Have you ever felt confused by the Third Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy”?
Is this a law for us to keep? Do we keep this commandment by attending church on Sunday (instead of Saturday)? What does it mean to remember the Sabbath? Why is this even important to God?
I kind of understand God’s rationale behind the other commandments—such as “Do not commit murder”, or even “Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” But keeping the Sabbath? It seems kind of odd to have this seemingly “little” rule receive so much attention, and to be on par with the other 9 commandments.
And then, to add to the confusion, Jesus comes along in several stories (like Luke 6:6 and other places) doing “work” like healing, plucking grain and the like on the Sabbath—and thereby clearly engaging in activities that at least the experts in Jewish law thought were prohibited by the 3rd commandment.
We’ve probably heard how the Jews (perhaps out of good intentions, or perhaps to perpetuate a sense of self righteous elitism) enacted stricter laws that went beyond what God actually commanded. That makes sense, but does not seem to shed much light on the question, “What exactly IS it that God is commanding about the Sabbath?”
Being good Lutherans we could open Luther’s Small Catechism and read “We should fear and love God that we may not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred, and gladly hear and learn it.” OK, holding God’s Word as sacred, and hearing and learning it is good stuff—and (hopefully) we do this at Sunday morning worship.
But Exodus 20:8 seems pretty specific to me: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
I’m not saying that Luther is wrong, or misses the point or anything like that. I’m not saying that the editors of the 1943 edition of Luther’s Small Catechism were off track with questions and answers such as:
Q: “Did God command us Christians to observe any day?” A: “God did not command us Christians to observe any day.”
… and then providing references to back this up.
Romans 14:5-6 One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God.
Galatians 4:9-11 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain.
But I’ve always had a feeling that God’s command about the Sabbath had something more to it than just “take some time, whenever it is, to worship”, especially when I don’t see much of what we take for granted in public Christian worship described in Old Testament Israel.
Recently as I puzzled over the many questions I’ve had about the 3rd Commandment I was blessed with a glimmer of insight.
First, I read again the account from Genesis 2:1 of the original Sabbath day: “And by the seventh day God completed His work which He had done; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.”
Was God resting because he was tired? Somehow, I don’t think the omnipotent God gets tired.
Maybe I had been misunderstanding the word “rest”. Maybe the word “rest” as used in Genesis isn’t synonymous with “recuperate” or “rejuvenate”. So, lacking Hebrew linguistic skills, I clicked on the word “rest” (in Genesis 2:1) on my Pocket PC to pull up the Strong’s concordance information, and found the word “shaboath” had definitions like:
To cease, desist, brought to an end
What if God “rested” in the sense that he stopped working?
And why did he stop? Not because he was tired, but because his work was done. Creation was GOOD. Creation was complete.
Fast forward a few centuries to the hungry children of Israel in the desert. Our loving God provided food (manna) for them to eat, but made it clear that they should gather only as much as they could eat in a day—for the rest would spoil. (Exodus 16:19-22) The Israelites, being humans (and good Jews) figured they could save up a bit for the future anyway. They tried it, and sure enough by morning “it bred worms and became foul.”
“and Moses was angry with them. And they gathered it morning by morning, every man as much as he should eat; but when the sun grew hot, it would melt.”
Deuteronomy 8:3 provides us with some commentary on this manna: “And He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD
Manna was God’s direct providence and sustenance for Israel, but God used manna to teach trust in this providence and sustenance daily, continually. Very literally, the Israelites had to live with the knowledge that if God didn’t send the manna tomorrow morning, they would starve.
(On a side note, this is very much in the heart of what Jesus taught us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer when he said “Give us this day our daily bread.”—but I digress.)
So what does manna have to do with the Sabbath? Ah, the interesting exception to the “leave none of it to morning” rule was on the 6th day. On the 6th day, the Israelites were permitted to gather two days’ worth of food so they would have plenty to eat on the Sabbath.
Now it came about on the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers for each one. When all the leaders of the congregation came and old Moses, then he said to them, “This is what the LORD meant: Tomorrow is a sabbath observance, a holy sabbath to the LORD. Bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning.” So they put it aside until morning, as Moses had ordered, and it did not become foul, nor was there any worm in it. And Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a sabbath to the LORD; today you will not find it in the field. “Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, the sabbath, there will be none.” Exodus 16:22-26
God provided completely for the Israelites, even giving them surplus food to eat on the Sabbath.
So what’s the point? First, the Sabbath must have been important to God. But second, Israel is observing the Sabbath by “resting”—by being done with work—and enjoying and reflecting on the completeness of God’s providence.
Interestingly, Israel was commanded to “remember” (not observe) the Sabbath day, the Sabbath day in which God stopped working and recognized the completeness of his work.
Sabbath is a tribute to the completeness of God’s work. We honor the Sabbath when we remember that God created a perfect, “good” earth. We honor the Sabbath when we remember that God provides for us through his perfect completed work.
And what about for us Christians? Are we to remember the Sabbath day? Most certainly! We should remember God’s original Sabbath day, and the completeness of His work. And we have even more reason to do so:
When on the cross our Savior cried “It is finished” [John 19:30], God once again stopped his work, and acknowledged the completeness of that work. God’s creation had been redeemed, restored. When we Christians remember the Sabbath day, we remember the completeness of Christ’s work as well.
Armed with this understanding of Sabbath, other pieces then start dropping into place, like Hebrews 4:9-10:
There remains therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His.
And Jesus in Mark 2:27-28:
And He was saying to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Consequently, the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
It’s not that Jesus removed the obligation to remember the Sabbath, it’s that he instructed us that the whole point of remembering the Sabbath is not to do something for God, but to remember that God has done it ALL for you!
And finally, the icing on the cake: By choosing Sunday as our day to remember the Sabbath, we celebrate Christ’s glorious resurrection on that first day of the week, the day we saw tangible proof of God’s redemptive work in Christ.
And at the same time, there is a notion of an “eighth day”: the first day of Adam’s life in the Garden of Eden, and the first day our new life in Christ in which we “rest” secure in God’s beautiful creation (and re-creation), relishing the completeness of God’s work, acknowledging his perfect providence for us, and savoring our newly restored relationship with our Eternal God.
May we ever remember the Sabbath day.
Praise to the Lord, who o’er all things is wondrously reigning
And, as on wings of an eagle, uplifting, sustaining.
Have you not seen / All that is needful has been / Sent by His gracious ordaining?
Praise to the Lord, who will prosper your work and defend you;
Surely His goodness and mercy shall daily attend you.
Ponder anew / What the Almighty can do / As with His love He befriends you.