Exodus 5:8-11 & Deuteronomy 5:12-15
Two things became apparent very early in the Christian interpretation of this commandment. The first was a universal consensus that the strict cultural and ceremonial requirements of Jewish Sabbath-keeping were no longer to be observed. The second was that the command to keep some kind of Sabbath – a day of rest especially for the purpose of worship – was still part of God’s universal moral law and thus still binding on Christians in some sense. From the Fourth Century until today, this has been the settled opinion of almost all Christian churches. How then should we understand the fourth commandment today? Our “four F’s” help us to understand the issue:
Flourishing: Sin makes us feel that we are alone in the world and thus solely responsible for our own well-being, the result is slavery to work. We feel that if we stop working then we will suffer serious material consequences, however the opposite is true. (Matt 6:31-32) Without a day of rest we suffer psychologically, physically and spiritually and this, ironically, has a knock-on effect on our ability to work. But rest alone isn’t enough to make us flourish, that rest must be used to make time for remembering and worshipping God. When we use our rest to focus on him, we are reassured that we aren’t in control and that it is he who provides abundantly for all our needs. (Isa 40.31)
Fencing: What minimum standard should we hold ourselves accountable to in the light of this command? Firstly, in light of the unique blessings of corporate worship offered to us by God we should see weekly church attendance as a joyful obligation. Our attitude towards weekly attendance should be something like that of someone who has received a wedding invitation and accepted: we should only miss it under exceptional circumstances. Practically speaking this means ordering our lives to enable us to go to church, seeking jobs that leave us free to worship on the majority Sundays, prioritising church over family commitments, attending a church even when we are away from home and not taking on social commitments at the same time as church. While this can be hard, not only is it good for us, it also speaks powerfully to non-Christians about the importance we place on worshipping God.
Secondly, we must try to rest from all servile labour where possible. We do not need to “make a work out of not working” like the Jews did, but to worship God well we need to rest well and keep Sunday as a holy day, this means leaving aside our workday jobs and all things (work or otherwise) that distract us from worshipping and enjoying God. Instead we should try to fill Sundays with things that bring us joy and deepen and enrich our worship of him. Carefully examining our consciences, we should listen to Scripture, wise counsel and the voice of the Spirit about how best to rest on Sundays. Christians have traditionally found that Sunday rest is found in things such as family life (including family worship), fellowship with Christians, serving others in works of mercy and generosity, spending time in appreciation of God’s creation, and showing Christian hospitality. Sometimes apparently work-like things can bring us rest and deepen our worship (like gardening or washing up!) Conversely, we must be wise about things that are presumed to be restful but actually enslave us: for example drinking alcohol, elaborate meals, shopping for entertainment, using social media, playing computer games and watching television might seem to offer rest but often leave us feeling drained and restless.
Thirdly, we also have an obligation to promote a common day of rest in our society where possible. This is especially important for social justice, since it is often the poorest who suffer most because of their work.
Freeing: The fourth commandment identifies our sinful addiction to the lie that God is not generous and that God is not in control. By giving us a moral duty to rest and worship, we are set free from this slavery to self-reliance. This is especially important in today’s society where so much emphasis is placed on the consequences of our smallest actions or inactions (e.g. in parenting). When we observe a Sabbath rest on Sundays and make worship highest priority we defiantly and convincingly proclaim God’s freeing generosity to an enslaved world. Resting on the Lord’s day is a “time-tithe” that opens the storehouses of heaven because it honours God’s generosity. (Mal 3:10)
Fulfilment: The fourth commandment is fulfilled in Christ, who by his incarnation shows us that this world is not an end in itself, but is fulfilled in union with him in the age to come. Heaven will be so full of enjoyment that it will seem like an end to all work, an eternal Sabbath! The world we live in is just a pale reflection of that fullness, like a blossom compared to a fruit, or an engagement compared to a marriage. Under the Old Covenant, the Sabbath was a chance to remind ourselves what God had done in the past and order our lives accordingly. Under the New Covenant, the Sabbath is transformed into the Lord’s day, the “Eighth day”, a sign of the new creation, a day not only of remembrance but of vivid expectation. It becomes the time when the age to come flows into our present. As we meet together to worship God, Christ’s power pours into his Church and overflows to the world, bringing peace and joy, faith hope and love, eternal beauty, goodness and truth, and salvation.