Today I’d like for us to think about something that’s not very much a part of Christianity today, but it used to be very important in American Christianity. It’s what’s called the Sabbath. We’ll look at what the Sabbath is, where it comes from, and how it developed in Christianity. By doing that I hope we’ll gain two things: I think there’s something important about the whole concept of the Sabbath that we often miss, and second, we’ll discover a completely different way of looking at what Christians call “God’s commandments.”
The word “sabbath” literally means “rest.” It comes from Judaism, and it originates in the Old Testament. The first mention of Sabbath in the Bible is in Exodus chapter 16. The Hebrews have left Egypt under the leadership of Moses, and they are in the wilderness. They have nothing to eat and complain to Moses that they are starving. And so God sends them quail every evening to eat, and when they get up each morning, manna, a bread-like substance, is lying on the ground. They are told to gather it each morning, but not to keep any for the next day. If they do, it will spoil. They get up the next morning, and there is the manna lying there. Some gather too much and try to keep it until the next day, but it spoils.
Moses tells them there will be no manna on the seventh morning. On the sixth morning, they are to gather enough for two days, and it will not spoil. So they did that. It didn’t spoil. Some went out on the seventh morning to gather manna, but none was there. Moses told them the seventh day was to be a day of rest, a Sabbath. That’s what Sabbath means—rest.
That’s the first mention of Sabbath in the Bible.
Later on in Exodus, we find the Sabbath as one of the Ten Commandments. It says, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.”
Again, notice the indication that the Sabbath is a day of rest. But there’s also something else. It says to keep the Sabbath “holy.” We might think of “holy” as connoting something associated with the divine, something sacred, but literally “holy” just means to keep something separate, different. So “holy” in connection with the Sabbath just means the Sabbath is to be different from the other days of the week, different in that there is to be no work done.
In both of the things we’ve looked at, there is nothing religious commanded that you have to do on the Sabbath. It’s described as a day of rest, and that’s all. That’s important to keep in mind.
In Exodus chapter 31, we find that the penalty for not resting on the Sabbath was death. Any kind of work at all, from cooking to even lighting fires, was considered a violation of the Sabbath. In the book of Numbers, God commanded that a man caught picking up sticks on the Sabbath be stoned to death. The books of Amos and Jeremiah indicate there was to be no business conducted on the Sabbath, no trading or buying of anything. The Sabbath was to be a day of complete rest for everyone. That’s the way it was supposed to be.
From other places in the Old Testament, we find that the people didn’t do that. Numerous passages from the prophets indicate that people regularly did as they pleased on the Sabbath and did not observe it as a day of rest.
So that’s the Old Testament. The Sabbath is supposed to be a day of rest, but it appears as if, for the most part, people didn’t necessarily take it seriously.
Moving on into the New Testament, to the Gospels, we see that some Jewish leaders in Jesus’ time placed great importance on observing the Sabbath. We have no indication of whether or not most people actually did rest on the Sabbath, but we do have indications that the Pharisees, one group of Jewish leaders at the time of Jesus, advocated complete rest on the Sabbath.
We also know from the Gospels, however, that Jesus Himself did not keep the Sabbath. We see Jesus healing on the Sabbath, and we see Jesus’ disciples harvesting grain on the Sabbath. When confronted about this, Jesus replied, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.”
That quote from Jesus formed the basis for the early Christian attitude toward the Sabbath. The early Christians saw that Jesus did not keep the Sabbath. They saw in the writings of Paul that Christians should not keep Jewish law. And so, in early Christianity, the belief was that Christians are under no obligation to keep the Sabbath as a day of rest.
From earliest times, Christians gathered on the first day of the week, not to in some way observe the Sabbath, but in commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection, since Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week. Those gatherings on the first day of the week are the origin of church services. Back then, Sunday was considered the first day of the week. Today, according to international standards, Monday is the first day of the week, but back then, Sunday was considered the first day.
So, Christians in early times did not necessarily keep the Sabbath as a day of rest; they set aside a day to commemorate Jesus’ resurrection. Remember, the belief in early Christianity was that Christians should not follow Jewish law, and keeping the Sabbath as a day of rest was seen as Jewish law. In fact, in the year 364, at a meeting of Christian leaders called the Council of Laodicea, Christians were told specifically not to keep the Sabbath as a day of rest. Christians went to church on Sundays, but, for the most part, they did not observe a religious Sabbath day of rest.
That continued up until the Protestant Reformation. Some of the leaders of the Reformation came up with the concept of what can be called the “Christian Sabbath.” John Calvin, a man we have talked about before, was the most influential Reformation leader, so we’ll talk about his idea. Calvin said that Christians should set aside one day per week, not as a Sabbath day of rest, but as a day devoted to being in church and studying and thinking about religion. Sundays should be a day devoted to religion, and you should do nothing “worldly” on Sundays.
Now of course, if you have a day devoted to religion, it goes without saying that you don’t work. But you don’t work because there’s something wrong with working on Sundays; you don’t work because Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest; you don’t work because if you work, you obviously can’t stay in church and think about religion all day. Calvin felt it was wrong to work on Sundays and wrong to transact business on Sundays, but not because Sunday was supposed to be a day of rest. He believed that because doing those things would mean you couldn’t devote the entire day to religion. It’s interesting to note that Calvin prohibited doing anything on Sundays that wasn’t religious. You weren’t supposed to play games or engage in any form of entertainment or recreation. You weren’t supposed to do anything on Sundays but church and religious things.
That is how the concept of not working on Sundays got into Protestant Christianity. It didn’t develop out of people trying to observe a Sabbath day of rest; it developed out of the idea that Sunday you should do nothing but religious things.
I remember years ago, in the place where I grew up, you didn’t wash your car on Sunday, mow your grass on Sunday, or anything like that. Very few places of business in the area were open. Some drug stores were open for a while on Sunday afternoons, and a few restaurants were open, but that was about it. I remember when the first two industrial plants from up north moved into this area back in the 1960’s. Those plants operated 24 hours per day, seven days per week, and that caused somewhat of a stir around here because they operated on Sundays. Some people considered it a disgrace.
However, the roots of that were not in the idea that Christians should observe a Jewish Sabbath as a day of rest. Its roots were in the idea that Sunday was a day set aside for religious things. Sunday, after all, was called “the Lord’s Day,” the day you should devote yourself exclusively to God. Of course, lot of people back then probably never realized that, and I think a lot of people today don’t realize that the idea of Sunday as “the Lord’s day” did not originate from the Jewish Sabbath custom of a day of rest. It originated from the idea developed during the Protestant Reformation that one day per week should be devoted exclusively to religious pursuits. We have John Calvin to thank for that.
And so really, this idea of not working on Sundays did not come from an attempt to keep one of the Ten Commandments; it came from the idea of John Calvin that you should devote one day a week, Sunday, exclusively to religious things.
You might have noticed something in your area that I’ve noticed in places around here. There are some convenience stores and other kinds of stores around here who post the Ten Commandments in their stores, but yet they’re open on Sundays. “Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work,” so says the Commandment, but here they are open on Sunday. There are churches around here that have the Ten Commandments engraved on stones in their church yards. They look like tombstones, but they have the Ten Commandments on them. And yet their members regularly pull out of the parking lot on Sunday after church and go straight to a restaurant to eat lunch. And then maybe they stop by Wal-Mart after lunch to do some shopping. Just by the fact that you go to a restaurant on Sunday and go shopping at Wal-Mart on Sunday means you are contributing to people having to work on Sunday. That would not make sense if you believed the Sabbath should be a day of rest. If you believed that, then there would be something intrinsically wrong with going to a restaurant or to a store on Sunday, because after all, what the commandment about keeping the Sabbath says that no one is to work on Sundays, not even your servants. We could extrapolate out in today’s terms and say that those who work at the restaurants and stores we visit on Sundays are the equivalent of our servants, so by going to a restaurant on Sunday, we are forcing someone else to work, which is a direct violation of one of the Ten Commandments.
But American Christianity, which descends primarily from John Calvin, in general doesn’t see anything intrinsically wrong with work on Sundays, because Calvin didn’t see the Sabbath as a day of rest. He saw a “Christian Sabbath,” one day per week that you should devote entirely to religion.
Now of course today, by far the great majority of Christians do anything they want to do on Sundays. They don’t look at Sunday as a day of rest, they regularly do all kinds of work on Sundays and don’t feel guilty about it. John Calvin’s idea of the “Christian Sabbath” obviously didn’t stick. The way people look at it today, if you went to church, you fulfilled your obligation and can do what you want to do the rest of the day.
I’m not one of those Christians who advocates following Jewish law, and I’m certainly not a follower of John Calvin, but I really think we need to reconsider ignoring the idea of a sabbath. But I don’t want us to consider it as a religious thing; I’d like for us to look at it purely as a practical thing.
Let’s think for a minute about God’s commandments. God has made a lot of commandments in the Old Testament—do this, don’t do that. We also find things in the New Testament that we’re not supposed to do. In the Old Testament, there are commandments against murder, adultery, stealing, lying, coveting. In the New Testament, in addition to those, we find things against greed, jealousy, swindling, drunkenness, fits of rage, enmity, rivalry, just to name a few. We’re not supposed to do those things.
There are two ways we can look at that. We could look at it like God is the rule-maker, and we have to play the game by God’s rules. God makes the rules, and we have to live by them whether we like them and agree with them or not. We don’t know why God made the rules like He did, maybe He just arbitrarily doesn’t like certain things, but it really doesn’t matter. All that matters is that God said to do this, so we do it; and God said not to do this, so we don’t do it. That’s a legalistic view, and it’s the view many Christians have.
But there’s another way you could look at it. Maybe God’s not the rule maker who makes rules for us to follow. Maybe all those commandments and lists of things to do and not to do are not God’s rules at all. Maybe it is that God can see the bad effects that come down the road from doing certain things, and the bad effects that come down the road from not doing certain things, and what God’s trying to do is warn us away from things that will be harmful to us in the long run and steer us toward things that will be good for us in the long run.
Maybe God can see much farther down the road than we do; maybe God sees the effects that come, in the long run, of doing certain things and not doing certain things, and that’s why God tells us not to do some things and to do other things. It’s not that He’s making rules for us to follow; it’s that He’s trying to guide us away from things He knows will be harmful in the long run and guide us toward things He knows will be good for us in the long run. Maybe we can’t see the long-term effects of things as well as God can. Maybe God can see the long-term effects of things better than we can, and what seems to be rules God made are really not God’s rules at all; they just represent God trying to guide us toward doing things that in the long run will be beneficial and warn us away from things that in the long run will be harmful.
That’s how I look at the Sabbath. I think we have lost something in the modern world, because people get very little rest, very little down time. I know a woman who lives in the eastern part of Germany, the part that used to be communist. She grew up under communism. And while she likes all the freedoms she has now that communism is gone, one of the things she does not like is the hectic pace of life and having less time for family and friends. Under communism, the pace of life was slower, and there was more time for family and friends. Today, there is more freedom, more money, and more material things, but the pace of life is so fast that they have little time for family and friends. Several people in the formerly communist part of Germany have told me basically the same thing.
When our lives consist of one thing after another, rushing from here to there to do this and that, it’s not good. We need some time to just rest, to disengage, and relax.
That’s what the Sabbath was originally for. God started the Sabbath not as a religious thing but only as a day of rest. It was only later that the religious bureaucrats got involved in it and made it into some kind of religious day. The original concept of the Sabbath was purely as a day of rest, a recognition that human beings need rest. It’s not good for us to have our noses to the grindstones seven days per week. We don’t need to be rushing from one thing to another seven days per week. We need a regular time to disengage from all that.
Maybe God sees how much we need that time to disengage, and that’s why He originally told the Hebrews to take one day out of seven to just rest. Maybe this is what Jesus meant when He said man was not created for the Sabbath but the Sabbath was created for man—we need rest.
I think God knew what He was doing when He created the Sabbath, and I think we’d all be better off, feel better, be healthier, and be happier, if we’d stop one day a week and rest.
But it’s hard…