Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 12:3a (Holman) “He said to them, Haven’t you read. . .”
This is a startling question. Of course the Pharisees had read this Bible story about David. They meticulously read every Scripture passage regularly.
Jesus insinuated they had failed, not to read the words, but to grasp spiritual principles contained in the words. The Pharisees neglected the inward lesson of Bible stories and verses because to them holiness was solely an outward matter.
Legalists want religious expression to be visible and outward. This gives them a way to always feel good about themselves. There are always people we can compare ourselves to who are not as “law-abiding” as we are. If legalists look long enough, they never fail to find someone who makes them look real good.
Legalism also allows people to avoid thornier issues of the heart: bigotry, pride, envy, lust, anger, selfishness. Legalism, for all its hoopla, is a pathetic way to practice religion, for it offers no rest. Instead, it makes life an endless effort to please God and impress others. Legalists never feel they have finally arrived.
The Pharisees acted as if the Scriptures were inadequate. They would have vehemently denied this accusation, yet did not hesitate to add to God’s laws their own interpretations. They considered their own words to be equal to, and as authoritative as, God’s. They worshiped their own self-made regulations more than they worshiped God, thereby missing the spiritual meaning of the Sabbath.
The Pharisees made another grievous, common mistake. They considered ceremonial laws as eternally authoritative as moral laws. Moral laws are binding forever, to be obeyed always without exception. Have no other gods before Me, make no graven image, don’t take God’s name in vain, remember Sabbath, honor parents, don’t kill, commit adultery, steal, commit perjury, or covet. Moral laws accurately picture God as He is. Representing the essence of God’s holiness, they are thus the bedrock of our holiness. God does not change, nor do His moral laws.
But ceremonial laws, given to facilitate our worship by helping us correctly focus our attention on God, were meant to be flexible, changeable. They were given to enhance forms and rites of worship in various ways at various eras in accordance with the level of our understanding about God at a given time.
For instance, when the tabernacle was gone, tabernacle rules ceased; when the temple was destroyed, temple regulations ended; when Jesus became our High Priest, priestly requirements were no longer needed.
Many legal aspects of Sabbath ceremonial law ended at Jesus’ death. He is the ultimate rest in God that Sabbath pictured. In observing Sabbath, our dilemma is how to distinguish what rules were meant as moral law, thus binding forever, versus what were intended as ceremonial law, thus temporary. This topic is difficult, causing much debate. We proceed humbly, realizing we may be wrong.
As best I can tell, my study seems to indicate that with regard to Sabbath observance, legalistic rites ended, but spiritual meanings contained in it still exist. Sabbath regulations gave expression to principles still important for us to heed. Rules were a skeleton supporting and protecting an unending, treasured principle.
To help us find and grasp the ongoing, forever binding, spiritual lesson in Sabbath observance, we need to look at God’s own command as He gave it in the ten commandments. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (EX 20:8).
This was not a totally new concept. Sabbath had existed since Creation (GN 2:3). By learning what aspects of Sabbath observance predated the law of Moses, we uncover principles we can reasonably assume were meant to outlast the rules.
In the beginning (GN 2:3), long before Law, two things were heart and soul of Sabbath observance: one day in seven was set apart for rest and as holy. When we combine a day of rest with a day of worship, we have true Sabbath observance.
Let’s look closer at these two principles. First, God commanded us to rest one day in seven. Bodies cannot function well without regular physical rest. For our own good, in gracious humble love, God told us to rest. People still need rest.
Human DNA has not changed. We are the same we have always been. Our bodies continue to require what they’ve always needed, one day in seven for rest.
It is a sin to live in a constant stupor of exhaustion, to brutalize our own bodies. We almost always function better spiritually when at our best physically.
Mind, body, and spirit are not isolated entities. They commingle to make a soul, one united living essence. If any one area is out of whack, the other two are.
Discussing Sabbath rest, people often immediately begin to ask, how do you define rest? The simplest answer is, time off from our jobs, except for necessary occupations of compassion. We rest from making money. Sabbath and tithing serve as strong protectors against materialism. Sabbath teaches we can make all we need to live on by working six days a week. Tithing reminds us we can live on 90% of what we make. God wants to set us free from slavery to this world’s stuff.
Sabbath rest is cessation from work, avoiding secular jobs that yield personal gain or monetary advantage. Past this simple stipulation about refraining from employment, we are on our own to decide what best constitutes rest for us.
People wonder, can I do homework, laundry, yard work, watch TV, play golf, wash dishes? It is okay to try to answer these questions for ourselves, but if we make rigid, hard and fast, concrete rules based on them, we slip into legalism.
God says we need to rest. Thus, we ought to consider, what rests us, causes our mind and body to relax? Apart from our jobs and gainful employment, what helps and invigorates us? If we can’t answer these questions on how to rest our self, we have serious issues to deal with. We need to know how to relax our self.
Second, God commanded us to worship one day in seven. Worship day and rest day are meant to be the same day. Part of rest day is to be set aside to focus on God. This way we acknowledge our relationship with God is our ultimate rest.
The principle of one day in seven set apart for holy observance predates the Law, and thus remains in effect to this day. Jesus opposed legal minutiae of His era regarding Sabbath, but regularly attended public worship. Legalistic abuse of the Sabbath by others could not keep Him from Sabbath observance. Jesus never renounced the fourth commandment. He instead showed us how to rightly obey it.
Jesus left for us a clear example of our need to regularly attend public worship. As His followers, we should be glad to do what His life suggested by habit as well as what He commanded with His words. He prayed before meals, went on short-term missions trips, blessed His home town. We follow His lead.
Our spirits cannot function well without a regular day set aside weekly for spiritual rest. I continue to be surprised at the many Christians who think they can by-pass public, corporate worship, yet still be effective in their Christian walk.
“Men sometimes say, as an excuse for neglecting public worship, that they can worship God at home. My own impression is, . . . he who neglects the public worship of God is not likely to worship Him at all” (David Thomas).
Few “Lone Ranger” Christians succeed in the three duties required of all believers: worship, serve, go. Are they daily in the Word? Do they remember the poor, and use their spiritual gift to minister to believers in the church? Do they witness to unbelievers, and go on mission trips? Most who avoid public worship have a very narrow, self-created definition of what Christianity entails.
As best we can, set aside one day in seven for rest and worship. Bless God. Observe one day of worship as your statement the other six also belong to God.
Bless yourself. We will never be a loser by doing what God wants us to do. A story from USA history illustrates this well. During the gold rush, two wagons left from the same spot at the same time headed for California. One group, led by a Christian, stopped for rest and worship every Sunday. The other group pressed on without ceasing. The ones who regularly worshiped and rested arrived first.
What is it my dad often says? “Jesus is the best boss I ever served.” Amen.