“If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath,
from doing your pleasure on my holy day,
and call the Sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;
then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
~ Isaiah 58:13-14 ~
I’ve written of Sabbath-keeping before, here and here. For the orthodox Christian, this means keeping the Lord’s Day, the first day of each week (i.e. Sundays). I was first challenged by a “theology of rest” by Joe Rigney, Professor at Bethlehem College and Seminary, in his message the God Who Loves Us by Giving Us Rest. I heard this message about the same time that my daughter and son-in-law were beginning to adopt the Sabbath-keeping practices of their new church. And not long after, I heard a couple sermons from one of my preaching heroes, Alistair Begg as he spoke compellingly of the joys of keeping the Sabbath in his Pathway to Freedom series. Begg teaches both the principles and the practices of Sabbath-keeping. As he recalls his childhood in the small Scottish community where he grew up, he reminisces of the wide-spread observance of the day and waxes almost melancholy over what has been lost by God’s people in forsaking its practice.
As I was growing up it was a given that Sunday morning we’d be in church. Even though my dad went to his church a few blocks away from that which my mom and my sisters attended, we knew we’d all be getting up Sunday morning to head to our respective churches. Different churches, but the value of church attendance was instilled by the modeling of both my parents. Happily, I grew up in a state that kept its blue laws until 1991, so the rhythm of Sunday was always a bit different from the rest of the week, but once home from church we were not opposed to using the day as a sort of “second Saturday” to finish up all the things we did not get done during the week previous or those things we did not want to carry into the week to come.
Well, the Lord has been patient to allow me to study, observe, and grow in this area. For the past year or so, Dana and I have been trying to adapt our Sundays and its activities to better reflect who we are becoming in Christ regarding this commandment. We may not be as strict (that’s not the same as oppressive) as our daughter/son-in-law, but we are more mindful than ever of setting this day apart for rest and delight in the Lord.
Years and years ago when my kids were little, I remember reading Karen Mains’ Making Sunday Special. I think I still have it somewhere and I suppose that I should dust it off and give it another look. At that time, I don’t think I even associated it with the command to keep the Sabbath day holy; I just loved the Lord and wanted my family to find Sundays special. More recently though, I just finished reading Celebrating the Sabbath by Bruce A. Ray. Looking beyond the dated cover, I found a pretty measured and gracious handling of the topic, not at all formalistic as I might have expected. Ray spends several chapters working through the biblical principles of God’s Sovereignty over our entire lives (i.e. time, work, rest) as well as the biblical roots and fruits of Sabbath-keeping. His banner text is the one above from Isaiah 58, making the case for delighting in the Lord through Sabbath-keeping. The fourth commandment is clearly a positive, not a negative, command for which we should thank God.
It is his last two chapters, though, which provide a nice practical evaluation of our hearts toward the Lord’s Day. Ray is wisely unwilling to be the Holy Spirit in our lives; he does not give a list of dos and don’ts for the day. He is not the least bit formulaic or legalistic, but offers grace throughout. He offers alone these four principles: (1) keep it holily, (2) keep it happily, (3) keep it honestly, (4) keep it humbly. What follows is primarily taken from Ray’s book.
- Keep it Holily. “It is important to recognize that we cannot make the Sabbath holy. God has already done that by his works of creation and redemption in the Old Testament, and by the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the gift of his Holy Spirit in the New.” We are only charged to keep it. Surely, a major part of keeping this day holy is by meeting with other believers for corporate worship. The author of Hebrews 10:19-25 pleads: Let us draw near to God; let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess; let us consider how to spur one another on; and let us encourage one another. Then, almost as if to give answer to these pleas, he offers one let us not: Let us not give up meeting together. “We need the friendship and the fellowship… we need the stimulation and the encouragement to love, obedience, and kindness that meeting together can provide. When Sunday is swallowed up by the weekend and loses its uniqueness – its holiness, as the Lord’s Day – then you and I are the inevitable losers.” [pp. 94-97]
- Keep it Happily. Although we must confess our sins and seek grace for further sanctification, the atmosphere of worship must not be dominated by heaviness and remorse (Walter Chantry). To get there, Ray reminds us that our joy, happiness, and contentment are not to be found in our physical or financial circumstances, but in the joy of knowing Christ in the power of his resurrection. “Rested and refreshed by the power of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, which we celebrate in the worship of the church, we are physically and spiritually ready to begin a new week.” [pp. 97-100]
- Keep it Honestly. Christianity Today’s former editor, Ben Patterson, noted that Christians “always seem to be looking for loopholes: ways to get credit for keeping the Sabbath without actually having to keep the Sabbath” [Sept. 19, 1986]. For the definition of what is work, Ray appeals to common sense. Our jobs or occupations are obvious (although I recognize that some in mercy or protection jobs may need to carve out a Sabbath Day around their job schedule). Also obvious are activities we outright identify as work: housework, yard work, office work, homework, etc. But we are relieved to find that “rest does not require idleness and can be very active.” The challenge, though, for the Church is how to do these and all things for the glory of God – how to keep our recreation from interfering with our fellowship with God. “We must labor to bring our wills into submission to [God’s]. The Sabbath calls us to make God’s will our own.” Consider the caution of John Winthrop (1588-1649), the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He admitted some moderate recreation may be admissible on the Sabbath, but cautioned against Christian liberty – that it not, by degrees, ensnare our hearts so far in worldly delights and cool the graces of the Spirit by them. Our hearts must be kept free, for God is jealous of our love and will not endure any pretenses in it. [pp. 106-112]
- Keep it Humbly. It is Ray’s belief that the Sabbath is a problem for many Christians, but it is not of intellect or even of practicality. For many, it is primarily spiritual in nature. “We are the heirs of centuries of self-exultation and our minds are not yet submitted to the Word of God and we resist God’s right to rule over us. We come into our King’s presence and our spiritual family reunion tired, late, and unprepared to worship him – if we make it at all. This is not right.” Thinking ourselves wise, we are actually robbing our own souls as we lose this beautiful means of grace. But we must guard against self-righteousness, legalism, and externalism – all pitfalls in which our enemy would be too pleased to lead us in our newfound commitment to Sabbath-keeping. Ray guides us in this: The way to gain a name and a blessing is not by building it yourself, but by humbly choosing what pleases God, resting in his works, and keeping his covenant and his Sabbath holy. Sabbath wars, he says, must all come to an end in Christ, the Prince of Peace. [pp.112-116]
Then… the cream of the book, especially for someone like me who was not raised with the kind of Sabbath-keeping Alistair Begg remembers (see above) – Ray offers a very practical checklist (but not the kind you might expect). It’s actually a series of questions to ask concerning any proposed activity.
- Will it in fact refresh me or will I be worn out by it?
- Is a competitive spirit, as in league sports, compatible with the purpose of refreshment and of the Sabbath? What if I lose? [ky-I couldn’t help but think of Eric Liddell with this one.]
- Will a planned recreational activity interfere with my previous commitment to corporate worship and fellowship? If I do this, will it cause me to miss or be late to the morning or evening services of my church?
- Is my will subordinated to the will of God or am I “doing my own thing” and thus doing as I please on God holy day? Is what please me what pleases God?
- Can I do what I am thinking of doing to the glory of God?
I end with Bruce Ray’s translation of Governor John Winthrop:
Be careful you don’t by degrees turn liberty into license and make God’s holy day your play day. But, at the same time, don’t be so afraid to experience pleasure that you turn dancing into mourning. The Sabbath really is a day of rejoicing and relaxing with both your natural and spiritual families.
[Image: Van Gogh’s Noon: Rest from Work]