Larry E. Wilson
Years ago at a church I served, the Lord did a noticeable work of grace during our evening worship. After the service, which included Communion, people talked for a long time—even longer than normal. And it wasn’t just idle chit-chat, but encouraging, edifying, God-centered Christian fellowship.
The Lord had drawn us closer to himself and to each other through his Supper. It was like a taste of heaven, and no one wanted to leave. Finally, a teenager said, “Let’s go get pizza!” So we went, ate together, and kept up our fellowship.
I used that evening as a sermon illustration some time later. I was trying to demonstrate to the listeners that our Lord uses his Supper to renew our covenant bond both with himself and with our fellow Christians. I told the story to encourage us to expect that the Lord will use the Supper to impact our relationships.
But, to my dismay, my mention of where we ate after the service supplanted my point! Instead of rejoicing that God uses the Supper as a means of grace, many began faulting me for going out to eat on Sunday. The irony was so thick you could cut it with a knife.
I should explain that at the time of that post-church pizza dinner, I was earnestly following a strict list of “don’ts” to keep the Lord’s Day holy. Following the Jewish pattern, our Sabbath lasted from evening to evening. Beginning with supper at 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, my family shut off the television, the radio, and all devices—with the exception of playing sacred music. We put away toys and games. We didn’t go out to eat, watch or play sports, or do many other things. We strictly observed this until after evening worship (which started at 7:00 p.m.). By the time we went out for pizza, we’d been keeping these strict don’ts for well over twenty-six hours. By our reckoning, the Sabbath was over.
However, I am now convinced that my whole approach at that time fell short. I had broken the Sabbath! But not by going out for pizza.
It’s not uncommon in our Reformed circles to stress what we should not do on the Lord’s Day. However, after studying the Gospels, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that such an approach resembles the Pharisees more than Jesus. While God framed most of the Ten Commandments in negative terms (“You shall not”), he framed the fourth commandment in positive terms (“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”). God emphasizes what we should do. To keep the day holy is not merely to set it apart from common days, but to do so in order to actively devote it to God and his purposes.
Our Lord gives us a weekly Sabbath to portray, give a taste of, and prepare us for, the eternal Sabbath. (See “A Sign of Hope” by Richard Gaffin, New Horizons, March 2003.) He reveals the underlying principle for this in Exodus 20:11, immediately following the command to remember the Sabbath:
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.
The principle is: imitate God. The reason we remember the Sabbath is because we are imitating God. Our Lord Jesus pointed out that he followed this very principle: “The Jews were persecuting Jesus because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working’ ” (John 5:16–17). Jesus insisted that he should do on his weekly Sabbath the kind of things his Father does in his everlasting Sabbath.
If we, too, are to imitate God, we must ask what kind of things does God do in his everlasting Sabbath—the rest that began at the end of creation and still continues (Heb. 4:1–11). (See “Why on Sunday” by O. Palmer Robertson, New Horizons, March 2003.)
First, God has fellowship with his people during his great rest (1 John 1:3). Above all, God calls us to fellowship with him in worship on our weekly rest day. He blessed the day and made it “holy” (specially devoted to him). Each Lord’s Day, we ought to draw near to our God as much as we can—in public, family, and secret worship.
Second, he meets with all his redeemed children. Accordingly, he calls us to assemble together each Lord’s Day, not only to worship him but also to fellowship with each other (Heb. 10:24–25). Since we belong to Christ, we belong to his body. Each of us not only needs but also is needed by our fellow believers. God uses Christian fellowship to encourage grace and discourage sin in us, which furthers our walk with the Lord.
Third, God rests during his great Sabbath period (Gen. 2:1). God also wants you to rest and be refreshed (Deut. 5:14).
Notice that Deuteronomy 5:14 also mentions families and servants. That’s because, fourth, God gives rest during his great rest day (that is, he shows mercy). God had already entered his rest when Adam and Eve sinned. Still, he put his whole plan of salvation into action. He keeps showing mercy. That’s why it’s important that we too show love and mercy (give rest) to others on the Lord’s Day. As we’ve seen, when Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, he insisted that it was actually he—and not his critics—who was following the principle of imitating God’s Sabbath activity.
A fifth activity God engages in—and therefore we should—is enjoying his creation (Gen. 1:31). We should use this enjoyment as a means to remember and enjoy God, not to forget and displace him.
Sixth, during his everlasting rest, God upholds all things by his powerful Word (Heb. 1:3). He does what’s needed to keep his creation from falling into chaos. Likewise, we do well on our weekly rest day to do works of necessity to maintain order.
You see, our God doesn’t give the Lord’s Day just for us to keep it empty. Rather, he gives it so we might fill it with the spiritual rest of enjoying our communion with God in Christ (Mark 2:27). Everyday life tends to overshadow our awareness of our rest in Christ. It tends to eclipse our enjoyment of it. It tends to make us seek the things below. And so our Lord graciously gives us rest stops—oases—on the path to glory.
He gives us the weekly Lord’s Day as an opportunity to seek the things above. That’s why keeping the Lord’s Day holy isn’t mainly a matter of don’ts. Rather, it’s mainly a spiritual activity of positively communing with and delighting in the Lord. If you earnestly dedicate yourself to filling the Sabbath with that kind of rest, then questions about what specific things you may or may not do tend more or less to sort themselves out. And they don’t demand the same answers for every person or every situation.
Maybe it would be helpful to regard doing certain things on the Lord’s Day as sins of omission (neglecting to pursue what we ought to pursue) rather than sins of commission (doing what we ought not to do). When our Lord tells us to stop our work for the day, it’s not because our work is somehow wrong. If it’s not wrong on another day, then it’s not wrong in and of itself on the Lord’s Day. But when you consider God’s purposes for the Lord’s Day, then you see that your work becomes wrong because it gets in the way of what you should be pursuing instead on that day.
The reason why we should empty the Lord’s Day of everyday things is so we might fill it with heavenly things. When we wonder whether we should or shouldn’t do something on the Lord’s Day, it might help to ask some practical questions: Will doing this help or hinder my embracing the Lord’s Day as a foretaste of the eternal Sabbath? Will doing this help or hinder my delight in the Lord and communing with him in worship? Will doing this help or hinder my pursuit of spiritually edifying fellowship with fellow believers? Will doing this help or hinder my cultivating an awareness that I’m a Christ-following pilgrim on the way to heaven?
Are we committed to treating the Lord’s Day as a “delight” (Isa. 58:13), as “the festive day of rest” (Heidelberg Catechism), as “the market day of the soul” (the Puritans)? Or, could we be breaking the Sabbath by emphasizing don’ts and duty more than dos and delight?
In time, the Lord convicted me that, in spite of my rules, I had been breaking the Sabbath. Yes, I’d diligently abstained from many things. But that still left me too much like the Pharisees who drew near to God with their lips while their hearts were far from him (Matt. 15:8–9). I hadn’t really devoted the day to seeking the Lord to commune with and delight in him. I repented. I’ve kept repenting. But, alas, I still fall short.
How liberating it is to know that our God loves and saves sinners! Our Savior’s blood and righteousness cleanses and covers our failure to keep the Sabbath as we ought. The Holy Spirit pours God’s love into our hearts to impart the delight the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have for each other.
How liberating it is to devote the Lord’s Day to delighting in the Lord and his redeemed children—even if imperfectly—by the grace of God in Christ!
The author is a retired OP minister. New Horizons, December 2018.