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The Sabbath Command and the 21st Century Christian

Deuteronomy 5:12–15 – God: The Center of it All – April 19, 2020


Wake County has extended the stay-at-home order through the end of the month. That was a disappointment to me. I had hoped for some reprieve. Lord willing, our knowledge of COVID will increase and our ability to treat it will be more successful in the near future.

The good news about this season is we’re hearing about people able to participate in our Sunday service that haven’t been able to for a while. Or people out of the area. Welcome!

If you have prayer needs…want to get connected to a small group…facing financial needs with COVID, let us know. Go to the website and contact us…


This morning we step into the deep end of the theological pool. This is by far the most difficult of the Ten Commandments. The NT is crystal-clear with the other nine that there’s no great difference between the testaments. “No other gods before me” in the OT; “no other gods” in the NT. “You shall not murder” in the OT; “you shall not murder” in the NT. The commandments are intensified but not changed in any significant way.

But with the 4th commandment, the waters get muddy. When you look at Jesus in the gospels it seems there’s no change at all to the Sabbath. But when you read Paul, it seems there’s a new understanding.

Among Christian thinkers down through history there are different understandings. Even within our eldership there are differences. Friday morning we had a lively debate. There’s overlap on key issues among the elders with the Sabbath, but some differences. Not in the basic picture of the weekly pattern for the Christian. We all feel there should be weekly rest and weekly worship. But how we might make the case is different.

So, welcome to the deep end! Life preservers are available if you need them…

This morning we’ll start by looking at the 4th Commandment itself. And then we’ll begin to think through how a 21st century Christian should apply it. 

Let’s pray.

I. The Words of the 4th Commandment

First let’s look at the command itself. From Deuteronomy 5.

“ ‘Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. 15 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deut 5:12–15)

Some observations from how this commandment is worded in Deuteronomy:

  • First, don’t miss the fact that the command speaks of a WEEK, a 7-day cycle of days. We take that for granted. The Jews were the first ancient people to speak this way. The Egyptians had a 10-day week. A day and a year are defined by the sun. A month by the moon. But a week? That’s God-given revelation.
  • “…as the LORD your God commanded you” reminds us that this is not the first time the LORD has given this command. Remember, the 10 Commandments are given originally at Mt. Sinai in Exod 20. That was 40 years earlier.
  • Then, notice that’s a double command. It’s not just a command to rest, it’s also a command to work: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.”
  • Notice, too, that the command is given to heads of households. They’re instructed to give a day of rest to everyone they’re responsible for. This is a radical idea. Not just your relatives but also your animals and servants—“male servant or your female servant…or the sojourner who is within your gates.”
  • That’s important. The wealthy and powerful have always been able to rest when they wanted. They want a nap? They take a nap. But for slaves and laborers? They work when they have to. Which is typically all the time. They wake up and it’s a workday.
  • The idea of giving the whole culture a day off, whether rich or poor, weak or powerful, that’s a radical idea. This is a humane and generous gesture.
  • And don’t miss the motivation: “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.” Remember who you were and be kind to others in a similar position. Remember who you were and what the LORD has done! Redemption!
  • In Exod 20 they were to rest on the Sabbath because God rested on the 7th day at Creation. The Sabbath for the Jews was to be a weekly reminder of Creation and Redemption.

II. The Sabbath in the Old Testament

When we consider the Sabbath in the OT we need to go back to Genesis 2:

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2 And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done.

3 So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. (Gen 2:1–3)

God rested because he was finished, not tired. In resting God models for us a pattern of work and rest, working 6 days and resting 1 day. Because he is the feature of the 7th day and no one and nothing else, when he rested he also “blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” It was set apart for divine rest. We’ll come back to this.

There isn’t any mention of the Sabbath until the book of Exodus. But beginning there it takes on great importance in Israel’s ongoing life.

In Exodus it’s called a “sign of the covenant”:

 “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you. 14 You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. (Exod 31:13–14)

Within the old covenant, the Sabbath was “a sign” to mark out that Israel was God’s special people. The Lord set them apart. Part of reminding themselves of being set apart was this special day set aside each week.

But also see the seriousness of the Sabbath. To “profane” the Sabbath by doing work on it was a capital crime. The obligation to rest and remember was serious. This day was not for “business as usual.” This day was to be set aside for the Lord.

Then in Leviticus 23 we’re told the Sabbath was to be a “holy convocation.” A gathering of the people of God. They were to gather and do no work. Numbers tells us this holy convocation included specific offerings (28:9–10). And Psalm 92 is called a “Song for the Sabbath,” so the Sabbaths included worship.

The Old Testament gives us this basic shape to the Sabbath:

  • Weekly day of rest; work was strictly forbidden
  • There was a gathering of the people of God that included offerings and worship

The rest of the OT will show that Israel didn’t keep the Sabbath like they should have. They got greedy and treated it as a day of “business as usual.” Nehemiah and the prophets had strong words to speak against those who “profaned the Sabbath” in this way. Notice, the issue isn’t playing games or watching football on the Sabbath. The issue was forgetting God and going after the god of money, giving in to a 7-day work-week.

Then we fast-forward a few centuries to the NT. A lot has changed and we don’t really know how.

III. Jesus the Lord of the Sabbath

When Jesus begins his ministry he’s often in a synagogue on the Sabbath. Scholars aren’t really sure about how or why the pattern of gathering in synagogues began, but it’s assumed that it’s connected to Israel’s captivity in Babylon.

In the time of Christ the Pharisees were careful to keep the Sabbath but also seemed to miss the point. They wrote pages and pages of laws about what not to do. E.g., If a wall fell on a person, you could remove enough of the wall to see if the person was alive. But you couldn’t remove the person from the pile until the Sabbath was over.

Jesus would have none of this. The Pharisees questioned the disciples performing the simple act of plucking grain because they were hungry. Jesus shot back that they didn’t understand the word of Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Mat 12:7).

They quibbled over his healings on the Sabbath. Jesus shot back with, “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matt 12:12).

Mark 2:27–28 summarizes the view of Jesus:

And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27–28 

There’s no record in Jesus’ ministry of him ever speaking or acting against a typical Jewish Sabbath.

IV. From Sabbath to Lord’s Day

Once Jesus rises from the dead, however, things get more complicated. All four gospel writers record this fact about Jesus’ resurrection: It happened on “the first day of the week” (Matt 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1). That phrase is only used five times total in the gospels and all five relate to resurrection Sunday and one resurrection appearance of Jesus (John 20:19). He was in the tomb on the Sabbath, but then Sunday came and he rose. That was a new day, a new week had come. It was “the first day of the week.”

This seems to have changed forever the calendar for the people of God. Just like the birth of Christ changed our calendars from BC to AD, so his resurrection changed our week from being focused on a Saturday day of rest to a Sunday day of celebration.

For the first time in 1500 years the people of God began to gather on the 1st day of the week, the day Jesus was raised:

On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. (Acts 20:7)

On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. (1 Cor 16:2)

I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet (Rev 1:10)

Early Christians would go to synagogues on the Sabbath to evangelize Jews, but they gathered on Sunday the Lord’s Day as the church.

Eventually the church would combine the ideas of Sabbath and the Lord’s Day and speak of them both as Sunday occurrences. But that wouldn’t happen until Constantine in the 4th century.

The first generation of the church wanted to distinguish these two ideas.

In Colossians 2 you get the clearest statement on this.

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Col 2:16–17)

I think the key here is to remember Moses said the Sabbath was a “sign of the covenant” made at Mt. Sinai. Their weekly work stoppage was a weekly reminder of the covenant with Moses. Once that covenant was replaced by the new covenant it makes sense that the sign of the covenant would also pass away.

But the Sabbath command still speaks. Let’s see how.

V. The Sabbath and the 21st Century Christian

(1) Hear the Promise of God’s Rest and Enter it Through Christ.

In Hebrews 4 the author takes up this idea of God’s rest. And he tells us that God’s rest on the 7th day of creation is a rest that we will one day enter. We enter that rest through faith in Jesus Christ. If we don’t believe we’ll never enter that rest. But through faith we will:

So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10 for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. (Heb 4:9–10)

There is a rest for the people of God, but it’s a gospel rest. It’s a rest that “remains.” A rest we will one day enter. A rest we will experience in full when we are with Christ. This is a time for working. One day we will enter his rest in full.

If you’re a single-mom and feeling the exhaustion of doing it all yourself. If you’re battling chronic pain. Or a difficult relationship that isn’t likely to change in this life. Know that there is a rest coming for you. A complete, an unending rest.

But this is a case of the Already and Not Yet. Not Yet do we have this rest in full. But Already we can experience it. Remember Jesus’ invitation to us:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:28–30)

Jesus says, “I will give you rest.” Not someday, but now. There is “rest for your souls” right now. It’s a rest that we experience from Christ by faith.

(2) Model Your Life after God Himself and Rest Weekly.

God’s rest on the 7th day isn’t just a statement about a future, eschatological rest. It also represents for us a model for how to live.

God himself shows us that finishing all your work in six days and resting on the 7th is how we should live. A 7-day work week is occasionally necessary, but long-term it’s a recipe for disaster. It’s a sign that your life is out of control.

Work is only one piece of our lives, but when we live out a 7-day work-week we lose sight of that. It becomes our whole life.

With a 7-day work-week all the other God-given responsibilities in our life begin to fade. All that’s left is the false god of work. Occasionally it’s necessary. But we’re not made to do that. We need that weekly rest to remember who we are and who we belong to and remember the point of work.

Just like daily we need to pray and to read our Bibles to live the life God wants us to live, so we need weekly to pull away from the press of life to refocus and refresh.

And especially when we have the responsibility to set the work schedules of others, we need to be reasonable and kind and make allowance for this weekly rest.

But the last point is what is absolutely the central emphasis in the NT when it comes to this whole discussion:

(3) Gather with the People of God on the Lord’s Day.

This is the great emphasis in the NT. The Lord’s Day is the day of gathering with the people of God. Where 90% of what’s written in the OT about the Sabbath speaks to not working and maybe 10% speaks to what Israel is to do on the Sabbath gathering, almost 100% of what’s written in the NT about the Lord's Day of the gathering of the people of God.

But even saying this we have to be careful. The early church met together often. The Lord’s Day was the high point but not the only gathering.

In Acts 2 we get this snapshot from Luke about the first church:

And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:46–47)

The Lord’s Day isn’t the only day, it’s the starting point.

When the church gathers it’s an explosion of Spirit-empowered ministry:

  • Singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs
  • Reading and teaching and preaching the Bible
  • Prayers are lifted up for those in government, the sick
  • Money is collected for church leaders, church workers, people in need, widows
  • Spiritual gifts happen as the presence and power of God is experienced—prophecies, speaking in tongues, the interpretation of tongues, words of knowledge, words of wisdom
  • People are baptized in the Spirit as others lay hands on them and pray for them
  • The gospel is preached and people are converted
  • The Lord’s Supper is taken, our regular remembrance of our redemption and his future return
  • General fellowship and expressing affection and caring for one another happens—“Greet one another with a holy kiss” (1 Thess 5:26 et al).

We want the Lord’s Day to be something like what Paul says in 1 Cor 14:26:

What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. (1 Cor 14:26)

The Lord’s Day is like a weekly potluck where everyone brings their special Spirit dish of grace. When we come we get to feast on the Lord and receive that nourishment.

It’s true God is with us wherever we go, whatever we’re doing when we are his. We’re never alone!

But there’s a special blessing on the gathered people of God. He works in us and through us in mysterious but real ways when we gather together.

I believe that’s true even this very moment. We’re not physically together because of this COVID Exile. But through technology and our commitment to one another it’s happening even now. Gathering for this 75-minute streaming service simultaneously throughout this area has a blessing on it that’s different than each of us watching it on our own throughout the week.

It’s not the same as what we’ll experience in a few weeks when we can gather again, but it’s real.

Amen. Let’s pray.