Now that most of the farmers in this congregation have worked on Sunday, I thought it would be a good time to make them feel guilty by speaking about Sabbath keeping. I am kidding! In fact, I find myself in an interesting spot. I think this may be the first year that I have actually felt like I could bless the farmers as they went out to harvest on Sunday afternoon. At the same time, I believe that most of us are missing out on what God truly intends for us in regard to Sabbath keeping. I wonder whether we really get it. Now you may think that this is crazy talk, but let me explain from Scripture. The key text which will guide our thinking is Mark 2:27, where Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
To begin with, let us review the Biblical history of Sabbath keeping.
It begins right after creation in Genesis 2:2-3 where we read, “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.”
After completing creation, God stopped working and initiated the pattern which He intended for His creation, a pattern of working for 6 days and then taking a day of rest on the seventh day. There are two important ideas which we need to take note of in this passage. One is that the seventh day was intended as a day of rest. If God, who needs no rest, chose to take a day of rest, then surely we also need to follow His example. The other concept is that it was to be a holy day. The word holy means set apart. So God’s initial intention was that there should be one day in the week on which people rest and which they set aside as a special day, different from all the rest.
Many years later when God made a covenant with his people, Israel, he gave them the Ten Commandments. They were the rules by which he expected them to live in relationship with Him. One of the Ten Commandments also has to do with Sabbath keeping. In Exodus 20:8-11 we read, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 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, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
Once again we find the same two ideas about Sabbath as we found in Genesis. Once again the people are taught that it was to be a holy day. God also repeated that it was to be a day of rest and that rest was not limited to them, but also extended to their servants and their animals.
In the history of the people of Israel, there continued to be a consciousness of Sabbath keeping, but there was also a lot of disobedience regarding this command. The people of Israel disobeyed God in many ways. They worshipped other gods, they opened themselves up to idolatry, and among their many other sins, they did not keep the Sabbath.
Because of this failure to obey, God sent the prophets to warn them that He would judge them. Several of the prophetic books mention failure to keep the Sabbath as one of the causes of their coming destruction. For example, in Jeremiah 17:21-23 we read, “This is what the Lord says: Be careful not to carry a load on the Sabbath day or bring it through the gates of Jerusalem. 22 Do not bring a load out of your houses or do any work on the Sabbath, but keep the Sabbath day holy, as I commanded your forefathers. 23 Yet they did not listen or pay attention; they were stiff-necked and would not listen or respond to discipline.”
They did not listen to God and as a result the nation was destroyed and many of the people were exiled to Babylon. For 70 years they stayed in this foreign land, but after that time, God allowed them to return to the land of promise. When they went back they rebuilt the temple and the walls around Jerusalem. They re-established worship of God in Israel and were determined to follow God. However, it wasn’t very long after they returned that they once again began to desecrate the Sabbath. Nehemiah 13:15-22 describes their failure and Nehemiah’s great concern. He recognizes their sin in verse 15, “In those days I saw men in Judah treading winepresses on the Sabbath and bringing in grain and loading it on donkeys, together with wine, grapes, figs and all other kinds of loads. And they were bringing all this into Jerusalem on the Sabbath. Therefore I warned them against selling food on that day.” He goes on in verses 17, 18 to warn them of the terrible consequences if they persist in this sin. He says, “I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this wicked thing you are doing—desecrating the Sabbath day? 18 Didn’t your forefathers do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity upon us and upon this city? Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath.” The great concern was that although they had returned to the land, had they really returned to the Lord? Failure to keep the Sabbath was an indication that they had not and Nehemiah’s concern was that they would once again be subject to God’s wrath.
Over the next four hundred years, it seems that Sabbath keeping developed into a deeply held value. By the time Jesus came along, we discover in his interactions with them that they were very strict about keeping the Sabbath. In fact, they had defined every detail of life so that they would know whether any action was a violation of Sabbath keeping or not. They spoke of a “Sabbath day’s journey” which was a distance of about 7/8 of a mile which defined how far you could travel on a Sabbath day. They had defined every detail of what it meant to work even declaring that boiling water on Sabbath was work that should not be done. So, no hot coffee on Sunday!
However, in the interactions with Jesus, we see that the question is really the same one raised by Nehemiah. They had returned to Sabbath keeping, but had they returned to God?
Why was it that Jesus came into such violent conflict with the Pharisees on this issue that they determined to kill him because in their view he was violating the Sabbath laws?
But Jesus had not come to rebel against God or God’s law. In fact the Bible tells us that Jesus came to fulfill the law, so we need to listen carefully to what He has to say in order to understand what God’s intention was for the Sabbath. We get some idea of what Jesus was saying in the many Sabbath conflicts He had with the Pharisees. This morning we will look at one of those passages, Mark 2:23-3:6. This passage, reorients our thinking to what God intended Sabbath keeping to be. His critical points are: that Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath, that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath and that it is right to do good on the Sabbath and not evil.
Before we take a little more time to think about how Jesus reorients our thinking about Sabbath, let us complete our review of the Biblical history of Sabbath keeping. What happened after Jesus left and the church was started?
We find that Jewish Christians continued to meet on the Sabbath, but there is also evidence that a shift was beginning to take place. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia indicates that “conclusive evidence for widespread Sunday observance is not found until the 2nd century.” However, there are hints that Christians began meeting on the first day of the week. Acts 20:7 indicates that on the first day of the week Paul met with the believers at Troas to break bread together, which is likely a reference to communion. In I Corinthians 16:1, Paul encouraged the Christians in that church to set aside some of their income on the first day of the week. Revelation 1:10 speaks of John’s vision which took place on the Lord’s Day.
Right from creation, Sabbath has meant seventh day rest. It prescribed a rest after the work had all been completed. But the resurrection of Jesus took place on the first day of the week. The idea is that instead of designating a holy day after work has been completed, the early Christians designated a holy day at the beginning of the week, recognizing that Christ rose on this day and that we go out to serve God with the assurance that Jesus has completed the work of sins forgiven and with the confidence of living in the resurrection.
Most Christians have continued this pattern of making the first day of the week a holy day.
This is a brief history of Sabbath keeping in the Bible. The question is, “what does it mean for us?” I believe that the words of Jesus in Mark 2:27 help us understand how we ought to observe Sabbath. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
Jesus said this to the Pharisees who, by their behavior demonstrated that they believed that man was made for the Sabbath. What were they thinking? They were thinking that Sabbath is the most important thing there is and if we are to be pleasing to God, we must obey the laws of Sabbath keeping.
In a number of places in Scripture and especially in the words of Jesus we find out how wrong this perspective is. Already in the prophets, God had declared his hatred of legalism. In Hosea 6:6, God says, “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” The heart of God towards us was never intended to give us the impression that the things He tells us to do are to be a burden to us. God never intended that keeping Sabbath was to be something which only allowed us to travel 7/8 of a mile on Sabbath. God’s requirement of those who follow Him has always been that He wanted us to show mercy and to make a place for Him.
In John 5:17, Jesus pointed out that God Himself violates His own law when He said, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.” God rested on the seventh day, but when people sinned, God began a new work, which He has been doing ever since and that is the work of salvation.
A further problem with legalistic Sabbath keeping is that it opens one up to the charge of hypocrisy. If God’s intention is that people must keep Sabbath at all cost, there is not a single person, not even a Pharisee who has not violated that law. Jesus pointed out to them in Luke 13:15, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water?” So a teacher, who marks papers on Sunday, or a student who does homework, or a preacher who gives a sermon is hypocritical if he accuses a farmer who harvests on Sunday of wrongdoing.
Sadly, it isn’t only the Pharisees who have had this perspective. Somehow it seems that this legalistic perspective of what it means to keep Sabbath is very common in the church. I know that I have embraced it and have done exactly what Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing. Many years ago when my brother was not a believer, he asked me one Sunday to take him water skiing. I still cringe when I remember that I refused because, at the time, I did not think it was right to do this form of recreation on Sunday. It was not compassionate and it was certainly hypocritical.
If man was made for the Sabbath as legalistic observance would suggest, then observing Sabbath is really easy. There are only two questions we need to ask in order to keep it. We only need to ask, “did I work?” and “did I go to church?” If we can say yes, we can satisfy ourselves that we have done what God wants and go on our merry way doing as we please.
But Jesus condemns this kind of thinking because he says “man was not made for the Sabbath.” Instead he says, “The Sabbath was made for man.” What does Jesus mean by that? Does He mean anything goes? John Piper says, “So Jesus didn't come to abolish the Sabbath but to dig it out from under the mountain of legalistic sediment, and give it to us again as a blessing rather than a burden.”
I suggested that if man was made for the Sabbath, we only had to ask two simple questions. However, if the Sabbath was made for man, that doesn’t make Sabbath keeping any easier. In fact, instead of having to answer two simple questions, we need to answer four much more difficult questions. If we listen carefully to all that Scripture says about Sabbath keeping and especially the words of Jesus, we will need to ask these four questions: Is it a day of blessing? Is it a day of rest? Is it a day for God? And is it a day to do good?
If the Sabbath was made for man, that implies that God intended it as a day of blessing for us. There have always been people who have understood that. Dorothy C. Bass, writing from a Jewish perspective in an online article said, “In observant Jewish homes, Shabbat begins each Friday night at sundown as a woman lights the Sabbath candles. It is a festive time; people dress up, the best tableware and food are presented, guests are welcomed. In some families, everyone turns toward the door, singing to greet Shabbat, which Jewish hymns personify as a loving bride who brings inner delight and as a beautiful queen who gives order and peace.”
I like that imagery of Sabbath as “a loving bride who brings inner delight and as a beautiful queen who gives order and peace.” That is what God intends Sabbath to be, a day of blessing. How much more should those of us who know that our salvation is secure in Christ embrace a day on which we receive the blessing of God in our life!
What makes one day a week a special day of God’s blessing? I have often told people, you have God’s permission not to work on Sunday. Certainly a change of pace and relief from work is part of the blessing.
But how else can this day be received as a blessing from God? Is it not also a day of blessing when we use it to remind ourselves that our salvation is accomplished as we recall that Jesus rose from the dead and is living today?
I believe that the statement that “the Sabbath was made for man” also answers the question of combining on Sunday. Is it a day of blessing, a gift from God, to sit in the house in late September and see a perfect harvest day slip through our fingers knowing it will rain on Monday?
If we receive Sunday as a gift from God, it will be a day of blessing. Isaiah 58:13, 14 speaks of the Sabbath as a delight and promises us that if we will keep it we will find joy.
So if we want to truly keep Sabbath the way God intends, we need to ask ourselves, “Is there a time in my life, a day in my week which I receive as a blessing from God?”
From the very beginning one purpose God had for the Sabbath was that it was to be a day of rest. God rested and repeatedly in the Old Testament, God told the people that they were to keep this day as a day of rest. This also is a part of the blessing which God intended for His people.
It is a blessing simply because of the rest we are permitted. Our bodies are not made for constant work. God has built us with a fundamental inefficiency. We need rest from time to time. We need a daily time of sleeping and we need a weekly time of disengaging from our work. If every day is the same tedious routine without any break, if we work and work from morning to night and never have a break from that steady, driving drudgery, where is the blessing in that? Blessing comes from a rhythm in life. Days of intense work and days of rest. You can’t have either one or the other all the time. Receiving a day of rest from God is an opportunity to disengage so that the work we do will be more effective. That is the blessing of God!
It is also a blessing because rest forces us to reorient our understanding of life. If we work 7 days a week, it is easy to live under the illusion that we control our own destiny. Rest reminds us that God is the one who actually blesses us with all that we have. Receiving a day of rest from God is a gift which teaches us to recognize that all we have is from Him and we receive it as a blessing.
If we are to keep Sabbath as God intends, we need to ask ourselves, “Is there a space for rest in my week?” Do I always put out or do I receive a day of rest as a gift from God?
A third concept which the Bible teaches us is that the Sabbath is to be a holy day. Jesus reinforced this idea when he said that “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” This means that it must be a day to focus on Jesus.
This raises a question about Sunday that we may find a little uncomfortable. Have we really made it a day for God if all we do is attend one hour of church in the morning?
Because of its close connection to creation, Sabbath is a perfect opportunity to focus on God as Creator.
In the Deuteronomy version of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5:15, we read, “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” In this passage, Sabbath is commanded as a day to remember God’s salvation. And what a wonderful salvation we have to remember!
We don’t want to become legalistic again, but Piper points out that “Many professing Christians enjoy sports and television and secular books and magazines and recreation and hobbies and games far more than they enjoy direct interaction with God in his Word or in worship or in reading Christian books or in meditative strolls.” That is why we need one day in the week where we shift our focus back to God.
So the third question we need to ask is, “Is there a place in my world, a day in my week which I dedicate specifically to focusing on God?”
Jesus added one other aspect of Sabbath keeping when he challenged the Pharisees by asking them in Mark 3:3, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil…” Of course, He was challenging their notion that man was made for the Sabbath, but in doing so, He also presents the opportunity to truly make doing good a focus of our life.
So the last question we need to ask is, “Is there a space in my life, a day in my week when I think about and engage in doing good?”
Jesus never kept Sunday as a holy day! He did however, observe the Sabbath, which refers to Saturday. The early church began to shift to the first day of the week. That suggests to me that the specific day may not be all that important. Paul also suggests that in Colossians 2:16, 17 when he says, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”
If we want to observe a true Sabbath, we will need to focus on the reality which is found in Christ. That is why we will have to stop asking the simple questions, “did I work?” and “did I go to church?” Instead, we will need to think about the questions Jesus invites us to consider when He tells us that the Sabbath was made for man. Is there a space in our life, a day in our week which we receive as a blessing from God? Is there a time in our life, a day in our week when we completely disengage and enjoy rest from our labours? Is there space in our life, one day when our hearts are focused on God? Is doing good something that gets at least some appropriate attention each week?
Understanding that the Sabbath was made for man brings an invitation for us to re-think Sabbath keeping in our life. It invites us to ask, “What kind of changes will I need to make in order to truly receive the gift of Sabbath which God has given me?