[See Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.] Thus far, I’ve given a very cursory overview of my understanding of the Sabbath. To summarize, I believe that the Sabbath is rooted in creation, and thus it has continuing validity in the new covenant. As part of God’s moral law recorded in the Ten Commandments, the Sabbath is still binding on God’s people until the Second Coming of Christ. However, through the resurrection of Christ on the 1st day, the day of observance for the Sabbath is now the 1st day of the week instead of the 7th day of the week. That has been the confession of the Reformed churches since the time of the Reformation (obviously that is a general statement, and I recognize that Calvin’s view in the Institutes seems to even be different from his view in his commentary on Deuteronomy, which is slightly different than how the English Puritans formulated it).
In this last post, I’m going to briefly discuss what I believe Sabbath observance entails for believers in the church. But before I do that, let me make one very important note: While I have my own convictions on this matter that shape my own personal practice of Sabbath observance, I also recognize that when it comes to the practical outworking of obeying the 4th commandment, there are genuine differences even among Reformed Christians about what that ought to look like. I hold to my own convictions strongly, but that does not mean that I look down on those whose convictions are different than my own. What I find the most helpful is honest discussion of the issues and encouragement to continually reflect on how we can follow Christ faithfully.
Basic Contours of Application
(1) Since the Hebrew word for Sabbath means “to cease” or “to rest,” and since the 4th commandment clearly states that the Sabbath day is to be devoid of our normal work, my basic conviction is that I should not work on the Sabbath. Thus whatever my normal job is, I avoid those endeavors. For me, that includes both my labors for my job as a teacher (grading papers, doing lesson plans), and my job as a student (writing papers, taking tests, etc).
But what about those who have necessary jobs, like doctors, policemen, etc? I think Jesus makes it pretty clear in Matthew 12 that there are two classes of tasks/jobs that can legitimately performed on the Sabbath: those involving necessity or mercy. In other words, food is necessary for life. I am not required to fast on Sunday. So we can put together a meal (though getting it together the night before is probably ideal). If one’s job involves mercy, such as healing the sick, protecting the innocent, rescuing the distressed (Jesus gives the example of an ox that has fallen into a ditch, needing rescue), then that is legitimate. Will the lines on those types of things always be clear? Probably not, but that seems to at least be the general guideline that we’re given.
Probably one of the more controversial areas that this leads to is the question of eating at restaurants on the Sabbath. While many would say that since we have to eat, it’s fine to eat out at a restaurant on Sunday, my own conviction is that this is both unnecessary (I can eat a simply prepared meal from the night before at home), and taking away the possibility of rest for those employed by that restaurant. In other words, I don’t think I should make them work when I would not work there myself on the Sabbath. But I also realize that in the Reformed world, most probably wouldn’t agree with me, so we have to be careful to exercise charity on this question of application.
(2) The primary function of the day after rest is that of worship and spiritual rest. The people of God have always taken the time away from their ordinary activities in order to dedicate that time to the Lord. Thus I believe we have the New Testament pattern of the believers gathering on the first day of the week in order to worship, pray, hear the word, celebrate the sacraments, and fellowship together. Accordingly, I believe that this ought to be the fundamental priority on the Lord’s day for the Lord’s people. If I’m not working on the Lord’s day, but I’m always skipping worship in order to stay home and play video games, I might have missed the point altogether.
(3) Another controversial question that I’ll address is that of recreation. The issue is much larger than I can deal with in this short post (the prohibition of recreation in the Westminster Standards is the most commonly taken exception in the PCA today). But let me offer a few thoughts, though I can hardly say that they are completed formulated. First, I believe that in general, we ought to not be pursuing our own recreations on the Lord’s Day. In other words, we should be focusing on worship, on being with the Lord’s people, on showing to a watching world that we are different even in the way we spend our time. Secondly, however, as I’ve studied Scripture, I don’t believe that this prohibits all forms of “recreation.” If we have a gathering of believers, who, after perhaps spending time studying the word and praying, wish to play a game of cards or listen to some music as a means of fellowship, this seems to me to be a legitimate way to spend the Lord’s day. If my wife and I after church want to walk around the park and talk, this seems to me to be a legitimate to be refreshed, to get rest, and to spend profitable time together. Thirdly, recreation that would cause others to work (sports which involves paying referees, etc) falls under the first point that I made. Lastly, as with many such points of specific application, believers are bound to see things a little differently, and we ought to strive to view each others’ views with respect and love, as well as to encourage each other to follow God’s word faithfully, and not just tradition (whether it be strict or loose tradition).
(4) The question of Sabbath-keeping does become difficult in its application when believers live in contexts that are socially and politically not supportive of the practice. Obviously, America is becoming less and less supportive of it, but at least Sunday is, for many professions, a normal day off of work. But in other contexts, such as in Muslim-majority countries, this can be a difficult question for believers, for the day off of work is generally Friday, not Sunday. Consider the question of a believer who must take a taxi in order to get to church in such a context. Is that violating the Sabbath? That and other related questions are difficult to figure out, and perhaps it is best to not be quick to judge, but rather quick to reflect and pray that God would guide his people in a variety of situations to consider how they can best follow him in a world that does not reflect the same values that he has given to his people.
And that’s where I will leave this truncated series on the Sabbath and Sunday. My thoughts may have been half-baked, possibly unclear, and probably not helpful, but nonetheless, it has encouraged me to continue to think through both the biblical instructions on this issue as well as the difficult work of applying what God has said to life in modern society.