan, Nicholas Bownd, says we “must do It ... lamenting our former negligence ... that we did not provide for it, praying to God to forgive us our sin.” 7
God has given six days for our work. If we think our work cannot be done in those six days and that we need the seventh, we charge God with unfairness for giving us seven days worth of work and only six days in which to do it. We also show ingratitude for the precious gift of a day of rest.
We will later seek to discern how God’s Word applies to more practical issues of our daily labours. For now, let us heed Dr. Joseph Pipa’s challenge: “Everything we do (on the Lord’s day) should be measured by the question, ‘Does this promote the purposes of the day?’” 8Is what I am thinking of doing needed for my or others immediate physical welfare or to enable me or others to worship and rest? Could I have done it yesterday or can I postpone it until tomorrow without immediate harm? How can I best keep His day holy?
Our Modern Economy
Certain works of necessity, such as healthcare and policing, have existed for centuries. Other works have arisen due to advances in technology. Some, such as Gary North, have argued that the practice of strict Christian Sabbatarianism would shut down our society’s very infrastructure and destroy our economy. In response, Brian Schwertly ably argues that “certain economic activities and industries cannot be completely shut down on the Sabbath.”
A few generations ago, electricity was a luxury and some refused to use it on the Lord’s day. However, electricity has become a necessity for heating, food preservation, healthcare, and lighting, among other things. Therefore, power companies need to continue to produce power on the Lord’s Day.
Some critics claim that those who uphold the fourth commandment must oppose electricity use, since the Jews were forbidden to kindle a fire or gather sticks on the Sabbath (Ex. 35:2-3; Num. 15:32-36). However, kindling required a lot of work, which could be prevented by maintaining the previous day’s fire. The other prohibition was against gathering sticks, which could be done the day before. Maintaining a fire is not prohibited. Since electricity is more efficient than these fires, Schwertly concludes that “a centralized power source would actually enable a Christian society to keep God’s sabbath better.” 9
Other examples of works of necessity include the telephone system, since shutting it down would put lives in danger (and prevent people from listening to church services). Schwertly also indicates that the smelter in a foundry, which takes several days to reach its needed temperature, may require a very minimal crew to keep it running on the Lord’s Day, due to the benefits of steel for mankind. Ships need to continue sailing on Sunday, when their ocean voyage is over seven days long. A small percentage of the workforce must be engaged in necessary works on the Sabbath. The number of people involved in these fundamental activities should be reduced but cannot be eliminated on the Sabbath, since these works are necessary to enable society to function.
The exact line between a necessary and unnecessary work is not always easy to discern. For example, nurses must work because patients need nursing care, but some other activities in the hospital need not take place on the Sabbath. Farmers need to care for their livestock, but that does not legitimatize them working as much on the Lord’s Day as any other day. A Christian police officer needs to maintain law and order, but will feel uncomfortable performing crowd control at a Sunday sports game. Firefighting is necessary, but if you are hired as a firefighter by a company that should be closed on Sunday, the question rises whether your presence implicitly condones the work being done there. How we need love for the Lord of the Sabbath and our neighbour as well as a tender conscience trained by Scripture to discern was is needed and what is not!
Working to Support Your Family
What am I to do if the only job offer I have requires me to work on Sunday, even though the work itself is not a “work of necessity”? What if I will be fired if I refuse to work on Sunday? Is the need to provide for my family a sufficient reason for working on Sunday?
These questions are not new. In 1606, William Burton wrote: “The world is hard, say poor men. We have a great charge of wife and children, and little earnings. We may not starve (and therefore must work on the sabbath).” Burton’s response is that we must serve God with trust in God. God gives the general promises that “no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly” and “seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Ps. 84:11b; Matt. 6:33). He also promises to bless those who keep His sabbaths (Isa. 56:1-7; 58:13-14).10Nicholas Bownd cites Calvin’s words that the devil and our natural mind want us to believe that “if we apply ourselves to the service of God, we must needs die of famine.” 11A root of disobedience is distrust in the Lord to provide for those who walk in His way. The Sabbath command to rest from our labours is a call to trust in the Lord and lean not on our own understanding. By refusing to work on Sunday, we testify to the world that we desire to serve and trust the Lord.
A thought-provoking point several Puritans raise is that we ought not to work for gain on the Lord’s day. The fourth command restricts labouring and doing “all thy work” to the six weekdays. They define “thy work” as the work God gives us in order for us to support ourselves. Those whose calling is necessary seven days a week ought to do their work on the Sabbath not as “their work” but as “God’s work” of preserving life and promoting Sabbath rest. Thomas Vincent concludes that in these works “we ought not to have a reference chiefly to ourselves, or any temporal advantage, but to be as spiritual as may be in them.” 12Bownd encourages doctors to freely serve the sick on the Sabbath and pharmacies to charge only for the medication and not the labour. If people are paid, they may devote it to the Lord to show that they are working out of pity and not for profit and are serving a compassionate God and not their covetous greed.13This practice would certainly be a test of our motives in doing even “works of necessity” on the Sabbath!
How to Work On The Sabbath
When we do works of necessity on the Sabbath, we are not breaking the fourth commandment in doing them, even though the day may not feel like a Lord’s day to us. Here two guidelines are important. First, we should not spend more time than we need to in necessary works. We should seek to give as much time as possible to the Lord’s worship on His day. If Sabbath rest is our delight we will willingly carry the burden of necessary work as long as we need to and then let it down so that we can occupy ourselves with His worship. We should do what we can to still be in church at least once. If that is not possible, we should listen to worship services at other times. Second, we should have the goal of the work of necessity in mind, namely, the promotion of the sanctity of the day and the display of love to our neighbour. This keeps the Lord’s day from becoming like any other day to those who are involved with their necessary daily work on it. As John Willison summarizes, “we must study to keep our hearts in a spiritual frame while doing them, and dispatch them as soon as possible, that we may return to the main work of the Sabbath.” 14
As the reality that the Lord’s day is a special gift fades from our society’s consciousness, the issue of Sunday work is becoming more pressing. Let us lay all our needs and fears before the God who provides. Let us love His wisdom and goodness in giving the fourth command:
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work...