The institution of a Saturday worship service raises the question whether what we are doing here is right in view of 2,000 years of Sunday sabbath keeping in the Christian Church. And if it is right, it raises the further question what special place Sunday should have in the life of a Christian, especially for those who regularly worship on Saturday evening.
The Old Testament Sabbath Command
To help us answer these questions, I want us to try to get an overview of the biblical teaching on the sabbath. Let's begin at the Ten Commandments, found in Exodus 20. The sabbath commandment is number 4 and is found in verses 8–11.
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.
At least five things in these verses need special comment.
First, Israel is to remember the rest day. Sabbath means rest. "Remember the sabbath day," means, "Don't forget to take a day off."
2. Keeping It Holy
Second, "Keep it holy," means set it aside from all other days as special. Specifically, as verse 10 says, keep it "to the Lord," or "for the Lord." In other words, the rest is not to be aimless rest, but God-centered rest. Attention is to be directed to God in a way that is more concentrated and steady than on ordinary days. Keep the day holy by keeping the focus on the holy God.
3. One Out of Every Seven
Third, the holy rest day should be one out of every seven. Verse 9: "Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God." Work six, rest one. Work six, rest one. That's the pattern prescribed in the Ten Commandments. Note it does not say that the sabbath ("rest day") has to be the last day of the week or the first day of the week. The concept of weeks is not even mentioned. The command is simply work six, rest one. Every seventh day should be a sabbath.
4. No Fudging
Fourth, no fudging on the commandment by saying, "Well, I will keep it, but I will put my maid to work, or set my ox to threshing with a carrot in front of his nose at 6 PM the evening of the sabbath so that it will thresh the grain all day while I rest." God says, No. You miss the point if you try to keep the business running by using servants or animals or relatives. What point?
5. God's Rest After Creation
Fifth, verse 11 leads us to the basic point of the commandment. It is based on God's rest after creation: "For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it."
This is taken from Genesis 2:2–3.
And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all his work which he had done in creation.
God "Blessed" and "Hallowed" the Seventh Day
Both Genesis 2:3 and Exodus 20:11 say that God "blessed" and "hallowed" the rest day. What does it mean for God to bless a day? I think it means that he makes the day a time of blessing. When God blesses a man, the man becomes rich with blessings. When he blesses a land, the land becomes rich with blessings. So when he blesses a day, that day becomes rich with blessings.
And what does it mean that he hallows the day? "Hallows" is the same word as "sanctifies." It means set the day aside for special focus on what is holy, namely, God and his holy works.
Now consider the two words together. He blessed the day and he hallowed the day. How do these fit together? He made it a source of blessing, and he made it to focus on himself. Isn't it obvious that the hallowing is included in the blessing and the blessing is included in the hallowing. When you hallow God and focus your attention on him, you receive more blessing than if you keep on busying yourself seven days a week with secular affairs, thinking that professional advancement and money are the route to true happiness. And (the reverse) when you seek your blessing in God rather than in the products of human labor, you hallow him and honor his holiness as the greater wealth.
The reason given in both Genesis 2:3 and Exodus 20:11 why God blessed and hallowed the seventh day is that "on it God rested from all his work which he had done in creation." What does it mean that God rested? It means at least that he was satisfied that his work of creation was complete and was "very good." His rest means that he wanted to now stand back as it were in leisure and savor the beauty and completeness of his creative work.
This is the real basis of his hallowing and blessing the day of rest. He is saying in effect, "Let my highest creature, the one in my image, stop every seven days and commemorate with me the fact that I am the creator who has done all this. Let him stop working and focus on me, that I am the source of all that he has. I am the fountain of blessing. I have made the very hands and mind with which he works. Let one day out of seven demonstrate that all land and all animals and all raw materials and all breath and strength and thought and emotion and everything come from me. Let man look to me in leisure one day out of seven for the blessing that is so elusive in the affairs of this world."
The beautiful thing about the sabbath is that God instituted it as a weekly reminder of two things. One is that all true blessing comes from his grace, not our labor. The other is that we hallow him and honor him and keep the day holy if we seek the fullness of his blessing by giving our special attention to him on that day.
God as the Source of Salvation
It would be a mistake to conclude from these two texts that the only blessings we should focus on during our sabbath observance were the blessings of creation. Deuteronomy 5 gives us a second version of the Ten Commandments. Here the basis of the sabbath observance is different. Verse 15:
You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstreched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
In other words the mighty hand and the outstreched arm of God were not wearied by the work of creation. They are full of strength. God's rest was not for recuperation, but for exultation. Now the same God has shown his power not just to create but also to save. So the focus of the sabbath is on God not only as the source of creation, but also as the source of salvation. "Your God brought you up out of the land of Egypt . . . THEREFORE he commanded you to keep the sabbath day." One day of rest in every seven, kept holy to the Lord, reminds us and shows the world that GOD is our creator and our deliverer—we did not make ourselves, we cannot sustain or save ourselves without his grace. Be still and know that he is God.
The Sabbath as a Sign
What did the Lord say at the exodus from Egypt?
Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still.
Exodus 31:12–13 stresses again the truth that the sabbath signifies our utter reliance on God's grace.
And the Lord said to Moses, "Say to the people of Israel, 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."
The sabbath is a sign. It points to a truth that we are never to forget. The truth is that God (and not we ourselves) has sanctified us. He has chosen us and set us apart and worked to make us distinct among the peoples of the earth.
Summary of the Sabbath Command
In summary then, Exodus 20:11 and Deuteronomy 5:15 and Exodus 31:13 teach that the sabbath is a way of remembering and expressing the truth that God is our creator and deliverer and sanctifier. We are dependent on him for all we have in the world, for our deliverance from enemies, and for our holiness. He has indeed designed that we work. But our work neither creates, nor saves, nor sanctifies. For these we depend on the blessing of God. All things are from him and through him and to him. Lest we ever forget this and begin to take our strength and thought and work too seriously, we should keep one day in seven to cease from our labors and focus on God as the source of all blessing.
Good News Not Bad News
Before we leave the Old Testament, there is one other passage that clarifies a common misunderstanding of the sabbath. It is Isaiah 58:13–14. It is a shame that for so many people sabbath keeping is thought of solely in terms of what you can't do. Its original intention was certainly intended to be good news not bad news. The sabbath command is in fact a command to experience joy.
If you turn back your foot from the sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth.
God's Purpose for Us on the Sabbath
God's purpose for us on the sabbath is that we experience the highest and most intense joy that can be experienced, namely, that we "take delight in the Lord." And yet what he finds again and again is professing Christians who prefer little human-sized pleasures from things that have no close relation to God at all.
If you worked seven days a week in the hot sun to keep life and limb together, with scarcely any time for leisure and reflection, would you consider it burdensome if your God came to you with omnipotent authority and said, "I don't want you to have to work so much. I want you to have a day a week to rest and enjoy what really counts in life. I promise to meet your needs with just six days of work"? That is not a cruel command. It is a gracious gift.
Why So Many People Think of the Sabbath as a Burden
The reason that so many people feel it as a burden is partly that we have so much leisure, we don't feel the need for the sabbath rest; but more important, I think, is the fact that not many people really enjoy what God intended us to enjoy on the sabbath, namely, himself. Many professing Christians enjoy sports and television and secular books and magazines and recreation and hobbies and games far more than they enjoy direct interaction with God in his Word or in worship or in reading Christian books or in meditative strolls.
Therefore, inevitably people whose hearts are set more on the pleasures of the world than on the enjoyment of God will feel the sabbath command as a burden not a blessing. This is what John says in 1 John 5:3, "For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome." The measure of your love for God is the measure of the joy you get in focusing on him on the day of rest. For most people the sabbath command is really a demand to repent. It invites us to enjoy what we don't enjoy and therefore shows us the evil of hearts, and our need to repent and be changed.
Jesus' View of the Sabbath
When we come over to the New Testament we find that in the intervening centuries the rabbis have added a lot of details to the sabbath command and have missed the spirit of it as a wonderful gift for man's good. So Jesus slams head on into these traditions with a very different view than the one shared by the Pharisees. Let's look at this in Matthew 12:1–12.
At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck ears of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, "Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath." He said to them, "Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the law how on the sabbath the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of man is lord of the sabbath."
And he went on from there, and entered their synagogue. And behold, there was a man with a withered hand. And they asked him, "Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath?" so that they might accuse him. He said to them, "What man of you, if he has one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath."
You Must Have a Loving Heart
What was wrong with the Pharisees? Why couldn't they see the Old Testament the way Jesus did? Why didn't they see David's eating the bread of the Presence and the priest's sabbath work in the temple as an indictment of their sabbath traditions the way Jesus did? According to Jesus the Pharisees could only condemn the innocent because they never had understood Hosea 6:6. He quotes it in verse 7: God says, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice." In other words the whole law exists for the sake of mercy. All the law is summed up in this one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The Pharisees couldn't see the true meaning of the sabbath because they didn't have hearts of love. "The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath," Jesus says in Mark 2:27. So if your heart isn't a heart for man—if it is not a heart of love—you cannot see the meaning of the sabbath. For the sabbath is a gift of love to meet man's need, not an oppressive burden to make him miserable or proud.
Jesus Didn't Abolish the Sabbath
So Jesus didn't come to abolish the sabbath but to dig it out from under the mountain of legalistic sediment, and give it to us again as a blessing rather than a burden. It is a day for showing mercy and a day for doing good (verse 12). It should not be governed rigidly by narrow definitions of what is work and what is not. It is a day to focus on the Lord. And now Jesus is the Lord of the sabbath (according to verse 8), so it is a day to focus on Jesus. And it is impossible that a day focused on Jesus should be a burden to the believing heart—"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest!"
The Practice of the Early Church
As we move on into the early church it is clear that the weekly day of rest and devotion was not rejected, but was changed from Saturday to Sunday. This is nowhere commanded. But there are two verses that suggest it happened already in the days of the apostles. One is Acts 20:7 which says, "On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the morrow; and he prolonged his speech until midnight." This seems to be a formal gathering for the Lord's Supper on Sunday evening, the first day of the week. (It could have been Saturday evening since by Jewish reckoning the day begins at 6:00 PM the previous evening. But Luke probably uses the Roman way of reckoning days from midnight to midnight. Cf. 4:3; 23:31f.) So it looks as though the switch to Sunday for worship had already begun.
The other verse that points in this direction is 1 Corinthians 16:2. Paul is trying to prepare the Corinthians for a collection that he is taking up from the churches for the saints in Jerusalem: "On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that contributions need not be made when I come." It seems that the first day of the week is now the day when Christians are performing special religious exercises.
The First Day of the Week
Those are the only explicit references in the New Testament that seem to relate the sabbath to Sunday rather than Saturday. The real reason for why the church came to count the first day of the week as her day of rest and worship is that the Lord of the sabbath rose from the dead on the first day of the week (John 20:1). Just like the work of the first creation was finished on the seventh day of the week, the work of the new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15; Ephesians 2:10) was finished on the first day of the week by the resurrection of Jesus. So from the very earliest days Christians have set aside the first day of the week as their usual day of rest and worship.
Our Saturday Evening Service
What then shall we say about our Saturday evening service?
In view of the deep significance given in the Old Testament to a day of rest holy to the Lord, I do not in the least want to detract from the value of keeping the Christian sabbath holy, namely, Sunday.
Three Ways to View It
To this end I would suggest we look at the Saturday evening service in one of the following ways. In none of them is the Saturday worship a replacement of Sunday sabbath keeping.
- It can be viewed as a lengthening of the Sunday sabbath, starting five hours early at 7:00 PM instead of 12:00 AM.
- We could simply adopt the biblical/Jewish way of reckoning time and say that the first day of the week begins at 6:00 PM on Saturday. In this case the Saturday service would in fact be on the first day of the week, and our sabbath could run till 6:00 PM on Sunday or be lengthened at the other end to allow a sanctified place for the Sunday evening service.
- We could regard the Saturday evening service as not taking place on the first day of the Christian sabbath but as an extra service in the week to prepare us for the observance of the sabbath on Sunday. In that case the corporate sabbath worship might be what it was for the early church in Acts 20, namely, a Sunday evening service instead of a Sunday morning service.
How Can We Do This?
Where do we get the right to play fast and loose with the times of the sabbath like this? The answer is that we get it from the Jesus Christ the Lord of the sabbath. If Jesus were here today, he would say something like this: "If priests in the temple and pastors in the Christian church are permitted to work 16 hours on the usual day of rest, then the saints are permitted to worship one hour the day before. The sabbath was made for man not man for the sabbath. Come, learn what it means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice.'"
He would send us to consult the words of his apostle in Romans 14:5, "One man judges one day above another, while another man judges all days alike. Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind." We can take this to imply that some think that all days qualify for the sabbath. Some think that only Saturday qualifies. Others only Sunday. Do not condemn one another over these disagreements. Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind.
In summary, these four points:
1. Accept the gift of one day's rest a week. Humble yourself to believe you need it. And be willing to admit that your wealth and your significance and your true advancement in life depend far more on God's labor than on yours.
2. Devote one day a week to focus your attention on God in a special way. Keep a holy day and devote yourself to those things that deepen your love for God.
3. Except where you think obedience to God requires otherwise, let that day of rest and Godward focus be on the first day of the week as a witness to the world that Jesus Christ is the Lord of your sabbath and of your life.
4. For those of you who are free in your conscience to extend your holy exercises forward into Saturday night, let's dream together of new ways to sanctify Sunday morning. Could it be that the Lord is leading you to new dimensions of prayer, or new hours of personal Bible study, or new deeds of mercy for the poor, or Sunday morning visitation to a shut-in, or perhaps a home evangelistic Bible study for neighbors who would not come to church but might come to your home? Can you think of any better time to reach your neighbors with the gospel than between 10 and 12 on Sunday morning? Who knows—maybe the city will find its way to Bethlehem on Saturday night, or maybe Saturday night will free up the saints to reach the city on Sunday morning? If any of you has a sheep that falls into a pit on the sabbath, will you not reach in and pull it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good—all kinds of good—on Sunday morning.