Exodus 20:8-11; Mark 2:23-3:6

8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work--you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the      sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

23 One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24The Pharisees said to him, "Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?" 25And he said to them, "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions." 27Then he said to them, "The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath."

3 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3And he said to the man who had the withered hand, "Come forward." 4Then he said to them, "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?"     But they were silent. 5He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

Dorothy Bass is a church historian on the faculty of Valparaiso University in Indiana.  She tells of an incident a few years ago when she and her husband went out to dinner with another couple on a Saturday night.  All four of them were professors with teaching responsibilities at the University.  They began to talk about having to grade papers the next day.  It almost became a grousing contest, as each one was complaining about the amount of work they would have to do to get ready for the coming week.  As they were engaged in this game of paper-grading one-upsmanship, it occurred to Dorothy that they were almost boasting about their intention to break one of the Ten Commandments, the one about remembering the Sabbath day to keep it holy.  All four of them were professing Christians, and yet all four were planning to violate the Sabbath commandment with impunity.  They had no hesitation saying, “I’m planning to work tomorrow.”  But what if they had said, “I’m planning to steal something tomorrow,” or “I’m planning to commit adultery tomorrow,” or “I’m planning to murder someone tomorrow”?  Dorothy said that the whole idea of the Sabbath had become invisible in their lives.

My guess is that of all the Ten Commandments, this one about remembering the Sabbath to keep it holy is the most ignored, and the most broken, among most Christians.  Now, for those who are not Christians, another of the Ten Commandments may be the most ignored and the most broken—maybe the one about having no other gods, or the one about taking the Lord’s name in vain.  But most Christians genuinely aim to have no other gods than the one true God.  We don’t always succeed, but that is our aim.  Most Christians try not to take the Lord’s name in vain.  Most Christians try to honor their parents.  Most Christians try not to steal or bear false witness or covet or commit adultery or murder.  We don’t always succeed, but we try to keep at least nine of the Ten Commandments.  But this one about the Sabbath—I fear most Christians don’t even try any more with this one.  About as far as most of us will go to keep the Sabbath holy is come to church on Sunday morning.  That’s certainly important, and that’s a start, but there is more to the Sabbath than that.

A part of our confusion has to do with what the Sabbath really means.  As you know, the Sabbath day for Jews was Saturday, the seventh day of the week.  When the Ten Commandments were given to the Israelites who had gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai, they were a recently liberated people, fresh out of bondage in Egypt.  Life in Egypt had been hard.  They had been enslaved to their Egyptian taskmasters, and forced to labor from sunup to sundown seven days a week.  It was a miserable existence.  That’s why the Exodus was such a glorious event in the history of the Jewish people.  By God’s almighty hand, they had been freed from bondage in Egypt, and now they were on their way to the Promised Land.  A part of their journey from slavery to freedom involved learning to follow God’s laws for their lives.  When Moses brought down the Ten Commandments written on tablets of stone from the top of Mount Sinai, he delivered to the people the core principles around which their society would be organized.  No other gods, no graven images, no taking the Lord’s name in vain, honor your parents, don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t covet, don’t commit adultery, don’t murder.  The Ten Commandments have formed the moral foundation for many modern societies.  But among those Ten Commandments was one law regarding the Sabbath day.  Some of the Ten Commandments sound rather restrictive (don’t do this don’t do that), but the commandment about the Sabbath was actually tremendously liberating.  Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor, but on the Sabbath day you shall rest.  Do you catch the liberation in that?  God was ordering the Jewish people to take a day off.  He was ordering them to take one day a week and do something different from the other six days of the week.  It wasn’t a suggestion or a nice idea or something to try if you could manage it—it was a commandment, just as important as the other nine.  

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day did their best to keep the Sabbath commandment.  By the time of Jesus the oral tradition had developed elaborate interpretations of what it meant to keep the Sabbath holy.  The oral law had identified 39 different types of work that were forbidden, along with detailed explanations of specific situations that might be construed as work.  There was a class of people in Jesus’ day called the Pharisees who were experts in knowing and keeping all the minutia of the rules and regulations of Sabbath keeping.  One Sabbath day the Pharisees saw Jesus and his disciples walking through a grain field, and they noticed the disciples plucking grain and rubbing it in their hands so they could have something to eat.  This was expressly forbidden according to the oral law.  Plucking grain violated the Sabbath prohibition against reaping, and rubbing it in their hands violated the Sabbath prohibition against threshing.  Jesus did not dispute that technically his disciples had violated the Sabbath laws, as interpreted by the Pharisees.  But Jesus argued that some things are more important than keeping the letter of the law.  Jesus reminded the Pharisees of an example from the life of David from the book of 1 Samuel.  On that occasion David took the showbread that had been offered for sacrifice and was reserved for the priests, and used it feed his men.  Jesus reminded them that the Sabbath was created to serve human need; not the other way around.  In other words, the Sabbath is a good servant, but a bad master.  Jesus went on to say that he was Lord of the Sabbath.  In other words, Jesus would interpret what the Sabbath really means.

As if that were not enough to stir controversy with the religious leaders, Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath, as was his custom.  Jesus made it his habit to worship on the Sabbath, as any good Jew should do.  But while he was in the synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus called out a man who had a withered hand.  In clear violation of the oral law, Jesus healed the man of his infirmity.  The law did allow healing if it were a matter of saving someone’s life, but this man’s disability was not life-threatening.  As far as the Pharisees were concerned, Jesus should have waited until after the Sabbath to cure the man.  They were incensed that Jesus would deliberately violate the Sabbath for such a non-emergency situation.  Jesus was incensed at them for turning the meaning of the Sabbath on its ear.  Mark says that Jesus looked around in anger, and was grieved at their hardness of hearts.  The Pharisees went out and immediately began to conspire to kill him.

This was not the first time or the only time that Jesus healed someone on the Sabbath.  The gospels contain at least seven different stories of Jesus performing a miracle of healing on the Sabbath.  On three different occasions Jesus healed someone in the synagogue on the Sabbath—the man with the withered hand, a man with an evil spirit, and a woman who had been bent over and crippled for 18 years.  Jesus also healed Simon’s mother-in-law who was ill at home with a fever on the Sabbath.  On another occasion Jesus was having dinner at the home of a prominent Pharisee on the Sabbath and he healed a man with a swollen leg.  In John’s gospel, Jesus healed a man who had been crippled for 38 years on the Sabbath, and he healed a man born blind on the Sabbath.  Apparently, Jesus had such strong feelings about the true purpose and meaning of the Sabbath that he again and again and again violated common conventions to do works of mercy and grace.  No wonder the religious leaders wanted to kill him.  Jesus repeatedly flaunted their most cherished convictions and traditions.

Okay, so Jesus had his own ideas about how to observe the Sabbath, but what does all of this have to do with how we observe the Sabbath today?  For Christians, our Sabbath day is no longer Saturday, but Sunday, the Lord’s Day.  Very early in church history Christians began to worship on Sunday, in honor of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.  After the Roman emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity in the fourth century, he decreed in 321 A.D. that Sunday would be a day of rest through the empire.  So, our tradition of observing Sunday as the Sabbath goes back many centuries.  But how are we to keep the Sabbath today?  Does the commandment to remember the Sabbath to keep it holy still apply to us, or is it a law that no longer has any relevance to our modern way of life?

Functionally, most of us take the Sabbath commandment with a grain of salt, or we ignore it altogether.  I don’t know anyone today who absolutely refuses to ever work on Sunday.  In fact, a lot of folks have to work on Sunday—it’s a requirement for their jobs.  It is estimated that only half of the jobs in America today are strictly Monday to Friday.  I work every Sunday—it’s a part of my job as a minister.  (Some people think ministers only work on Sundays.)  In our society at large, Sunday is no longer a special day in many respects.  The cultural props that once made Sunday distinctive have largely been removed.  What then does it mean for us today to remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy?

I want to suggest to you this morning that this commandment, though often ignored and broken, is just as valid and just as important as it ever was.  God gave us this commandment for our good.  As Jesus said, the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.  The Sabbath was given for our good and our welfare and our benefit.  God gave us a day of rest because God knows we need it.  We need time off to restore our physical energies and to recharge our spiritual batteries.  We need time off from work to allow God to work in us.  We need a day that is holy and distinctive and different from all the other days of the week because life is more than work.  We need a day when we consciously focus on God, because without such a day for spiritual focus, our lives will become consumed with the mundane and the trivial and the inconsequential.  What Jesus was trying to help the people of his day to discover, and what Jesus wants us to rediscover for our time, is that the Sabbath is a gift, a gift of grace from a loving God who wants us to experience the joy and the fulfillment of a right relationship with him.

How then do we restore the proper meaning and purpose to the Sabbath in our time?  I suggest we follow what Jesus did.  First, Jesus went to worship on the Sabbath.  Jesus recognized that the Sabbath was a special day set apart for God.  Certainly, Jesus’ devotion to God was not limited to the Sabbath.  The Gospels contain many accounts of Jesus praying or teaching or explaining the scriptures throughout the week.  But Jesus recognized that the Sabbath was a special day for worship, and he regularly went to the synagogue to join with other believers in worshipping God.  Christians today who think its no big deal to skip church on Sunday are not following Jesus.  Jesus made worship on the Sabbath a priority in his own life.  At least half of the Sabbath controversies in the Gospel accounts took place in the synagogue where Jesus had gone to worship.  So, worshipping God is one way that we keep the Sabbath holy.  

Second, not only did Jesus worship on the Sabbath, Jesus used the Sabbath to do good, to do good for others, and to do good for himself.  I mentioned that the Gospels tell us about at least seven different healing miracles that Jesus performed on the Sabbath, seven different acts of mercy and grace.  Not working doesn’t mean not doing anything.  There are plenty of activities that we can be engaged in on the Sabbath which are not work, but which do good.  Coming to church is a given, but there are other Sabbath day activities that keep this day holy and special and in accordance with God’s purpose for our lives.  The great reformer John Calvin used to go bowling on Sunday afternoons—that’s right, bowling!  He saw nothing wrong with enjoying part of the Sabbath day in a recreational activity with family and friends.  I mentioned earlier about Jesus having dinner at the home of a prominent Pharisee on the Sabbath.  That sounds odd because most dinners require a lot of work, but they got around that by doing most of the work for the dinner the day before.  One writer, Marva Dawn, says that she prepares a big pot of stew and sets the table on Saturday so that she can enjoy a relaxed Sunday afternoon dinner with family and friends.  Potluck dinners after church or on Sunday evenings are good Sabbath day activities, as long as we don’t go overboard with elaborate preparations.  The simpler the better.  I personally feel it would be better not to conduct too much commerce on Sunday.  Orthodox Jews do not carry money on the Sabbath.  That removes the temptation of buying things.  I realize many businesses and restaurants are open on Sundays, and that’s a convenience that many of us enjoy.  But there’s something to be said for making Sunday different from the other days of the week.  

The word “Sabbath” comes from the Hebrew verb, “Shabbat,” which means to cease and desist.  It means to stop working, so we can do something else.  It means to cease and desist from the striving and producing and achieving that characterizes so much of our everyday lives, and to set aside for a day those things we do for productive purposes.  Observing the Sabbath is really an act of faith, because we trust in God to provide for seven days of needs with our supplying only six days of work.  If God could afford to take off a day after six days of creation, so can we.

When the Chick-fil-A restaurant opened here in Bowie a couple of years ago, I was surprised at how many people were excited about it.  I had never eaten at a Chick-fil-A restaurant myself, but people from the South, especially the Atlanta area where Chick-fil-A started, already knew about their chicken sandwiches.  The only thing I knew about Chick-fil-A is that all of their restaurants are closed on Sundays.  That’s a rarity in this day and age.  But the founder of Chick-fil-a, a dedicated Baptist layman named Truett Cathy, determined to have every Chick-fil-A restaurant closed every Sunday.  Why?  He wanted to give every employee and every restaurant operator a day off to worship, spend time with family and friends, or just plain rest from the workweek.  It’s strange to drive by the Chick-fil-a on Sundays and see the parking lot empty and the restaurant closed, but Monday through Saturday the place is jumping with business.  I don’t know what their sales figures are, but I dare say they hold their own with any fast-food restaurant in town.  

Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy.  It’s the only commandment that begins with the word “remember,” as if keeping the Sabbath is something we have always known, but too often forget.  A day to worship, a day to do good, a day to enjoy with family and friends, a day to rest in the joy of the Lord.  A commandment.  A gift of grace.

Bruce Salmon, Pastor, Village Baptist Church, Bowie, Maryland
September 1, 2002

Return to Village Baptist Home Page