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TEN FOR OUR TIME: When The Sabbath Is Kept Wholly

Exodus 20:8-11

Mark Twain—now he’s always good for a laugh! It seems that a businessman, notorious for his ruthlessness, one day announced to Mark Twain, “Before I die I mean to take a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I will climb Mount Sinai and read the Ten Commandments aloud at the top.” To which Mark Twain responded, “I have a better idea. Why don’t you just stay home in Boston and keep them!” That, dear friends, is advice we all should heed.

In these days of the morality of convenience, the pursuit of selfishness, and the diminution of integrity, I believe it is high time we dusted off the unfailing guidance of the Ten Commandments. The sheer brilliance of the Ten Commandments is that they codify, in a handful of words, acceptable human behavior—not just for Old Testament times but for our time as well. That is why it is my intent over this next year’s preaching to look closely at each one of those Commandments. I shall not take them in numerical order, but instead will deal with them at times which seem appropriate. So today, I want us to look at the fourth of the Ten Commandments. The Commandment reads, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” It is no exaggeration to say that this may be the most misunderstood, misinterpreted, misapplied of all of the Commandments. Therefore, to try to bring some clarity to this picture, I would like to look at this particular Commandment—first from the negative perspective and then from the positive perspective.

Let’s look first from the negative perspective—at the way the Commandment should not be understood.

Number one: The Commandment should not be taken in a legalistic way. The emphasis should not be on the things that cannot be done on the Lord’s Day, and yet that is precisely what most people have done with this Commandment over the years. They have made it a heavy burden to be borne. Of course, that is not new. In fact, shortly after the Commandment was delivered, the strict legalists of that time went to work developing all kinds of restrictive activity for the Sabbath; so that by the time of Jesus, there were no less than 1,521 things you could not do on the Sabbath day. Many of them were ridiculous. All of them were negative. For example, there was a rule which prohibited carrying a burden on the Sabbath, which sounds reasonable, until you realize that they had stretched that rule to prohibit wearing false teeth on the Sabbath because that was carrying a burden. Or there was the rule declaring it illegal to harvest on the Sabbath, which sounds reasonable until you understand that, on the basis of that rule, they decreed it to be unlawful to look into a mirror on the Sabbath lest one noticed a gray hair amongst the dark ones and pluck it out which would be reaping and thus a violation. There was also a rule about no hunting on the Sabbath which sounds reasonable but, believe it or not, that rule was expanded to include the prohibition of picking fleas off of an animal, or even yourself, on the Sabbath. So the Scribes and Pharisees went overboard in turning the Sabbath into an exercise in legalism to the absurd. God didn’t mean for the Sabbath to be a burden for us. He meant for it to be a blessing to us. Jesus clearly stated that the Sabbath is meant to help us, not hinder us. Therefore, this Commandment should not be taken in an overly legalistic way.

Number two: The Commandment should not be taken in a loose way. This is the flip side of the coin—the opposite of the first misunderstanding. This interpretation declares that anything and everything is permissible on the Sabbath Day. In this view, Sunday may be a holiday, but it has ceased to be a holy day. The people, who take this position, on Sunday go everywhere but to church and do anything but worship, and they excuse themselves by saying, “I feel just as close to God at the beach or on the golf course.” Joy Davidman, C. S. Lewis’s wife, wrote a wonderful book about the Ten Commandments entitled Smoke on the Mountain. In her chapter on the fourth Commandment, with a wonderful piece of satire she describes a student from Mars who comes to Earth to research a paper on the ways Earth people worship. Here is what the young Martian supposedly wrote in his master’s thesis, “The creatures of Earth seem to be Sun worshipers. One day in every seven is set apart for the adoration of their Sun deity -that is weather permitting. The rituals vary and each involves a special form of dress, but all are conducted in the open air and most seem to require enormous crowds. Some Earth creatures gather in vast arenas and watch strangely garbed priests perform elaborate ceremonies involving a ball and various shaped instruments of wood like bats. Others prefer to address that ball with long clubs, singly or in groups of two or four, wandering about in green fields. Some, stripping themselves almost naked in their ecstasy, go down to the seashore in great throngs and there perform their rites, often hurling themselves into the waves with frenzied cries. After this ceremonial immersion they anoint themselves with holy oils and then stretch out full length with eyes closed to surrender themselves entirely to the Sun god. Now, there exists, however, a small group of heretics who do not practice Sun worship. These people clothe themselves more soberly and completely than the Sun worshippers. They, too, gather in groups but only to hide from the Sun in certain buildings which have windows made of glass colored and stained to keep out the light. It’s not clear whether these creatures are simply unbelievers or whether they have been excommunicated from Sun worship for some offense.” End of thesis, end of satire, but you tell me: Was the young Martian terribly wrong or painfully right? So many people today make Sunday anything but a day of holiness. It troubles me terribly that in the business world where random drug testing takes place, it is no accident that they almost always do the tests on Monday mornings. Why? Because Saturday and Sunday, the Sabbath, are the days people are most likely to experiment with drugs. Yes, for so many today, on Sunday anything goes. The fourth Commandment should not be taken in such a loose and permissive way.

We have looked at the fourth Commandment from the negative perspective, but now let’s look at this Commandment from the positive perspective—the way the Commandment ought to be understood.

First, the Sabbath ought to be understood as a day of rest.

From the creation story in Genesis to the benediction in the book of Revelation, the Bible makes it dramatically clear that there is a rhythm to life—a rhythm of work and worship, a rhythm of labor and rest. The old Greek proverb says, “The bow that is always bent eventually will cease to shoot at all.” That’s a word we need to hear—those of us living in this frantic, pressure-packed world rushing at break-neck speed through life, burning the candle at both ends. We can identify with the fellow who went to his doctor for a checkup. He was worn out, weary, frazzled, exhausted. The doctor told him that he was foolishly overextending himself. He would have to slow down. This fellow replied, “Look, Doc, I didn’t come here to get a lecture about burning the candle at both ends. I came here for more wax!” But you see, there is no more wax. There’s not even a miracle drug. We have to stop and rest. God made us that way, and we ignore that truth at our peril. Dr. Cecil Myers tells about a group of Americans on a safari in Africa. They hired native guides to lead them. The first day, they rushed through the jungle. The second day, they were up at dawn to push forward—likewise, the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth days. On the seventh day, the American explorers were up early and anxious to get started, but their guides were lying very quietly in their places. “Come on,” the Americans shouted, “Time’s awasting; hurry up, let’s get going.” The lead guide replied in his broken English, “We no go today. Let souls catch up with bodies.” Oh, that’s a powerful word to hear. That’s what we do on Sunday. We rest. We slow down. We center on the Lord. We recharge our spiritual batteries. We let our souls catch up with our bodies. Sunday ought to be understood as a day of rest.

And the Sabbath ought to be understood as a day of remembrance.

Sunday is the time when we establish or re-establish the right priorities in life. I’ve always loved something William Barclay said near the end of his life. He said, “I’m an old man now, and over the years I’ve learned that there are very few things in life that really matter, but those few things matter intensely.” Carve that into your brain. Love for God, love for people, love for family, honesty, integrity, justice, grace, forgiveness, kindness—those are the things that really matter in life. I don’t know nearly as much about those good things as I would like to know, but what I do know about them, I have gotten from the church. That is why worship every Sunday is so important. It’s the day when we come together to remember the word of God, the will of God, the way of God, the promises of God, the call of God, the saving grace of God. I don’t know about you, but I need to come together every week with my sisters and brothers in Christ in order to remember all of the good things God has done for us, in order to remember all of the glorious hope He has set before us in Jesus Christ. So I need a day of rest, but I also need a day of remembering, remembering the things that really matter in life.

And the Sabbath ought to be understood as a day of resurrection.

The word Sabbath literally means “seventh.” Of course, the seventh day is Saturday. Have you ever wondered why most Christians worship on Sunday? It’s because, for Christians, every Sunday is a little Easter. Every Sunday we celebrate the resurrection. Dr. Kenneth Phifer, my professor in seminary, used to say, “If at some point in every service of worship on every Sunday of the year the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not directly mentioned or at least alluded to, then you haven’t properly worshiped God on Sunday. Sunday is resurrection day. Every Sunday is Easter Sunday.” What a powerful thought! Over the years, I’ve come to have a great respect for Dr. Laura Schlessinger. She is a popular author and talk-show hostess. “Dr. Laura,” as she is called, is sound in her commonsense, her advice, and her responses. Above all else, she is clean, moral, upright, and uplifting. But she is also quick to zero in on any fuzzy thinking or improper behavior. Not long ago, a woman called Dr. Laura and said that her little girl was misbehaving and she wondered if she should take away the Easter bunny as punishment. Dr. Laura said, “What in the world does the Easter bunny have to do with it?” The woman said. “Well, we are Christians, and we’ve taught her that when she is nice, the Easter bunny will come and bring her nice things, but if she misbehaves, the Easter bunny will not bring her anything at all. It’s kinda of like Santa Claus at Christmas.” Dr. Laura then said, “Didn’t you just say that you are Christians?” The woman said, “Yes, we are Christians.” Dr. Laura then asked, “Then why are you teaching your child about the Easter bunny in the first place? Why aren’t you teaching your child about the Resurrection and about Jesus being alive in the world?” The woman was silent for a moment, and then she said, “Well, we don’t talk about things like that around our house. That’s what the church is for, isn’t it?” Yikes! Well, Dr. Laura is absolutely right. If we are Christians, we ought to be talking about the Resurrection in our homes, and we ought to be teaching our children that Jesus Christ is alive. But in addition to that, we ought to be celebrating that great truth in church, not just once a year, not just occasionally, but every single Sunday. That’s why, for most Christians, the Sabbath is on Sunday to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Every Sunday is Easter Sunday… or should be.


The message is clear. The Sabbath is a time for rest, for remembering, and for resurrection. It is not a time for binding prohibitions, but rather is a time for magnificent possibilities. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.” That means that Sunday is yours and it is mine. Therefore, let’s keep it holy—h-o-l-y—and let’s keep it wholly—w-h-o-l-l-y.

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