One Saturday morning, a mother went in to wake her son and tell him it was time to get ready for temple. “I’m not going,” he replied. “Why not?” she asked. “I’ll give you two good reasons,” he said. “One, they don’t like me, and two, I don’t like them.” His mother replied, “I’ll give YOU two good reasons why you SHOULD go to temple. One, you’re 54 years old, and two, you’re the Rabbi.”
This Jewish Sabbath joke brings up a question we will explore in the present installment. How does the fourth commandment apply to us as American Christians in our present era? The fourth commandment begins with “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (Ex 20:8) and goes on to say, “Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy…. In it you shall do no work (Ex 20:12, 14). Thus, given the fact that God instructed to honor the Sabbath day (Saturday), how does this commandment relate to the New Testament Lord’s Day (Sunday)?
To begin, we will explore the Old Testament Sabbath Day. God instituted the Sabbath so Israel would have a weekly rhythm in which they worshiped and were refreshed—spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically. In regards to their worship, the Sabbath was designed as a day in which Israel would praise God for liberating them from Egypt. In regards to their rest, it was designed as a day in which Israelites would rest from their regular work.
The New Testament treatment of a day of rest and worship, however, differs from the Old Testament Sabbath. Jesus performed variety of works on the Sabbath that provoked anger from the religious leaders of his day; he healed a crippled man (Mk 3:2-5), a hunchbacked woman (Lk 13:11-17), a man with chronic swelling (Lk 14:2-4), and a man who had been sick for thirty-eight years (Jn 5:5-9). Jesus and his disciples picked grain in the fields on the Sabbath (Mk 2:24; 12:1-8). Likewise, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for allowing their oxen to drink on the Sabbath but rebuking a woman for accepting healing for her chronic illness (Lk 13: 15-16).
In like manner, the New Testament authors rebuke those people who would think that humans were made for the Sabbath; instead, the Sabbath is made for humans. In the New Testament era as well as the Old Testament era, the Sabbath was meant not to burden humanity but to liberate us. Further, the New Testament writers acknowledge that the normal Christian day of rest and worship—the Lord’s Day—is Sunday in honor of the Lord Christ’s resurrection.
Thus, we can see that the fourth commandment mixes a universal with a particular. It seems that God built into humanity the need to engage in a rhythm of work and rest, and that a day of rest would naturally be a day of worship also. In that sense, the fourth commandment is universal. However, the Sabbath that Israel observed was specially designed for the Ancient Near Eastern nation of Israel and should not be confused with the Christian Lord’s Day. The Christian Lord’s Day involves, first, a devotion of the day to God. It is a day designed to allow us to rest and worship. Second, it is a day in which we let go of our ordinary work. If a Christian’s job—doctor, police officer, soldier, waiter, etc.—requires work on Sunday, he or she should try somehow to make that day a day of rest and worship and perhaps devote a different portion of the week to rest and worship. Third, it is an especially opportune time to extend the love of Christ to others by, for example, inviting them into our home for a meal or enjoying conversation or leisure with them.
Socially and politically, the Lord’s Day offers Christians an irreplaceable opportunity to bear witness to Christ’s kingship. Every time the church gathers around Word and Table, it is making a profound declaration: Jesus is Lord (and Caesar is not!). Once a week, we worship the Lord in a special way, together as his church, reminding ourselves and the world around us that the true King of the whole world is none other than Jesus the Christ. For our own benefit and for the benefit of the world around us, therefore, let us not forsake the Lord’s Day.