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The Sabbath, the Lord's Day, and the Eternal Rest

What do we do with the fourth commandment?

Jeremiah 17:19-27; Exodus 20:8-11; Genesis 2:1-3; Exodus 35:3; Numbers 15:27-36; Mark 2:23-28; Colossians 2:13-16; Romans 14:1-10; Psalm 95:6-11; Hebrews 4:1-11

Jan 20, 2013 12:00 PM

MP3 audio icon The-Sabbath-the-Lords-Day-and-the-Eternal-Rest_01-20-2013.mp3 — MP3 audio, 17829 kB (18257310 bytes)

Today we return to our good friend Jeremiah in chapter 17, beginning in verse 19.  We’ve read much in this book concerning the idolatry of the people of Judah.  That is a sin we easily condemn.  We all agree the worship of inanimate objects made by the hands of men is not just evil, but stupid.  Israel is repeatedly condemned by God for their spiritual adultery with gods that are not gods at all, and we have no qualms about agreeing with God’s judgment of them.  Idolatry is wicked sin.

But today we read about another sin which the people of Judah committed that is not so easily condemned by us: the breaking of the Sabbath.  It is much more difficult for us to see the wickedness of the Jews in breaking the Sabbath because, quite frankly, we are seldom concerned about it ourselves.  We don’t worship idols, and would not think of doing so.  But if God said, “Thou shalt do no work on the Sabbath, from Saturday at sundown until Sunday at sundown; and thou shalt not carry anything heavier than a remote control more than 20 feet; and thou shalt worship and pray and sing songs of gladness and joy, and fellowship with other believers and such for the entire 24 hours of the Sabbath or else thou shalt die a painful death”, would we have a problem with that?  Or something similar?

Here is the fourth commandment as it was spoken to Israel at Mt. Sinai:

8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 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. 11 For [or, because] 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)

The LORD blessed the Sabbath day.  Here is what we read in Genesis 2:

1 Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. 2 By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. 3 And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. (Genesis 2:1-3 ESV)

God blessed the seventh day.  He made the seventh day holy ON day number seven.  It was holy in that it was not to be like the other days.  Work six days, rest on the seventh.  That is a blessing from God to men.  The Sabbath was instituted for our sakes, not for God’s sake.  God doesn’t take the weekend off.  God has no reason to rest.  He’s omnipotent.  He doesn’t get tired.  He doesn’t need a Sabbath rest.  He wasn’t tired on that very first Saturday.  He just stopped working and made that day a day of rest for us.

So suppose you’re Jewish, you are living in the days of Jeremiah, and you’re most definitely under the authority of the Law of Moses.  That law states you as a Jew must observe the Sabbath.  Just how bad could it be if you kinda slipped up and, say, you gathered some firewood to bake a loaf of bread on Saturday?  Well, first of all . . .

“You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day." (Exodus 35:3 ESV)

32 While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. 33 And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. 34 They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. 35 And the LORD said to Moses, "The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp." 36 And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the LORD commanded Moses. (Numbers 15:32-36 ESV)

Now admittedly, that seems to be a rather severe punishment for gathering sticks.  But notice the context:

27 "If one person sins unintentionally, he shall offer a female goat a year old for a sin offering. 28 And the priest shall make atonement before the LORD for the person who makes a mistake, when he sins unintentionally, to make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven. 29 You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the people of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them. 30 But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. 31 Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him." (Numbers 15:27-31 ESV)

The violation of the Sabbath Day by the Jews was not a minor infraction of some obscure, insignificant detail in the Law of Moses.  Everyone knew the Sabbath was a holy day.  God did not suggest they take Saturdays off, He commanded it.  To disobey a direct command is rebellion and insurrection.  Thus they killed the man who gathered sticks on the wrong day of the week because he willfully disregarded God.  In breaking the Sabbath, He reviled the LORD, he despised the word of the LORD.

Now we read about Judah hundreds of years later.  Here is what Jeremiah says to the people of Jerusalem regarding their observance of the Sabbath Day:

19 This is what the LORD said to me: "Go and stand at the gate of the people, through which the kings of Judah go in and out; stand also at all the other gates of Jerusalem. 20 Say to them, 'Hear the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah and all people of Judah and everyone living in Jerusalem who come through these gates. 21 This is what the LORD says:

Be careful not to carry a load on the Sabbath day or bring it through the gates of Jerusalem. 22 Do not bring a load out of your houses or do any work on the Sabbath, but keep the Sabbath day holy, as I commanded your forefathers. 23 Yet they did not listen or pay attention; they were stiff-necked and would not listen or respond to discipline.

24 But if you are careful to obey me, declares the LORD, and bring no load through the gates of this city on the Sabbath, but keep the Sabbath day holy by not doing any work on it, 25 then kings who sit on David's throne will come through the gates of this city with their officials.  They and their officials will come riding in chariots and on horses, accompanied by the men of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, and this city will be inhabited forever. 26 People will come from the towns of Judah and the villages around Jerusalem, from the territory of Benjamin and the western foothills, from the hill country and the Negev, bringing burnt offerings and sacrifices, grain offerings, incense and thank offerings to the house of the LORD.

27 But if you do not obey me to keep the Sabbath day holy by not carrying any load as you come through the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle an unquenchable fire in the gates of Jerusalem that will consume her fortresses.' " (Jeremiah 17:19-27 ESV)

For carrying a burden through the gates on Saturday?  God is going to destroy Jerusalem because they carried stuff on the Sabbath?  No.  He is going to destroy them because they have no regard for His commands.  Because they revile the LORD, they despise the word of the LORD.

Beloved, this is an easy one!  “Don’t work on the seventh day.”  I still find it hard to believe this command was so hard for Israel (or anyone else, for that matter) to obey.  But obviously it was.  Commerce was more important than rest.  Money was more important than obedience.  Finances were more important than God’s word.  In other words, their devotion to economic prosperity was simply another form of idolatry.  Does that sound familiar?

Ironically, a continuous battle over the observance of the Sabbath has been fought among Christians for centuries.  It seems the most comfortable position to take on the issue is to ignore it.  But that would not be wise and it may even be sinful.  I admit it is a rather confusing issue and one that many Christians consider to be a crucial one.  Ever since the days of the Puritans, Blue Laws have been written to discourage work and to encourage worship on Sundays.  Even today in PA it is against the law to hunt or sell cars on Sunday.  The ban on Sunday alcohol sales was lifted in 2003.  So the observance of the Sabbath has always been an issue, ever since day seven.

It was far less complicated for the Jews.  But to give you an idea of how confusing this subject can be for New Testament believers, let me ask a few questions:
•    Is the fourth of the ten commandments given to Israel at Mt. Sinai still binding upon us today?  
•    If the fourth commandment is no longer binding, why only that one and not the other nine?
•    Is the Old Testament Sabbath law a universal moral law for all people everywhere (since it was instituted at creation prior to the creation of the nation of Israel), or is it a cultural restriction that is, or was binding only upon Jews?  Or does it belong in some other category?  
•    Is it an obsolete Old Testament law like the laws regarding the sacrificing of lambs and the observance of dietary restrictions?  
•    Is Saturday the Sabbath or Sunday?  Should we become Seventh Day Baptists?  There is such a denomination, you know.  
•    Did the apostles really change the Old Testament day of rest on Saturday into the New Testament Lord’s Day on Sunday?  Did they have the authority to do that?

As it is stated in Exodus 20, the first word of the command is “remember”.  The establishment of the Sabbath took place the day after God finished His work of creation.  There has always been a Sabbath day, a day in which no work should be done because God Himself set that precedent.  It has nothing to do with salvation directly.  Rather it was intended to be a gift.  Even Jesus said so: “The Sabbath was made for man.”  God established the Sabbath day for our good, not to add another burden to us.

The New Testament is the means by which we rightly interpret and understand the Old Testament.  There are a number of passages which we could discuss.  For example, Mark chapter 2.

23 One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 And the Pharisees were saying to him, "Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?" 25 And he said to them, "Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: 26 how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?" 27 And he said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath." (Mark 2:23-28 ESV)

Most people seem to interpret that to mean the Sabbath is subject to man, and not man to the Sabbath.  Of course, Jesus is claiming authority over the Sabbath which makes Him God.  But do we have authority over it also?  Is the Sabbath a day designed to serve us, rather than us submit to it?  Yes.  The Sabbath was given to us as a gift to serve our need for physical rest and worship.  It was made for us, for our sakes.  God did not create the Sabbath and then create men to be crushed by its demands, which is how the Pharisees used it.

Another passage that is quite applicable in the Sabbath wars is Colossians 2.

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.  This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Colossians 2:13-16 ESV)

In other words, you Gentile Christians don’t need to bow to the superimposed expectations of your Jewish brethren or, more specifically, to the Judaizers who want to withhold salvation from you because you aren’t Jewish enough.  They are talking about the types and shadows of which Jesus has become the fulfillment.  Sabbaths are a shadow of things to come. There is a real Sabbath rest yet to come.  Your faith is not in keeping the Sabbath but in Christ.

Another passage written by Paul that explains a lot for us is Romans 14:1-10.

1 As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.

4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?  It is before his own master that he stands or falls.  And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike.  Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord.  The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. 10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother?  Or you, why do you despise your brother?  For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; (Romans 14:1-10 ESV)

My Jewish Christian brother is concerned about the Sabbath and about forbidden, unclean foods according to the Law of Moses and according to his grandmother.  His conscience won’t allow him to eat the stuff I eat and he is careful not to walk too far on Saturdays.  That’s fine.  If he wants to be the weaker brother, then OK.  He is still my brother.  

I, being a Gentile Christian, am not so concerned about the details of Sabbath observances or any other Jewish holy days.  And I happen to really like barbecued pork ribs.  As far as salvation is concerned, my faith is in Christ alone, just like my Jewish brother.  I eat and drink and I observe Sunday as my day of rest in honor of the Lord with a clear conscience.  So I’ll respect his opinion in these matters, and he will respect mine.  We will not judge one another (even though I still think he’s the weaker brother).  The Lord Himself will be our judge.  

This text seems to at least imply that how one observes the Sabbath is a matter of conscience.  The ESV uses the word “opinion”.  One believer’s opinion is we should esteem one day, i.e. the Sabbath, or even more particularly, Saturday, better than all other days.  And he has good biblical reasons to think so.  Another believer says Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection, the first day of the week, is the Lord’s Day, the day we should gather for worship, and that supersedes the Jewish Sabbath.  And he has good biblical reasons to think that. Yet another believer says every day is the Lord’s Day and no day is inherently holier than any other.  Christ has become our Sabbath rest and all this talk about resting and not working on Saturday or Sunday is a moot point.  And he has good biblical reasons to think that.

Fine.  Are you ready to stand before the Lord Himself and defend your position?  Are you prepared to give an answer for how you have handled this confusing issue of the Sabbath?  Because ultimately, you have to convince Him, not me or anyone else, that how you have dealt with this has been done with the desire to honor Him in it.  That is the key issue.  The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord.  The one who doesn’t, doesn’t observe it in honor of the Lord. For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.

Perhaps the most explicit text concerning this subject is in Hebrews chapters 3 & 4.  But these two chapters do not talk about the Sabbath day or which day we’re supposed to observe as a day of rest.  This text talks about a greater rest than any day of the week can afford.  It is talking about a rest that is similar to the rest God entered into when He finished His work of creation.  In a certain sense, God has been at rest ever since day seven.  He finished His task of creating the universe and has never returned to that work.  That work is finished and God is still at rest from His creative work.

But there is a kind of work that fallen men long to complete.  It is the work of salvation.  And this is particularly pertinent to the audience that the writer of Hebrews is addressing: the Jews.  In chapters 3 & 4, the author reminds his readers of this fact: The children of Israel died in the wilderness and never entered into the rest which God promised those who trust Him.  He quotes David in Psalm 95:6-11.

6 Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker! 7 For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.  Today, if you hear his voice, 8 do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, 9 when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work. 10 For forty years I loathed that generation and said, "They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways." 11 Therefore I swore in my wrath, "They shall not enter my rest." (Psalm 95:6-11 ESV)

Not only did the children of Israel not enter into the Promised Land and find rest, because of their rebelliousness, neither did they enter into THE rest of God, THE Sabbath of which the seventh day of the week is simply a type.  That is why, hundreds of years after Moses and Joshua, David in Psalm 95 is still calling his people to enter a Sabbath rest that is promised to those who trust God and follow Him.

The writer of Hebrews says in 4:1 that the promise of rest still stands.  The promise is still in effect.  We’re talking about something other than which day we should designate as the Christian Sabbath.  Is it Saturday or Sunday or every day?  My question is, are we even talking about a particular day?  Not in this text.  The writer says,

1 Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. 2 For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. 3 For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, "As I swore in my wrath, 'They shall not enter my rest,'"although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. 4 For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: "And God rested on the seventh day from all his works." 5 And again in this passage he said, "They shall not enter my rest." 6 Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, 7 again he appoints a certain day, "Today," saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts." 8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. 9 So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10 for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. (Hebrews 4:1-10 ESV)

We’re talking about THE rest, THE Sabbath, THE cessation of working and striving for salvation.  The Israelites in the desert never entered this rest because they did not believe God: because they were not united by faith with those who listened. Those who listened being Joshua and Caleb.  Those who didn’t listen being the rest of that entire generation which died in the wilderness rather than enter the promised land.  The Jews during the early days of the New Testament were in danger of the very same unbelief!  They were on the verge of rejecting the word of God, rejecting Jesus Christ, not listening to the good news and forfeiting eternal life!  That is why the writer then says in verse 11,

11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. (Hebrews 4:11 ESV)

There was only one work which the Jews needed to engage in, one thing they need to strive for: the truth.  “Is Jesus the Christ or is He not?  Do we believe this gospel message and trust that this man whom they say God raised from the dead is the promised Messiah, or not?  If He is who we’re being told He is, we must believe it or risk the wrath of God and never enter into the rest which David says is still available to all who believe.  Do we really want to die in unbelief, die in this wilderness, like our forefathers did?”
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In Jeremiah’s day, it was very simple: Don’t work on Saturday or else.  That day is holy to the Lord.  To observe the Sabbath day was to hold the LORD in high esteem.  If you continue to do your business on the Sabbath, if you continue to ignore God’s clear and plain command, if you continue to sin against the LORD with a high hand, you will surely die just as the man in Moses’ day who willingly and knowingly rebelled against the command of God and was stoned to death for it.  Ignore my word, ignore my prophet, ignore Me, . . . and “I will kindle an unquenchable fire in the gates of Jerusalem that will consume her fortresses.” Pretty straightforward.  Not hard to understand.  No mysterious interpretation challenges.

But for us today, we need to differentiate between two issues: the Sabbath Day and the meaning of God’s promised rest.  If you have not yet availed yourself of the Lord Jesus as the only hope for salvation, the single means of entering into the eternal rest which God promises to those who believe, then deciding on which day is the Sabbath is really a non-issue.  It doesn’t matter.

But if you do know Christ, or you are known by Him, what is your attitude toward this issue?  Do you want to please God in this thing called the Sabbath?  Does this even matter to you?  Do you condemn fellow believers who think about this in ways that differ from you?  Are you ready to stand before the Lord Jesus and give an answer to Him for how you have handled this?  Do you have a clear conscience?


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