The God Who Requires Rest

Exodus 20:8-11

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / October 10, 2004


            The 4th commandment, the commandment to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy is, arguably, the most complex of the Ten Commandments. This is due, in large measure, to the fact that it is a commandment that has undergone a significant transformation in terms of its application.


The most obvious change in the application of this command has been the transition from the Saturday Sabbath to Sunday, as The Lord’s Day. Much has been written on this transition and, if this is of interest to you, there are some excellent books I can commend to your attention. But, for our purposes today I would like to focus our attention on the nature of the Sabbath, and secondly, our need for the Sabbath.


To best understand the nature of the Sabbath it is necessary to reference its original institution at Creation, its formal institution at Sinai, and its perpetuation according to the teachings of Christ.


            Have you ever wondered why God determined to create the world in six days? Conceivably, since God is all-powerful, He could have created the world in an instant. Instead of declaring, “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3), God could have declared, “Let all things come into being.” Why the six days? Clearly, God was setting a pattern for us to follow: Six days of work are to be followed by a day of rest.


The Bible says that when God completed His work, “He rested on the seventh day” (Gen. 2:2). What does that mean? It does not mean that the six days of creation wore God down, and so He needed a day-off. God did not need to take a nap. God did not need a coffee break. What then, did God intend for the seventh day?


A clue is given at the conclusion of each day of creation. The pattern we see, following each day of creation, is the comment “And God saw that it was good”. What we have then, in day seven is a day to commemorate what has taken place in the previous six days. What we have in day seven is a day set apart by God in order to delight in the good things God has done.


Similarly, our rest is not about just taking a day-off; the Sabbath is not meant to be a twenty-four hour coffee break. The Sabbath is a day set apart by God in order for us to appropriately reflect upon what He has done.


In its original institution, the seventh day rest was connected to God’s work in Creation. In the formal institution of the Sabbath at Mount Sinai, the seventh day rest is newly connected to God’s work of delivering the Israelites from the bondage of the Egyptians. And, in the early Church’s transition to The Lord’s Day, the day is connected to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.


 As we move from the Genesis account of Creation to Mount Sinai, the principle of seventh day rest is made more comprehensive. Prohibitions concerning labour are outlined in the 4th commandment, and in Exodus 31:15, punishment is threatened for Sabbath-breakers. Yahweh instructs Moses saying, “whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall surely be put to death.


But then we move to the New Testament and we find Jesus defending His disciples’ action of picking heads of grain on the Sabbath (Mt. 12:1ff). We also see Jesus heal a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath (Mt. 12:10ff). From this, we are tempted to conclude that the Sabbath has been abrogated. Or, at the very least, it appears that the Sabbath has been relaxed for the New Covenant. But neither is the case.


Jesus has already said that He did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it (Mt. 5:17). If Jesus is not abolishing the Law, if He is not presenting a more relaxed version of the Law, what is He doing?


Jesus is adding to the comprehensiveness of the day by identifying why the Sabbath exists: The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sake of the Sabbath (Mk. 2:27). That is to say that the Sabbath was made for our benefit. To allow oneself to starve for the sake of Sabbath, to refuse to assist a person in need for the sake of Sabbath was to completely miss the intention of the day. The Sabbath day is designed to help us.


Our Lord Jesus did not abolish the Sabbath; He upheld its observance. Yes, the outward application of the Day has changed. We gather for corporate worship on Sunday, rather than on Saturday. In addition, Jesus has identified for us the appropriateness of certain kinds of work on the Sabbath. On the Sabbath, works of piety, necessity, and mercy should not be neglected. It is, therefore, fitting that a group of people from this congregation would go to Evangel Hall tonight in order to work; in order to serve meals to the poor and needy.


And, it’s not as if the Sabbath is now altogether different, but rather, in Christ we see the consummation of the commandment. At Sinai, the 4th commandment was like a building with scaffolding around it. The scaffolding was the timely and temporal legislation that surrounded the command. The problem of application began when the Pharisees concluded that the scaffolding was the point. Subsequently, when Jesus began to tear away the scaffolding of the 4th commandment, the Pharisees assumed He was altogether disregarding the commandment. Quite the contrary, by stripping away the provisional scaffolding, Jesus was attempting to reveal the building in all its glory: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sake of the Sabbath.


Friends, how is it that we have come to the point where we have individually, and corporately, abated a commandment that was instituted for our benefit? Why have we downplayed the importance of the 4th commandment?


We concede that the 4th commandment is uniquely complex. And yet, it is an outrageous fallacy to suggest that the 4th commandment is uniquely optional. We look at the other nine, and we would never imagine any of them to be outdated—why would we imagine that Sabbath keeping is no longer necessary?


            Could it be that this fallacy has been allowed to prevail, in large measure, because we recognize how dreadful our predicament would be if our faithfulness to the 4th commandment were assessed?


            Now, some will argue against keeping a Sabbath by asserting that every day should be dedicated to the Lord. But this argument fails to recognize that the faithful Israelite would have sought God’s honour every day, just as the faithful Christian does. Moreover, to suggest that every day is alike is to gloss over the fact that God did ordain a special day for His people. This special day was introduced at Creation. This special day was given special emphasis within the Mosaic Law. This special day was affirmed by our Lord Jesus Christ who declared, “the Sabbath was made for man”.


            Let me say one more thing about the introduction of the seventh day rest at Creation. At the time of its institution, Adam was sinless. At the institution of the seventh day rest, humanity was in a state of righteousness.


            Quite often, we think of the value of commandments and rules exclusively in terms of their ability to restrain prevailing evil. And yet, before Adam had even sinned, he needed the seventh day rest. Friends, if it was necessary for sinless humanity to have the Sabbath for the development of their spiritual nature, how much more do we need the Sabbath?


I recognize that we live in a unique context, but in my mind the changes in our culture make Sabbath observance more necessary, not less necessary. It is because Canadians in the 21st Century are so busy that we need the Sabbath now, more than ever.


            How then, shall we keep the Sabbath? What should Sabbath-keeping in 2004 look like?


The first thing we must do is change the way we think about the Sabbath. Rather than viewing the Sabbath as a straitjacket of dos and don’ts, we need to view the Sabbath as an antidote for human restlessness. There are certain Sabbath-keeping principles, which we must heed, but these principles should be regarded as freedom-producing principles. And, the one Sabbath principle that must guide all of the others is the preeminence of worship. The aim of the Sabbath rest is to return our focus and attention to God, and His works.


During the week, so many things distract us, and compete for our attention, that we often find our time in prayer greatly diminished. Typically, our schedule throughout the week is so saturated with activities that gathering with other Christians is often not possible. 


The Sabbath, however, by calling our attention away from work and commerce for a single day, creates new space for us to meet with God and with the people of God. We show ourselves to be prudent then, as we begin The Lord’s Day in this place.


            Unfortunately, few of us are as prudent in this regard as we should be. For some people, attending Sunday worship is what we do when there is nothing else on our schedule. For some people, meeting with God and His people is simply not a priority.


We see this in the person who refuses to miss his regular visit to the golf course, but is willing to neglect the gathering of God’s people on Sunday morning. We see this in the person who desires that a church service to be as short as possible, in order that he be able to ‘get on with the rest of his day’. If this describes us, what does this say about our relationship with God?


            Part of what it means to prioritize honouring God is to establish corporate worship as a fixed component of our week. If we do not do this, inevitably, Sunday worship will compete with hockey practice, music lessons, and various social gatherings for a spot on our schedule. Friends, it does not have to be this way; it should not be this way.


            We confess that the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever, but you would never guess this by looking at how the average Christian spends his Sabbath. Look at some professing Christians and you are likely to conclude that the chief end of man is productivity. Look at others, and you will conclude that the chief end of man is recreation.


            God has created a Holy Day in order for us to draw closer to Him, and we have treated this as a holiday.


            We have already said that works of piety, necessity, and mercy should be performed on the Sabbath. What kind of activities should be avoided on the Sabbath? God is commanding us to cease from any activity that hinders us from engaging in the grand activity of worship.


            God has created rest for His people, and Augustine’s prayer explains where that rest is to be found,  “Thou has made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”


            The degree to which you seek your rest in God is the degree to which you can say, ‘I have kept the Sabbath holy’. Amen.