O Day of Rest and Gladness...or Burden and Sorrow?
You don’t actually sing it that way, I know, but it’s what you often feel in your heart isn’t it? It’s Sunday morning. You are exhausted ... again. Children need to be dressed. Teeth need to be brushed. Hair needs to be combed. Money needs to be gathered. Peppermints (for some of us) need to be counted. Time is running out and we don’t want to be late. It’s that day of the week ... again. O ... joy? What is Sunday to you and to your family? Imagine for a moment that a small mp3 recorder has been secretly taped into your brain, recording your waking thoughts every Sunday morning for the past year. Would you want it to be played for your children, your parents, your elders, your pastor? Can you sing the great hymn by Christopher Wordsworth 1and really mean it? “O day of rest and gladness, O day of joy and light, O balm of care and sadness, most beautiful, most bright.” Or instead, as you argue with your wife on the way to worship, give the children one last warning before you enter the sanctuary, and secretly hope that the minister will have a shorter sermon this week, are you muttering under your breath something more akin to “O day of burden and sorrow, O day of boredom and duty, O opportunity for sleep I can’t get tomorrow, most trying when I am so moody?”
The issue of Sabbath keeping and Lord’s Day observance was before successive synodical meetings of our churches from 1961 through 1971. Originally, the request for the formation of a Sabbath observance committee in 1961 expressed a desire for a committee of Synod “to draw up a scriptural statement concerning Sabbath observance and to take up contact with the Westminster Fellowship of N.Z. and the Lutheran Church of N.Z. for the formation of a Lord’s Day Observance Society of N.Z.” 2In the Lord’s providence, this original desire to seek co-operation with other churches toward the formation of a Lord’s Day Observance Society became transformed into a discussion over several years regarding the nature of subscription to our confessional standards, a discussion which revolved particularly around the binding nature of subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith ch.XXI.7-8 regarding the Sabbath Day.3Most interesting are the grounds given with the original request for the formation of such a committee, one of which might seem to convey an objectionable tone for a Synod to adopt towards the members of the church! “This request comes from a desire of the Synodical Committee to draw attention to the manner in which many of our own Church members are lazily (sic) observing the Sabbath. Also that a Scriptural voice may be raised in the Sabbath-desecrating society of New Zealand.” 4Strong words! Lazy observation of the Sabbath by church members and a Sabbath-desecrating society. And this was 1961! 52 years later, how are we doing?
Well, before we can look at the present, let’s take one step further into the past.
There has been no small degree of excitement lately in this city, arising out of the fact that the Opera Troupe at present performing in this place, assisted by amateurs, placarded the walls of the city with the announcement that on Sunday, July 27, there would be given in the Opera House a ‘sacred’ concert. All was proceeding smoothly and evenly, until Superintendent Thomson sounded the notes of warning ... The thanks of the whole community ... are due to Superintendent Thomson for the action he has taken in the matter, and we trust that the great mass of the people, who are interested in the proper observance of the day of rest, will not dance to the piping of the Opera Troupe ... For this is a question of the people and for the people, who, if they allow any to defraud them of this boon to man, the weekly day of rest, will bitterly regret it. 5
This word of warning came from an Auckland minister in 1884. It was a call to reflection and a call to action. He believed something vital was at stake for the people of God and for the great mass of people. But is there a weekly day of rest mandated in Scripture? If so, is it really a “boon” 6to man? And will I really regret it if I am defrauded, by myself or by anybody else, of this day? The purpose of this article is to attempt to sketch out the biblical origin, purpose, and importance of the Lord’s Day 7for those who are interested, as the Rev. MacFarlane put it, in the proper observance of the day of rest and who themselves might wonder at the propriety of “dancing to the piping of the Opera Troupe” in whatever modern form it might take!
Grateful for the gift
In any discussion of the Lord’s Day and its relationship to God’s rest in Genesis 2 and to the 4th commandment in Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15, besides general considerations of the unity and continuity of biblical revelation regarding the Sabbath, Mark 2:27-28 must have first importance. The verbal form of the word Sabbath in Hebrew means “to cease” or “to bring to a stop.” 8Sabbath as a noun thus means a time of rest or cessation, it being understood from biblical revelation and particularly from the details of the 4th commandment that a cessation of the work which occupied us during the other 6 days of the week is specifically in view. But does the Sabbath predate the giving of the Law to the people of Israel? In Mark 2, we have the clear teaching of Jesus and a New Testament perspective on the Sabbath. “And He was saying to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Consequently, the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.’” 9Notice that this passage does not say that the Sabbath was made for the ‘Israelites,’ but for ‘man’ in general. The generic use of ‘man’ points to this gift of the Sabbath being given to mankind in general, not to the people of Israel in particular. The fact that God “blessed,” “sanctified,” and “rested” on the seventh day 10serves as the ground, motive, and example for the fourth commandment which calls us to “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God.” 11The Sabbath has its origin at creation and is therefore understood as a creation-ordinance. Much like marriage, which God intended as a blessing for all mankind as the union between one man and one woman, the day of rest was established at creation as a blessing and gift for all mankind as Jesus explains in Mark 2.
There is no question but that the Sabbath has been a blessing to mankind. That various nations and political leaders have sought to remove this gift from the people only to return to it in time is a further demonstration that this rest is a “boon” not easily removed or denied.12However, not all have experienced this day as a day of rest and blessing. In a study of “Sunday-law battles” in America, Warren Johns surveys 350 years in which various battles over Lord’s Day observance have been fought and discusses the legal questions that have been debated in America regarding state involvement in the enforcing of Sunday laws. His conclusion is anything but favourable. Johns reminds us for instance of the crime of a Connecticut man who was deemed guilty of “scandalously kissing” his wife on the Lord’s Day and the near-arrest of a man riding his horse to worship on the Lord’s Day morning. The latter close call was all the more disturbing in that the man who escaped prison on that day in 1789 would be the first president under the new Constitution of the United States.13
But despite any individual’s personal experience of the Lord’s Day, it is God’s intention in creating and giving this day to mankind that should be determinative for our understanding. Arthur W. Pink sums it up well:
The more diligent and faithful we are in performing the duties of the six days, the more shall we value the rest of the seventh. It will thus be seen that the appointing of the Sabbath was not an arbitrary restriction upon man’s freedom, but a merciful provision for his good: that it is designed as a day of gladness and not of gloom. It is the Creator’s gracious exempting us from our life of mundane toil one day in seven, granting us a foretaste of that future and better life for which the present is but a probation, when we may turn wholly from that which is material to that which is spiritual, and thereby be equipped for taking hold with new consecration and renewed energies upon the work of the coming days.14
We should be grateful for such a gift!
Plenty of purpose
Growing up, however, it was not my experience that I was grateful for the gift of the Lord’s Day. No doubt my ingratitude was related to a lack of understanding of where the day came from (a gift from a gracious God), but it was also related to my lack of understanding of the purpose for which the day was given. Dr. Joseph Pipa writes, “when I have taught on the beauty of the Lord’s day, I have been approached afterwards by a person who said that, having been raised in a home that strictly observed the Christian Sabbath, he would never submit his children to such torture. As I enquired about the practices of his home, I learned that Sunday observance consisted of morning and evening church services, family worship, and a list of things the children could not do. For these children Sunday was only a form of dreary punishment.” 15Torture? Dreary punishment? Why would anyone describe the Lord’s Day in that way? For myself, as a youngster, I understood the Lord’s Day to be a negative day. It was a day where the most common word around our house was “no.” In answer to most questions that began with “can I ... can we...” my dad or mum’s response would invariably be “no.” As I think about it, though I grew up with a robust understanding of the myriad of things that I was not to be doing on the Lord’s Day, I wasn’t really sure what I should be doing on the Lord’s Day. Has that been your experience? Is that the experience of your children? If so, let’s remind ourselves of the biblical purposes of the Lord’s Day which should blow through any stagnant Lord’s Day experience like a fresh breeze blows through a stagnant summer day.
The Sabbath finds its origin at creation, was practised before the giving of the Law to Israel,16and is further explained and given redemptive focus at Mount Sinai. This is seen particularly in the second reference to the Sabbath command in Deuteronomy 5:15 where, rather than grounding the fourth commandment in creation, the people of God are specifically called to remember their redemption. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm.” For God’s people, the Sabbath is not only a day of rest or ceasing from daily work, but a day of rejoicing in the redemption of God. For the people of God in the Old Testament, this redemption still had a forward-looking aspect, even as their resting had a forward-looking aspect. In other words, the Old Testament Sabbath was a day of rest and remembrance but also a day where full rest (in Christ) and full salvation (in Christ) could not be fully experienced and enjoyed. For the people of God living post-resurrection, the day of rest and remembrance is also a day of celebration in a rest and redemption fully accomplished in Christ and yet to be fully experienced in glory (see Hebrews 4).
What then is the purpose of the Lord’s Day? For believers in Old and New Testament alike, it has always been a day to joyfully cease from our usual six-day a-week labours in order to celebrate and remember the redemption of God. We confess this day to be “the festive day of rest.” 17Before the Fall, Genesis 2:2-3 tells us that God ceased from His work of creation, but He did not become idle. He was enjoying the “very good” creation He had brought into being. He was continuing His work of providence, without which all of creation would have ceased to exist (Col. 1:17). Exodus 20:11 tells us that the purpose of the Sabbath, which is patterned after God’s rest at creation, is that six days will be devoted to our labour and work, but the seventh day will be holy. It is a day set apart from all the others, but it is specifically set apart for another purpose. Lev. 23:3 explains that this day of rest is a Sabbath “to the Lord.” It is a day of “complete rest” and a “holy convocation.” It is a day of resting from our usual labour in order that we may assemble with God’s people to worship and praise Him.18Deut.5:15 reminds us that such praise and worship should have at its heart the remembrance of our deliverance from slavery and bondage through the gracious working of the mighty hand of God. The purpose of this day is that our hearts and minds might be filled with delight in the ways of the Lord and, in particular, delight in the Lord Himself.19The Sabbath is described as a day “to the Lord” (Lev.23:3), “My holy day” (Is.58:13), and “the holy day of the Lord” (Is.58:13). It should perhaps be no surprise to us then, that in the New Testament, the specific term “of the Lord” is used in only two instances: the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:20) and the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10).20Both the Old Testament Sabbath and the New Testament Lord’s Day are holy “to the Lord.”
Over a hundred years ago, at least one Auckland minister likened the disappearance of a sense of purpose on the Lord’s Day to an attack on the Christian life, which attack was not being countered.
I much mistake the temper of Christian people, no matter how much they may differ on minor points, if they do not resent most vehemently these attempts to defraud them of their rights and liberties. When the foe menaces the citadel every man ought to be at his post, with his weapons furbished and ready for battle. And working men and women cannot remain idle spectators of the fray ... Sunday is a halting place in the march of life, and brings in its hand sweet rest ... and higher and more lasting blessings for those who are willing to embrace them. Well did Sir Matthew Hale say – ‘A Sabbath well spent brings a week of content, and health for the toils of the morrow; But a Sabbath profaned, whate’er may be gained, is a certain forerunner of sorrow.’ 21
But what should I not do?
The articles by Pastors Haverland and Holtslag later in this issue will deal with specific changes to our practice of observing the Lord’s Day over the years and current areas where we need to be challenged in our thinking about how to remember and observe the Lord’s Day in a way that pleases the Lord. The recurring question for believers, however, will always be – but what should I not do? Or what should I do? First of all, that is the wrong way to think of this question. To phrase the question as a simple matter of external obedience is to be tempting ourselves to fall into the error of Pharisaic legalism – setting up manmade regulations which require only external conformity 22at the expense of the command of God, which demands both external and internal conformity. A much better question might be: “how I am enjoying rest from my labours, remembering God’s mighty acts of redemption, and rejoicing in the holiness of this day?” Or it might be good to ask yourself: “how am I taking delight in the Lord?”23Or perhaps: “what would bring God pleasure on this day?” 24To ask specific and careful questions about how to please the Lord on the Lord’s holy day is not to be legalistic but rather demonstrates a heart that desires to take delight in delighting the One who is delightful! As John Murray once said, “how distorted our conception of the Christian ethic and of the demands of holiness has become if we associate concern for the details of integrity with pharisaism and legalism.” 25Here, two biblical principles come to mind.
The first is the faith principle of Romans 14. This principle comes in the context of judging one another with regard to our conscientious convictions before God in those areas where there is disagreement among brethren (may I suggest that this is a chapter of the Bible that might be highly relevant to this area of discussion?). The principle is: “whatever is not from faith is sin.” 26While recognising that our conscience itself (whether weak or strong) needs to be continually formed and corrected by God’s Word and is itself not infallible, we are nevertheless commanded to “let each man be fully convinced in his own mind.” If you believe that riding a bicycle on the Lord’s Day is a violation of the 4th commandment and a sin against God, don’t do it! If you believe that the Lord has called you to worship twice on the Lord’s Day through the instrumentality and leadership of your elders, then do it! If you believe that watching television on the Lord’s Day is a sin then don’t do it! If you believe that playing and walking with your children outdoors and enjoying God’s creation is filled with spiritual blessing, then do it! Whatever you do or do not do on the Lord’s Day, unless it is a decision based on faith and trust in the living God, His provision for you in Christ, and His calling for you to keep His commandments as a child of the King, it is either a sin of commission or omission. The question is: have you searched the Scriptures to find out what pleases the Lord (not simply what pleases yourself) and are you observing the day in faith?
The second biblical principle is found in 1 Corinthians 4 – also, interestingly, in the context of judging one another. I am purposefully pointing out the context here in the conviction that Lord’s Day observance is one of those areas of the Christian life where we are most prone to be eagle-eyed observers respecting the potentially sinful behaviour of others, but conveniently blind-as-bats regarding the state of our own hearts before God. We could call this principle the humility principle.
1 Corinthians 4:4-6 says, “For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God. Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that in us you might learn not to exceed what is written, in order that no one of you might become arrogant in behalf of one against the other.”
The point here is that it is possible for all of us, both when it comes to judging our own behaviour, but especially in judging the behaviour of others, to “exceed what is written.” 27
After all, exceeding what is written, going beyond what the Scripture actually says, is natural to the sinful human heart. It was natural for Satan in the Garden to “exceed” what God had actually said. It was natural for the Pharisees to “exceed” what was written in the Law and add their own stipulations which were clung to more tightly than the actual commands of God (see Mark 7:6-8). The humility principle means that we should cling tenaciously to the clear commandments of God and hold our applications of those principles more loosely, recognising that those applications might need to change, could be better, and are still plagued by our limited understanding, a weak or misinformed conscience, etc.. But this principle calls for especially great humility in any consideration of the actions/behaviour of others on the Lord’s Day. Perhaps we could ask difficult and challenging questions like – what has God actually commanded for this day, and what have I added to that command? Do my children understand that what we do on the Lord’s Day is rooted in the clear teaching of Scripture? Could I show them the principle? Have I done so?
Those who are in bondage to manmade regulations regarding the Lord’s Day are in danger of falling into the error of those who rebuked a man for carrying his mattress home after being healed by Jesus, despite the fact that Jesus Himself had commanded him to do so (John 5:8-10)! Those who become fixated on their man-made “traditions” are always in danger of being blind to their own disobedience to God’s commands – love for God and love for neighbour out of gratitude and thankfulness for such a great salvation. J. Douma, in his helpful work, The Ten Commandments, comments on this incident in John 5: “Those Pharisees who forbade that activity were destroying the festivity of the Sabbath. Their attitude robbed the Sabbath of its characteristic gratitude for liberation. Gratitude had to make way for precisionist obedience, freedom was replaced with new bondage, and relaxation was ruined by a perpetually plagued conscience.” 28
Does it really matter?
Is the Sabbath really that important? Does it make any difference if we keep the fourth commandment? Does rejoicing in God-given rest and God-wrought redemption have any impact on our lives? If we look around us, it doesn’t seem that mankind in general is all that concerned with rest, but all we need to do is look a little under the surface (or surf through the internet!) to see what is really happening. Hear the message of Workaholics Anonymous which proclaims on its website that they are “a fellowship of individuals who share their experience, strength, and hope with each other that they may solve their common problems and help others to recover from workaholism. The only requirement for membership is the desire to stop working compulsively ... W.A. is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organisation or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy; neither endorses nor opposes any causes. Our primary purpose is to stop working compulsively and to carry the message of recovery to workaholics who still suffer.” 29People in our world do work compulsively and are looking for hope. Is there no rest?
On 22 September, 2011, the question of the Lord’s Day and the stuff of real life made the headline on BBC Sports online: “Rugby World Cup 2011: Devout Euan Murray questions Sunday matches.”30The article went on to summarise what was at stake: “Devout Christian Euan Murray has questioned the need for Rugby World Cup matches to be played on Sundays. The Glasgow-born prop, 31, has chosen to prioritise his faith this weekend, meaning he will miss Scotland’s Pool B clash with Argentina on Sunday. ‘I don’t see why there have to be games on Sundays,’ said Murray. ‘I hope things will change in future...’ Back in 2008, Murray did play on a Sunday when Scotland took on France in the Six Nations. But, after his faith deepened, he announced a year later that he would no longer be available for selection on Sundays. At the time he said: ‘It’s basically all or nothing, following Jesus. I don’t believe in pick ‘n’ mix Christianity. I believe the Bible is the word of God, so who am I to ignore something from it? I might as well tear out that page then keep tearing out pages as and when it suits me. If I started out like that there would soon be nothing left. I want to live my life believing and doing the things God wants and the Sabbath day is a full day.’” 31Euan Murray testifies, as his fellow Scottish rugby player Eric Liddell testified as a runner in the 1924 Olympics, that following Jesus and “believing and doing the things God wants” is more important, more blessed, and more delightful than anything else. Redemption makes a difference!
Instead of gaining materially on the Lord’s Day, we should be seeking to gain spiritually. As Wordsworth expressed it, “new graces ever gaining from this our day of rest.” Or better yet, the apostle Peter encourages us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” 32What are the “graces” that we gain from this day of rest? How important is it? Marva Dawn has reflected on the nature of Sabbath-keeping and how it holds out to God’s people an abundance of spiritual blessing. Perhaps it would be fitting to close this article with her reminder that “all the great motifs of our Christian faith are underscored in our Sabbath-keeping. Its Ceasing deepens our repentance for the many ways that we fail to trust God and try to create our own future. Its Resting strengthens our faith in the totality of his grace. Its Embracing invites us to take the truths of our faith and apply them practically in our values and lifestyles. Its Feasting heightens our sense of eschatological hope – the Joy of our present experience of God’s love and its foretaste of the Joy to come.” 33And so, may we rejoice in God’s gracious gift of rest, fulfil the purpose of finding pleasure in pleasing the Lord on this day, keep the day holy in faith and humility, and experience the blessing of calling the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s Holy Day honourable.