The Fourth Commandment of the Law revealed to Moses declares: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” Are you a sabbath-keeper who keeps it holy?
The Puritans were committed Sabbath-keepers. They believed that the Sabbath should be devoted to worship and living as sinless a life as possible on that day. Sabbath-keeping included refraining from profane speech or intemperate behavior. The best way to keep the Sabbath holy is to stay away from any worldly activities. In fact, you should refrain from even talking or thinking about worldly things. Instead, be sure to keep your mind on the things of God, and nothing else. So, are you a sabbath-keeper?
It’s possible that keeping the Sabbath was easier in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They didn’t have shopping malls, movie theaters, or football games to distract them from keeping the Sabbath. Besides, Sundays involved spending the morning in church listening to a sermon that generally lasted two or three hours. After that you might go home, eat lunch, and then spend the afternoon reading your Bible. Then later in the afternoon you would return to church for another lengthy sermon. They didn’t give people much room to engage in worldly activities or thinking.
I will admit that I’m not always very good at keeping the Sabbath. For example, years ago, when Brett was very young, we visited a car dealership after church was out. We needed a reliable car so that Cheryl could travel safely from our home to her job in Riverside, with a small child in tow. The dealerships were open for business, and we needed a car. So, we went in, found the right car, and made a deal—all on Sunday. I even remember the salesman’s name—it was Jimmy Carter (but not the President). That’s the way we did things out West. A few years later, after we moved to Kansas, we needed a new car. So, one Sunday afternoon, we drove to Topeka after church to check out cars. We assumed that Kansas dealers would be open just like the ones in California. But, after driving fifty miles to Topeka, we discovered that all the dealerships were closed. To a family of Californians, this didn’t make any sense. Isn’t Sunday a good day to buy a car? Since we moved to Michigan, we have discovered that much of the country operates more like Kansas than California.
Although car dealerships close on Sundays, perhaps feeling bound by Sabbath-laws, everything else stays open. It’s a good thing that restaurants stay open on Sunday, because where else would church people go for lunch? The question is, are we being good sabbath-keepers when eat out on Sunday? Of course, we might be able to mitigate things by refraining from worldly talk and keeping our conversation on a spiritual plane. Then, perhaps as penance for skirting Sabbath law, we should tip well!
When it comes to Sabbath-keeping, it’s good to remember that Jesus was a good Jew, who sought to keep the Sabbath holy. But, he had broader understanding of the Sabbath than some of his compatriots. That is why he got in trouble on a regular basis for doing things that some people thought weren’t appropriate to the Sabbath. This included acts of healing, which some people considered work, which was forbidden on the Sabbath. But, in Jesus’ understanding of the Sabbath, healing people was part of the Sabbath mandate, which was established for the good of the people. The Sabbath was designed to give people rest from their labors. If you read the fourth commandment, you will discover that it covered everyone and everything in the community:
9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But 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. 11 For 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. (Ex. 20:9-11)
It seems that if God needed to rest on the seventh day, then everyone deserves a day of rest and renewal.
Jesus responds to their critique by comparing their actions with those of David and his companions who once entered the Temple and took the bread of presence from the altar and ate it, even though only priests were allowed to eat that bread. If I follow Jesus’ logic, if you’re hungry you can break the rules, even if that means taking the bread of presence from the Temple and eating it or plucking grain on the Sabbath. That doesn’t mean you should spend the day reaping the harvest, but if you’re hungry you can pluck a few grains and eat it.
Then Jesus told the Pharisees, who were sticklers about keeping the Law, that “the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” Even Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards, who was a stickler about keeping the Sabbath, accepted Jesus’ definition of the Sabbath. He suggested that the Sabbath “was made for the profit and for the comfort of our souls.” He also believed that sabbath-keeping was a joyful experience.
Now, not everyone agreed with this sentiment. Some people believed that sabbath-keeping was a joy-killer. Among this anti-sabbath group was King James I of England. While he is best known for authorizing a new bible translation that often bears his name, closer to his heart was the book he authored—The Book of Sports. James issued this book to encourage his subjects to enjoy themselves on the Sabbath. While you should go to church on the Sabbath, be sure to fun as well. After all, the king wanted to have fun, and what the king wants, the king normally gets. He did offer some guidance about appropriate and inappropriate activities on the Sabbath. While he deemed such activities as archery, dancing, leaping, and setting up maypoles to be harmless and appropriate, he banned less honorable activities such as bear-bating and bowling! While I don’t remember shooting arrows on the Sabbath, I have gone bowling, so I’m not sure why he banned bowling!
Jesus told the Pharisees that the Son of Man was Lord of the Sabbath. We can interpret Son of Man in two ways. We could translate this phrase as “human being.” If we go with this, then we as human beings are put in charge of our own Sabbath-keeping. But, since Jesus often refers to himself as “Son of Man,” Jesus could be exercising his authority over the Sabbath observance. In either case, Jesus is drawing us back to the original purpose of the Sabbath law, which was a call to rest from our labors. It is a reminder to a people who were enslaved that they have been liberated by the God who rested on the Seventh Day.
After Jesus declares himself to be Lord of the Sabbath, he goes to the synagogue for worship. It’s there that he encounters a man with a withered hand. Everyone wonders if Jesus is going to break the Sabbath rules and heal the man. Some of them were looking for an excuse to get rid of him. Jesus invited the man to come forward, and then he asked the congregation whether “it is lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath.” Can you save life or destroy it on the sabbath? Now the fact is, this wasn’t an emergency situation. Jesus could come back the next day and heal the man, but Jesus wants to make a point: Is healing appropriate for the Sabbath? Nobody has an answer to that question, and so Jesus got angry because of their “hardness of heart.” There is a detail to this story I’ve never noticed before. The man is healed, but Jesus didn’t touch him or offer any words of healing. He just asked the man to stretch out his hand. That’s when the healing took place. By doing things this way Jesus maintained his Sabbath observance. Of course, this didn’t satisfy his opponents who conspired to kill him.