Remember the Sabbath

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Exodus 20:8-11

INTRODUCTION: We are in the middle of our message series on The Ten Commandments for Today, and this morning we come to the fourth commandment, “Remember the Sabbath.”

Exodus 20:8-11 – 8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (NIV)

“Remember the Sabbath day.” It seems like a simple enough command, and yet it raises all sorts of questions for people today, such as: “Wasn’t the Sabbath just for the Jews? What if I have to work on Sundays? Which day is the Sabbath, Saturday or Sunday? Aren’t we under grace, not law? Why did God put this commandment in the Ten Commandments anyways?”

Another interesting question that relates to all this is where did we get the week anyways? Think about it – the year, the month and the day are all based on the movements of the sun, the earth and the moon. Hours, minutes and seconds are simply divisions of the day. But the week is an expansion of days. It does not divide evenly into the months or the year. The only real explanation we have for the week is divine revelation. God gave us the week along with creation, and he brought order to our lives through the Sabbath.

That’s part of what the Sabbath is all about. It is part of the natural rhythms God has built into our lives: the cycles and seasons, night and day, a time for work, a time for sleep, a Sabbath day of rest to mark the turning of the week. We are not built to keep going seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. Jesus took breaks. He got away from the busy crowds to regroup, relax and refresh. He took time off, and yet at end of his life he could still say to the Father, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.” (John 4:4)

We live in a society that puts a high value on work. Chuck Swindoll once said that “we have become a generation of people who worship our work . . . who work at our play . . . and who play at our worship.” As Americans we think we know how to rest. I have read that we spend more on recreation each year than we do on education, construction of new homes, or national defense! But how many people do you know who are truly rested? How many have found the right balance between worship, work and rest in their lives?

The fourth commandment is all about restoring the proper balance to these three areas – worship, work and rest – and so it is a commandment that we greatly need today.

I. The origin of the Sabbath command (Genesis 2:1-3)

Let’s begin by looking at the basic terms of the command. There are seven terms that stand out in the passage. First of all there is the word “remember.” It is a word that means “to recall or bring to mind” or even “to observe.” Secondly you have the term “Sabbath day.” The word translated Sabbath does not mean “seven or seventh” as some people think, but rather the Sabbath day literally means “a day of ceasing” or “a day of resting.” Then you have the word “holy.” “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” (Exodus 20:8) The word translated “holy” means “set apart, dedicated or consecrated for a holy purpose.” Next you have the words “labor” and “work.” “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.” (Exodus 20:9) The word translated “labor” means “to serve or to work at something,” whereas the word translated “work” refers to your occupation or business. Sixthly, you have the word “rest.” “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.” (Exodus 20:11) The word translated “rest” means “to settle down and rest and be quiet.” And then finally, you have the word “blessed.” “Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:11) In context this means that God gave his special favor to the Sabbath day over all the other days of the week. The Sabbath day was set apart by God in a special way as compared to the other days of the week.

The Scriptures make it clear that the Israelites already knew about the Sabbath before God gave the Ten Commandments. We read in Exodus 16 that when God gave the Israelites manna to eat, he instructed them to gather twice what they needed on the sixth day, so they would not have to gather on the seventh. As far as the seventh day, Moses told the Israelites, “This is what the LORD commanded: ‘Tomorrow is to be a day of rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD.’” (Exodus 16:23)

So what is the origin of the Sabbath? The fourth commandment points us all the way back to creation. In Genesis 2 we read, “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. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” (Genesis 2:1-3)

When God finished his work of creating the world, God rested, and he thus created the week and instituted the Sabbath. This was a pattern for all human beings to follow – six days of work and one day of rest. And so the Sabbath was not something new that God was revealing with the Ten Commandments but went all the way back to creation. That is part of the reason why the command begins with the word “remember” — “Remember the Sabbath.”

II. The meaning of the command for the Israelites

However, even though God gave the Sabbath to all mankind at the time of creation, the command had special meaning for the Israelites as part of the Old Testament law. So before we can understand how we are to apply the command today, we must first understand what it meant for the Israelites.

    A. The content of the command

So how were the people of Israel to obey this command? Well, first of all, they had six days in which to work. (Exodus 20:9, 23:12) By the way, this is one of the corollaries for this command, not only that you rest on the Sabbath, but that you work during the week. The Bible tells you to work hard, to work diligently and to support yourself and your family if you are able. Laziness and idleness are condemned in the Bible as vices while hard work is held up as a virtue. And you know what? The harder you work, the more you will value your rest!

Although the Israelites were to set aside six days for work, the intention of the command was not that they must work a full six days, but rather that six days were available for work and labor. This is important for us today where we basically have a five-day work week. There is nothing wrong with working only five days, but we should remember that the five-day work week is a modern convenience and that many other cultures continue to work six or seven days a week, not just to consume but simply to survive.

So the Israelites had six days available for work, but the seventh day was set apart as holy. “The seventh day” here is very specific. The Israelites did not get to pick which day of the week was their Sabbath. Their Sabbath day was Saturday, the seventh day of the week, clear and simple.

On the seventh day they were to do two things in particular. First of all, they were to rest from all labor. Exodus 34:21 said, “Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.” (Exodus 34:21) Secondly, they were to worship the Lord. Of course they were to worship the Lord everyday, but the Sabbath day was a special day for worshiping God. We read these instructions in Number 28:9-10: “On the Sabbath day, make an offering of two lambs a year old without defect, together with its drink offering and a grain offering of two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil. This is the burnt offering for every Sabbath, in addition to the regular burnt offering and its drink offering.” The Sabbath was a special day of public worship when the people gathered together. Psalm 92 is an example of a psalm that was especially written for the Sabbath day.

And so on the Sabbath you were supposed to worship God and rest from work. In a sense you could say, on the Sabbath you are supposed to pray and to play! We should also make note from Exodus 20:10 that the Sabbath command was especially directed towards parents and employers, that is, those in authority, those who could require someone to work or could release them from their obligations for the day.

    B. Violations of the command

How did Israel violate this command? We find several ways in Scripture.

1) First of all, by physical labor (Numbers 15:32-36), although works of necessity, mercy and worship were allowed.

2) A second way they could violate the command was by conducting business on the Sabbath, that is, buying, selling or trade. (Nehemiah 13:15-22; Jeremiah 17:21-27)

3) And then a third way they could violate the command was with a wrong attitude. The prophet Isaiah challenged Israel: “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 honorable, and if you honor 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.” (Isaiah 58:13-14) So Isaiah speaks of violating the Sabbath by doing what you please, by going your own way or speaking idle words. The prophet Amos also condemned those who kept the Sabbath but not with a willing spirit, those who said things like, “When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?” (Amos 8:5)

    C. The purpose of the command

What was the purpose of the Sabbath day? Let me share with you five purposes that we find in the Scriptures:

1) First of all, the Sabbath was meant to be a time of rest and refreshment: Exodus 23:12 says, “Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest and the slave born in your household, and the alien as well, may be refreshed.”

2) Secondly, observing the Sabbath was a sign that the Israelites belonged to God: God said to Moses in Exodus 31:13: “Say to the Israelites, ‘You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy.’” In Ezekiel 20:20 God said to the Israelites, “Keep my Sabbaths holy, that they may be a sign between us. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God.”

3) Thirdly, the Sabbath was set aside as a special day for public worship: Leviticus 23:3 says, “The seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, a day of sacred assembly.” This was a special day for the people of Israel to assemble for public worship.

4) Fourthly, the Sabbath was a way to show your trust in God’s provision: When God first gave the Israelites manna in the wilderness, Moses reminded the people, “Bear in mind that the LORD has given you the Sabbath; that is why on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days.” (Exodus 16:29) Keeping the Sabbath is a sign of trust that God will provide for our needs and that we do not have to work seven days a week frantically trying to provide for ourselves. Rather we should remember the words of the 23rd Psalm: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.” (Psalm 23:1-3)

5) And then a fifth purpose for the Sabbath day was as a reminder of God’s redemption: We read in Deuteronomy 5:15: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” It is highly improbable that the Egyptians gave the Israelites a weekly Sabbath break from their work. The Sabbath was a reminder to the Israelites that God had delivered them out of slavery, just as today it is a reminder to us that God has delivered us from sin through Jesus Christ.

III. Jesus’ attitude towards the Sabbath

What was Jesus’ attitude towards the Sabbath?

    A. He observed the Sabbath as a day of public worship.

Well, first of all, it is important to recognize that Jesus observed the Sabbath as a day of public worship. Luke tells us that “on the Sabbath day he [Jesus] went into the synagogue, as was his custom.” (Luke 4:16) Jesus made a point of going to the synagogue for public worship on the Sabbath day and that should say something to us about our own weekly pattern of worship.

    B. He healed on the Sabbath day. (Luke 6:1-11; 13:14-17, 14:1-5)

Secondly, we read that Jesus healed people on the Sabbath day. In fact, sometimes it seemed that he healed people intentionally on the Sabbath day. The gospels record six times Jesus had run-ins with Pharisees over healing on the Sabbath. Jesus was making the point that doing good and doing works of mercy were not prohibited on the Sabbath day.

    C. He proclaimed himself as Lord of the Sabbath.

Thirdly, Jesus proclaimed himself as the Lord of the Sabbath. One time Jesus and his disciples were walking through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and his disciples were hungry so they began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they got all bent out of shape and said, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:1-2) Jesus defended his disciples’ actions by pointing back to the Old Testament when David and his companions ate the consecrated bread in the temple when they were hungry. Then he told the Pharisees, “I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Mathew 12:6-8)

    D. He taught that the Sabbath was made for man’s benefit.

And then finally, as Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus taught that the Sabbath was made for man’s benefit. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)

There are two opposite mistakes we can make with the Sabbath day. One mistake is to break the Sabbath by just having a “business as usual” attitude, not doing anything differently than any other day of the week. But the other mistake is taking such a legalistic attitude towards the Sabbath that it becomes a burden to us. This was the problem in Jesus’ day. The rabbis had added all sorts of rules and regulations concerning the Sabbath that made the day a burden rather than a blessing.

Over the years the rabbis had defined the terms “work” and “burden,” and even the specific distances you could travel on a Sabbath – it was called “a Sabbath days walk.” (Acts 1:12) They gathered all these rules together in a book called the Mishnah. And when you read the Mishnah, you begin to see all the extra rules that were added to the Bible that were making the Sabbath a burden for the people. For example, an elderly woman wanted to know if she could wear her false teeth on the Sabbath. Was this considered a burden? The rabbis talked it over, decided yes it was, and so no false teeth were allowed on the Sabbath! Well, that was crazy. That wasn’t what God meant when he gave the Sabbath.

It got so bad that people started playing games to get around all the rules. For example, those who wanted to travel more than a Sabbath day’s walk from their home would do the following. First of all, the day before the Sabbath they would walk the maximum distance allowed, find a tree, put food under it and say “This is my home.” Then the next day, on the Sabbath, they would walk to the tree, eat the food and then walk the remaining distance from their new “home.” Sometimes they would spread out as many homes as necessary to make the journey!

It was never God’s intention for the Sabbath to be a burden, but rather a delight. The Sabbath was meant as a blessing to man! Jesus didn’t get hung up on all the legalistic rules of his day. He used the Sabbath for worshiping God, for resting from work and for doing good, and he encouraged his disciples to do the same.

Saturday or Sunday?

Another question that often comes up about the Sabbath is on what day should we observe the Sabbath today – on Saturday or Sunday? There are three main views people take on this:

View #1: Saturday is the Sabbath: This is the view taken by Jews and Seventh-Day Adventists.

View #2: Sunday is the new Sabbath: This view was promoted by the Puritans and written down in the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “From the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, God appointed the seventh day of the week to be a weekly sabbath; and the first day of the week ever since . . . which is the Christian Sabbath.”

View #3: No specific Sabbath day: This view was held by Augustine who saw the Sabbath as symbolic of salvation in Christ (Isaiah 30:15; Heb 4:1-10; Romans 4:5, 14:5-8; Colossians 2:16-17) rather than as a specific day for Christians to observe. In this view Sunday worship would be due more to the traditional practice of church rather than God’s direct command.

Which view do I hold? I probably come out somewhere between views 2 and 3. I don’t see Sunday commanded in Scripture as the new Sabbath, but I do believe the New Testament sets a pattern for Sunday public worship for the Christian church. Sunday is called “the Lord’s Day” in the New Testament. Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday. (Mark 16:9) He appeared to his disciples on a Sunday. (John 20:19,26) The Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost on a Sunday. We read in the book of Acts that Sunday was the day of public assembly for early Christians. (Acts 20:7) And we read in 1 Corinthians that Sunday was the day of collection for God’s people. (1 Corinthians 16:1-2)

So I believe Sunday is the normal day for Christian public worship. If possible, this is the day that you should set aside each week for public worship, but once again we should not be legalistic about it. Some people have to work on Sundays. They need to find a different day of the week for gathered worship and for rest. I work Sundays, so I actually practice a “split” Sabbath. I join in public worship on Sundays, but I take my day of rest on Fridays.

Positive Application for Today

So, what are some of the Biblical principles for observing the fourth commandment today? Let me give you six in closing.

1) Strive for a proper balance of worship, work and rest in your life. The Sabbath principle goes back to creation, and God has given you the Sabbath as a day of worship and rest.

2) Set aside time each week for public worship. Once again, Sunday is the normal day for this, but if you have to work on Sundays for some reason, find another day and stick to it.

3) Reflect on the five purposes given in Scripture for the fourth commandment.
    – a time of rest and refreshment,
    – a sign of belonging to God,
    – a special day for public worship,
    – a way to show your trust in God’s provision,
    – a reminder of God’s redemption in Christ.

Send some time reflecting on these five purposes as you determine how God would have you to spend the Sabbath.

4) Seek and follow the leading of God’s Spirit concerning work and other activities on Sundays. I’m not going to stand up here and tell you what you should or should not do on a Sunday. Should you take a job that requires you to work on Sunday? Should you do homework on a Sunday? Is it okay to do yard work or watch the ballgame on a Sunday? Don’t automatically assume yes or no on any of these. You need to seek God’s will in these matters yourself.

5) Avoid the opposite extremes of “business as usual” or legalistic observance. Don’t make Sunday the same as any other day of the week. But don’t add all sorts of legalistic rules that distort God’s original purpose for the day.

6) Follow the convictions of your conscience without judging others. I think about Eric Liddel in “Chariots of Fire” who did not feel right competing in the Olympics trial on a Sunday. Liddel was a man of conviction. He gave up his opportunity to run under great pressure and preached and attended public worship that Sunday instead. You also need to follow the convictions of your conscience concerning the Sabbath, but don’t judge others if they see differently. Each person is responsible to God and their own conscience in this area.

The Sabbath is both a gift and a command. If your boss called you up tonight and said, “Hey, you’ve been working real hard. Don’t come in tomorrow. Take the day off. It’s on me!” – you would probably be very excited and grateful! You boss would be giving you a command, but he would also be giving you a gift to enjoy. If you came in and worked anyways, he would probably be offended.

May we show our appreciation to God by following his Sabbath command. May we honor him by enjoying the good gift he has given us of a day off each week for rest and for worship.

© Ray Fowler

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