Jesus - Lord of the Sabbath
The date was October 23, 2011. The event was the World Cup final. The time was approximately 10:20 at night. The moment was the full-time whistle that signalled the All-Blacks had won. The day was … Sunday – The Lord’s Day. Were you watching? On the Lord’s Day!!??
“Oh, come on!” you say, “It was my duty as a Kiwi! Everyone was watching! I didn’t miss church to watch! What’s wrong with that?
Now, some of you already have an opinion about questions like this one. Some will be hoping that this article rules such behaviour out completely, as not in keeping with true godliness. Others will be cringing and hoping that ‘Christian liberty’ wins the day. Our intention with this article, however, is to consider some relevant biblical principles to help us deal with matters of Lord’s Day observance like work, sports, shopping, travel, entertainment and leisure.
And hopefully, as we go, we will avoid the polar extremes that often afflict such discussions:
- The first extreme is that of antinomianism (being against the law). It is the view that describes things like Lord’s Day observance as not relevant for the NT believer because it is part of OT law. But here is the problem with that view: It is a truth universally accepted (or ought to be, at least) that we do not drift toward holiness. Our natural inclination is toward spiritual laziness. So we need to guard against the attitude that flavoured the days of the Judges: “Every man did what was right in his own eyes.” The idea that we are NT Christians whose only use for the OT is as a good source of cute Bible stories (like Daniel in the Lion’s Den and Noah’s Rainbow) will not do. If all we can say in relation to this matter is that ‘we are not under law but under grace,’ then we deserve to have our mouths smacked by the Apostle Paul because we have completely misunderstood what he said (Romans 6:11-14). And in addition, Jesus’ Sabbath words/activity and a chapter like Hebrews 4 make it clear that the matter of Lord’s Day observance is equally a NT ‘thing.’
- The other polar extreme, however, is that of legalism. For it is also true that if you scratch below the skin of a Christian, you will find a Pharisee bursting to get out. We just love rules and regulations, oftentimes as a corrective for spiritual laziness. We find rules comforting for ourselves and vital for others. For then we have boxes that can be ticked and that warm sense of having kept God happy. But each of us should know that Jesus reserved His strongest words for this type of pharisaical godliness (Matthew 12 & 23).
And in this connection, it may be helpful at this point for us to consider some of the Pharisaical regulations that existed in relation to the Sabbath. For they show where such a discussion has often led in the past. The Talmud, which is a kind of Jewish commentary on the Law, has 24 chapters of Sabbath laws.
- From Acts 1:12, for instance, we learn that there was a prescribed distance for what was a permissible Sabbath Day’s walk. It was equal to 2.7km. However, if on the day before the Sabbath, you placed a meal at the 2.7km mark, when you arrived there on the Sabbath, the meal made it part of your home, thus allowing you to travel a further 2.7km. Alternatively, you could place a strip of wood or wire between two walls of a narrow alley. This created a doorway; an extension of your home, and allowed a further 2.7km walk.
- If you threw something in the air with the left hand and caught it with the left hand, that was illegal work. Catch it with your right, however, and that was fine.
- You could not take a bath on the Sabbath, lest some of the water spill over the edge of the bath. For that water splash would then be a form of washing the floor – hence, illegal.
- It was also dangerous to move a chair, because if the legs made grooves in the dirt, that was a form of ploughing = work = illegal.
- In fact, the Pharisees had a list of thirty-nine occupations that were inappropriate for the Torah-observant Jew because of the Sabbath. And each of these thirty-nine had multiple subdivisions.
It’s not surprising, then, that Jesus had a number of run-ins with the Pharisees over Sabbath observance. Indeed, these types of ‘rules’ were what led Jesus to say what are undoubtedly His best-known words on the subject, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27- 28). Now, note carefully, Jesus was not in favour of Sabbath-breaking. In fact, never before has there been one who kept the Sabbath as carefully and fully as He did. What Jesus objected to was the man-made fences that the Pharisees put up to aid believers in regard to this commandment. Very simplistically, and by way of illustration, if a command forbade drunkenness, their ‘rule’ was no alcohol, at all, in order to prevent even the possibility of drunkenness. And the result was that people spent their energy on and were focused on not God’s commands but the man-made rules. Thus, this practice taught believers that the law was unclear and that people like the Pharisees were needed to help them keep the law.
As a result of this, the Pharisees had turned the Sabbath Day into a burden and yoke. The day was a tyranny that oppressed the believer with man-made restrictions. So Jesus rebuked the Pharisees with an astonishingly clear point – man was made first, then the Sabbath. The Sabbath was instituted to be a blessing for man. Remember, Adam was created on the sixth day, and the very next day was the Sabbath. God did not have Adam work for a week so that he could earn his rest. No, God created Adam and gave him a rest straightaway. Even before he began his work, Adam was given a day to join in God’s rest; a day “to keep him healthy, to make him helpful, hence happy, to render him holy, so that he might calmly meditate on the works of his Maker, might ‘delight himself in Jehovah’” (Isaiah 58:13, 14). 1This is the God of grace that we serve!
And the Lord of Grace, King Jesus, comes to reclaim this gracious gift to God’s people. This law is mine, He says. And as the giver of the law, the keeper of the law, and the fulfiller of the law, I will not let you Pharisees hide its gospel purpose!
How sad it is then that many have seized on these words of Jesus in order to do away with any concept of a Sabbath day for the NT believer. For Jesus’ purpose here is precisely the opposite. As the Prince of Rest; the One who came to secure eternal rest for God’s people, with these words He reestablishes the principle of spiritual rest. Mixing Mark 2 with Matthew 11:28-29, we could say that Jesus has come to those who must work hard for six days and who struggle with the burden of sin’s guilt, to give us rest. And His gift to us is one special day a week where we can delight in that rest! As the Lord of the Sabbath, therefore, He tears down the fences that the Pharisees, and many since them, erect around it.
Well, before we seek further application from these magnificent words of our Saviour, let’s briefly delve into an Old Testament passage that reveals these same truths. Twice, in Isaiah 56, God says that the man who keeps Sabbath is blessed. The first of these times, He speaks to the Jews. But the second time, His words are addressed to Gentiles. And the context reveals that the time of Pentecost is ultimately in view. Indeed, the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8 is cited as an explicit fulfilment of this passage. There is already much in these verses that demonstrates that there is no Old Testament ‘time limit’ placed on the notion of Sabbath keeping/blessing. But at the end of Ch. 58, and to a people currently living in rebellion to God’s covenant, we read these words of gracious command,
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 honourable, and if you honour 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 (Isaiah 58:13-14). And these words very beautifully convey what Jesus reminded the people of in Mark 7. The Sabbath is not intended to bind and weigh down and inconvenience. The purpose of the Sabbath is to help us find “joy in the Lord.” But note also what brings this joy – not going our own way and not doing as we please.
So, back to Mark 2. And you may remember here that the Pharisees have chewed Jesus’ ear over letting His disciples pick heads of grain on the Sabbath. Obviously, this contravened Talmud 23.486 section (a) – Article 71.d – sub clause xxxiv!! The Command? Do not work on the Sabbath. Application in relation to grain? Harvesting a field on the Sabbath is unnecessary work. The Talmud rule? Picking a few heads of grain is really just a simple form of harvesting – hence, illegal. Jesus responds, though, by recalling a story from the life of David. According to the law, the temple bread was for the exclusive use of the priests. However, because of hunger, David entered the temple and took some of the bread for himself and his men and ate. And in the space of around two dozen words Jesus makes a number of basic and vital Sabbath/Lord’s Day principles here. He equates Himself with David as the Lord’s anointed one. And since David could ‘violate’ a ceremonial law, because he was, as the Lord’s anointed, on the Lord’s business, Jesus’ is saying, in effect, how much more can I, as THE Lord’s Anointed, ‘violate’ one of your man-made rules when on the Lord’s business? The first principle Jesus teaches in these words then is that on the Lord’s Day we may do those things that strengthen us for the Lord’s work. And from the parallel passage in Matthew 12, Jesus also points to the priests and their Sabbath work in the temple. All agreed that it was legitimate for priests to work on the Sabbath. Well, Jesus is the greater temple. And He and His disciples are busy with the work of preaching and teaching. The second principle then is that the work of worship and evangelism and preaching is appropriate Lord’s Day work.2
Tying all of this together then, we still worship a God of 10 Commandments. He hasn’t lopped one off! And as with all of His commandments, they exist for His glory and for our good. The Lord’s Day is God’s gracious gift to man whereby we cease from our ordinary work and recreation so that we might instead focus on and delight in and be refreshed by the saving work of the Lord Jesus Christ, and look ahead to the perfect rest that He has secured for us. We thus devote ourselves to public worship and private worship, to Christian fellowship, and to deeds of kindness.
Hence, everything we do on the Lord’s Day needs to be examined in the light of these purposes. How do our actions and activities promote the purposes of this Day?
What would I like to do? What feels restful? What is fun? Surely, so long as I don’t miss the worship services it is OK to do or to join in with? If they do it, why can’t I? All these are the wrong questions. God knows what I need. He wants me to find my rest in His salvation. He has given me a special day to immerse myself in Him and His kingdom in a way that I cannot on the other six days. So how do my actions and activities promote the purposes of this day?
Well, here are some obvious applications:
- A preacher will have to work on the Lord’s Day – His activity promotes the purposes of the Day.
- It is the same with Sunday School teachers and whoever opens the church building or puts the numbers on the hymn-board or accompanies us or serves coffee after the service and does the dishes. Their works of service promote Lord’s Day activity.
- Evangelistic work – in keeping with the Lord’s Day.
Essential services like the supply and maintenance of electricity and water require some to work on the Lord’s Day. Their work is necessary. But it they also promote the purposes of this day by keeping the church well lit and power supplied to the organ, sound system, and heat/air system, and toilets and taps operational. After all, how could a preacher cope without a glass of water? And the electrical fault or burst pipe in the church generally cannot wait until Monday to be fixed. Thus, electricians and plumbers, etc, who respond to emergencies like these are also promoting the purposes of this day.
Jesus also taught us (Matthew 12:9 14) that works of necessity and mercy are entirely in keeping with the Lord’s Day. Those things that preserve life and/or promote the wellbeing of neighbour are appropriate and also permissible on the Lord’s Day:
- And so, because fires need to be put out immediately, accident victims can’t be left until Monday to be picked up and patched up, illness doesn’t take a day off, acute dental pain comes when it comes, armies don’t and criminals don’t rest on the Sabbath or look after themselves in prison, emergency services and defence force activity is necessary work on the Lord’s Day.
- Animals on the farm need feeding and have not yet learned to avoid getting distressed on the Lord’s Day. Thus, the farmer’s work (while able to be minimised) cannot cease on the Lord’s Day.
- Delivering a care package to an elderly church member or neighbour, and replacing the broken lightbulb in their living room while you are there; work like this is in keeping with the purposes of the Lord’s Day.
And yet, even within the area of necessity, there is flexibility. As a doctor, for instance, I could perform surgery all day and every day, and the surgery would be beneficial. However, limiting surgery on the Lord’s Day to life-saving or emergency-only surgery promotes the ability of the doctor and the medical staff and the patients to be engaged in Lord’s Day activity.
But what about the question that we began this article with – watching the World Cup final on Sunday? What about the Sunday afternoon nap or a dip in a swimming pool or a kick around with the guys? What about those other areas that often distinguish us from other believers: Sunday travel, sports, shopping, eating out, and entertainment? And while all of those principles stated above might be fine in a simple farming community of 2000 years ago, what about today and our high-tech, 24/7, industrial complex?
Well, let’s start with the nap/dip/kick-around question. Why are you taking a nap or dip, or having a kick-around in the park? Is it because you can’t be bothered reading a Christian book, for example, or visiting some elderly folk at the local rest-home? Is it just because you enjoy it? Or, is it in order to be refreshed and alert for the purposes of the Day? And also, what proportion of the Lord’s Day will that activity take? Is that what you do every Sunday or are you equally zealous to devote regular time to works of kindness? And one last question here: Will it mean your kids have to occupy themselves? I know some folk whose memories of Sundays were of Dad sleeping and them having to be quiet. And these were not fond memories that filled them with a love for the Lord’s Day.
And what about sports, shopping, coffee at a café, and entertainment? Well, God has given us 86% of each week in which to pursue and enjoy our work and play. But He requires us to cease from those things for 14% of the week. He wants us to cease doing what we have to do and what we please, in order to delight in the rest that He has earned for us by the work of His Son, Jesus. And He wants us to avoid doing things that require others to violate His Day. And while each of the activities listed above might be appropriate for Mon-Sat, they either do not suit the character or the purposes of the Lord’s Day or they require others to violate the Day. And this is not God’s burden for believers but God’s gracious gift to believers
“But I ran out of milk and there are visitors coming over. I need milk,” you say. Do you? Really? You were careless. You didn’t check to see if you had enough milk on Saturday. That’s true. But do you need milk? Is getting milk necessary for the purposes of the Lord’s Day? The coffee might be darker than it would have otherwise been, or it may be just water and Fanta with your guests, but the absence of milk will not keep you from engaging in the purposes of the Lord’s Day.
And then there’s travel on Sunday:
- $39 Grab-a-seat fare on Sunday evening, $89 on Monday morning. Aren’t I supposed to be a good steward of my money?
- 7am appointment on Monday morning. If I leave on Saturday evening I will have to stay at a hotel or at someone’s place and I will not be with my family on the Lord’s Day.
- If I travel home on Sunday afternoon, I can still go to church in the morning and I won’t have to use any annual leave.
- But here we deal with competing ‘delights.’
- Objection 1 – my money is my delight.
- Objection 2 – my convenience is my delight.
- Objection 3 – my annual leave is my delight.
God’s response? “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 honourable, and if you honour 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 let us consider this quote from Dr. Joseph Pipa’s book, The Lord’s Day, in connection with the necessity, or not, of working in a factory that runs 24/7. His encouragement is that we answer questions like this from relevant biblical principles and narratives.
One principle is that when by nature an activity cannot be ceased without affecting the work and livelihood of the other six days, it may continue (And he derives this principle from the fact that Israel’s kings had fleets of ships, which could not be left to sail themselves or clean themselves on the Lord’s Day). In applying the principle we need to ask, ‘Is the work necessary for the good or wellbeing of our neighbour and the continuance of his or our lawful calling?’ Thus, the operation of a factory that cannot be shutdown without affecting its work for the remainder of the week is a deed of necessity, falling into the same category as an electrical generating plant, a hospital (boiler) room, or a (university) cafeteria. By employee rotation, no-one should have to work every Sunday and each ought to be able to attend morning or evening worship on the Lord’s Day.
Finally then, confession time. On October 23rd, last year, I watched the World Cup final. I enjoyed it, immensely. I felt like I had fulfilled my Lord’s Day obligations. After all, kick off was late in the evening. But at that moment, I have to acknowledge that I was little different than the Israelites in that ‘I did what was right in my own eyes’; I did as the ‘Canaanites’ around me did. But the God who sent His Son to earth to die for our sins deserves better. He has chosen us “to be holy and blameless” (Eph 1:4). He wants what we do on that Day to be in keeping with the purpose of that Day. He calls us to cease from our things and to ‘practise’ for the worship-work of eternity. He wants us to know the blessing of observing the Day of Christ’s resurrection.
The Lord of the Sabbath has secured our salvation and given us the Lord’s Day. May He help us to receive His gift and to know its joy as we rest in Him.