I am all for upholding distinctions within Christian theology between primary and secondary, and even tertiary issues. That kind of clear thinking leads to clear teaching and are great helps in sanctification.
However, I would caution you about making too much of the distinctions in our day. A secondary issue (and for that matter a tertiary issue, but for the rest of this post I will refer to anything that is not primary as secondary) becomes a primary issue if the real issue is submission to God’s Word. A secondary issue becomes a primary issue if the real issue is submission to God’s Word.
I will give you three examples to illustrate what I am talking about:
- About 5 years ago our church began discussions about changing our leadership structure from single-elder to plural-elder leadership. It caused lots of conflict. Many people left over the issue. I tried the whole time to say “church polity is a secondary issue.” And because I was clear about that, a member asked me, “if it is secondary, and if it is causing people to leave, why not drop it?” My answer: It would be one thing to be patient and have more discussions, but if God’s Word says we should have plural elders, we do what God says. You do not “drop” anything that God says. Yes, I might be wrong in my interpretation, but let God sort that out later; or let’s have more bible discussions about it to see what the Bible really says. But we do not have the option to ignore anything God says, just because an issue might be secondary in our minds.
- I have known good Christians who have gone to churches with women pastors. Some of them have told me they do not really think the Bible allows women pastors, but these women are godly and close friends and there are all kinds of things to commend about these women. In their minds, women in ministry is a secondary issue, not something to divide over. My response: women in ministry is secondary to the gospel. But Lordship of Christ is not! And if Jesus says “women should not be pastors” then you submit to Jesus. Case closed.
- My wife was once asked to work at an Arminian school. They told her “you can teach anything you want as long as you don’t teach ‘once saved, always saved.'” So she respectfully declined. Why? Because we believe God wants us to preach the gospel in such a way that the believer understands Christ’s finished work secures them for all eternity. Can someone be saved without believing in eternal security? Yes. John Wesley is in heaven! But if I think God says to preach the gospel one way, and I deliberately preach it another way, all of a sudden, my submission to the Lordship of Christ is called into question.
So uphold the centrality of the gospel of our Lord Jesus– the crucified, dead, buried, and risen Savior, the one in Whom all who trust in Him will be saved. Uphold the centrality of the Trinity– one God, three Persons; the Father who plans, the Son who accomplishes, and the Spirit who applies redemption. Uphold the primary doctrines as primary. And then submit to the God of those doctrines in all things primary and secondary (Matthew 28.20).
The more I have thought about this, the more I realize that discussions about applications and questions and objections could go on forever. So this is my LAST post on Sabbath stuff…for now.
The 1689 Confession says on the Sabbath, Christians should “give themselves over to the public and private acts of worship for the whole time, and to carrying out duties of necessity and mercy.”
On “public and private acts of worship,” I have heard pastors and Christians say Sunday is the least restful day for them, because of all that goes in to the Sunday morning gathering. I want to challenge that notion. I never heard an Israelite priest complain about Saturday. I think any stress on Sunday flows from a wrong view of “rest” and fear of man:
- Sabbath rest is not physical rest (see Genesis seventh day!!!). It is spiritual reflection on who God is and what He has done. It does not matter how much you have to do on Sunday, that is great refuge for your soul.
- I wonder how much stress on Sunday comes because of a fear of man- having to put on a good face, having to sing, pray, read Scripture, or preach/teach in front of others, or just having to manage your kids in front of others. What causes stress, Christian?
- As far as private acts of worship- I think if your church does not have a Sunday night service (which ours does not), you should try to make a habit of having a second “quiet time” or adding more to the normal family worship, or something of that nature. Make it a habit. It is awesome.
On “carrying out duties of necessity and mercy”:
- God does give us a lot of freedom with Jesus’ interpretation of the Sabbath in Matthew 12- it is of great help to us. One principle is: use common sense! If your sheep falls in a ditch, get it out. If your child has to go to the emergency room, take them!
- If your job “requires” you to work, it is a work of necessity. But if your job does not “require” you (picture me pointing a finger at your face) to work on Sundays, it is NOT a work of necessity.
- “Mercy” really is a broad category with lots of freedom- this would be similar to the fruit of the Spirit: “against such things there is no law” (Gal 5.23). You do not have to worry about “should I be doing this on the Sabbath or not”– against such mercy, love, and good works, there is no Law.
Remember that Sabbath is mainly about worship for the Christian, spiritually reflecting on who God is and what He has done for us in Christ. So as I have held to for years now, guarding the Lord’s Day worship gathering is prime and central to guarding the Sabbath. I just heard Lig Duncan preach on how the Pharisees made the Ceremonial Law more important than the Moral Law, and that they should have heeded “obedience (Moral) is better than sacrifice (Ceremonial)”. I fear Christians in our day have chucked obedience to the 4th Commandment in favor of looking for some excuse to sacrifice the Lord’s Day–even some seeing that as virtuous. God help us.
Should Christians ever work on Sundays or not? The best answer is “they should do all they can to avoid it.” You can quibble and nitpick all you want with that answer, but I will go to the grave with that answer. I used to say that before I was officially Sabbatarian. I am pretty sure most New Covenant Theologians and Dispensationalists would say that too, anyone who values the Lord’s Day.
One caution: I believe the Pharisees had a tendency to focus on “thou shalt nots” as opposed to “thou shalls.” So thinking too long upon this question can turn you into a Pharisee.
However, God gave 8 of the 10 Commandments in the form of “thou shalt nots” so as to help us, make it very easy to fulfill whatever He positively calls us to. For instance, one way to make sure you worship God and God alone is to make sure you never bow down to any other god! And one way to make sure you value the sanctity of human life is to never take a life!
By God’s grace, He gave two of the 10 Commandments in positive form: “Remember the Sabbath” and “honor your father and your mother.” With the Sabbath commandment, He then gives us a lot of help to fulfill that. One of the helps is “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…” Therefore the 1689 Confession states that we should refrain from “worldly employments” on the Sabbath.
The complex factor in the New Covenant is that we are not a Theocratic society, as Israel was. In other words there is a God-ordained separation between church and state. Israel was both Church and State, in so many words. And so back then, it was necessary that “Church-State” workers worked on the Sabbath (priests and Levites). That is why it is absolutely necessary for Church “workers” to work on the Sabbath today. It is also why I think any government workers that are required by their employers to work on Sundays is still a good thing ordained by God (don’t forget, though, that statement I will go to the grave with).
Lots more we could say there, but my contention is the differences between the Old Covenant and New Covenant make for slight differences in application today. We will tackle more Sabbath-job questions in the next post.
I hope we can all agree the Sabbath Commandment is about rest. So what are we to rest from? The simple answer is we are to rest from work: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath…” Clearly, that Sabbath day is a day where you rest from the work you had been doing the other six days.
A couple thoughts of clarification come to mind:
- This may be obvious, but we are not called to rest from being awake. In other words, the Sabbath command is not a call to sleep. No matter how busy you get, 8 hours of sleep a night is PLENTY sleep. That has little or nothing to do with Sabbath observance (not saying at all you should not sleep on Sunday afternoons; I do it all the time; that is simply not what the Sabbath rest is calling you to)
- This is more than a call to rest from your 40/hr a week job. In other words, Christians should attempt to not work their “job” on Sundays, but it is resting from more than that. In response to my brother’s comment on the last post, we are not called to positively work six days at a secular job.
So what are we truly “resting” from? What is the “work” that the Lord is calling us to rest from? I think this is where we have to broaden our categories for work. I think of “be fruitful and multiply” and “have dominion” as the work God had given Adam and Eve. I also think of “do all things for the glory of God” as the continual work He has given us.
That applies to all things we do throughout the week: jobs, chores, and recreation. It’s all the “regular” stuff we do for the glory of God, and I would say it’s all the stuff that are not 24-7 realities (like being a parent or husband). Our “work” days should be full of doing and serving and accomplishing and playing (even hobbies are a kind of practicing dominion over the earth).
So the 1689 Confession says Christians should rest on the Sabbath “from their own works, words and thoughts, about their worldly employment and recreations.” When it says “worldly” it does not mean “sinful”. It just means your “secular” job. Well, that raises a lot of questions about whether a Christian should ever work their secular job on Sunday. And what about “recreations”? Can we watch football on Sunday or not!? (that’s really what this whole blog series is about, isn’t it? Not really, but it is the kind of question that is impossible to avoid). Please give me a few seven-day cycles to ponder…
Here are some of the questions I (and I’m sure many) have about application of the Sabbath command?
- Can we not work our regular jobs at all on Sundays?
- Must we refrain from things we are free to do on other days?
- Are we not supposed to cook then on Sundays?
- Are we causing others to sin if we go out to eat?
- Travel on Sundays?
- Is it sundown to sundown or midnight to midnight?
- 24 hour period exactly?
- 24 hour worship?
- Isn’t Sunday tiring for a lot of Christians? Pastors? How is the Sunday gathering restful?
What other questions come to mind for you?
Let me give another big apology: I cannot do just one more post on this. There’s too much application to think about. So pretend this is a brand new series, just on application. And I will not say how many posts I intend. I have no idea right now. I’m thinking and learning as we go.
Let me address just one point of application: I said in an earlier post “if you focus on do’s and don’ts, you have become a Pharisee.” I’m thankful for one of our members, Ezra Mell, pointing this out– it is not bad to think about what we should do and not do. That is mere Christian obedience. So I think I misspoke.
What the Pharisees tended to focus on were definitely a lot of “thou shalt nots” at the expense of “thou shalls” (think of rebuking a healed man who carried his bed on the Sabbath). And they tended to think a lot about specific kinds of obedience at the expense of getting the more important heart matters right (think of tithing mint, dill, and cumin, but forgetting justice and mercy). So I think what I meant to say is “if you focus on external quantities of obedience when it comes to the Sabbath or focus on all the things you should not be doing at the expense of focusing on what you should be doing, you have become a Pharisee.” (I’m sure there’s a more concise way to say that)
I do believe the Law of Christ written on believer’s hearts now helps us to think more about the 10 Commandments the way Jesus intended. So what I would caution against is things like:
- make sure it’s an exact 24 hour period that you guard (whether Sunday midnight to Monday midnight, which makes no sense; or Saturday sundown to Sunday sundown), or anything along those lines.
- make sure you never cook, never make anyone else cook, never make your dog or cat hunt, never go to your regular job, never do anything that will support someone else doing their regular job, etc. Avoid a “thou shalt not”-only mentality.
- seeing Sunday as better than other days, in that if I sin on Sunday it’s worse than sinning on Monday, or if I do my quiet time on Sunday it’s better than any other day.
I think we can all agree that what the Pharisees struggled with was focusing on the letter of the Law rather than the spirit of the Law. So my hope is to never get bogged down with an exact 24 hour period or how many different things I must never do, but simply aim to guard one day in seven as holy unto the Lord. And clearly, we are to guard it for rest. Where my mind goes (and what you may never have thought much about) is “rest from what?” and “rest in order to what?” So that’s what I plan to tackle next.
- We are not under the Law- I believe I have covered this in this series, but it is worth repeating. Whenever the bible says “Christians are not under the Law,” we must rejoice! But it is a specific way that we are not under the Law: we are not under the Law of Moses (i.e. the Old Covenant Law). Even though there is a one-ness between the NT people and the OT people, there are parts of the OT Law that do not apply in the same way to the NT people. But we are still “under law” in the sense that God still binds our consciences with certain commands. All Christians basically agree that 9 of the 10 Commandments are still binding. If God said “the Sabbath is no longer binding” (or something along those lines), we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. You just have to ask yourself, “do I believe God has commanded all people everywhere to set one day aside (as holy) to worship Him?” And also ask yourself, “doesn’t it just make sense that 10 of the 10 would still be binding?”
- Sabbath was not about worship, but about rest- I would have been persuaded several years ago if I thought more about this. At first glance, the 4th Commandment does not appear to be about worship at all, but rather about work and rest. But as all Covenant Theologians say, God commanded His people to rest in order to worship. Do you think all He meant was physical rest? What does a Christian do when they think about God as Creator and Redeemer? I fear many people are not Sabbatarians because they don’t have a biblical category for “rest.” Rest for so many means temporary leisure and pleasure. Biblical rest involves reliance and trust. The more you consciously rest in God, the more you find conscious worship (prayer, singing, listening to His Word) ends up being the only appropriate way to rest.
- Wouldn’t God make something so important more explicit?- this would cut both ways, and I think much more burden of proof is upon those who think one of the Ten are abrogated. Now as to why the NT never explicitly calls the “Lord’s Day” the “Christian Sabbath,” you’ll have to ask God. But you just have to decide: did God remove the Sabbath and create “the Lord’s Day” as something new (even though it has so much overlap in practice already), or did He simply call the New Covenant Sabbath “the Lord’s Day”?
- Romans 14- I used to think the strong vs weak faith issue referred to those who saw Sunday as the Christian Sabbath as the weaker brother (v5-6). It could simply be that someone saw the Sabbath as “better than another” day, where some might think their prayers are more spiritual on Sundays than Mondays, or something along those lines. It could also be a number of possibilities besides a Sabbath debate, since Paul never says “Sabbath” in the chapter. This is not as strong an objection as I once thought.
- Colossians 2- Paul calls the “Sabbath” a “shadow of thing to come,” leading many to see the Sabbath as a part of the Ceremonial Law. This is perhaps the strongest objection to the traditional view. However, Paul could actually be referring to ceremonial Sabbaths (all Sabbath observances besides the seventh day each week), which are no longer binding on Christians. Or he could be refuting legalistic views of the Sabbath, which we would all stand against. Again, this one passage does not bear the burden of overturning a big piece of Covenant Theology all by itself.
- Matthew 11- Jesus says “come to me and I will give you rest,” leading many to say Jesus is the true Sabbath. Well, that is a fine hermeneutic, to conclude something theologically even though the text does not explicitly say that. And all Covenant Theologians would say “amen!” But that does not explicitly overturn a command to observe one day a week as holy for worshipful rest. It simply aims that day even more accurately.
- Hebrews 4- there is a Sabbath rest in the New Heavens and New Earth. We again all say “Amen.” That again, does not necessarily overturn a weekly Holy Day to point everyone to the final day. Doesn’t a weekly Sabbath make that final day all the more visible, so as to help believers “see the Day drawing near”?
A better hermeneutic is to say “unless the New Covenant explicitly overturns an Old Covenant command, it is better to find unity with God’s people across the ages.” So now, for me personally, it’s just a matter of figuring out what application looks like through a New Covenant- Spirit-empowered- Christ-centered lens. This next one will be the final post in this series, I’m pretty sure.
I said this would be the final post in this series, but (I don’t know why I say stuff like that) I will probably do two more after this: one on common objections and one on thinking about application.
But for today’s post: what did faithful Sabbath observance look like for the ancient Israelite? Let’s look at five passages to get an idea and then draw a conclusion:
- Exodus 20.8-11: this is the first giving of the 10 Commandments. There is a command to work six days but to not work on the seventh day. Two great keys for understanding the Sabbath: one- everyone must rest from work; it was the entire believing community that needed to shape their work week around the Sabbath. Two- the reason for this rest was to pattern after God’s creative work week. God made that day holy, specifically after His work as Creator. It seems fairly obvious that part of this holy rest was to reflect on God as Creator. But the question is: what does it mean to “rest”?
- Leviticus 23: God commanded multiple feasts throughout the Jewish year. But He starts the explanation of the feasts with a repeat of the Sabbath command (3), and this time He calls the rest “a holy convocation” (or a called assembly). And each feast in this chapter involves Sabbaths, convocations, and food offerings. And “Sabbath”, “seventh day”, and “convocation” appear to be interchangeable a majority of, if not all throughout, this chapter (2, 4, 8, 21, 24-25, 37-38); and all Sabbaths-convocations involve the offering of food (worship). It seems fairly obvious that the weekly Sabbaths inform what the occasional Sabbaths were to look like, and vice versa. It is also fairly obvious that Sabbath was more than just “do not work,” but rather, “rest from work in order to gather.” Sabbaths were solemn rests by the community unto the Lord and in response to God’s provisions.
- Deuteronomy 5.12-15: This is the second giving of the 10 Commandments. The one difference here from Exodus 20 is the reason for the Sabbath, namely, “you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out…therefore…keep the Sabbath day.” So rest in God, first because He created all things, and now secondly, because He redeemed you.
- Psalm 92- “A Psalm. A song for the Sabbath.” Interestingly, it is the only psalm with that title. But that is not an argument against the Sabbath as being a day of worship for the Jews. We can debate about the silences of Scripture all day. We cannot debate the fact that by the time Psalm 92 was written, it was an accepted practice that singing of songs was something to be done on the Sabbath day. And that makes sense given Israelites were reflecting on God as Creator and Redeemer, and used the Sabbath to offer worshipful sacrifices, and did it in assembly with other believers.
- Acts 13: On Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey they stopped in Jewish synagogues in Pisidian Antioch on the Sabbath (13-15), where they heard the Scriptures read in a gathering, and where they were invited to speak. So they preached the gospel, and then the people begged them to come back the next Sabbath to preach some more (42-44). The point here is Paul and Barnabas knew where they could get a good hearing of the gospel because people who loved God (though they were misguided) gathered on the Sabbath to worship God.
Conclusion: The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. But in what way does the Sabbath serve man? It allows man a whole day to spiritually rest in God, thinking about all He has done for us, particularly how He created and redeemed us. If that leads you to focus on do’s and don’ts you have become a Pharisee. If that leads you to worship, you are honoring the Sabbath. No wonder when the first Christians saw the resurrected Lord, saw Him bringing in the New Creation and saw their Redemption secured by His exaltation to the throne, there was no other response but to worship on that new Holy Day, which we call the Lord’s Day.