Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 12:3b (Holman) “. . .what David did. . .”
Jesus, trying to convince Pharisees they were wrong, hoped a story from their own Scriptures about one of their most beloved heroes would help. Due to necessity, David once bent ceremonial laws regarding Sabbath without angering God. Jesus’ argument was sound, but the Pharisees were not in a listening mood.
For Jesus, a dark cloud of crisis looms ever larger on the horizon. The dam is about to burst. Things had begun well. Israel and the religious leaders were at first excited about Jesus. “Maybe He is Messiah, God-sent to overthrow Rome.”
Early euphoria evaporated when Jesus claimed the right to forgive sin (MT 9:1-8). Only God can do this. Jesus increased the religious leaders’ suspicions by associating with sinners (MT 9:9ff). “Doesn’t He know God works only through the religious elite?” Their mistrust and hostility toward Jesus was mounting.
When Jesus began ignoring their petty Sabbath rules, their seething disdain boiled over. Casting caution to the wind, remaining vestiges of reserve exploded.
We may find it easy to judge the Pharisees harshly, but we need to examine our own attitude. What do we think about Jesus? Do we love Him intensely, or has our religious life degenerated into rules and regulations? Have we yielded to Jesus in unconditional surrender? Are we convinced God, in Jesus, visited our planet? The Pharisees didn’t think so, and began looking for ways to trap Jesus.
They hoped the Sabbath would be the hook to snag Him. “Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy” (EX 20:8), God had said. The Pharisees appointed themselves to specify the only legitimate ways to remember it and to keep it holy.
They made Sabbath a burden. It was meant to be, and has been, a blessing. From the Mayflower, six pilgrims in a small boat began searching for a good landing spot. With wind-blown sea spray freezing to their clothes, they searched five days in vain. A snow storm howled, the rudder broke, the mast and sail fell overboard. In the storm, Sunday approached, the day these men regarded as God’s day. Without tent, house, or shelter of a rock, they found a little island and spent the day there worshiping Jesus. When the storm lifted, they saw Plymouth Rock.
We don’t agree totally with the pilgrims on Sabbath observance, but have to admit it blessed them. In our zeal to condemn Pharisaical legalism, we forget we lean to the opposite extreme. We need to regain some of the appreciation we’ve lost for Sabbath. Consider four helpful thoughts about the fourth commandment.
First, Christians celebrate Sunday, not Saturday, as the Lord’s Day. On Saturday, Old Testament believers celebrated Creation. Christians commemorate God’s new creation. We honor Sunday to celebrate Jesus’ rising from the dead.
Jesus appeared to the disciples on the Sunday He arose (JN 20:19). He returned to visit them the next Sunday in order to encourage Thomas (JN 20:26).
On the first day of the week, believers assembled to break bread (AC 20:7). Paul told the Corinthians to set aside money on the first day of the week for the poor at Jerusalem (1 C 16:2). John was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day (RV 1:10).
Since we no longer honor Saturday as the Sabbath, its ceremonial laws no longer bind us. Saturday and Sunday are two separate observances. It is wrong to take legalistic Sabbath Day regulations and chain them to Sunday, the Lord’s Day.
Second, one day in seven is to be set aside for worship and rest. Legalistic rules are gone, but this one overarching principle remains. Many ceremonial laws, including Sabbath’s, ended with Jesus, but their spiritual implications still exist.
We set aside Sunday in ways that include worship and rest. We debate how these two interrelate. Some think Sunday should be all pleasure; others all gloom.
Both are wrong. All-indulgence is selfish and irreverent; all-somberness returns us to legalism. Between these two extremes, people have latitude, are free to make their own choices. If God is publicly worshiped, the remainder of the day is for rest. To some this means fishing, gardening, watching football. To others it means doing good, reading the Bible, taking a nap. Amen! To each his own.
Third, Christianity would be crippled without a weekly day of worship and rest. Together we regularly worship or wilt. Communists seem to know this better than we do. They understand how desperately we need a regular day of worship if we are to live an effective Christian life. Even if they claim to give us freedom of religion, they know they can cripple us if they disrupt Sunday, our day of worship.
Few have been more sinister than Fidel Castro in using this sadistic assault against Christianity. When he seized Cuba, he wielded this cruel weapon against us effectively. On Sundays extra work details were required, classes essential for continued employment were offered, job training for advancement took place. His plan devastated the churches. Castro knew loss of weekly public worship would ravage believers. Do we? Losing a set aside day causes havoc among believers.
Many who grew up in church, but drop out, look back on their lives, wondering what caused them to lose interest in God, the Bible, church, and fellowship with believers. Often it was a Sunday job taken as a young adult which kept them out of church on Sunday. When we lose the day of worship, we begin to drift. Parents, be careful. Do all you can to keep your teen from Sunday work.
Never assume church-going is automatic. We are told three–not 15, 10, or 5–consecutively missed Sundays can be fatal to church attendance. Three missed Sundays in a row can break a lifetime habit of church-going, and make it very hard to start again. This is a major reason why many students leave the faith soon after going away from home for college. Three Sundays lost to oversleeping or home work proves devastating. This rapid demise shows how hard Satan fights worship.
Over Christmas and New Years holiday, many leave town or have company in, easily resulting in three consecutively missed Sundays. Some never return to church. Years pass, tragedies come, sin overpowers, and they wonder what went wrong, never stopping to think the Devil used a holiday to begin the downfall of their family’s spiritual life. No wonder this principle is in the ten commandments.
Fourth, Sabbath observance gives us dignity. From dust we come, to dust we return, but this does not mean we belong to the earth. One day a week we lift up weary arms, furrowed brows, and tired minds to the Creator, thereby saying our factories, schools, offices, and employers do not own us. We belong to God. A person drowning in work all week needs to come up for air and joy on Sundays.
One day a week we remember we are precious to God, people made in His image, not beasts of burden like cattle in a field, not property, like slaves in bondage. A weekly holy day reminds us life entails more than only the physical.
Any who say we do not need a weekly day of rest should learn from history. The human story is written in red, blood red. Man’s cruelty to man staggers the mind. But for God’s fourth commandment, our harshness would have been worse.
During the French Revolution, revolutionaries abolished all things religious, including the Sunday rest. Before long they had to reinstate it because the nation’s health was suffering for lack of a day of rest. We could learn from their mistake.
During the first tortuous years of the Industrial Revolution, Sunday was the only relief laborers received. When a young pastor, I saw people driven like cattle on their jobs, forced to work long hours, six days a week, yet living on the edge of poverty. Their only respite was the fourth commandment. It gave them Sunday.
Let me reiterate from a former lesson, I am not trying to reinstate Sunday closing laws. They would help us, but it’s not going to happen. My intent is to show us how wonderful this gift is to us, and to convince us we need to make every effort to observe Sabbath as best we can in the situation we find ourselves.
People who work seven days a week often fall from exhaustion. Weeks in bed follow, as they catch up on their Sundays in arrears. Don’t do this to yourself.
A man, passing a coal mine one Sunday, saw mules in a field, and asked a boy what they were used for. “These mules work in the mines all week,” said the boy, “If they were not brought up on Sunday, they would go blind.” Even mules are helped by Sabbath rest. Learn a lesson from them. My dad was a mule-farmer. He says they are smart animals. Maybe we can learn a Sabbath lesson from them.