In defining the gift of the Christian Sabbath, I think the Heidelberg Catechism strikes a lovely balance of creating anticipation, expectation and freedom about this day which the Lord of the Sabbath made for man without the restrictiveness of creating rules and policy. The question is asked: What is God’s will for you in the fourth commandment? The answer is given: First, that the gospel ministry and education for it be maintained, and that, especially on the festive day of rest, I regularly attend the assembly of God’s people to learn what God’s Word teaches, to participate in the sacraments, to pray to God publicly, and to bring Christian offerings for the poor. Second, that every day of my life I rest from my evil ways, let the Lord work in me through his Spirit, and so begin already in this life the eternal Sabbath.
I like to think of the Lord’s Day as the Festive Day of Rest. It is a party! When someone throws a party, invitations are sent and people mark their calendars and clear their schedules because they want to gather in the enjoyment and celebration of the host and the occasion. It is a privilege to get invited and the party becomes a fixed point in your life and is typically not neglected. In the Lord’s Day the invitations are sent to those whom He loves to come to share in the fellowship and worship of the Savior and all the attendees are richly blessed just to be there.
When you are invited to a party, you also engage in thoughtful preparations so you can enjoy the party. We always work hard to get all of our tasks done ahead of time so that we can ENJOY the party and the host. For the Lord’s Day, that means working hard for 6 days to accomplish our tasks so that we can enjoy the festivities. It even takes some preparation to get in the festive mood, doesn’t it? Doing things to warm our hearts and avoiding things that can dampen our spirits the evening before can help get us in the right frame of mind so that we can get the most out of the Lord’s Day is a great way to enjoy His Day to the full.
I have bemoaned that most of the teaching I have heard on the Sabbath has been unsatisfying to me because it is either viewed as a policy with a list of joyless regulations or as an old-fashioned obsolete shadow of the past. The sabbath policy people imply that God loves the Sabbath and created man for it when Christ said the opposite, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” So here is the New* View from the lips of the Savior: The Christian Sabbath is the Lord’s Gift for His Beloved to unwrap every Lord’s Day.
We learn from the highest authority that “the Sabbath was made for man.” We certainly need it and it blesses us. But we would have never had it had it not been MADE FOR US. And it was made for us by Him who needed no rest to woo us to rest and worship. What genuine love that presents the gift of the Lord’s Day to protect men from themselves and the exploitation of each other, to guard us against workaholism and burnout and lead us to a fully enjoyment of God and others!
If the Sabbath is just a rule, something I have to do, some duty or regulation, there’s no refreshment and no joy. Humans tend to view rules according to convenience anyway: I’m late so I’ll speed; taxes are high so I’ll fudge. The Sabbath is also not just a benefit that we can take or leave if we feel like we need it or not. Christ indicates the the Sabbath is a gift specially designed for us so this places a different motivation in our hearts. Now I don’t know about you, but I love gifts and the nature of gifts is to create ANTICIPATION, just ask any child before Christmas what she wants to do with the wrapped presents under the tree. The motive of gift-giving is from a heart of affection for the recipient, a gift is a token of love. Moreover, when you receive a gift from someone who loves you, your natural desire is to excitedly unwrap it even before the appropriate time. The Christian Sabbath is the Lord’s Gift for His Beloved to unwrap every Lord’s Day.
Jesus proceeds to claim His rightful ownership over the Sabbath when He adds, “the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Jesus with sovereign freedom exalts himself over the Sabbath. The King is here and His Name is Wonderful! He is a Servant and a Giver and Lover so as the Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus is saying, This is My Gift to Give not your Rule to Police.
The Sabbath is FOR man and TO God. Those who are in union with Christ are freed to enjoy His Gift of Christian Sabbath. A weekly gift for the ceasing of duties, resting your mind, calming your anxieties, refreshing your soul and engaging in the dynamic synergism of corporate worship! We are to think of the Lord’s Day not as a regulation to keep, not as a law that can be violated nor even of a benefit that we can take or leave but as a Gift given to us by a Generous God to unwrap every Sunday to receive the Grace that He wants to impart to us. A sustaining Grace which we desperately need and can only be found in corporate worship.
So don’t leave the Gift unopened: Gifts are not for taking or leaving. When someone you love and who loves you gives you a gift, you can hardly wait to unwrap it. If your lover gave you a gift and you left it sitting upon the table still wrapped and then you received another gift and you also left it wrapped next to the other on the table, what does that say about your feelings toward your lover? And when your lover arrives to see the wrapped gifts stacked up, what emotions are evoked? Remember: Loving the Giver means enjoying His gift.
B.B. Warfield nicely captures the first century transition from Jewish Sabbath observing on Saturdays to the Christian observance of the Lord’s Day on Sundays. His words follow…
Our Lord, too, following the example of his Father, when he had finished the work which it had been given him to do, rested on the Sabbath—in the peace of his grave. But he had work yet to do, and, when the first day of the new week, which was the first day of a new era, the era of salvation, dawned, he rose from the Sabbath rest of the grave, and made all things new. As C. F. Keil beautifully puts it;
“Christ is Lord of the Sabbath, and after the completion of his work, he also rested on the Sabbath. But he rose again on the Sabbath; and through his resurrection, which is the pledge to the world of the fruit of his redeeming work, he made this day the Lord’s Day for his Church, to be observed by it till the Captain of its salvation shall return, and having finished the judgment upon all his foes to the very last, shall lead it to the rest of that eternal Sabbath which God prepared for the whole creation through his own resting after the completion of the heaven and the earth.”
Christ took the Sabbath into the grave with him and brought the Lord’s Day out of the grave with him on the resurrection morn. It is true enough that we have no record of a commandment of our Lord’s requiring a change in the day of the observance of the Sabbath. Neither has any of the apostles to whom he committed the task of founding his Church given us such a commandment. By their actions, nevertheless, both our Lord and his apostles appear to commend the first day of the week to us as the Christian Sabbath. It is not merely that our Lord rose from the dead on that day. A certain emphasis seems to be placed precisely upon the fact that it was on the first day of the week that he rose. This is true of all the accounts of his rising, Luke, for example, after telling us that Jesus rose “on the first day of the week,” on coming to add the account of his appearing to the two disciples journeying to Emmaus, throws what almost seems to be superfluous stress on that also having happened “on that very day.” It is in John’s account, however, that this emphasis is most noticeable. “Now, on the first day of the week,” he tells us, “cometh Mary Magdalene early,” to find the empty tomb. And then, a little later: “When therefore it was evening on that day, the first day of the week,” Jesus showed himself to his assembled followers. The definition of the time here, the commentator naturally remarks, is “singularly full and emphatic.” Nor is this all. After thus pointedly indicating that it was on the evening of precisely the first day of the week that Jesus first showed himself to his assembled disciples, John proceeds equally sharply to define the time of his next showing himself to them as “after eight days”; that is to say it was on the next first day of the week that “his disciples were again within” and Jesus manifested himself to them. The appearance is strong that our Lord, having crowded the day of his rising with manifestations, disappeared for a whole week to appear again only on the next Sabbath. George Zabriskie Gray seems justified, therefore, in suggesting that the full effect of our Lord’s sanction of the first day of the week as the appointed day of his meeting with his disciples can be fitly appreciated only by considering with his manifestations also his disappearances. “For six whole days between the rising day and its octave he was absent.” “Is it possible to exaggerate the effect of this blank space of time, in fixing and defining the impressions received through his visits?”
We know not what happened on subsequent Sabbaths: there were four of them before the Ascension. But there is an appearance at least that the first day of the week was becoming under this direct sanction of the risen Lord the appointed day of Christian assemblies. That the Christians were early driven to separate themselves from the Jews (observe Acts 19:9) and had soon established regular times of “assembling themselves together,” we know from an exhortation in the Epistle to the Hebrews. A hint of Paul’s suggests that their ordinary day of assembly was on the first day of the week (1 Cor. 16:2). It is clear from a passage in Acts20:7 that the custom of “gathering together to break bread” “upon the first day of the week” was so fixed in the middle of the period of Paul’s missionary activity that though in haste he felt constrained to tarry a whole week in Troas that he might meet with the brethren on that day. It is only the natural comment to make when Friedrich Blass remarks: “It would seem, then, that that day was already set apart for the assemblies of the Christians.” We learn from a passing reference in the Apocalypse (Rev. 1:10) that the designation “the Lord’s Day” had already established itself in Christian usage. “The celebration of the Lord’s Day, the day of the Resurrection,” comments Johannes Weiss, “is therefore already customary in the churches of Asia Minor.” With such suggestions behind us, we cannot wonder that the Church emerges from the Apostolic Age with the first day of the week firmly established as its day of religious observance. Nor can we doubt that apostolic sanction of this establishment of it is involved in this fact.
That this was precisely what he did, and with him the whole Apostolic Church, there seems no room to question. And the meaning of that is that the Lord’s Day is placed in our hands, by the authority of the Apostles of Christ, under the undiminished sanction of the eternal law of God.
– excerpts from Foundations of the Sabbath in the Word of God by B.B. Warfield
The Christian Sabbath is a day unlike the other six when work ceases and God’s people pause to worship together; a day designed to take us back to Eden and the perfect Creation while simultaneously launching us forward to taste Heavenly Rest. It is my belief that because of the popular positions held regarding the Sabbath (see yesterday’s post) we mostly miss out on the joyful intention of the Sabbath, a day of happiness and victory celebrating the day that Jesus burst forth from the grave, conquering death and bringing life and immortality to light.
It is easy to see its value as a day when the tired body, mind and soul find true rest from the demands and anxieties of work. When our worn-out minds can recuperate in the serenity of momentary escape to get off the treadmill and be refreshed in God. The wisdom of the Sabbath is seen in the design of the universe and the needs of its inhabitants. Even secular academics have agreed that a regular, predictable week (with a definite beginning and a definite ending) plays a major role in developing our civilization and we all know that ceaseless work is not good for us and the day of rest gives us physical, mental and spiritual benefits.
Historically there have been attempts to change the seven-day week in favor of a different length week One such attempt came in the late 1700s during the French Revolution which promised a new Age of Reason and an end to what they called “regressive religious superstitions.” A new “rational” week of ten days was devised and approved by the ruling Convention in 1793 where every tenth day was reserved for rest and celebration of various natural objects and abstract ideas. Churches were forced to close and allowed to open only on the tenth day. People were even forbidden to wear their good clothing on the traditional Sunday, with severe fines and even jail sentences given to violators. The result was that the experiment failed completely, the work force burned out as did the First Republic of France.
This wise, joyful, value-added design even predates human history as an ordinance established during the first week of Creation. With great condescension, He who needed no rest, sat down and rested from the work which he had creatively made, that by his example he might woo man to his needed rest.
This week I am going to write a series of four or so blog entries about the Christian Sabbath attempting to explain my personal view. Most of the teaching that I have heard on the Sabbath has been unsatisfying to me because it is either viewed as a policy with a list of joyless regulations or as an old-fashioned obsolete shadow of the past. My view will become clear by the end of the week but there are several systemic underpinnings which need to be established first.
Many are familiar with the Sabbath of Ten Commandments Fame: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God.” And while few take exception to the other 9 commandments, some declare ambiguity about this fourth commandment.
But the heart of even the Old Testament Sabbath was that the people might sanctify themselves to God in true and spiritual worship, freeing themselves from worldly obligations so they could be free to attend the Holy Assembly. Interestingly, the Law specifically forbade only two activities on the Sabbath: the kindling of fires and the gathering of sticks and while the 10 commandments do prohibit work, no definition of work is ever given. A more regulated view of the Sabbath among Jews began in the Pharisaic Period (536 BC- 70AD) where the oral tradition and interpretation of Old Testament laws became increasingly regimented. The Jewish Mishnah, a later written form of the Pharisaic oral tradition, was keenly aware of the dangers of legalism: “the rules about the sabbath are as mountains hanging by a hair, for the Scripture there on is scanty while the rules we make are many.”
It is this Pharisaic view of the Sabbath command that is at the heart of the problem for Christians today who reject legalism and therefore throw away the legalistic interpretations along with the good command having the proverbial effect of throwing the baby out with the bath water, an expression we use to suggest an avoidable error when something good is eliminated while attempting to dispose of something bad. Sometimes because of an excessive zeal on the Serious side the heart of the command is discarded while retaining the unnecessary rules (aka throwing away the baby but keeping the bath water).
The Pharisees along with today’s overly zealous Biblicists damage the message, heart and intention of the law by a false zeal that cares more for laws than people. This pushes Christ-loving, Bible-appreciating folks to run from the good command because of all of its weighty attachments. We learn a lot about the Sabbath from Jesus’ interactions with the rule-oriented leaders and we find that Jesus’ heart was not to cancel the sabbath but to protect its design from abuse.