The fourth of the Ten Commandments tells us to “Remember the Sabbath day to set it apart as holy” (Exodus 20:8) but it seems a whole lotta folks are skimming over that one. It’s not surprising, though. Recent polls show Christianity is on the decline in the United States. In 2012 77% of the population claimed belief in Jesus but in just three years it dropped to 72%. While 40% of that number said they attend church services regularly other reliable surveys indicate only 20% go weekly. All you need do to confirm that pitiful statistic is to visit a mall, a theme park or a football stadium on any given Sunday and you’ll find the place packed. Alistair Begg commented, “Though we might still possibly remember the Sabbath day, in the land of perpetual fun we surely don’t keep it holy!” While the drop in born again believers is disturbing enough in itself, the fact that only 1 out of 5 Christians make going to church a priority is downright depressing. Alexis McCrossen wrote, “Americans went from viewing Sunday as a holy day of rest, to a day of cultural enlightenment, to one of mindless consumption and amusements; they went from thinking of the day in terms of broad public purposes to goofing off or finding the best bargain.” Shameful.
In the early 1800s a Pennsylvania man got booted from his local congregation because he went to work one Sunday and missed church service. He took his case to the Presbyterian General Assembly but they upheld the church’s decision. Things have changed a bit. Hard to fathom it wasn’t until 1949 that the NFL allowed their contests to be played on Sunday. Nowadays, since the Lord’s business is usually over by noon, some churches actually sponsor game-watching parties right in their sanctuaries. Perhaps more than any other, the fourth commandment forces believers to come to terms with how seriously they take God’s plainly-spoken laws. Sadly, stats don’t lie. Millions consider “Remember the Sabbath day to set it apart as holy” to be a recommendation, not a commandment. They demand more choice in the matter. Bruce Ray wrote that many Christians would rather have “…the whole day on Sunday to go hiking, sailing, shopping, without being inconvenienced by having to attend services. We can just fit God into our schedules the way we do piano lessons and dental appointments. Then, if something more interesting comes along, we can always reschedule. McSabbath is here – worship services that are quick, easy, convenient, and user-friendly. Little or no sacrifice required.” Of course, he’s referring to those Christians who still give a hoot. Many consider the church a passé institution because now they can access sermons and praise music whenever they want right on their smart phones. Surely God understands how busy they are!
Now, before we go mounting our high horses we must acknowledge that taking a hard-nosed, legalistic stance isn’t going be productive. It’s important to first emphasize the underlying principle – that we’re to “…be transformed by the renewing of [our] mind(s)…” (Romans 12:2). Spiritual transformation won’t happen if we don’t go out of our way to willingly join in worship, prayer and Scripture study with a group of fellow believers. Only by remaining obedient to God’s decrees can we become truly liberated but, at the same time, we can’t let the law obscure the doctrine of grace. It’s a fine line to walk but nevertheless we must walk it. Begg wrote, “God’s love for us is not on the basis of duty, but neither does His love for us free us from duty. Our freedom from the law as a way of salvation does not mean we’re then free from the law as a guide to conduct.” In other words, we haven’t been granted the luxury of picking and choosing which of the Ten Commandments we’ll honor and which we’ll dismiss. Now, I realize things aren’t the way they were thousands of years ago when God delivered His Laws to Moses but that doesn’t mean they’re now arbitrary. Fact is, up until recent times the Christian community shared a strong sense of obligation to keep work and recreational activities to a minimum on Sundays. In Texas, for example, there were “blue laws” in place that prohibited the sale of certain items including pots, pans and appliances on Sundays until the laws were abolished in 1985. Folks under the age of 40 find that difficult to believe but that’s how things were for a very long time. Some states still have restrictions in place that prevent or restrict the sale of liquor and automobiles on Sundays.
So what’s happened? What’s changed? Should we assume the older generations were mistaken about law #4? Did they not savvy that the New Testament negated some of the Old Testament edicts? Did they misunderstand what Jesus implied when He said “…The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath” in Mark 2:27? Or could it be this commandment is discomforting because it’s about sacrifice, making us face our unwillingness to completely surrender and give God total control over our lives? Sometimes the raw truth makes us squirm. Early on in the Bible we’re taught that “By the seventh day God finished the work that he had been doing, and he ceased on the seventh day all the work that he had been doing. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on it he ceased all the work that he had been doing in creation” (Genesis 2:2-3). Redundancy in Scripture usually indicates a pivotal point is being made and this passage is no exception. God Himself rested from His creating labors and, in so doing, He set a precedent for us to follow. Everything God does has a purpose. When Christ said the Sabbath was made for us and not the other way around He was actually directing His statement at the snooty Pharisees who relished being religious nitpickers. They’d been chastising the disciples merely for snacking on wheat granules. The Jewish leaders were complicating what God made clear in Deuteronomy 23:25; “When you go into the ripe grain fields of your neighbor you may pluck off the kernels with your hand, but you must not use a sickle on your neighbor’s ripe grain.” However, those who take what Jesus said about the Sabbath as justification for not going to church are just as guilty. John Murray wrote, “It was not deviation from Old Testament requirements that our Lord was condoning, but deviation from pharisaical distortion. He was condemning the tyranny by which the Sabbath institution had been made an instrument of oppression. And He did this by appeal to the true intent of the Sabbath as verified by Scripture itself.”
Speaking of Deuteronomy, in chapter 5 the strict observance of the Sabbath is set in a distinctly Jewish framework. Jews were to spend Saturdays contemplating their deliverance from slavery, their unique relationship with the great I AM and their identity as God’s chosen people. Yet we Christians mustn’t commit the error of thinking the fourth commandment doesn’t apply today just because under the Mosaic Law working on the Sabbath was punishable by death. While Jesus’ murder on the cross and subsequent resurrection paid the penalty for all our sins, it doesn’t connote law #4 has been eradicated. No way. If that were the case then failing to honor our parents and indulging in adultery, both of which carried a death sentence under Mosaic Law, would be purged from the books, too. Some will claim that knee-jerk reaction is “taking it to the moon.” That all they’re rationally trying to say is the New Testament doesn’t reiterate explicitly we’re to “Remember the Sabbath day to set it apart as holy.” But, as Joseph Pipa wrote, “This fails to recognize the equal authority of the Old Testament and sidesteps the principle that whatever the Bible doesn’t repeal remains in effect.” I.e., we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. To say the whole Sabbath issue is controversial is putting it mildly. For instance, Seventh Day Adventists insist Saturday was always considered the authentic Sabbath until Constantine changed it to appease the pagan sun worshipers. Maybe he did. Maybe not. Therefore this begs the question, “What’s the intent of the law?”
The vast majority of Christian scholars/theologians are of the opinion the day itself isn’t the point; that the fundamental spiritual obligation of the commandment is that we’re to set aside one day of rest per week. Pipa concurred. He stated, “The Sabbath ordinance contained the positive law of one whole day in seven; that, from creation, was the seventh day. But the day may be changed without affecting the inherent moral character of the ordinance.” When in doubt I always consult the Bible. Paul wrote, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you with respect to food or drink, or in the matter of a feast, new moon, or Sabbath days – these are only the shadow of the things to come, but the reality is Christ!” (Colossians 2:16-17). It’s evident He didn’t think the specific day of the week designated by the church as the Sabbath was nearly as crucial as who, going forward, was to be the recipient of our heartfelt worship. This necessitates conducting a fact-based investigation as to why the Sabbath was changed from the last day of the week, Saturday, to the first day of the week, Sunday. In the New Testament the final scenario of Jesus’ followers keeping the Jewish Sabbath is described in Luke 23. The lifeless body of Christ was in the tomb. “Then they returned and prepared aromatic spices and perfumes. On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment” (Luke 23:56). Why is this significant? Because after Jesus rose from the grave everything changed. Everything. The traditional Jewish Sabbath is never brought up again except as a tolerated option for Jewish Christians (see Romans 14:5). There’s no “evil conspiracy” afoot. Because the Resurrection occurred on a Sunday morning, Jesus’ followers chose that day to meet and worship together instead of Saturday. Begg wrote, “Just as the deliverance from Egypt lay at the heart of the Mosaic Sabbath, so the redemption accomplished by Christ is remembered on the Lord’s Day.” Derek Prime agrees: “The change not only bore witness to the Resurrection, but it emphasized the difference between the Christian Sunday and the Jewish Sabbath. The Jewish Sabbath came at the end of six days and spoke of a rest to come; the Christian Sunday comes at the beginning of the week symbolizing ‘the rest’ that Jesus Christ has won for those who trust Him.”
The important thing is that Christians acknowledge we’re to dedicate one day a week to our Savior for rest and worship and that day is Sunday. Get up and go to church already! Non-believers can do whatever on Sunday but those saved by the blood of Jesus are instructed to gather to ponder God’s works, fellowship with their brothers and sisters in Christ, tithe and make themselves useful/available to those who are destitute or in dire need of assistance. Remember, the Pharisees had no interest in going out of their way to be charitable. Their Talmud had 24 chapters pertaining to the Sabbath. They had a list of 39 principal activities (with 6 sub-categories) that were outlawed on the Sabbath. Thus, when Jesus healed a sick woman on a Saturday afternoon the Jewish head honcho went ballistic, announcing to the crowd, “There are six days on which work should be done! So come and be healed on those days, and not on the Sabbath day” (Luke 13:14). Jesus responded by calling him and his robed posse on the carpet for being hypocrites who cared more for their livestock than for a “…daughter of Abraham.” The Pharisees were more concerned with doing things right than they were with doing the right thing. In other words, we who do make the Lord’s Day special can’t let that instill in us a pride-filled attitude of superiority over Christians who don’t. Murray wrote, “It’s possible to make Sabbath-keeping, that is, abstinence from overt forms of desecration and attendance upon the exercises of worship, an instrument of the self-righteousness that is the archenemy of the Christian faith.” I don’t know anyone who’d care to come in a place where they get judged by holier-than-thou Pharisees.
We should keep the Sabbath concept simple. Begg wrote, “Tasks which fall outside the categories of works of necessity, mercy and piety should be left for another day.” The whole idea is to come together as a loving, extended family. In Acts 20:7 it says believers met on the first day of the week to “…break bread.” It was an uplifting occasion during which not only one’s body received nourishment but one’s soul, as well. For 21st century Christians it’s a matter of designating Sunday as a day unlike the other six to follow. Look, attending church service can either be a have to thing or a want to thing. If one selfishly views it as an enormous imposition upon their cherished “time off” then it’ll be a clock-watching drag. On the other hand if one looks at it as a wonderful opportunity to be part of something bigger than themselves, a time to recharge one’s spiritual batteries and a chance to interact with like-minded believers then Sunday will be a day they’ll eagerly and joyfully anticipate. I’m particularly encouraged by the sight of so many beautiful babies, toddlers and youngsters gleefully spending time inside God’s house. They give me much-needed hope for this fallen world’s future. It’s a matter of making church-going routine in the best sense of the word. Begg expressed it well: “When a congregation of God’s people comes to a deep-seated conviction about the precious priority of the Lord’s Day, when they call the Sabbath a delight, and when they rejoice in the instruction of God’s word in the fellowship of God’s people, then other considerations and obligations, appetites and preoccupations will become secondary to this great priority.”
I grew up in an era when everyone I knew, regardless of their denominational preference, went to church with their family on Sunday. While it didn’t make us all perfect it did make a difference. Since Sundays were special it gave us the impression our faith was special, too. Down the road, though, we lost something vital to our collective spiritual well-being when church attendance became but one option amongst many. Over the decades I’ve heard backsliders cheerfully chirp that they consider every day “the Lord’s Day.” Sadly, all they’re really doing is demoting Sunday to “just another day.” That’s not what God said to do. He commanded we “Remember the Sabbath day to set it apart as holy.” Our church time needs to be viewed as sacred time. Turning the TV to a Christian station while getting ready for a round of golf or to take the kids to soccer practice is a lame, woefully inadequate substitute. Ray wrote, “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. We cannot, by taking shortcuts, gain what the Sabbath was designed to give us. McSabbath may satisfy the immediate itch, but it cannot satisfy our souls.”
As always, it comes down to trusting in God, putting His will first before everything else. When an individual or family makes worshiping/praising the Lord on Sunday non-negotiable no true believer’s going to accuse them of neglecting their responsibilities. God will see to it that you have plenty of time to take care of all those other “pressing issues” if you’ll put all your faith in Him. God didn’t establish the fourth commandment so obeying it’d be yet another burden in your life. On the contrary, it’s one of His countless blessings. Before I rededicated my life to Christ I used to drive by churches on Sunday mornings and pity the fools inside. But when I hit rock bottom and knew I needed divine help to get back up I instinctively ran to the church. I soon discovered I’d been the fool. The church provides something essential nothing else can provide. It’s a refuge from this wicked world still being torn asunder by Satan. The devil hates houses of worship. Praise music, prayer and sermons based on biblical truths infuriate him so much he avoids church property like it’s the Second Coming of Christ. When I’m in church I feel like I’m getting a glimpse of my eternal home. I can tell you this. If you’re not observing the Lord’s Day as God commanded, you’re the one who’s missing out on the blessing.