Take Time for God
June 21, 1992
Let’s begin with three observations on the Fourth Commandment:
1. This is the longest of the Ten Commandments.
2. It is also the most difficult to properly interpret.
3. The Fourth Commandment remains a source of perennial interest.
On that last point I call your attention to a survey conducted by Christianity Today in 1988 in which the editors asked readers to rate the importance to them of a series of religious and theological issues. The editors were surprised to discover that the number one issue was, “Should Christians take their Lord’s Day observance more seriously?”
I was surprised myself. No one—or hardly anyone—has ever raised the “Lord’s Day” issue with me. As I think back over 14 years as a pastor in three different churches, I can only think of a handful of people who were concerned about Sunday (or the “Sabbath.”) In my experience, at least, it has basically been a dead issue.
Yet on another level I think I do understand the survey. Some of us feel guilty about the way we spend Sun-days. When we read “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” we start getting a bit worried. Most of us aren’t too clear about what it is we’re supposed to remember or exactly how you keep a day holy, and that just makes us feel … well, it makes us feel a little guilty.
For instance, in my first church one of my best friends was Rick Hale—a man with the uncanny ability of fixing anything. I had been having a little plumbing problem and mentioned it casually to him one day. The following Saturday night he called and asked if it was fixed. I said no and he said, “Well, I thought I might come over tomorrow and fix it. I know it’s the Sabbath and you’re not supposed to work on Sunday but maybe this is kind of an emergency soooooo … I guess it would be all right.”
Many of us were raised with strict rules about Sunday behavior:
—No swimming on Sunday.
—No dates on Sunday.
—No television on Sunday.
—No outdoor sports on Sunday.
—No newspaper on Sunday.
And of course many of us lived in cities where “Blue Laws” kept most stores closed on Sunday. That meant the grocery store was closed, along with the department store and the hardware store. If you needed it on Sunday, you had to wait until Monday.
As a result of all that, many people approach the Fourth Commandment with a mixture of guilt and vague unease. They sense somehow that Sunday ought to be different, but how and why, and who sets the rules?
I ran across a wonderful Andy Capp cartoon that perfectly illustrates the tension most of us feel. Andy has gone fishing but has come up empty. On the way back home he stops by the market and buys an armload of fish. As he is leaving the store, he turns to the proprietor and says, “Would you throw these fish to me so I can truthfully say I caught them?” The last frame shows Andy contentedly walking home with the fish under his arm saying to himself, “I always like to tell the truth on Sunday.”
That’s what the Fourth Commandment does to us. It makes us say and do funny things. We end up feeling guilty because we don’t know exactly what it means. Or to put it another way, perhaps we know exactly what it means, but we don’t know how it applies to us.
I. Three Major Difficulties
As we begin to approach this Commandment, it will help to squarely face three major difficulties that confront us. These difficulties are not equal in importance; they in fact function on different levels. But taken together they show us the difficulties we face in arriving at a proper interpretation.
A. This is the Only Commandment Not Repeated in the New Testament.
That’s a significant fact when you consider that the other nine commandments are all repeated in one form or another in the New Testament. Therefore, we know that nine of the Ten Commandments are clearly still in force today because they are specifically repeated in the New Testament. What about the Fourth Command-ment? Why isn’t it repeated in the New Testament? What does that suggest?
B. The Church Has Historically Worshiped on Sunday.
While there have been a few scattered exceptions through church history, the vast majority of Christians have worshiped on Sunday. As a result many people automatically assume that the Christian observance of Sunday equals the Old Testament observance of the Sabbath.
C. We Now Face the Fading Tradition of Sunday as a Holy or Sacred Day.
While we are free to debate the reasons, I do not think anyone can debate the conclusion that Sunday observance is a fading tradition in American Christianity. One writer put it this way:
—Our great-grandparents called it the Holy Sabbath.
—Our grandparents called it the Sabbath.
—Our parents called it Sunday.
—We call it the weekend.
Let’s face it. Many of us think nothing of skipping Sunday services if something better comes along—like tickets to a Bulls game, or a chance to spend a weekend in St. Charles. Our problem is not that we go; our problem is that it doesn’t even bother us.
Curious question: How many Christians are careful to go to church on Sunday while on vacation?
No wonder we are greatly confused. Most of us secretly think this Commandment should be paraphrased, “Thou shalt not enjoy life on Sunday.” And then, being modern, we go ahead and enjoy it anyway and end up feeling vaguely guilty. No wonder we’re mixed up!
II. Three Conflicting Viewpoints
But if you want more confusion, just ask any pastor about this Commandment. Lo and behold, the preachers don’t even agree. Nor do the scholars or the commentators. For 2000 years, down to this very day, three main viewpoints have existed about the Fourth Commandment and its application to the Christian.
A. The Seventh Day Adventist View
This view suggests that Christians should observe Saturday as the Sabbath. Consequently, the Seventh Day Adventists go to church on Saturday morning. For them, Sunday is like our Saturday.
This view has the advantage of taking the Sabbath commandment very seriously. They argue—rightly in my opinion—that the Sabbath has always been on Saturday and there is no Scriptural evidence that the Sabbath was ever changed to Sunday. Such a view also preserves the integrity of the Ten Commandments and offers a consistent principle of interpretation.
It fails, however, because there is quite simply no New Testament evidence to suggest that Christians felt obli-gated to meet on Saturday for worship. The early Jewish Christians certainly continued to worship on Saturday, but that changed as the church became predominantly Gentile. I should also add that the nearly-unanimous testimony of the Christian church has been against the Seventh Day Adventist view. Finally, I think the view fails because it does not properly distinguish between law and grace. In fact it mixes the Old Testament law with the New Testament principle of the grace of God.
B. The Christian Sabbath View
This view suggests that Sunday has replaced Saturday as the “official” Sabbath day. Most of us were probably raised with some version of this view. It has several strengths. First, the “Christian Sabbath” view recognizes the legitimacy of the Fourth Commandment. Second, it also recognizes the crucial importance of the resurrection of Christ.
There are some problems with this view, however. The most important one is this: Sunday is never called the Sabbath in the New Testament. In fact, in the Bible the weekly Sabbath is always on Saturday—never on Sunday. Let me say that again. There is no evidence whatsoever that the Sabbath was ever changed in either Testament. While it is true that the early church soon began worshiping on the first day of the week, there is no evidence they ever called Sunday the Sabbath.
That is to say, it is indeed true that a change was made from Saturday to Sunday. But that change did not involve changing the Sabbath day. The Sabbath remained on Saturday; the Christian day of worship become Sunday. To suggest otherwise is to go beyond the New Testament and to confuse Jewish worship with Christ-ian worship—i.e., to confuse law and grace. To go one step farther, I would suggest that the “Christian Sabbath” view directly contradicts Galatians 4:9-10 and Colossians 2:17, which clearly seem to teach that the Sabbath was always on Saturday.
C. The Abiding Principle View
This view suggests that in the Christian era all days are alike to God. Since there is no stipulated day of wor-ship, we voluntarily set aside Sunday as the Christian day of worship in honor of the resurrection of Christ.
First of all, this view suggests that Sunday can never be the “Christian Sabbath” because the Sabbath was specifically given to the nation of Israel as a sign of the special relationship between God and his people. To Israel the Sabbath was clearly to be a reminder of the great work God had done. The Sabbath was given to a particular people (Israel) at a particular place (Mt. Sinai) at a particular time (the birth of the nation) for a partic-
ular purpose (a reminder of creation and of the covenant).
Secondly, this view argues that the switch to Sunday was a voluntary change which happened in order to cele-brate the resurrection of Christ and as a natural consequence of the church becoming predominantly Gentile.
A. All four gospels record the resurrection on Sunday (Matt 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1).
B. Of the nine post-Pentecost references to the Sabbath, eight refer to the Jewish Sabbath which Paul observed for the purpose of evangelism. The ninth occurrence declares the Christian’s liberty from Sabbath law.
C. The New Testament nowhere commands believers to worship on the Sabbath. In fact, the New Testament seems to open any day as proper for worship (Romans 14:5-6).
D. Several references imply New Testament worship on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; I Corinthians 16:1-2; Revelation 1:10).
E. Believers are explicitly freed from observing the Sabbath (Galatians 4:9-11; Colossians 2:14-17).
F. The clear testimony of church history is that the early church worshiped on Sunday (Ignatius, the Didache, Barnabus).
Summary: The early church voluntarily switched from Saturday to Sunday in order to commemorate the resurrection of Christ. The New Testament frees believers from the Sabbath and prescribes no set day of worship.
Some Preliminary Conclusions
1. Sunday is not the Sabbath.
2. The early Christians worshiped on Sunday to celebrate the resurrection of Christ.
3. Most of our Sunday taboos are based on tradition, not on the Bible.
4. The New Testament says nothing about what you should or should not do on Sunday.
In Jesus’ day the rabbis made a list of 1521 things you couldn’t do on the Sabbath. The list included killing a flea that landed on your arm. In Scotland in the 1600s a man was arrested for smiling on the Sabbath. Jonathan Edwards resolved never to tell a funny story on the Sabbath. The first train to run on Sunday was met in Glasgow by an enraged group of clergymen who told the passengers that they had just purchased a ticket to hell. On and on the stories go.
Here is the stunning fact: There are absolutely no directions given in the New Testament about how Christians are to observe Sunday. None. Therein lies the great difference between the Sabbath and Sunday.
1. The Sabbath was given as a matter of law; Sunday is a day of grace.
2. The Sabbath remembers creation; Sunday celebrates re-creation.
3. The Sabbath was a social force for a nation; Sunday is an individual day given to each Christian to celebrate as he sees fit.
4. The Sabbath was governed by rules and regulations; Sunday has no rules whatsoever.
We voluntarily observe Sunday because Jesus rose on the first day of the week. Therefore, I say to you: Don’t let anyone make you feel bad on Sunday or put you on a guilt trip. Jesus died to set us free from that kind of bondage.
The Other Side
So far it would seem as if there is no valid use for the Fourth Commandment today. In fact, it might seem as if we ought instead to talk about the “Nine” Commandments—and drop the Fourth one right off the list.
Not so! We’re not about to drop any of the commandments. They all have something to say to us today.
I have been arguing that the Fourth Commandment was specifically given to the nation of Israel as a sign of its special relationship with God. That much is certainly true. But it is also true that the concept of the Sabbath goes all the way back to creation. Genesis 2:1-3 says, “Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating he had done.”
Note the divine pattern here:
1. Six days of work.
2. One day of rest.
Six days … One day … Six days … One day … Six Days … One Day …
Looking at the pattern another way, this is what we see:
Work comes first, followed always by rest. Work, then rest. This is the divine pattern of life.
The Rhythm of Life
It seems to be that Genesis 2:1-3 contains an important principle that transcends the law. God has established a certain rhythm to life. Man is not meant to work forever without a rest. God ordered the universe from the very beginning so that like the sounding of a clock, every seven days man would stop and rest and relax and gain perspective.
I take it that this is not only a spiritual principle, but also an emotional and physical principle. We need a day of rest, a break, a change of pace. That, it seems to me, is the enduring principle which is picked up by the Fourth Commandment and called the Sabbath.
—The legal requirement is gone.
—We no longer live under the law.
—But the enduring principle remains.
—We need a day of rest.
—God made us that way.
It is significant to note that during the French Revolution, the authorities abolished Sunday as a day of rest and attempted to go to a 10-day work week. It failed, the people rebelled and they had to revert to the traditional ordering of the week.
God knew what he was doing when he “rested” on the seventh day. Was he tired? No. But he was establishing a universal pattern for the human race. We wear out and break down unless we have a day of rest.
Here’s an amazing insight: In the Old Testament the Sabbath was not primarily a day of worship.
It was primarily a day of
The Abiding Principle
With that in mind, let’s see if we can state the abiding principle of the Fourth Commandment:
We give 1 day in 7 to God because 7 out of 7 belong to him!!!
Seen in that light, the Fourth Commandment is extremely relevant today. No, we don’t keep a Sabbath in the Old Testament sense. Yes, we desperately need a weekly Sabbath and if we don’t observe one, we will soon break down and begin to wear out.
God says, “Remember the Sabbath day.” Why do we need to “remember” the Sabbath?
1. Because we tend to forget it so easily.
2. Because we live self-centered lives.
3. Because we tend to forget our own morality.
4. Because our work would soon control us otherwise.
5. Because the Sabbath reminds us that there is more to life than a paycheck.
6. Because families need time to come together.
7. Because it is so easy to crowd God out of our lives.
Back to Eden
In a very real sense the Fourth Commandment is God’s Maintenance Commandment. It’s his way of saying, “If you don’t slow down, you’re going to kill yourself.” The Sabbath was never meant to be a burden around our necks. No! The Sabbath was originally God’s gift to the human race.
The Sabbath is meant to take us back to Eden, back to life as it was meant to be. On the Sabbath we are set free from deadlines, demands, projects, payrolls, memos, timelines, and all the rest. On that one holy and sacred day, we remember that what we are is more important than what we do. For six days each week we are judged on our performance. For one day out of seven we aren’t judged at all!
This week I read about a man who said, “I was born a man but I will die a grocer.” So many of us would say the same thing:
“I was born a man but I will die a doctor.”
“I was born a woman but I will die a lawyer.”
“I was born a man but I will die a coach.”
“I was born a woman but I will die an accountant.”
“I was born a man but I will die a steelworker.”
“I was born a woman but I will die a teacher.”
How sad! Somewhere along the way we have lost our humanity in the pursuit of a career.
The Sabbath says, “Stop! Remember! Think! Reflect! You are more than a teacher or a coach or a doctor. You are a man or a woman made in God’s image. That’s how you were born; that’s how you will die.”
We need the Sabbath! God knew we couldn’t survive without it.
Where does all this leave us?
1. No set day of worship is ordered for us.
2. We meet on Sunday to honor the resurrection of Christ.
3. No list of dos and don’ts is given in the New Testament.
4. We need a weekly Sabbath to restore our perspective.
5. We give God 1 day in 7 because 7 out of 7 belong to him.
III. Remembering the Sabbath Today
Only one question remains: If Sunday is the Christian day of worship, how should we observe it since it is not the Sabbath—although we all need a weekly Sabbath? I have four suggestions for you.
A. Get Recharged on Sunday.
For ancient Israel the Sabbath meant resting from the rigors of an agrarian lifestyle. For modern Americans that probably means getting some exercise. Use the day to relax and unwind from the pressures of the week. Take a walk, read a book, watch a good movie, enjoy a meal with friends, play some games, shoot some hoops, have some fun. Whatever helps you unwind and relax, do it. And don’t feel guilty about it.
B. Celebrate the Resurrection With Other Believers.
Do I simply mean, “Go to church?” No! Too many people just “go to church.” I’m suggesting that Sunday ought to be the high day of the week. It ought to be the day you look forward to all week long. Sunday ought to be the best day of the week because it’s the day when you throw aside the mundane cares and the vexing problems and focus on the greatest miracle in all history—the resurrection of Jesus Christ!
Sing! Laugh! Clap! Celebrate! Rejoice! Let the children of God lift their voices!
He is risen! He is risen indeed!
C. Focus on Your Family.
That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Take time to play with your children, to call your parents, to visit your aunts and uncles, to have a big meal together, to wrestle on the carpet, to play Monopoly, to have a pillow fight, to take an afternoon drive to Michigan, to write letters to your loved ones, to pause and remember those who have died, to rejoice over the goodness of God to you.
Let Sunday become a holy and happy family day. Let it be a time to strengthen those relationships that mean the most to you.
D. Do a Good Deed.
This takes us back to the words of Jesus who rebuked the Pharisees because they criticized a man for pulling his sheep out of a ditch on the Sabbath. But if he left the sheep there, it would die. Jesus said, “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:12)
How can we “do good” on Sunday? Visit the sick, phone a discouraged friend, have someone over for Sunday dinner, share the gospel, have your neighbors over for a cookout, write a letter to your favorite missionary, give an offering to the poor, spend some time playing ball with children who have no fathers. The sky’s the limit. The willing heart will find a thousand ways to do good.
Every Day is Sunday
The end of the matter is this. For the Christian, every day is Sunday. All seven days belong to the Lord. We’re not required to give God one day out of seven. But God has made us so that we need a break, a change, and a time to enjoy life. Ecclesiastes says, “There is a time for every purpose under heaven” … including a time for God. And that’s the abiding, unchanging spirit of the Fourth commandment.
Someone has said it this way. Before Christ, men worked all week and then rested on Saturday. They worked to earn their rest. Now that Christ has risen from the dead, we rest on the first of the week—because the work of salvation has been accomplished for us. Sunday is a day of grace. We receive that which we do not deserve. Sunday reminds us that we don’t have to work and strive to gain acceptance with God. It teaches us that in Jesus Christ—wholly apart from human works—we are accepted by God.
A Time to Rejoice
Where does that leave us? Singing, dancing, laughing and playing. It leaves us rolling in the clover, eternally celebrating life. We are forgiven, set free, unshackled, our guilt removed, our sentence pardoned, raised to new life, seated with Christ in heaven.
In Joy Davidman’s essay on the Fourth Commandment, she suggests that Christians need to recapture the joy of Sunday worship. She goes so far as to suggest that on Sunday evenings the church should sponsor plays, festi-vals, concerts and dances! I’m not ready to go quite that far … but I am totally sure that she is on the right track!
It’s time we took the grumpiness out of our religion and put the joy back in!
Some years ago Byrl Red wrote a musical about the life of Christ called “Celebrate Life.” I first heard it when my home church performed it nearly 20 years ago. The title of the musical could well be the appropriate theme for Sunday—”Celebrate Life.”
Therefore, go from this place and celebrate life today. Throw a football, take a walk, read a book, eat a good dinner, read the Bible, play with your children, write a letter, call a friend, enjoy the world God created. Relax, rejoice, have a party, celebrate the goodness of the Lord.
Jesus lives! We’re set free! That’s what Sunday is all about.