Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 12:2b (Holman) “. . .they said to Him, Look, Your disciples are doing
what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!”
The legalistic Pharisees spied something they didn’t like. Critical eyes never lack visible kindling to use as ammunition to spark explosions. Beware the disposition to find fault and be critical. It’s a habit easy to develop, hard to break.
“Look!” they cried out, calling Jesus’ attention to something they deemed important. The 12 were committing a scandalous, earth shattering crime. Picking grain from a field was legal six days a week, but the religious leaders had declared it was illegal when done on the Sabbath. The 12 were guilty, caught red-handed.
It is nothing new for the harmless, innocent acts of believers to be spoken of maliciously. Going to church is called hypocrisy. Prayer before meals in a restaurant is showing off. Acts of kindness are considered a play for sympathy, or a ploy to get things in return. If we speak of tithing, they say all we want is their money. If we seek legislation aimed at making our culture a better place to live, they say we are trying to force our religion on them. Whatever believers do, we are criticized. Do right anyway. Even if they call us demagogues, always do right.
From our vantage point, the Pharisees sounded mean and harsh. But to their credit, they were correct in thinking Sabbath observance mattered hugely to God.
A major reason God punished Israel, exiling them to Babylon, had been their failure to remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy (2 CH 36:21). Every one in Israel, including Pharisees, understandably did not want to return into exile.
Due to this shared concern, Sabbath observance became the heart of Israel’s existence, a binding cultural force holding them together as a nation. Israel was radically sensitive about Sabbath observance. This issue mattered to them. It was so volatile and vital to Israel that Jesus’ negative attitude toward their Sabbath regulations played a huge role in the animosity that led to His being executed.
The Pharisees were right in wanting Sabbath to be honored, but were wrong in overly emphasizing its outward details, its externals. In their zeal to protect the trappings of Sabbath, they missed what it’s all about, its spirit of worship and joy.
Ultimately, Sabbath can be observed only in the heart. In its original form, Sabbath was established by God at the creation without any rules or ceremonies attached to it. The day was merely set aside as holy (GN 2:3) in honor of the Holy One. It was to be a day focused on Him, romancing Him. It was to be enjoyed.
Our sin interrupted this delight. As a result, history ground on in discord. People strayed ever farther from God, who finally intervened to help us rediscover the joy of having one day a week set aside for undistracted enjoyment of Himself.
Thousands of years after Creation, the Lord instructed Moses to set in place rituals and regulations to facilitate Sabbath observance. These ceremonies were meant to be only helpful aids for, but never the essence of, Sabbath worship.
Jesus decided to restore Sabbath, to take it back to its pristine beauty, to cut through the barnacles that legalists had added to it. He stripped off externals, not to end honoring the Sabbath, but to return it to its true meaning and observance.
Long before any rules and regulations, Sabbath rest was voluntary. Jesus returned Sabbath observance to this original simplicity. No church has executive power. No one can force another to serve God in spirit and truth. We have no legitimate right to try to force God’s will on anyone. Not even God does this.
Our USA forebears used Sunday closing laws to shield laborers from bosses who would work them to death. Mandatory Sabbath rest was one of God’s best gifts, relieving exhaustion, preserving self-respect. One day a week, every person could stand erect to say, “I was made from dust, but am not a lowly creature of the soil. I look up to Heaven, my real home, the residence of my Master.” One day a week, every servant is his own master, and every master his own servant (Glover).
Sunday closing laws provided a rest that proved a wonderful gift to our society. We’ve been exhausted since we repealed them. In seeking to have laws that protected people, our forebears were justified, and are to be commended.
Unfortunately, they also tried to force people to observe outward Sabbath worship regulations. They made people attend church. In this they were wrong.
In our USA Sabbath experiment, we see the dilemma believers always face in trying to use government to implement Christian ideals. As voting citizens we have a responsibility to try to convince government to enact laws which help people, but we must not try to force others to take part in our religious ceremonies.
Sunday closing laws aided the health of our whole society, and facilitated those who voluntarily wanted to observe Sabbath to do so. In this, the laws were okay, but trying to force someone to observe Sabbath takes away its meaning.
The purpose of Sabbath is voluntary enjoyment of God, facilitated by one day in seven set aside for rest and worship. This may be a reason early Christians switched their day of rest and worship. This would allow them to escape legalism connected with Saturday, yet let them on Sunday continue to celebrate and observe the original, spiritual aspects of one day in seven set aside for rest and worship.
Should we reinstate Sunday closing laws? No, that battle is over. We did away with blue laws due to selfish desire for financial gain. Loving money more than rest, health, or God, the USA chooses to worship at the altar of materialism, though she wrecks her own cultural health by pile-driving herself into exhaustion.
I’m not on a crusade to enact Sunday closing laws. I instead want to help us better understand the ins and outs of attempts in our culture to observe Sabbath.
I plead for Christians to live in Sabbath rest 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, facilitated by one day in seven regularly set aside for rest and worship. Legal enactments may help some keep the Sabbath Day holy, but are never its soul and essence. Closing stores and factories is not Sabbath-keeping. We can be away from the shop and assembly line, yet still be at work. In the pew, we can be thinking about business. Even in church, money can displace God in our thoughts.
It is possible to sit in worship yet not worship, to sing words we don’t think about, vocalize promises we don’t intend to keep, express feelings we don’t have.
Lyrics easily take a back seat to the tune and accompaniment. I passionately love our worship services, but at times I become so enraptured by the music that I miss the message. What was the pop song many of us sang when young? “Give me the beat, boys, and free my soul. I want to get lost in your rock and roll, and drift away.” The anesthetizing stupor we want secular songs to produce can also be a byproduct of the sacred. We easily get lost and drift away, rather than grasp and understand. Judas knew the place of prayer, but not the prayer of the place.
There is in public worship a private worship, in praying a real praying, in Bible reading a real reading. If our spirit is not right, our focus not on Him, we break Sabbath even when going through the motions of trying to keep it.
Perfunctory ritual is vice, not virtue. Mere formality never pleases God. In Sabbath keeping, Pharisees were true in every legalistic way, but did they keep Sabbath? What was the state of their spirit? When had they last searched their souls? Did they pray, meditate, romance God? No. They broke Sabbath. Do we?