“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5:12-15, NIV)
The fourth commandment concerns the sabbath. In Old Testament Israel, everyone was to down tools completely for one day in seven. The whole of national life was organised around this principle (our seven-day week is probably a legacy of the Biblical model). It was a day for sacred assemblies, for rest and for trust - looking to God to provide, even if you were pausing in work during the harvest. Its observance was a binding legal requirement - see Exodus 20:8-11.
When we get to the New Testament, we find, rather surprisingly, that of all the Ten Commandments, the fourth (Sabbath) is not pressed upon us as a binding requirement (see, for instance, Romans 14:5-6 and Colossians 2:16). In the gospels, we find Jesus often in controversy with the Pharisees and religious authorities, accused by them of being a Sabbath-breaker (e.g. Mark 2:24, 3:2). What had happened to the commandment?
The verse above gives Jesus’ answer. He is not putting the Bible in the bin! When He speaks of the Sabbath being made for man, he is looking back to the passage in Genesis (1:31-2:3) which describes the inception of the Sabbath. And when you look at that section of the Bible, you’ll see that a strong emphasis in the context is how God made the world with us in mind - for us, we could say. The Sabbath is part of that: it is God’s gift to us. Rather as He does elsewhere, in His teaching on marriage (Matthew 19:1-9), He takes us beyond the law to God’s original intention.
If I have this right, all this means we are to regard the Sabbath as God’s gift to us rather than as a legal obligation.
There is a pendulum that has swung among Christians on this. When I was an undergraduate in the early 80’s, very many of us were quite strongly sabbatarian. We just didn’t work on Sundays. Like Eric Liddell, immortalised in Chariots of Fire for refusing to race on a Sunday, we didn’t think it was right to work.
I now think we were probably wrong to understand Sabbath as a legal requirement. But as Christians have come to realise that, the pendulum has swung the other way (aided by an increasingly relentless society), and we are now in a situation where my impression is that many Christians are perfectly happy to work a seven-day week.
But in recognising that the Sabbath is not a legal requirement, have we forgotten it as God’s gift? I look back on my sabbatarian days and remember that I was much fresher, and more productive, on the other six days than I would have been if I’d worked seven; I loved Sundays and found spiritual refreshment at church as well as rest in other ways.
My conclusion: prize the Sabbath, not as a legal requirement, but as God’s gift. What a wonderful God: to want us to take time off! It’s His answer to work-life balance.
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