Reflections – FTP series on Christian Ethics 4 : Rightly obeying the Sabbath commandment

Reflections – FTP series on Christian Ethics 4 : Rightly obeying the Sabbath commandment

The Fourth Commandment on Sabbath-keeping is unique in that the reason for the Commandment is different at the time of its original giving at Mount Sinai (Exo 20:8-11) and at the time Moses restated the Commandments to a new generation of Israelites just before they entered the Promised Land (Deu 5:12-15). In the first passage, the reason is stated as, “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day.”, whereas in the second, the reason is, “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.”

The first reason tells us that God gave the Sabbath as a gift of rest to His people (Exo 23:12). Just as God rested from creation, His people were to rest from their work. The Sabbath was to be kept even in seasons when the people were tempted to be busy at work (Ex 31:21). In addition, no one under their charge was to do work on their behalf. The enforced rest of the day was a reminder that every material blessing God’s people had ultimately come unearned from His grace, not from their labour. Every Sabbath was to be kept as an expression of trust in God’s provision.

The second reason tells us that the Sabbath was also a gift of freedom to His people. God saved them from slavery in Egypt – when the Israelites had no choice but to work without ceasing. So, in the Sabbath God not only reminded His people that He was their Creator, but also their Redeemer. The physical freedom He had provided was to be reflected in spiritual freedom in His presence. God made the day ‘blessed’ and ‘holy’, to be ‘kept’ to Him. So the reason why those who kept it were blessed was because they kept a holy focus on God.

The Sabbath was also a sign of God calling and setting apart His people for holiness. It was a sign of their special relationship to Him. (Exo 31:12–13, Eze 20:12).

Some Christians believe that they should continue to keep a Sabbath on Saturday. Others regard Sunday as the new day to keep the Sabbath, and still others do not keep the Sabbath at all, but celebrate Sunday in its own right. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, believed in the second position. He said, “I still conceive that God hath not yet repealed his command touching the Sabbath, nay, and that He never will, till the Great Sabbath begins.”

Jesus claimed to be “Lord of the Sabbath”. He often went out of His way to heal and to point to a new way of looking at the Sabbath commandment. (Mk 2:23–28, Mat 12:1-12, Lk 6:1–5, Jn 5:16-18). He said that His living presence meant that the Sabbath was for expressing His rule and authority, not Moses’ (Mat 12:6). Paul explicitly tells us that the Sabbath commandment is a ‘shadow’ that was fulfilled in Christ, just like dietary laws (Col 2:16-17), and that Christians no longer need to observe special days as the Jews did. (Rom 14:1–15:6, Gal 4:10-11). Christians find our true Sabbath rest in Christ (Mt 11:28, Heb 4:9-10). We have entered and enjoy our true Sabbath rest now, and we will yet enter it to enjoy it in its fullness. Earthly Sabbaths point to the final Sabbath of heaven, where there will be fullness of blessing, holiness, rest, fellowship and intimacy with God.

So, while we are not required to keep the Sabbath as the Jews did, we are required to apply its fulfilment in Christ to our lives now. We must still take care to rest, trust, and find freedom and blessing in God’s presence. The Sabbath Commandment challenges us to set aside one day a week as special, just like the practice of tithing challenges us to set aside 10% of our income. Both practices are blessed spiritual disciplines that involve sacrifice, come with promised blessings, and are evidence of trust in our Heavenly Father. The Sabbath is a gift for us, but it is also a test for us, because in it we are to delight in God and not please ourselves.  We are reminded that our work is not to be an idol that enslaves us or determines our identity and worth. Instead, a rest and trust in Christ must fill all our work.

So one day a week, Christians should set aside our need to work and find restoration of our spirits, refreshment (not just entertainment!) of our minds and nurture for our bodies. On this day we should especially appreciate our family and friends and guard against anything or anyone that would make the day unholy. And of course, we should enjoy worshipping God in the company of His people!