Six days shalt thou labour

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. 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

13So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach. 14For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come.

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.


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15 responses to “Six days shalt thou labour

  1. R.A.A.

    Thanks for this. I turn my phone off when I go to church, and turn it back on when I get home. I’m going to start leaving it off until Monday.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Berend de Boer

    There are many Old Testament commandments which are not mentioned in the New Testament, such as laws around incest. That in itself is not an argument.

    I would rather look for the practice of the Apostolic Church and the early church fathers. And that is abundantly clear.

    Given the Sabbath was needed before The Fall, why is there even a discussion we can be 24/7 consumers in our day and age? Christians are going to transform culture by conforming to the world?


  3. Berend de Boer

    But to be specific, there are many references in the New Testament to the day of rest, but one needs to be aware that the Lord of the Sabbath changed the day of rest to the first day of the week. That process took some time. By the time John wrote Revelations the phrase “first day of the week” had now become “the Lord’s Day” (Revelations 1:10).


    • I wasn’t suggesting the shift to gathered worship on Sundays was not (a) a thing, or (b) referenced in the NT. My point was more about the “rest” element (from work etc), which isn’t mentioned in the epistles (and as you fairly note, neither are various other things) and from what I’ve read was not made much of, in the writings of the early church fathers.

      My impression is that in practice you and I probably land somewhere similar on what the Commandments means for today, but I’m still left with puzzles re the early church (first few centuries period).


      • Berend de Boer

        If you look at the OT, the situation is precisely similar. In Exodus 16 we have a whole discussion that people shouldn’t gather manna on the Sabbath. And the Ten Commandments haven’t even been given! Clearly the Jews knew and observed the Sabbath where they could, and in Egypt many of them probably could not! So it was assumed to exist.

        Another parallel is slavery. The NT doesn’t outright say you should let your slaves go (where would they go?), but a culture steeped in Christianity will abandon slavery. The examples set by the early church on meeting on the first day of the week or by the apostle (in the spirit in the Lord’s Day) were to be the leaven.

        Telling slaves not to work won’t fly. Telling their master that their manservant and maidservant can’t work, that’s the key.

        And the key for us is to believe that God forbids us to work. Christians who no longer believe this, will abandon the Sabbath.


      • I’m not sure if/where we are disagreeing. My point was that in writing to churches with many Gentile converts, where the Sabbath concept would have been little known, it is perhaps a bit surprising that there is no mention. And even if that is not surprising, it is interesting that in the first few centuries of the church the extant writings don’t suggest much focus on the (Sunday) Sabbath at all. I’m puzzled why, from a standpoint of being wholly convinced that Commandment remains important/binding for us today.

        Some perhaps discount the post-biblical early centuries of the church, but I think we can learn from what they wrote, even when on occasion their emphases may not have been ours (as their context wasn’t).


  4. Phil View

    I often read your other blog and just spotted the link to this one. I would be interested in reading about the process you went through to join a different church and denomination. How did you pick out a church from all the choices? Joining a church is joining a community and not necessarily an easy decision to make.


    • The short story. I was born into a Baptist family and in NZ was only ever a regular attender of Baptist congregations until I was 40 – all being those my parents had been part of, three of which my father had been pastor of. I’d always been attracted to Anglican liturgy and have come to be convinced that for the children of believers infant baptism is a more biblically faithful approach, and so when we moved overseas again we made the break and decided to become Anglicans and had our children baptised in Anglican churches. !0 years on we moved back to the Baptist church in our neighbourhood (one I’d first come to at 15). I’ve always felt quite strongly that one should worship in the neighbourhood one lives in (and vice versa), and the return was some hard to unpick mix of that, of a family heritage (ancestors had helped found the congregation), where the Anglicans were getting to on normalising homosexuality, and some sense that God had never really released me from that congregation. It isn’t a place of comfort – rather the contrary – but some hard to pin down sense of call to be there.


  5. James Russell

    Thanks Michael, a very thought provoking post. I do not know the answer, but wonder if Exodus 31: 12-18 might offer an answer whereby the Sabbath is explained: (ESV) And the Lord said to Moses, “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I , the Lord, sanctify you. You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days work shall be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.”

    There is a clear link here between the Sabbath and the covenant made with Israel. Are we not living under a new covenant with Christ? Hence the lack of mention in the New Testament, when Paul was writing to a people not under the old covenant but the new?

    And then furthermore when Jesus declares himself Lord of the Sabbath in Matthew 12 (when being rebuked by the Pharisees for working on the Sabbath), is something there pointing towards this particular commandment being about rest in Jesus Christ?

    I don’t know what the full or correct conclusion is from these two passages, but I’m leaning towards an answer being that our rest is in Christ Jesus, not a legal undertaking of resting one day a week, which was a requirement under the Old Covenant. Having said that, resting is healthy in and of itself.



    • Berend de Boer

      Jesus says in Mark 2:27: “The sabbath was made for man.” So how come we have people argue that Christians can let others work and not give them rest on the Sabbath? We can be little tyrants expecting everyone to be available to fly us around, serve us in the shop, while we “rest in Christ”. Yeah right.


      • I’m not sure where to draw the line on that one. I would be quite content if all shops were closed on Sundays, but if they are open and presumably staffed largely by non-Christians I do pick up a loaf of bread on the way home from church. At an extreme, should one use electricity on Sunday, or TV/radio? I noted one of my own boundaries: I don’t do media interviews on Sundays but have done pre-records for shows that play on Sunday. I’m not sure where a line should be drawn, or what guidance a church should offers its members.


      • Berend de Boer

        The Jews do the same: these heathen won’t observe the Sabbath, so we can let them do useful things for us. Doesn’t sound spiritual to me.

        On the boundary: the formula is simple in itself: if it is for necessity and mercy, it is allowed. In the classical wording of the Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 60: “Q. How is the sabbath to be sanctified?

        A. The sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.”

        Mercy is caring for the sick, necessity is what could not have been avoided even by a more careful preparation. I.e. running out of fuel, bread, milk etc can be avoided and can’t serve as an excuse.

        Using electricity is debated even among the Jews. Christians allow it as it avoids work, and would be available anyway for issues of mercy and necessity. I.e. no more work is created. I would not use electricity if I knew more people had to work due to my usage, but grid operation and monitoring does not depend on how many users there are.

        I think the issue is not particularly about giving more and more detailed instructions, that is in my opinion against the spirit of the New Testament rest. So people who delve into: is this allowed, or that allowed I think are of the wrong spirit. God gives you a day to serve him, anything that hinders that is something a spiritual Christian will avoid.

        Christians acting as if God did not create the Sabbath for man, nor for his manservant or his maidservant, or his beast of burden even, abuse creation order, and go contrary to the command to be not conformed to this world. The world does not have a Sabbath.

        PS: given your background, you may be interested in Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World:


  6. James Russell

    Further to my earlier comment, I find ‘The Gospel Coalition’ to be a good resource grounded in solid teaching and exegesis. This following article is an extract from a book which addresses many of the things you post about, particularly New Testament writings on the subject (not silent on it!) and early church practices. It makes a good point at the end that stricter observance of Sunday as a ‘Sabbath’ type day of rest came more about from the Puritans than anywhere else:


    • Thanks for that link. I’ve only skimmed in so far, and want to print it out and consider if more carefully. I think the thing I’d pose as a counterpoint is the presence of the Sabbath in the Ten Commandments themselves (and perhaps verses like that from Isaiah 58 that I quoted in the post). But in terms of the very strict observance of Sunday he is undoubtedly correct that it was a post-Reformation phenomenon.

      On the other side, I like the treatment of the issue by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon in their “The Truth About God: The Ten Commands in Christian LIfe including this

      “The Christian when Christians perform one of our most radical, countercultural, peculiarly defining acts – we simply refuse to show up for work, It is how we put the world in its place. It is how we take over the world’s time and help to make it God’s time. It is how we get over our amnesia and recover our memory of how we got here, who we are, and in whose service we are called.”

      Liked by 1 person

  7. James Russell

    I’ve kept on mulling this over the last couple of days, and reading more.

    We (Christians) should be doing something different on Sundays, and by different I mean a focus on God, our Christian community, and rest. We should be doing that for the benefits that those bring. We should do it on Sunday because that is the day that Our Lord rose, and is therefore the holy day of the week for us. This is well established by 2000 years of teaching and practice. And that quote from Haurwas and Willimon seems really spot on to me.

    But I simply don’t know if we should also be doing it because keeping the Sabbath holy is one of the Ten Commandments. I’m uncomfortable with saying that this Commandment no longer applies (see potential reasons above about it being a sign of the superseded covenant with Israel), because Jesus Himself affirmed the Commandments, didn’t he?

    I’ll have a look at that book by Hauerwas and Willimon, hopefully this will become clearer to me because I just don’t know what the best answer is.

    Liked by 1 person

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