Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Liberty of the Lord's Day

Texts: Exodus 20:8-11 & Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Colossians 2:13-17; Luke 13:10-17

LET ME SET A SCENE before your mind's eye:

It's Sunday in rural America, some time in the 19th century. A Presbyterian family is walking through the fields, on their way home from morning worship. One of the daughters says to her sister, "Milly, I do admire the way you've trimmed your bonnet! When we get home, won't you show me how you tied the ribbon just so?" Immediately, the mother rebukes her: "Eliza, you mustn't be thinking about worldly things like bonnets on the Sabbath! And how can you talk about working on one on the Lord's Day! I'm ashamed of you!" Meanwhile, the young son has run ahead. When the rest of the family catch up, they see he's skipping stones across the creek. "Thomas!" thunders his father. "Stop that immediately!" "But Papa," says the boy, "You never said I mightn't skip stones!" "No," his father replies, "but the Fourth Commandment says we must put aside all worldly recreations today and occupy ourselves with God alone! It's our Sabbath duty!" With the children duly chastened, the family proceed home in silence.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, what do you think? Wouldn't it be a good thing if we could return to the high Lord's Day standards of our ancestors? Surely even their strict observance would be better than sleeping in and ignoring God on Sundays, or going in to work or telecommuting 24/7! Is Sabbatarianism how we should keep the Lord's Day?

I submit to you, No. The Lord's Day is not the Jewish Sabbath; it's our day of Christian liberty, and the Word of God shows us what that holy liberty is, Whom it comes from, and how it can be enjoyed.

To appreciate the liberty of the Lord's Day, we need to understand how it's different from the Sabbath ordained for our spiritual ancestors the Jews.

The Fourth Commandment, to keep the Sabbath day, is found in both Exodus and Deuteronomy. Both versions say the seventh day is to be kept holy--the Hebrew word "Shabat" (Sabbath) means "rest" and "seventh." Both renditions say that on that day the people of Israel and the immigrants within their gates were to refrain from work. Deuteronomy includes the beasts of burden, but the point is the same. But in these two readings the theological grounding for ceasing work is different. In Exodus we read,

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.

The Sabbath day ordinance in Exodus is based on God's resting from His work of creation. Did God rest on that cosmic seventh day because He was tired? No, He rested because He had finished all His creative work. Figuratively-speaking, now He could "sit down" and enjoy the "very-goodness" of what He had made. That resting of God from His work of Creation has never ended from the time the world began. And so the Sabbath commandment was Israel's royal summons weekly to enter into the rest that God enjoys forever. It was a time to rejoice in God and in God's perfect work. God was and is in control, He made all things for mankind to enjoy, and so His people were free to cease from their labors and trust Him to provide.

When the Ten Commandments are repeated in Deuteronomy, a different reason is cited for the Sabbath rest. It says,

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.

Here is Sabbath liberation indeed! In Egypt, the children of Israel had no rest. The weeks and months were a continual round of slave labor and cruel drudgery. They could never have escaped Pharaoh and his armies by themselves. But in their utter helplessness, the Lord God had reached out His mighty hand and set them free. On the Sabbath day His redeemed people were physically to rest in the Lord, rejoicing that He had "removed the burden from their shoulders; their hands were set free from the basket," as it says in Psalm 81. The seventh day was their weekly reminder that it was not their effort that achieved their redemption, but the arm of Yahweh God alone.

So each Sabbath day, Israel participated in God's rest from His work in creation and celebrated His freeing them from bondage. The bodily rest was a picture of the spiritual rest they enjoyed in God.

At least, that was the command. But the ancient Israelites were no better at resting in the work of the Lord than we are. So God gave sanctions through Moses to punish those who broke the Sabbath rest. Those who disobeyed and did any work were liable to the penalty of death. Why was the Lord so strict about Sabbath observance for Israel? Because, as it says in Exodus 31, the Sabbath was the sign of His covenant with them.

We tend to think of the Ten Commandments as a list of rules to live by. And Commandments five through ten do apply to all nations-- they summarize the natural law that God has written on every human heart. But in the context of the Law of Moses, the Ten Words are the summary of God's covenant with Israel as His chosen people. They're the basic terms of the treaty He drew up with them as His subjects and Him as their overlord. The Sabbath command in particular set Israel apart as holy to the Lord, distinct from all the other nations. The Sabbaths reminded the people on a weekly basis what the Lord their King had done to set them free and make them into His people. It was a particular sign of the Old Covenant.

So what about us? Is our Lord's Day observance on the first day of the week a sign of the New Covenant God has made with us in Jesus Christ? Are we to be like our forebears and take over ancient Jewish Sabbath observance wholesale, in order to be pleasing to God?

The testimony of Scripture says No.  First, because for God's New Covenant people, the Sabbath is not the sign of our inclusion in Christ; rather, our covenant sign and seal is the Holy Spirit, as we read in Ephesians 1 and 4. And secondly, because the weekly Sabbath was never the actual Sabbath rest that the Lord invites us into in Jesus, the promised Messiah. It was only a symbol, a foretaste of the liberation that God our Father would lead us into through the death and resurrection of His Son.

That's why Jesus was always running up against the Pharisees over Sabbath observance all through His earthly ministry. God had always meant the Sabbath to call to mind what He'd done for His people, so they'd rest in Him and not depend on their own works to save and sustain them. But the Pharisees got tangled up in the rules and regulations that defined Sabbath-keeping, as if it in itself and not the work of God were the important thing.

As so in our Luke passage Jesus restores the Sabbath as a day of liberation by releasing the crippled woman on that holy day. Strictly-speaking, the synagogue ruler is right to be indignant about what Christ had done. But the synagogue ruler was missing the greater point. The Sabbath was always a sign of the freedom of God! What better day for this daughter of Abraham to be set free from the infirmity that had bound her for eighteen long years! And who else could set her free than the One who was God in human flesh?

In another incident, related by St. Mark, Jesus asserts that as the Son of Man, He is Lord of the Sabbath. St. John records the time when Jesus healed the man by the pool of Siloam on the Sabbath. The Jewish leaders persecuted Him for it, and our Lord said to them, "My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working." Wait a minute. Didn't God "sit down," as it were, to His eternal rest on the seventh day of Creation? Yes, He eternally rested from His work of creation, but even in that eternal Sabbath the triune God continues to sustain and redeem what He has made.

In all His works Jesus identified Himself with the God who was rested in and enjoyed in the weekly Sabbath. He established Himself as the One who would be His people's eternal Sabbath rest. Israel's exodus from Egypt was God's great and powerful act of liberation; infinitely greater is the freedom from sin, death, and the devil that Jesus won for us on the cross. The material creation that God pronounced "very good" at the beginning of time was wonderful beyond words; far more worthy of praise is the new creation Jesus makes of us through His rising from the dead.

And so in the book of Hebrews it says, "There remains, then, a Sabbath rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from His." What is this "rest of God"? It is the eternal Sabbath rest our Lord Jesus achieved and became when He rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God the Father almighty. Christian friends, we do not observe the Jewish Sabbath with all its restrictions and regulations. In fact, as Gentile Christians we should not observe it, for it belongs to the Old Covenant that has passed away, and not to the New Covenant inaugurated in the shed blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians says that no one is to judge us as to Sabbath keeping-- that was part of the shadow of things to come, along with the annual festivals and the kosher laws. "The reality," he says, "is found in Christ."

Indeed, if we try to take the traditional seventh-day Jewish Sabbath observance over onto the first day of the week, we're returning to slavery under the Law. Instead, we celebrate the Lord's Day, the day of Resurrection, the day when Christ like a mighty conqueror triumphed in our behalf once and for all. He disarmed the demonic powers and authorities had bound us in sin and death and forever set us free! We were dead in our sins, and He made us alive in His blood! On the first day and every day let us rejoice in the great and wondrous liberty He has given!

So in one sense, we who are redeemed by Christ are utterly free to determine how we will spend the Lord's Day. As Paul says in Romans 14, "One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike." Nevertheless, Paul also says that, living or dying, all we do as Christians is done in relationship with and to the Lord. We belong to Christ, and all our days are His! We are not free to ignore Him, or to act as if our redemption means nothing. And for the Church as a whole, the Lord's Day is different. On the first day of the week Christ's body assembles to worship Him for the great salvation He has won for us. Here together we sing His praises, petition Him for our needs, participate in His blessed Sacraments, and learn more of His glory through the reading and preaching of His holy Word. How can anyone who claims to love the Lord voluntarily fail to come into His glorious presence?

But what if our jobs keep us on duty on the Lord's Day, and every other day besides? Yes, there are times when continual labor will be necessary, when there's an extraordinary deadline that has to be met or that's the only employment to be found. But I urge every Christian who finds himself always on that treadmill to examine himself. Whom do you fear more, God or your boss? Whose work are you relying on to provide for you, yours or that of the Lord God Almighty? Offer the difficulty up to your Lord Jesus and claim your Lord's Day liberty, for He has removed the burden from your back, and from the heavy basket He has set you free.

We do not observe the Jewish Sabbath. That belongs to the Old Covenant shadow that has passed way. Rather, as children of Christ's New Creation, we have even more reason to rest in the eternal Sabbath He has won for us! Not spiritually only, for we are physical creatures as well. It is good for us to cease our earthly labors one day out of each week, to rest and enjoy God and all His works. Not because we have to, or because He'll punish us if we don't, but because we are free to! The Lord who redeemed you and loves you has given you rest!

As New Covenant people, we must know that our true Sabbath rest is not mere ceasing from physical labor. Let us watch our hearts, lest we find ourselves working, working, working to gain or maintain our own salvation. That kind of forbidden work includes following rules and regulations about weekly Sabbath-keeping to earn God's favor! Do not break Christ's Sabbath rest by trying to defeat sin by your own works and virtues. To do that is to reject Christ, and the punishment for rejecting Christ is eternal death.

No, my friends. Only the Son of Man was strong and holy enough to accomplish the great work of redemption. Only Christ could make us into His new creation. And now He commands us to cease from our work forever and enter into His rest.

Will you come and enjoy the liberty of the Lord's Day? This first day of the week is our day of Resurrection, our festal day of freedom in Christ. This is the day the Lord alone has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!

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