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.
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.