When you think of “keeping the Sabbath holy,” what comes to mind?
Puritan Sabbath Laws
You might think of the Blue Laws of Puritan New England. Alice Morse Earle wrote a book called Sabbath in Puritan New England, and she researched both the Sabbath day rules of New England during the colonial period along with some specific instances of these rules being broken.
Some of the laws regarding keeping the Sabbath were:
No one shall travel, cook victuals, make beds, sweep house, cut hair, or shave on the Sabbath Day.
No woman shall kiss her child on the Sabbath or fasting day.
No one shall ride on the Sabbath Day, or walk in his garden or elsewhere except reverently to and from meeting.
Alice Earle then documents in her book several guilty law breakers of the Sabbath laws of New England.
There was the fisherman who was fined for catching eels on Sunday
Another fisherman was fined 20 shillings for sailing a boat on the Lord’s Day
In 1670, John Lewis and Sarah Chapman were tried in court for “sitting together on the Lord’s Day under an apple tree in Goodman Chapman’s Orchard.” It seems they were on a date.
In Plymouth, a man was whipped for shooting fowl on Sunday
In 1652, Elizabeth Eddy was fined 10 shillings for wringing and hanging out clothes
In 1658, James Watt was publicly reproved for writing a note about common business on the Lord’s Day
In 1646, Aquila Chase and his wife were fined for gathering peas from their garden on the Sabbath
A soldier was fined 40 shillings for wetting a piece of an old hat to put in his shoe to protect his foot
In 1656, Captain Kemble of Boston, after returning from a 3 year voyage, met his wife on the doorstep to his house and kissed her. Unfortunately, this took place on the Sabbath. For this lewd and unseemly behavior, he was set for two hours in the public stocks
The Vermont “Blue Book” contained sharp “Sunday laws.” Whoever was guilty of any rude, profane, or unlawful conduct such as shouting, hallooing, screaming, running, riding, dancing, or jumping was to be fined forty shillings and whipped upon the naked back not to exceed ten stripes.
Perhaps that is what you think of when you think of “keeping the Sabbath holy.”
Jewish Sabbath Laws
Or perhaps, when you think of “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy,” you think of the many Jewish regulations about observing the Sabbath. One modern day Jewish rabbi explains what it means to “observe the Sabbath.”
The “work” prohibited by the Sabbath is not employment, but refers to the kind of work that is creative or that exercise control or dominion over your environment. This was the kind of work that God rested from on the seventh day. So, to observe the Sabbath means to cease from any creative work that changes our environment. Examples of creative work include,
Sowing , plowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, selecting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, washing wool, beating wool, dyeing wool, spinning, weaving, making two loops, weaving two threads, separating two threads, tying, untying, sewing two stitches, tearing, trapping, slaughtering, flaying, salting meat, curing hide, scraping hide, cutting hide up, writing two letters, erasing two letters, building, tearing a building down, extinguishing a fire, kindling a fire, hitting with a hammer, taking an object from the private domain to the public, or transporting an object in the public domain.
The rabbis have also prohibited travel, buying and selling, and other weekday tasks that would interfere with the spirit of Shabbat. The use of electricity is prohibited because it serves the same function as fire. Since the automobile is powered by an internal combustion engine, which operates by burning gasoline and oil, it is a clear violation of the prohibition against kindling a fire.
Maybe that is what you think of when you think of “keeping the Sabbath holy.”
Sabbath – From the Beginning
I didn’t grow up in Puritan New England nor in Jewish Jerusalem, but I grew up in Hurst, Texas, and I vaguely remember the “Texas Blue Laws” (a term coined by Revered Samuel Peters in his 1781 book, General History of Connecticut as he described the various laws to regulate purity and Sabbath observance). The Blue Laws date to the early 1600s, and even in 1961, Texas still banned 42 items from being sold on Sundays (from nails to knives). Most of the laws were repealed in 1985, but blue laws still prevent the sale of vehicles on consecutive weekend days and liquor sales are banned on Sunday.
It is quite unfortunate that when we think of “Sabbath,” we think of rules and laws and the “fun police” instead of the Sabbath as a grace gift from the Creator.
When we speak of the Sabbath, one of the primary questions that we have to address is the relationship of the old covenant Sabbath to the new covenant “Lord’s Day.” In other words, are we still bound by the old covenant’s rules and regulations regarding the Sabbath day? This is not light question, and it deserve a full answer. However, I am going to save that discussion for when we study the 10 Commandments in Exodus 20. Right now, according to my current preaching plan, that will the first part of August.
Instead of going down that road this morning, I want to look at the Sabbath from a different perspective than the Puritans of New England. Let’s look at the Sabbath from the eyes of the children of Israel.
The Sabbath is introduced to the Hebrews who had just left Egypt. Not with all the laws and regulations, but in Exodus 16, the basic idea behind the Sabbath is shared with God’s people for the first time. This is the “manna chapter,” where God rains down bread from heaven each morning to provide for the physical needs of His people. He tells them that each morning, they are to gather what they need for that day, and only for that day. If they try to gather more, it will spoil. They were to trust the Lord to provide for each day.
On the sixth day, there were instructed gather twice as much as the other days (16.22) and to cook all of it. What they didn’t eat on the sixth day, what was left over for the seventh day would not spoil as it would the other days (16.24).
Why was the seventh day different? The Lord said to Moses, “Bear in mind that the LORD has given you the Sabbath; that is why on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Everyone is to stay where he is on the seventh day; no one is to go out.” 30So the people rested on the seventh day (Exodus 16.29-30).
The word “rested” means “to cease from labor.” It is the word “shabbot” from which the word “Sabbath” comes from. Sabbath means “rest.” So the people ceased from their labor on the seventh day.
Now, we have heard that so much that we miss the grace gift that the seventh day was for the Hebrews. These were slaves. They had been working from sun up to sun down, seven days a week, for over 400 years. And now, they have been liberated, and they have been given a gift: every seventh day is to be a day of rest.
Whatever Sabbath means, it is connected to the idea of rest.
The Sabbath idea enters biblical history in the creation story. The book of Genesis tells us that in six days, God created the heavens and the earth, but on the seventh day He “shabbot,” He rested.
When the Sabbath is further explained in the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. In Exodus chapter 20, we have the record of the giving of the 10 Commandments and in Deuteronomy chapter 5, Moses reminds the people of the 10 Commandments. In Exodus 20, the seventh day is to be a day of rest based upon the model of creation and God resting on the seventh day. In Deuteronomy 5, the seventh day is to be day of rest based upon their history of being redeemed from slavery. It was a grace gift of rest to a group of people who had been redeemed from slavery.
Jesus and the Sabbath
By the time our Lord and Savior came to earth, over 2000 years after the giving of the Sabbath, the Sabbath had become quite different. The religious leaders of the day had developed over the years hundreds and hundreds of rules and regulations regarding what could and could not be done on the Sabbath. They were specific and detailed, down to whether or not you could move a pencil that was sitting on top of a piece of paper. And Jesus seemed to break almost all of them. He healed on the Sabbath. He allowed His disciples to gather grain on the Sabbath. And when challenged by the religious leaders of the day, He explained His actions with the words, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2.27). The Sabbath was a gift to mankind.
Sabbath and the Early Church
For the followers of Jesus, the Sabbath was transformed right before their very eyes. The first followers of Jesus were Sabbath observing Jews, but the gospel quickly spread to non-Sabbath observing Gentiles. The Jewish Christians observed the Sabbath, gathering in the synagogue, proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah. And then on the first day of the week, they would meet early in the morning before going to work to remember the resurrection of the Messiah. After work was done on the first day of the week, they gathered together for the Lord’s Supper, a fellowship meal. As the church became comprised of more Gentiles than Jews, Gentiles who knew nothing about the Sabbath, and as the Jewish Christians were increasingly cast out of the synagogue because of their faith in Christ, the day of worship shifted from the seventh day to the first day of the week, a day they began to call the Lord’s Day.
But the Lord’s Day was not a day of rest; it was a work day. In fact, for over 300 years, it would be a work day. In 321, the newly converted Roman Emperor Constantine declared the first day of the week as a day of rest. From that moment until today, as Christianity spread in influence and power across the globe, Sabbath laws have come and gone as the people of God have tried to enforce the Sabbath and to “keep it holy.”
There Remains a Sabbath Rest
And somewhere amidst all of the Blue Laws, the idea of the Sabbath rest got lost.
In the New Testament, outside of the gospels and the book of Acts, the word Sabbath only appears in the New Testament in two passages. One is in Colossians chapter 2, and the other is in the book of Hebrews chapter 4.
Paul makes a very simple statement in Colossians about the Sabbath (and other religious festivals). He writes to the church on Colossae, “These things (the Sabbath and other religious festivals) are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Colossians 2.17). The Sabbath, the “rest,” was pointing to something in Christ. What is that something?
In the book of Hebrews, the writer makes a comparison between the children of Israel as they left Egypt and followers of Christ. Those that Moses led out of Egypt failed to believe in the Lord. God was angry with them for their lack of faith, and they wandered the desert for forty years and never entered the land of promise. But instead of calling it the “Promised Land,” the writer of Hebrews calls it “His rest.”
In chapter 4, the writer of Hebrews continues the point:
Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. 2For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith. 3Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said, “So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’”
And yet his work has been finished since the creation of the world. 4For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: “And on the seventh day God rested from all his work.” 5And again in the passage above he says, “They shall never enter my rest.”
6It still remains that some will enter that rest, and those who formerly had the gospel preached to them did not go in, because of their disobedience. 7Therefore God again set a certain day, calling it Today, when a long time later he spoke through David, as was said before: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”
8For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. 9There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; 10for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. 11Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.
The Sabbath and Today
What then is the “Sabbath rest” that remains for the people of God? I think there are two ideas in Hebrews 4.
First, the Sabbath rest speaks of eternity. As we make “every effort to enter that rest,” as we finish the course set out before us, as we walk by faith, we are continuing to labor for the Kingdom. But there will come a day when we will cease from our labor. As the hymn says, there will come a day when our “toil on earth is done.” It is not the image of sitting on a cloud with a harp bored out of our mind. It is the image of a new creation being finished, of a slave being set free from slavery and entering a land of his own, of the people of God entering the Promised Land. There still remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.
Secondly, the Sabbath rest speaks to today. When God called His people, and said to them, “Come, follow Me,” He gave to them the gift of the day of rest. Here we sit, thousands of years later, exhausted and needing a day of rest.
Did you know that according to CNN, workers in the United States work longer work weeks than anyone else in the industrialized world? The average Australian, Canadian, Japanese or Mexican worker was on the job roughly 100 hours less than the average American in a year — that’s almost two-and-a-half weeks less. Brazilians and British employees worked some 250 hours, or more than five weeks, less than Americans. Germans worked roughly 500 hours, or 12-and-a-half weeks, less than careerists in the States. In fact, of countries classified as “developing” or “in transition,” only South Korea and the Czech Republic tracked workers putting in more hours than American laborers. We work longer weeks and get less vacation than any other nation on the planet. Is there any nation on the earth that needs the grace gift of a Sabbath rest more than the United States?
I know that time will not allow us this morning to explore all of the questions about what a Sabbath rest looks like in our 24 hour economy. I hope to delve into more of those when we study the 10 Commandments during the summer. But today, may I just leave you with the words of your God, “I have given to you the Sabbath.” It is His grace gift to you. It is a day of rest. Will you claim it? Will you receive it? Would you venture out in prayer to ask the Giver of the Gift what it looks like for you in your situation?
I know, right behind that question, you have a million more. What about my job that requires me to work on Sunday? What about my children’s sporting activities? Are they restful or laborious? What about shopping? Doesn’t that require others to work for my benefit? What about all of our activities and meetings at church? Are those restful?
All good questions worthy of good answers. But the first step is to simply say to your Father in Heaven, “I want to claim my grace gift of the Sabbath. Please help me to know how to do that.”