Tuesday, September 11, 2012
How do we keep the Sabbath today?
Remember the Sabbath Day
A Biblical reflection on the need for a Sabbath Day
There seem to be two extremes when we begin to talk about practices on the Lord’s Day. On the one hand we may find people who appear to define the Lord’s Day by what we cannot do on that day. We might call these strict Sabbatarians. You cannot go shopping; you cannot watch TV; you cannot take part in sporting events; you cannot work for pay; you cannot hunt; you cannot do homework. Of course, they will say that we can go to church, worship, seek the Lord and do acts of mercy. We are to honor God by setting aside one day of seven where every moment is taken up with spiritual pursuits and not worldly activities. To many people the “cannots” seem to outweigh the “cans,” and the Lord’s Day appears to be a burden and not a blessing.
For those who reject a strict Sabbath keeping, the alternative is usually an extremely loose keeping of the Sabbath. Extremely loose being defined as doing whatever seems most convenient on the Lord’s Day. They might say that the Sabbath is not meant to be a burden but a joy. So if I need to go to the store it is not big deal. If I miss church because I am out of town or have family visiting, it is no big deal. If I want to go to a football game on Sunday, God will understand. If I have to work, I have to work. The mall is going to be open, so why not do some shopping? For the loose Sabbatarian almost anything goes on Sunday as long as you are attending church on a regular basis—and even that may not be necessary.
On a continuum from strict to loose, I think that we would find that in our day most American evangelicals lean toward the loose side of Sabbath observance.
My own thinking is that both of these extremes are mistaken, though both contain elements of truth. If we desire to bring all things under the Lordship of Christ then this will include our Sabbath day attitudes and activities.
So how would God have us view and keep the Sabbath? It appears to me that the key is to go back to the beginning in Genesis. In Genesis 1:1 we have a record of God calling the universe into existence. This is followed by the main purpose of Genesis 1:1-2:3 “which focuses on the making and the shaping of the earth as a place for humans to live and love God.” As we will see this main purpose will have an impact on how we view the Sabbath Day. But consider for the moment that during the six days of creation God was putting everything into the world that mankind would need to live for and love God. He gave us light and darkness, times and seasons, the skies and the heavens, water and land, animals and vegetation; and He made us male and female. All the days of creation the Lord is working to supply what mankind needs in order to live for the glory of God.
If this is true, might it be the case that God gave us the seventh day, a blessed and special day, for the same reason? Did God not give us the seventh day of rest, not because He needs us to observe it, but because we need it? We need it not only for the physical rest that it is meant to provide, but especially the blessing of remembering God as our Creator and Redeemer. Is God not telling us as our Creator that it is important for us to take one day out of seven to find rest in Him?
In Exodus 20:8-11 God bases the keeping of the Sabbath on His work in creation. He worked for six days and rested on the seventh. Why did God rest? Did He rest because He was worn out by all of His hard work? No. God does not get weary (see Isaiah 40:28-31). He rested because He had finished His work of creation and pronounced it very good. I think of it like this: when you finish cutting your lawn or planting your garden, what do you usually do? You take some time to just look and admire and find satisfaction in the work of your hands. This, I believe, is what God did. He took a moment and, as it were, stood back to enjoy the work of His hands. God set the pattern for us. We are so constituted that we need to take a day of seven to step back from our normal pursuits and enjoy the work that God has done in creation and in redemption (Deuteronomy 5:13-15).
Do you not find it to be the case as you go through the week, that our minds and hearts get distracted by so many things? There is work and the house and the yard and family and bills, etc., so that we truly begin to forget about what is most important. We begin to forget about God and His kingdom and His glory and His faithfulness and His daily blessings and grace. And we begin to fall into following the course of this world and start setting our hearts on things that do not satisfy our deepest longings. It is true that every day we should seek to find refreshment in God through His Word and personal communion in prayer, but God made us to need something more. That something more is a full day to delight in God.
God knows us perfectly. He created us, and He knows that we need a day out of seven to get re-orientated on what is right and best and most valuable. He knows we need to find real refreshment and rest in Him, and so He has given us a day to meet our needs--our need to be blessed in Him.
Is this not what Jesus is telling us when he says, “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27)? The Sabbath is a gift that God gave to man because our hearts need it so much. The loose Sabbatarian tends to say, “Thanks for the gift, God, but I don’t really need it.” The strict Sabbatarian seems to say, “Look at the gift I have for you, God, a whole day devoted to honoring You.” Both miss the point. We need the gracious gift of the Sabbath.
To view the Lord’s Day from this perspective, I find, makes a huge difference. For those who are strict Sabbatarians it can begin to show you the joy and blessing of the day. It is not meant to be a day of burdensome “do nots” but a day of “Come to me all who are weary and heavy burdened and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
For those who see nothing special about the Lord’s Day or who wonder if a Sabbath was only part of the Old Testament, we can at least say that man’s need for a day of rest has not changed. Our nature is the same now as it was then, and we still need a day out of seven to refocus ourselves on God and His glory and take our eyes off the things of the world that hold such a powerful sway.
For the loose Sabbatarian I would say that it does matter what you do on this day. It matters not so much because God demands certain practices from you, but you need this day. You are no different from anyone else. You need this day to seek God and His rich blessings and doing the same things you do on other days of the week would seem to work against this. It is a day to delight in the Lord and you are the one who misses out when you go your own way and do your own thing:
"If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath,
from doing your pleasure on my holy day,
and call the Sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the LORD honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;
then you shall take delight in the LORD,
and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken."