by Nathan Purdy
Have you ever been asked a question such as this one? If someone asked me this as a pastor, I would typically thank him or her for asking and arrange to meet, giving me time to work through the issue. When we met, I would pray for God’s help and then turn to the Bible.
It is important to locate the answer in God’s Word, rather than in the pastor’s words. This particular question provides an opportunity to model a proper approach to answering ethical questions in general. Our final authority is God’s Word, so that is where we need to turn. My answer would then run something like this...
One day of the week is different from the other six, because God made it so. After six days of creative “work,” God chose to rest on the seventh day. And, according to Genesis 2:3, “God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it….” Put simply, God conferred a unique blessing upon this day and set it apart in a unique way.
It is vital that we don’t hasten on too quickly; our hearts must duly note that it was God Himself who blessed and distinguished this day. This is not a tradition that dates back several centuries to some post-inspired-Word era. Rather, it is an ordinance traced all the way back to the beginning of time.
What God establishes as normal in Creation, we expect to remain such throughout all of time. (Consider also the distinction of the genders and the institution of marriage.) Therefore, it comes as little surprise to find the distinction of this day included in the Ten Commandments – enshrined in the Moral Law. Moreover, the fourth commandment explicitly uses what God did in Creation as its foundation. Again, before moving on quickly, our hearts must duly note the significance of this day and its enduring relevance.
Not only does the fourth commandment solidify our conviction regarding the importance of this principle, it begins to help us flesh out an application. There is a repetitiveness in this commandment that appears to border on redundancy:
“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates” (Ex. 20:8-11).
Wouldn’t “thou shalt not work” have sufficed?
Since God is the author of this command, the repetition is far from redundant. Surely, it is designed to reinforce God’s intentions regarding our application. A defining difference of this one, set-apart day is that it is to be unburdened by work. “You shouldn’t work!” All "whataboutisms" are taken care of: …neither should your son, your daughter, your employee etc.
It is at this point in fleshing out an application to this command that things can get particularly confusing. By the time Jesus came, for example, the effort to unburden the day of work became a very burdensome work in itself. People were neither allowed to drag a stick behind them (that would be plowing) nor pluck ears of corn with their fingers (that would be harvesting).
Jesus responded to this with a powerful corrective. He essentially reminded people that while the day was indeed set apart, it was also blessed. This day has a unique goodness to it. As Jesus put it, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). In other words, our approach to this day shouldn’t be one of dread because of what we don’t do; it is a day to approach with delight because of what we get to do.
Having been unburdened of the duties of work, we are freed to rest and worship. Our hearts and minds are like pendulums throughout the week, always swinging from one necessity to the next: from one thing on our to-do list to another, from sending an email to attending a doctor’s appointment, from chairing a meeting to doing the laundry, from studying for a test to taking care of the ironing. Of course, we set our minds on Christ; we read His Word and pray. However, as part of God’s good plan, we work.
Having been unburdened of the duties of work, we are freed to rest and worship. This is truly a blessed day indeed!
While it should all be done for His glory, our minds are accustomed to swinging back and forth from one task to the next. However, on one day, the pendulum of our hearts gets to stop (or at least slow down). It is to come to rest at its preferred place: the focused worship of our God. The setting apart of the day (from work) frees us to enjoy the blessing of the day (to worship).
This is truly a blessed day indeed!
Jesus also provided more helpful and corrective instruction regarding how we apply this command. While God rested from His creative work on the seventh day, He didn’t cease from all work. For example, He continued to rule over the universe and to sustain all things. Such work is good and necessary. If, in fact, He refrained from all work, the universe would have vanished! Likewise, Jesus provides categories of work that He qualifies as good on this day. Technically, one could argue that pastors work on this day.
Jesus reminds us that such works of piety are good and necessary (Matthew 12:5). Likewise, he taught that works of mercy are perfectly acceptable (Matthew 12:11-12). If a mechanic sees someone standing by a broken down car on his way to church, should he stop and help fix it? Of course! What if a friend asks him to change the oil? The final category Jesus gives us, helps with that. He taught that works of necessity are fine (Matthew 12:2-3). While cooking a meal is “work,” it is also necessary. Milking cows is necessary. Feeding nursing home residents is necessary! Changing a friend’s oil? Not so much. That can wait till Monday.
These categories of work, therefore, help us to process individual scenarios. Is the work requested by the boss a work of piety, a work of mercy, or a work of necessity? If not, then I would counsel the person not to work!
Not out of a legal spirit, but out of loving obedience to Jesus.
Even if I concluded that the work was, in fact, necessary, I would not consider the issue fully resolved. The fact the person could go to work with a clear conscience, doesn’t necessarily imply that that would be the wise thing to do. There are many other questions that I would want to work through:
Will the person still be able to attend a service on Sunday even if he works? How many Sundays in a month will she need to work? How will this affect his family? Will choosing to work affect his devotion to Jesus? Is the work something many others could do, or is she particularly skilled and qualified to do it? All of these questions, and more, matter.
Anything that dulls our devotion to Jesus, no matter how lawful it is, isn’t good.
In fact, the Scriptures make it quite clear that this day of rest points us to another rest - the spiritual rest that a believer finds in Christ (Col 2:16-17). In Christ, we have ceased from our own works as the means of salvation. We delight ourselves in the spiritual rest He gives, as a result of faith in His great work for us on the cross.
Therein, perhaps, lies the greatest joy of this day: a day when we savor rest, and this rest pictures for us something of the rest our souls do, and will, enjoy. A day when we cease from work and meditate upon the greatest work ever done - that of Christ on the cross.
Does this spiritual rest annul the need of this weekly day of physical rest, as some argue? No more, I would argue, than the fact that we are part of the bride of Christ annuls the relevance of marriage.
The fact that in gazing upon these pictures we see something far greater than the pictures themselves means that we must look at them! This picture of rest is one we must take time to look at, every week, for the rest of our lives. For in gazing upon it, we see something that enthralls our hearts. That’s why God hung it on the wall! In fact, once we start looking at this picture, it’s hard to stop.
Sunday — the best day of the week!
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