Sabbath Rest -Do we need to keep Sunday special?

When I was growing up, there was still a strong emphasis on keeping Sunday as a special day, the Christian Sabbath.  In a lot of church cultures, the expectation was that you attended church at least twice, wore your Sunday best and that activities during the day were limited to those considered spiritually edifying.

Sunday trading was still restricted although there sport was increasingly encroaching on the day and there were various attempts to liberalise trading.  In response campaign groups including Keep Sunday Special and The Lord’s Day Observance Society (LDOS) had been set up to fight to protect the day not just because they saw a day of rest as a Christian necessity but because they considered it for the wider public benefit.

Times have changed, even the sternly named LDOS has long since been rebranded as DAY One with an emphasis on the publishing wing of the organisation.  Although there are still restrictions, shops open, many people have to work and the day has become effectively a second Saturday.

Furthermore, there have been theological changes too.  I suspect that a lot of what happened in the past felt like legalism to many and the result is that there has been a substantial reaction to this.  Foundational to the old approach was the belief that the Old Testament Law was divided up as follows

Civil Laws -applicable to Israel only

Ceremonial Laws – fulfilled in Christ

Moral Laws – of timeless application and crucial to today.

I’m not sure that this division is entirely helpful or that it accurately reflects the understanding of the people of Israel when they received it – or the Jews in Jesus’ day. However, this has been a common approach for many and remains so.  The point is this. The Ten Commandments were seen as the foundation of the moral code and therefore a Sabbath day was seen as a timeless moral requirement. The day had simply been transferred to Sunday from Saturday as a result of Christ’s resurrection.

However, I think that the prevailing view now would be that Sunday is not our Sabbath. This is underpinned by a theological argument that Sabbaths belong as part of the ceremonial law and not the moral law which makes this commandment’s inclusion in the Ten a bit of an outlier.

Now, here is my problem with that.  I look at the Ten Commandments and I notice something significant.  Here are the words:

“8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 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, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”[1]

You will notice that out of the 15 verses given over to the Ten Commandments, the Sabbath Law takes up four of them making it the standout longest commandment. Now, one way that Hebrew tends to show emphasis is by the amount of space given over to a matter. We are being asked to slow down and pay attention to this commandment. In other words, the 4th commandment is not some mere anomaly, a ceremonial law that has stumbled into the moral code. It is of central importance to the Ten Commandments.

Why would it be so important. Well I believe this relates to our understanding of rest. We think of rest as being about down time, sleep -and maybe some leisure activities, especially if they are of the sedentary kind like playing Call of Duty or watching Netflix.  However, notice that the command is rooted in God’s creative pattern that he rested on the 7th day.  Deuteronomy also links it to God’s act of liberation, bringing the people out of slavery.

Rest then is not about taking time off so much as it is about recognising the completion of something and enjoying its goodness. The whole community should enjoy it together with God. Similarly, the big celebrations such as harvest were forms of Sabbath. The idea is not just to take a day off but to come together to enjoy the fruits of your labour together and to praise God for his provision remembering that all good things come from him.

This explains why it makes sense to  have the Christian sabbath on a Sunday. This day marks the point when Jesus by rising from the dead shows that his salvific work is done. Jesus is now seated on his throne. Just as God’s sabbath meant enjoyment of his first creation, the new Sabbath marks enjoyment of the new creation.

Therefore, our Sabbath should be marked by a sense of coming together to enjoy God together. It should be a day to say thank you for his salvation and for his care for us. It should be a day to enjoy the fruits of Gospel labour together as we see those who have put their trust in Christ come together. I believe there is also a place for stopping to enjoy the fruits of our creation mandate work too. We will want to share with those in need by offering hospitality. We will want to give thanks to God for his goodness – “our daily bread” and we will celebrate the great events of life such as children being born, milestones accomplished and the provision of harvest.

The important thing is this. First that The Sabbath is good and important. Secondly that the Sabbath is meant to be enjoyed together.


[1] Exodus 20:8-11

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