Matthew Roberts writes:
How should we keep the Sabbath? Let’s start with the Sabbath command in Exodus:
“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 to the LORD your God…” (Exodus 20:8-10)
God tells us to keep the Sabbath holy. “Holy” means “set apart especially for God’s use”. Note well—this does not mean “for us to use for God”; it means “for God to use us for his purposes”. But of course, since we’re his creatures, God’s using us for himself is also the very best thing that can happen to us.
So how do we keep the Sabbath day holy? How do we let God use it for his glory and our good?
Not a chore but a celebration
The main thing to grasp is that the Sabbath is a celebration. It’s not a chore but a delight. This is true of all God’s laws, of course. The fact that we often think of the Sabbath as a stifling restriction on our freedom says far more about our hearts than about the Sabbath command. That’s what sinful people think of all God’s good commandments! For example, the command not to commit adultery sounds incredibly restrictive to sinful human ears. But in fact it leads to blessings for everyone, whether married or not, which are infinitely better than the joys we imagine adultery might lead to; and which are the very opposite of the miseries adultery in fact leads to.
Now it’s the same with the Sabbath. It’s not a restriction to kill us but a blessing to give us life. It’s a celebration! It’s like a weekly Christmas day, or more accurately, a weekly Easter day—a day for celebrating the fact that God has made us and has saved us for himself through Christ.
So first, it’s a day for celebrating the goodness of God’s creation
When I was a child my parents would let us have golden syrup on our cereal on Sunday mornings. ‘Sunday Syrup’, as we called it, got the Sabbath right. The Lord’s Day is a day for the best food, the best wine, for eating together and celebrating God’s goodness in creation. We should see it as a feast day—a day of glorious rest from the normal run of life, a day of joyful celebration with our family—and especially with God’s family, the church. We keep the day holy by celebrating the incredible goodness that God has given us in making us and in providing all the good things of creation for us.
That’s why it’s a day to rest from work. Work is good, but it’s not everything. We’re supposed to enjoy and delight in the good gifts of God’s creation.
Resting from work is an act of faith. We show that we trust that God is God and we are not. The world will keep on running without us. The most common reason Christians give for working on Sunday is ‘I just have so much to do; I can’t get it done otherwise’. But that’s exactly why we should rest. You see, when we do that we show that we think that our lives are in our hands, when in fact they’re in God’s. God commands us to rest for this day and to trust that he has the results in his hand. The more we feel the pressure to work the more we need the discipline of trusting God, not ourselves, that resting on the Lord’s Day gives us.
Proper rest requires preparing in advance. You have to pack and plan properly for a holiday if it’s going to be a holiday. It’s the same with the Lord’s Day. Do the vacuuming, laundry, shopping, ironing, meal prep on Friday and Saturday. Do that and you’ll be able to rest properly on Sunday. It’s the same with paid work (or full-time study)—you’ll only rest if you’ve planned in advance that you’re not going to work on that day. Otherwise other people’s expectations, and your own pressure on yourself, will be too much to resist.
Of course, if our rest comes at the expense of having others work for us, then we haven’t yet grasped what the Sabbath is about. God is Lord of all creation. Christ died to bring in the new creation of all things. So Christians should not employ others to work for them on the Lord’s Day. That’s why God forbade having your servants or your ox or your donkey work for you on the Sabbath. The rule of thumb we follow in our family is that we don’t spend money on the Lord’s Day. We don’t buy or sell or do any kind of business, because that’s a form of making people work for us.
Now Jesus was clear that it’s right to do good on the Sabbath, and specifically caring and healing is an appropriate use of the day. The Westminster Confession calls this ‘duties of necessity and mercy’. So working in healthcare is certainly not a breach of the Sabbath. Also things which are a necessity for others’ wellbeing are appropriate—if you work for an electricity company, for example. For the same reason it’s acceptable to use electricity on the Sabbath! But we do well not to pay others to work for us in things other than true necessities. Buy your milk and bread the day before.
Rather than seeing this as a restriction on what we can do for ourselves, see it as an opportunity and invitation to do things for others. So instead of thinking ‘Bother, I can’t do the shopping’, think, ‘Who could I invite round for lunch/tea? Who in the church would be cheered up if I visited him/her this afternoon? Is there anyone on his own today who would love to be with people? Or someone I could take a meal to because she’s not well?
Real rest requires thankfulness to God. It’s not just a day to have fun, though it should be thoroughly enjoyable; real enjoyment comes from receiving things from God with thankful hearts. So learn particularly on the Lord’s Day to thank God for the things he has given us.
It’s a day for celebrating the goodness of our redemption
That last reason links to the very heart of the Sabbath day. It’s for the worship of God. Gathering with fellow Christians to worship God in our churches isn’t something we do on Sunday because it’s a convenient day to do it. It’s the very centre and purpose of what the Sabbath is about. Leviticus 23:3 describes it as a ‘holy convocation’. ‘Convocation’ means ‘calling together’. The risen Lord Jesus seems particularly to have met with the disciples on the first day of the week. John’s vision of the heavenly worship in God’s throne room in the book of Revelation happened on the Lord’s Day (Revelation 1:10). The purpose of the day is so that God can call us together to meet with him to worship him.
Even the word ‘church’ speaks of this: the Greek word means ‘assembly’ or ‘gathering’, which deliberately echoes the ‘gathering’ of God’s people at Mount Sinai when God first set them free from slavery in Egypt. And as the book of Exodus makes clear, the reason he freed them was so that they could gather and worship him at Mount Sinai. So since the Sabbath celebrates our freedom from slavery to sin (Deuteronomy 5:15)—which is what the exodus was all about—then the heart of that freedom is that we get to assemble to worship together the God who made us and who has saved us.
So make meeting with the church the main thing in the day! Come to church expecting to meet with God, and be ready to listen to him. God takes us through the gospel again in every service to remind us again how to relate to him rightly. The things that happen in a service are designed by God as tools he uses to work in us and change us. He speaks to us in his Word to make us more into his images. He calls us to pray so that he can answer and we can grow in our trust in him. He shares the meal of the Lord’s Supper with us, to assure us of his grace and call us actively to put our trust in Christ crucified again for our lives. Our morning service is the main place we do this. The evening service provides an opportunity to end the day doing the same thing.
Make the whole day about the church. That doesn’t mean being at church the whole day—but seeing it as a day to spend with your church family. That’s why it’s great to spend the day with other Christians from church, including your lunch and afternoon. If you have your own family, make it a day very special for them; pray together in the morning, eat together at lunchtime. And it’s all the better if you’re able to show or receive hospitality to join your family with others from the wider church family.
And why not invite non-Christians to join us? The Sabbath is a foretaste of the coming new creation. That means that it’s a shop-window for all the blessings of the gospel. Our neighbours should look over our garden walls or into our living room windows on Sunday afternoon, and see something that they too would love to be part of. Why not invite them to join in? Or even better, invite them to come to church and see for themselves what it means for human beings like them to meet with the living God who made them? I suspect that the majority of those who become Christians from a non-Christian background do so because they were invited to church by a Christian. The glory of the gospel of Christ is on display as his people worship him on the Lord’s Day in a way that happens at no other time.
And if you do have time on your own, don’t slip back into doing chores. Sit down with a cup of tea and read a good Christian book, or catch up on reading the Bible.
To sum up, God gives the Sabbath to us to be a delight (Isaiah 58:13–15). Naturally, we struggle to believe that. But if we do, then we find that God uses it to be an incredible blessing to us—the focal point of what it means to know God as our Father through the Son by the work of the Holy Spirit.
TO DELVE DEEPER:
- A Sign of Hope
by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.
- Why on Sunday?
by O. Palmer Robertson
- Proper Sabbath Observance: The Sojourner’s Sabbath
by Herman C. Hoeksema