Welcome back to a new week on the Ask Pastor John podcast. Today’s question comes from me — yes, from me. Pastor John, this is a question I wrestle with. Of course, the biblical pattern for our week is set in creation: work six days; rest one day. Here in the United States, we live on a five-day workweek, with two days off — a rhythm that apparently was innovated by Henry Ford to encourage workers to work only forty hours a week so that they could consume more. So here’s the question: Should Christians work on Saturday too? How should we reconcile the creation pattern of working six days with our American practice of working five days?
Well, this is an occasion to step back and say something about my understanding of the Sabbath because that is part of what is going on here in that question. And then I will tell you what I think about six days of work.
Spirital Renewal and Rest
I am not a strict sabbatarian, which for me means two things. I think the New Testament shifts the Lord’s day from Saturday to Sunday because of the resurrection. It is called the Lord’s day in Revelation 1:10, and then it says that they were meeting on the first day of the week in Acts 20:7 and so on. Second, I don’t take the Old Testament command to keep the Sabbath as binding on the church today with the same strictness it had in the Old Testament for several reasons.
Jesus dealt with the accusations he received of his disciples breaking the Sabbath when they are plucking grain in a unique way. Instead of saying, “No, they are not really breaking the law,” he goes back to David’s eating the showbread, which he says was not lawful. Then he says, “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” (Matthew 12:6–8). That seems to be Jesus’s way of loosening the strictness of Sabbath keeping, as long as people are replacing it with allegiance to him and his way and he becomes their Sabbath.
The other reason I say he is loosening things up is because of the way Paul deals with it when he says, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5). He also says, “You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain” (Galatians 4:10–11). Finally, he says, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow” (Colossians 2:16–17).
So my take on this very controversial issue is that the Sabbath restrictions in the Old Testament are loosened. But I am also impressed with the fact that the early church didn’t do away with it entirely, because they met on the first day of the week. They called it the Lord’s Day. It is rooted in six days of creation, as you pointed out. It is not rooted merely in ritualistic practices in Israel. It is rooted in the way God made the world and how he rested on the seventh day. So my view is that, with a lot of flexibility, we should keep the Lord’s Day for rest and for worship — for spiritual renewal.
Six Days to Labor
Now how does all of that relate to your question? What does it imply? Here I am not going to make a law, just like I don’t want to make a strict law out of Sabbath keeping. I am impressed with the way the Old Testament set up the principle of: work six days; rest one. Specifically, I have in mind Exodus 20:9: “Six days shall you labor.” We usually think of Sunday being the command to not work. But really, the command is do work for six days. Exodus 34:21 says, “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest.” Deuteronomy 5:13 says, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.”
So all my ministry, I have assumed I work six days. That is what I just assumed. I work six days; I rest one. So I would take a day off Monday or Thursday as a pastor, and try to really take it off in a very restful way, since Sunday was a very, very stressed-out and hard day.
Seven Qualifications for Six-Day Labor
Now having said that — that I am a six-day kind of guy — here are seven qualifications that make that difficult to apply:
1. Houses, cars, computers, and gardens all require work, not just vocation. So to say that you go to work five days a week might mean your Saturday is fixing the car or fixing the door or the faucet or cutting the grass. And just for life to function properly, you have got to do lots of work besides what you do in your vocation.
2. Secular vocation may be one form of life-ministry and neighborhood, and school or civic or church ministry might be another. So a person might only work four or five days on his so-called vocation, and then have another day of work in his ministry or in his civic life.
3. The ambiguity of what a workday is figures in here. If you work ten- or twelve-hour days, it raises the question whether you have already worked six days in five days.
4. For some of us, it is not easy to distinguish work and leisure. If I am sitting on the couch reading a biography, am I working? It might depend on whether I am taking notes, but it’s actually hard to say what it depends on. I love my work, and so it is hard for me to distinguish — and that has to be taken into account.
5. There is the real possibility that a person may work six days because he is in bondage to work. He is into ego. He is into finances. He is into escaping home. And that would make working six days a sin. Or it may be that a person wants to work as little as possible because he is lazy and hates his work. And so that would make his working five days a sin.
6. In Christ, work is sanctified so that aspects of the curse that came on work have been removed, and it can now be joyful and satisfying as we do it in Christ’s name, whether it is five or six days. It is not like there is big drudgery in six. There doesn’t have to be at all.
7. The last qualification of my advocacy for six is that, in the new age that we already entered into in measure, Christ has become our eternal rest. There is a soul rest, a Sabbath rest that we found in Christ, which means pervading all our work, five, six, four days — we are restful in Christ (Hebrews 4:9–10).
So when all is said and done, Tony, the question is: Have we found the rhythm of work and refreshment that points to the greatness of the risen Christ, and that leads to strong faith and sustained joyful energy for fulfilling all the various callings (plural) that a person has to the glory of God?