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Alex's Blog for February 11, 2011 - Forgetting the Christian Sabbath
By Alex Dodson
Today, we hold great commercial sports events on Sunday and think nothing about it. The great Super Bowl has become a national event every year honored and revered by the whole nation. Even the churches celebrate Super Bowl Sunday and encourage their congregations to fully participate. The idea and concept of Sunday being the Christian Sabbath has almost been completely lost from our society. More and more stores stay open on Sunday. Even our credit card bills have due dates on Sunday. We have become a 24/7 society. The celebration of football has taken the place of the celebration of God on Sunday. It is true that many Americans still go to church on Sunday but church attendance has become secondary to football and other sports events that are attended and televised throughout the nation every Sunday with the ultimate football game being held on Super Bowl Sunday. It's not that football and sports are wrong in themselves but when we put these things in the place of God and honor them above Him, then something is wrong. The Christian Sabbath is supposed to be a day to honor God to take time to remember Him and celebrate Him and to do that by resting from our normal work and pursuits. Yet, this concept has almost disappeared from the American scene.
The way we treat Sunday is a symptom of the moral and spiritual condition of our nation. We have reached a point where honoring God on the Christian Sabbath is really not important anymore. Many evangelical church services have become so informal that the people who come for worship dress down as if they were coming to honor no one. In previous generations, coming to church was a time to dress up because the service was special and it was a time to honor God. That concept seems to be completely lost in many churches as even the pastor dresses informally. We dress up for our jobs but dress down for God. This may not seem important in today's society but it also is a symptom of a spiritual problem in the nation. Iain Murray in his book Rest In God & A Calamity in Contemporary Christianity writes, 'That contempt for God and the ten commandments brings judgments on nations is a clear truth in Scripture…Some believe that for Christians to bear witness to the fourth commandment in an unsympathetic world would be to impede evangelism. The reverse has tragically proved to be true. Bishop Ryle understood what would happen in England if Sunday became as any other day: 'Break down the fence which now surrounds the Sunday, and our Sunday schools will soon come to an end. Let in the flood of worldliness and pleasure-seeking on the Lord's Day, without check or hindrance, and our congregations will soon dwindle away. There is not too much religion in the land now. Destroy the sanctity of the Sabbath, and there will soon be far less…It would be a joy to the infidel; but it would be an insult and offence to God.'" (P. 33-34)
Our not observing the Christian Sabbath today is a break from the consistent history of our nation. One of the testimonies that our nation was established as and has been a Christian nation is that it has always up until recent times observed the Christian Sabbath as a nation. There is no doubt about this. It is very clear from our history that this is the case. It is true that people still go to church on Sunday throughout the country but treating Sunday as a special day as a nation has pretty much disappeared. We have definitely declined from the way previous generations treated Sunday. From the time of the Pilgrims up until the mid twentieth century, the Christian Sabbath was observed all over our nation. It is only in more recent times that this observance has been severely eroded.
In the 1880's Daniel Dorchester wrote in his book Christianity in the United States, "…Sabbath desecration is the exception rather than the general practice. Few, relatively, of the railroad trains run. Nearly all of the engines lie still. Business is almost entirely hushed. But few stores, libraries and museums are opened. With almost no attempts by legal prosecutions to enforce the observance of the day, its very general voluntary observance becomingly and sacredly by such large masses of people is clear evidence of a large amount of elevated moral sentiment which dominates the land…" (P. 576) During the same period in the nineteenth century Charles Hodge wrote in his Systemic Theology, "Christianity forbids all unnecessary labor, or the transaction of worldly business, on the Lord's Day…All public offices are closed, and all official business is suspended. From Maine to Georgia, from ocean to ocean, one day in the week, by the law of God and by the law of the land, the people rest." (Rest in God & A Calamity in Contemporary Christianity by Iain Murray, p. 33) Supreme Court Justice David J. Brewer wrote in 1905 - "Sunday. It's separation from the other days as a day of rest is enforced by the legislation of nearly all if not all the states in the Union….it is a day consecrated of old, a day separated by law and religion as well as by the custom of the church for ages, and ought not to be turned into a day of public frivolity and gaiety…." (The United States - A Christian Nation, p. 33)
I can remember growing up in small town America in the late 40's and through the 50's when the Christian Sabbath was still honored by the people of the nation. All businesses were closed on Sundays except a few restaurants and a few gasoline stations. All other stores were closed including supermarkets. The scene on Sunday was totally different from what we see today in our 24/7 society. The days of Super Bowl Sunday had not yet begun. Sunday was still a day of rest throughout the nation. Though there were some local sports events. The great commercial sports events that occur today on Sunday had not yet arrived.
Why should we observe Sunday as a special day to rest from our normal work and pursuits and to use that day to honor God? I would like to point out three important reasons. First, the Sabbath was established at creation and the duty to observe this ordinance applies to all mankind. Secondly, the observance of the Sabbath is a part of God's moral law - the Ten Commandments. Thirdly, the Christian Sabbath was established by Christ and observed from the earliest days of the Christian Church. Since we were established as a Christian nation, it has been customary to observe Sunday as the Christian Sabbath from our earliest days.
Let's see first of all then that the Sabbath is a creation ordinance. Genesis 2:2-3 says, "By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done." God rested on the seventh day from his work of creation. He blessed that day and set it apart as holy. The Geneva Bible note on verse 3 says, "Appointed it to be kept holy, that men might therein consider the excellency of his works and God's goodness toward him." Matthew Henry comments, "The Sabbath day is a holy day, for God has sanctified it. He has separated and distinguished it from the rest of the days of the week, and he has consecrated it and set it apart to himself and his own service and honor." (Matthew Henry's Commentary on Genesis, p. 13) At creation, God worked six days and then He rested on the Seventh Day and blessed that day above all the others and made it holy.
Because the setting apart of this one day in seven occurred at creation, it applies to all mankind. The Sabbath Day is a creation ordinance. It is for the whole human race. Now, some today say it was only for Israel because it was not revealed until Mount Sinai and only for the people of Israel. Therefore, it is not binding for us today. However, this is not so. Not only was the Sabbath in force from creation before Israel became a nation but even Israel was told by God to observe the Sabbath Day before it was ever revealed to them in the Ten Commandments at Sinai. This can be seen in how the manna was gathered. Exodus 16:21-30 says, "Each morning everyone gathered as much as he needed, and when the sun grew hot, it melted away. On the sixth day, they gathered twice as much - two omers for each person - and the leaders of the community came and reported this to Moses. He said to them, 'This is what the Lord commanded: 'Tomorrow is to be a day of rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord. So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning. So they saved it until morning, as Moses commanded, and it did not stink or get maggots in it. 'Eat it today,' Moses said, 'because today is a Sabbath to the Lord. You will not find any of it on the ground today. Six days you are to gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will not be any.' Nevertheless, some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather it, but they found none. Then the Lord said to Moses, 'How long will you refuse to keep my commands and my instructions? Bear in mind that the Lord has given you the Sabbath; that is why on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Everyone is to stay where he is on the seventh day; no one is to go out.' So the people rested on the seventh day."
The Israelites were instructed to observe an ordinance that was already in place. It was not something new. Iain Murray comments, "God specifically stated the purpose of this miracle, 'that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not' (16:4). How could this be a test unless direction regarding the seventh day had not been already given? Nothing in Exodus 16 suggests that the appointment of a special seventh day of rest was only now being introduced. Had the manna miracle of Exodus 16 followed the giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, we would have understood the fourth commandment as the foundation for the 'test'. But that was plainly a later event at Sinai. Further, when we come to the wording of the fourth commandment, its language confirms that the Sabbath was not new but already existing. The commandment does not begin, 'Know there is a Sabbath Day', but 'Remember…'; and what is to be remembered is specifically identified with Genesis 2:3…" (Rest in God & a Calamity in Contemporary Christianity, p.10-11)
God intended the Sabbath Day as a special day unlike any other day of the week. On that day we are to put aside our usual work and pleasures and remember our creator and Lord and honor Him on that day and follow his example by observing that day as a day of rest. John Calvin comments, "…he dedicated every seventh day to rest, that his own example might be a perpetual rule. The design of the institution must be always kept in memory: for God did not command men simply to keep holiday every seventh day, as if he delighted in their indolence, but rather that they, being released from all other business, might the more readily apply their minds to the creator of the world. Lastly, that is a sacred rest which withdraws men from the impediments of the world, that it may dedicate them entirely to God….For God cannot either more gently allure, or more effectually incite us to obedience, than by inviting and exhorting us to the imitation of himself. Besides, we must know, that this is to be the common employment not for one age or people only, but of the whole human race." (Commentary on Genesis, p. 106) Martin Luther wrote, "The Sabbath Day is undoubtedly rooted in nature; in our human nature and in the nature of the created universe…It is Jehovah who made the Sabbath; though for man, the Sabbath is not of man, but has come to man as a gift of God himself." (Murray, p. 27) To take God's holy day and use it for commercial enterprises such as Super Bowl Sunday or Sunday Night Football goes contrary to the whole meaning of the Sabbath Day. We will say more on this later. For now, we must remember that the Sabbath goes back to the creation and has an application to all mankind.
Secondly, we want to consider that the observance of the Sabbath is a part of the Ten Commandments, God's Moral Law. It wasn't just written there to introduce the Jews to the Sabbath Day. It was written as a reminder of the Sabbath that had already been established at creation. The Fourth Commandment begins with the word "Remember". It is the longest of the commandments and reads in its entirety, "Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath Day and made it holy." (Exodus 20:8-11) God's moral law has not changed. The Fourth Commandment has not been erased from God's moral law. It is still there. Yet, today, we live as if the Fourth Commandment does not exist. Some say the Fourth Commandment was only for the Jews and does not apply to us today. This cannot be so because the commandment itself points back to the creation. In addition, as being a part of God's moral law, it applies to all mankind. No one is excused from an obligation to obey God's moral law. Romans 3:19 says, "Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God."
Some try to say that the Fourth Commandment was not taught in the New Testament. They say that all the other commandments are mentioned except that commandment for it had passed away. This cannot be. The New Testament makes it plain that Christ honored the Sabbath Day. He called himself the Lord of the Sabbath. He taught about the Sabbath. He worshipped regularly on the Sabbath. He did good deeds on the Sabbath and taught others to do the same. He recognized that there were deeds of necessity to be done on the Sabbath but in all He said He always honored the Sabbath Day. His followers should do no less.
Thirdly, the Christian Sabbath was established by Christ and observed from the earliest days of the Christian Church. It is true that we no longer observe the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week but on the first day of the week. We call this first day of the week the Lord's Day. This is what the early church called it. In Revelation 1:10, the apostle John writes, "On the Lord's Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet…" He mentions the Lord's Day as something that was already being observed. Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week. From that time forward, Christians recognize that first day of the week as the Lord's Day or the Christian Sabbath. It is clear from the Scriptures that the early Christians met on the first day of the week for worship. Acts 20:7 says, "On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight." I Corinthians 16:2 says, "On the first day of every week, each of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made." These early Christians met on Sunday to observe the Lord's Supper, to hear the preaching of the Word, and to bring their offerings. We know from the earliest days of church history that Sunday was observed as the Christian Sabbath and unto this day is universally observed among Christians. Early Christians recognized the Lord Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath and began observing the Lord's Day from the earliest time. Now, did they just establish this Lord's Day on their own without any instructions from Christ Himself? This is highly unlikely. It is most probable that Jesus taught His disciples to set aside the first day of the week as the Christian Sabbath. He, of course, sanctified that day by rising from the dead on the first day of the week.
The Christian Sabbath is definitely a continuation of the original creation ordinance to rest one day in seven and set aside that day as holy. Matthew Henry writes, "Though it is commonly taken for granted that the Christian Sabbath we observe, reckoning from the creation, is not the seventh but the first day of the week, yet being a seventh day, and we, in it, celebrating the rest of God the Son, and the finishing of the work of our redemption, we may and ought to act faith upon this original institution of the Sabbath Day, and to commemorate the work of creation, to the honor of the great creator, who is therefore worthy to receive, on that day, blessing, and honor, and praise, from all religious assemblies." (Matthew Henry's Commentary on Genesis, p. 13)
As we have mentioned earlier in this article, the Christian Sabbath has been observed in this nation from the earliest days. It is one of the greatest testimonies to the fact that we are a Christian nation. From the earliest settlers in Jamestown, to the Pilgrims, to our founding fathers, all the way to modern times, the Christian Sabbath is still observed in this nation. However, as we have seen, in more recent years, the observance of this day has been severely eroded and almost abandoned by the nation as a whole.
Now, it is possible to be too legalistic about the Sabbath Day. We are not to be as the Pharisees of long ago who ignored the spirit of the law but only obeyed it superficially in a legalistic way. We are to observe the principle of the Sabbath Day that is to honor God on that day and to follow His example by resting on that Day. To say that it is wrong to do away with all our recreations or to abstain from all sports on that day is not what observing the Sabbath is all about. There is a lot of difference between playing ball in the backyard with our children or having a local neighborhood ball game on a Sunday afternoon and a great commercial event such as the Super Bowl on Sunday where millions of dollars are spent on advertisements alone and where something other than God is honored and even idolized in that one event.
Eric Liddell in 1924 refused to run in the Olympics on Sunday. By so doing he passed by the opportunity for a gold medal in the 100 meters in the Paris Olympics. Yet God rewarded his faithfulness as he ran the following Friday in the 400 meter run setting a new world record and earning a gold medal. On the morning before the 400 meter event, Eric was given a note which he read after he got to the dressing room. The note said, "It says in the Old Book, 'Him that honors me, I will honor.' Wishing you the best of success always." (Eric Liddell - Pure Gold by David McCasland, p. 94) God honored Eric Liddell that Friday in 1924 and He will honor anyone who honors Him on His Day. (Eric Liddell's story is told in the academy award winning movie Chariots of Fire.)
Are we honoring God when we participate in such a highly commercialized event as the Super Bowl on the Lord's Day? Isaiah 58:13-14 says, "'If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord's holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.'" The mouth of the Lord has spoken." When our nation starts honoring the Lord's Day again, then we can know that our country is turning around. A nation that honors God will itself be honored. Our forefathers knew this and they honored God and God honored them. Instead of forgetting the Christian Sabbath, let us as a nation remember it and make it holy once again.
All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version unless indicated otherwise
Brewer, David J. The United States - A Christian Nation, American Vision Press, Powder Springs, Georgia, 2010. (Originally published 1905.)
Calvin, John. Genesis, The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1975. (Originally published 1554.
Dorchester, Daniel. Christianity in the United States, American Vision Press, Powder Springs, Georgia, 2009. (Originally published 1888.)
Geneva Bible - 1599. Tolle Lege Press, White Hall, West Virginia, 2006. (Originally published 1599.)
Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible - Volume 1 - Genesis to Deuteronomy, Fleming H. Revell Company, United States of America.
McCasland, David. Eric Liddell - Pure Gold, Discovery House Publishers, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2001.
Murray, Iain. Rest in God & A Calamity in Contemporary Christianity, The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 2010.