Previous posts in this series examined the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, the Gospels, the practice of the disciples, and the Epistles. In this final installment, we will consider the question, “What does the Sabbath mean for me today?”
The spectrum of Christian reaction to, and teaching on, the Fourth Commandment runs from total disregard on one end to Pharisaical obsession on the other. The consensus seems skewed toward the former, however, so any suggestion that we should restrict our actions on the Sabbath will be labeled as legalism by many. We live in a post-Christian society and the ethics of capitalism have shaped us not just in the marketplace.¹ We have gone beyond that which the Israelites were condemned for by Amos.
Hear this, you who trample on the needy
and bring the poor of the land to an end,
saying, “When will the new moon be over,
that we may sell grain?
And the Sabbath,
that we may offer wheat for sale,
that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great
and deal deceitfully with false balances,
that we may buy the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals
and sell the chaff of the wheat?”
Amos 8:4-6 (ESV)
The Sabbath is no longer a hinderance to our 24/7 consumerism (unless you want something from Hobby Lobby or Chick-fil-A) as it was to those Amos spoke to. Let us return for a moment to remind ourselves what the Fourth Commandment says.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 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.
Exodus 20:8-11 (ESV)
Work six, rest one. Not just you, but everyone who works for you. That is the simplest, most straightforward reading of these verses I can manage.² This raises the question, “What is work?” That was the question the Pharisees were seeking to answer in their interpretation and application of the the Fourth Commandment, and we can see the danger looming already.
I would offer this tentative definition for your consideration. Any activity you are paid to perform is work. So, we should refrain from doing anything to earn a wage on the Sabbath. This may not be possible for everyone — myself included as I’ve had to work the past two Sundays — but I think it’s a fair reading of the text.
After spending several weeks looking at all these passages, I don’t think we can escape the command to keep the Sabbath. We have been discussing ways to try to better observe the Sabbath in our household, but I’m not going to post those here. I encourage you to make it a matter of prayer. Ask the Lord what he would have you do (and not do) on the Sabbath. Pray that he would teach you how to be obedient to his word in this area (and all others).
God desires us to rest in him. Let us have the faith to set aside our work and do just that.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
Matthew 11:28 (ESV)
¹ I commend David Bentley Hart’s thoughtful article in First Things to your consideration and reflection on this point.
² I have learned to appreciate Augustine of Hippo’s penchant for allegorical interpretation of texts, but my default remains unchanged: when in doubt, take the path of least explanation.