I’ve been reflecting a bit recently on this item in the list we know as the Ten Commandments.
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping 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, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
That is the Exodus version. The Deuteronomy version is a little different
“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.
The only material difference appears to lie in the explanation: in Exodus from the Genesis 1 framing of the creation story (God rests), and in Deuteronomy the framing – perhaps mainly about the explicit inclusion of slaves/servants? – is in God’s redeeming work in liberating Israel from slavery in Egypt.
The most recent prompt to think about this commandment and its place in our world and/or the church today was a couple of sermons I heard recently on Matthew 11 and 12 (mostly the last verses of chapter 11 – “Come to me all you who are heavy and burdened, and I will give your rest) – and the first 13 verses of chapter 12 on Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath). I gather there was an earlier sermon on the commandments themselves, but I missed that. The preacher’s inclination appeared to be to play down this commandment and to emphasise the idea of it being easy – not that demanding – to follow Christ (“my yoke is easy and my burden light”). And if the argument is that under Christ’s dispensation we need no longer worry about precise delineations of, for example, how many metres we might travel on the day of rest, who can disagree, And as Jesus instructs the Pharisees, as it had always been lawful to water your animals of the Sabbath or help one that had fallen into a pit, so “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath”.
Beyond that I wasn’t really convinced. I’ve been working through a number of the epistles recently and have been a little surprised to realise how frequent are the exhortations to lives of holiness, how common are challenges calling out and condemning specific deviations from God’s way, whether among leaders or congregations. Grace may be God’s free gift, but serious discipleship never seems to be presented as something easy, costly, or undemanding. The famous line – not from Scripture but not I think out of step with it – is “costing not less than everything”.
But I couldn’t think of any Sabbath references in the epistles, and when I got home and checked an exhaustive concordance I found that there was a good reason for that: there are none. It is often dangerous to argue from silence, but I still found this a little surprising, especially as while some are primarily addressed to congregations of converts from Judaism, there were many Gentile converts to, and the issue of quite how the demands of the Mosaic law reconcile with the gospel of Christ Jesus is hardly unknown in the epistles. And it isn’t as if the notion and practice of the Sabbath was well-established in the wider Greco-Roman world: indeed, as I understand there was no distinctive “day off” (and perhaps certainly not for slaves).
Of course, there is a great deal that isn’t dealt with explicitly in the epistles. Scriptures just aren’t simply a manual of FAQs, or even a textbook in moral theology. But it still left me a little surprised. As I’ve dug around over the last couple of weeks, between books on my shelves and online material, I’ve come to realise something I don’t think I had previously (or perhaps long ago) that in the early centuries of the Christian church not much weight at all was placed on this commandment. If anything, there was a great deal of concern to wean Christians away from Jewish practices and laws – including as regards being clear that Sunday would be the Christian day of worship. And that still leaves me puzzled.
I can think of two, perhaps three, possible reasons why there might have been such an emphasis (or lack of it).
- perhaps the Sabbath commandment (even in a Sunday form) was simply no longer relevant for Christians, that presumably then having been the intent of Christ’s teaching,
- perhaps in the specific circumstances of weaning the Christian church into something that wasn’t Judaism this was just one of the hard issues. Many weren’t – both Christianity and Judaism were monotheistic, both taught against murder, adultery, theft, and covetousness, and deplored the bearing of false witness, or idolatry. And dietary laws can’t have been an issue for too long – the vision God granted to Peter cleared up the general point – nor the sacrificial system. But what of the Sabbath, around which thousands of minutely-detailed rules had sprung up, around a principle that – whether in the Exodus or Deuteronomy versions – rested on deep foundations of God’s work in creation and redemption.
- perhaps in the witness to the Gentile world – in an age when living standards were mostly low, when slavery was common, and when new Christians had to live in a world never shaped by Judaism, let alone Christian teaching, it was all but impossible to make the Sabbath rest something mandated for believers (perhaps there is some parallel re slavery?)?
Perhaps there are other explanations. I hope so, because none of these ones seems particularly compelling to me (though perhaps more in-depth resources than I have at hand might resolve some of this).
Of course, there is always the first option: the Sabbath was once a thing, binding once, but not for Christians.
But that makes no real sense either. It isn’t as if Jesus scorned the practice of the Sabbath – declaring after that the Sabbath was made for man, that he was Lord of the Sabbath, and given hint that taught that the rough and tumble of normal commercial life was henceforth to be normal for his followers. And it doesn’t seem likely that in inspiring the writers and editors of Genesis 1, God’s own rest was thought of as some incidental, for Him, perhaps even for Jews under the law, but not the bulk of all those who seek to follow him (modern day Christians of course far outnumbering ancient Jews). And there is little or no hint in the Old Testament of the Sabbath as something “merely ceremonial”. In Isaiah 58 we are presented with these words
13 “If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath
and from doing as you please on my holy day,
if you call the Sabbath a delight
and the Lord’s holy day honorable,
and if you honor it by not going your own way
and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,
14 then you will find your joy in the Lord,
and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land
and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
The Sabbath here is not presented as some heavy burden or a picky compliance test (check boxes and all that), but as something in which God’s people might take delight.
And wouldn’t it seem more than a little odd, and frankly unlikely, if the just one of Ten Commandments was to be superseded (no serious believers supposes that any of the others have been)? Had God’s intention been something in place just until Christ came, it would have been easy enough to have positioned the Sabbath provisions with other more “ceremonial” provisions.
I come from English and Scottish Protestant stock. The church congregations I’ve been part over my life all developed out of those some cultures. And, of course, they were among the traditions (north European Protestantism) that took the Sabbath requirements (observed on Sunday) most seriously. For centuries much of civil law reflected and reinforced those practices. Few people worked on Sundays, little was open on Sundays, and in many cases even general recreational activities were discouraged on Sundays. Many of those civic restrictions were unwound only slowly and in some places have not fully disappeared even today.
New Zealand was formed mostly as heirs to that Anglo-Scottish heritage. In his book Sunday Best historian Peter Lineham records quite a bit of that Protestant Sunday culture here too, although also records a fascinating snippet that in some Maori tribes even before anyone was baptised Sunday observance, of a fairly strict variety had taken hold.
I’m 58 now so too young to remember the strictest forms of Sunday observance in New Zealand. But raised in a Baptist household, Sunday wasn’t a day for work, for school work, or even for mowing the lawns. But for some years Dad ministered in a church in a small town where the largest employer was a paper mill that ran 24 hours a day, 7 days a week: some congregants worked at the mill. We weren’t much of a family for sport anyway – although when I heard about Vic Pollard and Bruce Murray’s refusal to play test cricket on Sunday (just a few years before I was aware of cricket) I was inspired by that stance (and by the later similar refusal by All Black Michael Jones) – but board games, Meccano, or a swim at the beach weren’t looked askance on. Mum didn’t bake on Sunday, but she cooked our roast dinner – I recall my surprise reading Sir John Marshall’s memoirs of growing up in a Presbyterian household in the Wairarapa where Sunday meals were prepared on Saturday. In our household, going to church twice on Sunday was the norm, and my mother told stories of how in her day they’d also had afternoon Sunday school (a tram ride back into central Christchurch. Few shops were open on Sunday in 1960s or 1970s New Zealand (not sure about movie theatres) and almost all sport was played mainly on Saturdays. Trying to work theses things out for myself, I went through a (brief) phase where I wouldn’t read Monday’s newspaper, because it had been produced on Sunday (we didn’t get Sunday papers), or walk to the dairy to buy a bottle of cream for Sunday lunch.
It was relatively easy. Pretty much the whole community did it – at very least the church community, but to a considerable extent (by law and practice) the wider community. I don’t remember any hard choices around Sunday when I was growing up. Many of my friends had some church attachments, but even those that didn’t had few options – there weren’t many jobs, many sports events or so on. In my 7th form year I did pull out of the school drama production, partly because rehearsals were scheduled on Sunday afternoon, but I don’t even think that was the only consideration.
For the church I’d argue it was a good model. It was easy to take the Sabbath day fairly seriously, and to raise one’s family to follow in that way. And that was an era when if church attendance was higher than it is now, it was never a very large share of the New Zealand population.
Today it is hard. As someone who is a semi-retired homemaker it is still easier than for most, at least as an individual. I probably do as much and as little around the house on Sunday now as my mother did 50 years ago. I turn down media interviews on Sundays (although not pre-records for things that play on Sunday, something that now leaves me a little uneasy), and don’t write blog posts or engage on Twitter on Sunday. When I was in paid employment, at times I had fairly senior responsible jobs, but I think there were only 4 Sundays in 32 years when I worked – two occasions I count as genuine crisis (“it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath”), and one when – to my shame looking back – going to be particular senior overseas meeting on a Sunday was then more important to me than keeping the Sabbath. But in the middle of the Covid episode last year my wife worked every Sunday for weeks in a row, and probably could not have held onto her job if she had not been willing to do so.
But there are whole industries where Sunday worked in both normal and expected. A family member gave up being a real estate agent partly because he could see open homes all gravitating to Sundays. Are serious Christians not to be real estate agents? Most retail outlets are now open on Sundays, many entertainment venues, most cafes and restaurants. And even if established staff can negotiate not to work Sundays, the options are much fewer for people starting out, for kids looking for part-time jobs. A large share of children’s sport now takes place on Sunday, as do wider community events such a fun-runs and festivals (the congregation I’m a part of is not having a service this Sunday, so that people can attend the local community festival – a weird witness to the community, should they notice, as to the priorities of that congregation’s leadership). The Wellington fun-run a couple of weeks hence seems set to badly deplete that day’s congregation. And most churches now no longer have evening services either – decades ago, we kept ours going partly to enable people who had to work on Sunday (notably nurses) to join in congregational worship.
Sometimes it seem that congregational worship – just one element of a Christian Sabbath day surely – has become an optional thing when there is nothing else better to do. And that that is an approach that church leaderships endorse, whether actively or passively. It is a long time since, in any church, I’ve heard a sermon calling us to live faithfully and sacrificially (where necessary) all the Commandments?
Why does it matter? It does seem to be a command. Isaiah envisages the people of God “delighting” in God’s holy day, constrained choices and all. One might argue that societies and individuals need rest and there is some good in a common agreed day (ANZAC Day morning perhaps now the only example in New Zealand) – but that is an argument that hasn’t much relevance to how the church, and its people, choose to live (individuals can taken Wednesday off, or Friday, or a different day each week). It seems to me it is partly about trusting in that vision of the “delight”, but also about the formation and shaping of Christian communities, and about our witness to the world. How do we best build, shape, and sustain Christian communities when Sunday isn’t primarily for God, finding us together with fellow believers – week after week – in worship? First century slave believers may not have had the option, but most of us do. And when this, that, or other community or commercial activity takes precedence over gathered worship and a day of Sabbath rest, what witness is that to our increasingly secular (often outrightly hostile to Christian faith) about where our priorities lie.
There often are not easy choices. Do we deprive children of the opportunity to participate in sports – or part-time jobs – that play on Sunday, even outside church service times? If not, what are we prioritising, what values are we living/teaching. If so, is there some risk of poisoning relationships (but isn’t that a risk with everything a parent says no to, and no decent parent says no to nothing). Do we pass up opportunities to perhaps be a Christian voice in secular culture if we say no to things that take Sunday time? Perhaps, but what do we say about priorities if we nonetheless take those opportunities? And for new believers in particular, perhaps they are in career role that really does involve Sunday work. How do we, as congregations, support these people, to grow as disciples, and even perhaps to look to take the risk of saying no to Sunday work. Collective care is part of what Christians are supposed to do. Both giving and receiving help us grow in Christ.
If this post is a criticism of anyone it isn’t of individual congregants – I struggle with some of these choices too, and my life choices are generally easier than those of most – but of wider church leadership. Whatever latter day observance of the Sabbath command means it almost certainly isn’t a formal rule book with hard clear lines that mean this leisure activity is fine, and that is not, for everyone and always. But how often is there a clear call and challenge from pastors and bishops (and equivalents) calling today’s believers, in a hostile age, to faithful discipleship as regards that command – and promise – of the Sabbath rest. Too often church leaders seem more inclined, consciously or not, to act as chaplain for the interests of wider society, keeping to a bare minimum the demands of the gospel or the call to transformed lives, keeping up with changing ethos of the age more than proclaiming the unchanging call of the gospel. The gospel call is counter-cultural. From Hebrews
But I’m still puzzled about this commandment and the early church. If any readers have some really insightful references I’d be keen to have them.