One of the Ten Commandments tells us to honor the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. So what exactly is permissible for Christians on the Sabbath?
That's a question that's been a source of disagreement for centuries. Today on Truth for Life Weekend, Alistair Begg outlines some guiding principles to help us apply what the Bible teaches about the Lord's Day. We're concluding today our current series with a message titled, The Gift of the Sabbath. It's told of a Scottish minister who was ministering to a Scottish congregation that on one winter's evening, instead of walking to church as he was wont to do, he determined that since the river ran by both his house and the church building, and since the river was completely frozen, that he would on this evening skate to church, because he liked to skate and he was a good skater. And so, to the great surprise of a number of the congregation who were arriving just at the time that the somewhat weary minister arrived on his skates, he shows up at the entrance to the church, clutching his skates and rather flushed, but ready to conduct the worship of the evening. This incident spawned an immediate elders' meeting following the evening worship. And they met to debate whether there was a legitimacy in the minister having skated to the evening worship on the Lord's Day. They discussed the matter at some length, and the argument raged back and forth on the question of whether the practicality of getting to the church with relative ease took precedence over the keeping of the Sabbath.
Which of the two, they argued, should be the prime consideration? And then at last somebody hit on the vital question. Turning to the minister, they asked, May we ask you, pastor, did you enjoy skating up the river? The inference, of course, being that pleasure and the Lord's Day must inevitably be mutually exclusive. Now, I come from that kind of background and therefore wasn't surprised to discover this quote by the wife of C. S. Lewis. She says, The negative Sabbath of modern times seems to have originated in the bitter religious strife of the seventeenth century. In Scotland at that time, one poor wretch was hauled into court for smiling on the Sabbath. And then she says, Considering the state of Scotland in his day, he should have been congratulated for managing to smile at all.
Now, if you haven't been there, it won't strike you quite as humorously as it does me. How are we to deal with this in practical terms? I sought to gather my own personal thinking around three words, and they're these. The first word is gift. That if we think of the Lord's Day, first of all, and primarily in terms of a gift, then we set out immediately on the right track. Because it is clear that whatever we may do with the transference of Christian Sabbath and Sabbath and so on and all the nomenclature of that, it is clear that God has provided for us this, for the benefit of our bodies and our minds and our spirits. And the reason, I think, that so many of us are bewildered by this is on account of the fact that this gift has largely remained unopened—that we have never seriously, as it were, laid hold of the precious nature of this gift, understood it to be such, and said, You know, we are so thankful for this wonderful day and for this wonderful provision. When you think about it, it is not uncommon to hear one another say, You know, I would just love to have a day when I just did virtually nothing at all. And then they go on to describe a day of tranquility, a day of virtual idleness, a day of reading, a day of resting, a day in a hammock, a day by a babbling brook, whatever else it is, free of all these other considerations.
And every human heart can identify to one degree or another with that. But whenever somebody says, Well, you know, is it not a mystery that God has actually given to us this very notion in the gift of the Lord's Day, the hackles go up and they say, Oh, no, no, no, we're not going to get into any kind of legal observance of these kind of days. Some who have opened the gift have set it aside rather quickly, they disregard it, and they seldom enjoy it. To the extent that it is a gift, then, to be enjoyed, what are the constituent elements of the gift? Or, if you like, is it one of those gifts where it's full of tissue paper and you open up other little bits and pieces inside of it?
Yes, it is. Part of the gift has to do with remembering. The Bible has a tremendous amount to say about remembering. About purposeful remembering. Not least of all, in relationship to this matter of the Sabbath or the Lord's Day. Remember it.
Remember what? Well, remember the way in which it was instituted. Remember it in relationship to the wonder of creation. Remember it, says God to his people in Exodus, in light of the wonder of redemption. And just as deliverance from the bondage of Egypt accorded, says John Murray, its sanction to the Sabbath, so the resurrection in its redemptive character yields its sanction to the sacredness of the first day of the week. Indeed, that is the way that Murray argues from Sabbath to Sunday. That is the way he argues, if you like, from Saturday to Sunday. He says that it is by dint of the same process that the deliverance from bondage in Egypt gave sanction to the Sabbath, and so the resurrection in its redemptive dimensions gives sanction to all that began to take place in post-apostolic times on the Lord's Day. And I think it is he, not alone, but he certainly points out that God has given to us these two memorials.
The Lord's Supper is the memorial to his death, and the Lord's Day is the memorial to his resurrection. Another constituent part of the gift is the privilege of rest. Not simply the privilege of recollection but the privilege of rest. And not the rest of idleness. Not the rest, ultimately, of self-indulgence. But if you like, relaxation combined with consecration.
How those two words interface in your life and experience and within your home will be something that clearly you will have to work out for yourself. But obviously, there are other days and other holidays that provide the opportunity simply for relaxation—simply, if you like, for downing tools and for the opportunities of idleness. What, then, is it that makes the Lord's Day so distinctive in this matter of rest? It is surely this element of consecration that marks our enjoyment of Sunday as being different from any other holiday and actually different from Saturday. What, then, of the work that must inevitably take place on this day of rest? Well, throughout history, there has always been an attempt to distinguish between works of necessity and works that are simply preferential, and along with that, works of piety and works of mercy. And we understand the difference between someone who is on call right now in the cardiothoracic unit of the Cleveland Clinic and somebody else who is determined to work this evening because they get time and a half on their job, and they just wanted a little bit more cash, and they could equally well have worked Saturday, and they chose to work Sunday instead. Theirs is not some act of mercy or necessity.
It is an act of personal preference, and they then need to wrestle with this. So it's about remembering, it's about resting, and it's also about worshiping—about worshiping. That almost goes without saying. But the goal of the Lord's Day is God. Understand clearly, the goal of the Lord's Day is not about church attendance. The goal of the Lord's Day is about God. Everything else is subservient to and serves the purpose of knowing God, understanding God, drawing close to God, and being in the company of others who love God.
So that if I rise to the day and say to myself, now, there are obligations that I have to fulfill in this day in order to get my ticket stamped, as it were, then I've frankly missed the point right out of the chute. But if I waken on the Lord's Day morning to say, what an immense gift has been given to me, that in a way that I was unable to do yesterday and will be unable to do tomorrow, I may enjoy the privileges of recollection, I may enjoy the privileges of relaxation combined with consecration, and I have before me the prospect of worship in all the hours of this day, both in the corporate context of gathered worship and in my own personal meanderings through my life. On the first day of the week, we discover very quickly that the believers were coming together to break bread and to worship. And as we said this morning, while it is true that we may do this every day, it is equally true that the Lord's Day provides a peculiar opportunity to enter into its benefits and privileges. So when we unpack the gift, it has a little part that says remembering, it has another part that says resting, it has another part that says worshiping, and it has another part that says hoping—in other words, looking forward. Looking forward to that finality of rest which reaches all of its fullness when we are gathered to God and we enjoy all the benefits of heaven. One of the things I believe that the Lord's Day is supposed to do for the people of God is to whet our appetite for all that heaven will mean to us. And therefore, if we do not constrain the events of the Lord's Day in such a way that they are heavenly in their orientation, then we do a disservice to one another in getting ready for that great day when we will enjoy all the benefits of rest. All that is wrapped up for us in this Lord Jesus, who, remember, came to the people and said, Oh, you that are weary and heavy laden, if you come to me, you will find what? Rest for your souls. And the rest that is ours in Christ we rejoice in in the Lord's Day by dint of the wonder of redemption, and it sends us not only in worship, but it sends us in expectation.
And as I've said to you on a number of occasions before, the only little glimpses of heaven I have ever had have been within the framework of the gathered company of the people of God engaged in the act of worship. And I believe that to be significant. Well, that's the first word I mark down is the word gift.
The second word is the word priority. Now, the analogy that I'm about to use will break down very quickly on a number of fronts, but perhaps it will serve to point us in the right direction. One of the questions that we'll inevitably ask of someone such as myself is, well, having made all these statements concerning the Lord's Day and Sunday, where exactly do you fit into this? Because it doesn't really appear that this has been much of a day of rest for you. And if you're going to abide by this principle, then you must also be seeking in the cycle of seven days to be engaged in some form of rest and relaxation. Well, that day for me traditionally has been a Tuesday, and I have regarded Tuesday as Sue's Day or Family Day, particularly when the children were tiny and did not go off on those yellow school buses. In other words, when I awakened on a Tuesday, my first thought was not the obligations of Monday or the responsibilities of Wednesday or even the relaxations which may be justifiably mine to enjoy on a Tuesday should I so determine. But the day begins with the thought that this is Sue's Day.
That is the priority. And everything else is then determined, and it flows from there. Now, the way in which this is done is not by dint of mechanical formula, whereby I awaken and I go, Now, I've got to do this for the next hour and seven minutes and make Sue feel as though I really believe that this is her day, and then once I've managed to get through with that, then I can dash out of the door and please myself for the other twenty-three hours, thereby having made her feel as though it was her day.
That would, of course, be just a sham. Not that I haven't managed to do that successfully, as she will tell you when the worship service ends. That's why I say the analogy breaks down.
It's one of the reasons I say it breaks down. Nor do I do this on the basis of an emotional search, whereby if the Spirit, if you like, moves me early on a Tuesday morning, I determine to go in this direction, and then, of course, if it doesn't move me, then I just go in any direction I please. Because if I were to do that, then there's no saying where I might end up on a Tuesday very early in the morning, or certainly by midmorning. Now, it's kind of trivial, but if you think about the Lord's Day in that way, as a priority, but not in terms of mechanical duty, whereby I have certain obligations to fulfill, and the Lord's Day for me means that I show up at about five minutes to nine, I get that over with by about ten-fifteen, sometimes ten-twenty—depends if he goes on a long time—and then I get out of there, and then I get on with the life that I really need to live and enjoy. That kind of mechanical duty owes more to Pharisaism, probably, than we would any of us care to admit. Or if we awaken on the Lord's Day morning and wait, if you like, for the surge to take us of emotion, which drives us along and brings us into the family of God in the context of worship.
Most of us won't show up very much at all. If you see it, if we see it in terms of priority, this is God's day. This is fantastic. This is wonderful. I'm so glad of this. This is not a chore.
This is a delight. This is someone that I love. This is someone I love spending time with. I want to go everywhere with them. I want them to be everywhere with me. I want to hear what they say.
I want to tell them what I feel. I want to share every dimension of the day with them. And as soon as we establish it in our minds in that way, it's not hard to see how other preoccupations and appetites and obligations and considerations will quickly become secondary to this overarching priority. I wonder if you've thought about the Lord's Day in that way. And the last word is the word cadence. I don't know where I came up with cadence, but it struck me just yesterday as I was thinking about this. I like the word cadence. It just had a kind of cadence to it when I was saying it to myself.
But if you look up in the dictionary, you will find that one of the meanings of cadence is a sequence of notes resolving discord. And if you and I begin to think of the Lord's Day in that way, I do believe that things will become very, very different. As I said at the outset of our study this morning, one of the reasons many of us find ourselves stretched and overwhelmed is on account of the absolute absence of this cadence or rhythm in our lives. One of the challenges before us, if we're going to take seriously these things, is to consider honestly, personally initially, the radical restructuring of our lives so that the Lord has absolute priority over this day. Now, if you think about this for a minute, what it would mean—and as I said this morning, it wouldn't be uniform in its application.
The uniformity would exist in our preparedness to say, I want to take this day, and I want to ask the Lord to reign supreme over it, and I want to ask him to put his hand upon any area of my life and to restructure my life in such a way as I may be able to call this day an absolute delight. What would it do—and these are questions that we need to ask on our own in our leisure time—what would it do to our work schedules? What would it do to our study habits? What would it do to our Sunday chores? What would it do to those of us who work very hard during the week and have decided that the only time to realistically grow grocery shopping is on Sunday at nine o'clock in the evening or wherever else it is?
Whether that's right or wrong is not my point. My question is, what do you think the restructuring of the day would do to that kind of thing? And may I sound a very familiar note to the student population?
I want to offer to you the greatest message of liberation that I can offer to you at all. I want to ask you to go home—as a student, high school, college, university postgrad—I want you to go home and ask yourself the question, What would it do to my life and to my study habits to determine that from this day on I will not study on a Sunday? I want to tell you what it will do to your Sundays. It will make them absolutely fantastic. You will be able to walk past libraries without any thought of it at all—simply walking past.
Your friends with their brows furrowed and their laptops under their arms and reports hanging out of them will be a matter of marginal concern to you. Not because you have become dismissive of your studies, but because you set down as a fixed point this immense privilege in this particular realm of saying, I'm just not going to do this on the Lord's Day. It can be done, and it can be done with great success. But you must work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. Is it Piper who reminds us that we will never be more satisfied in God than when he is most glorified in us? And what is the chief end of man? It is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.
And if, in his amazing grace and wisdom, he has set within the framework of our humanity this opportunity and privilege for a unique enjoyment of him, then surely we dishonor his name and do a disservice to ourselves by either refusing the gift or setting it aside and disregarding it. Now I'm going to wrap this up. We clearly have only raised a number of questions. We haven't answered them all.
There may be some that come now that will be helpful. We have learned, I hope this, that the Lord's Day, whatever it means, is supposed to be holy and honorable. That whatever we do on the Lord's Day, we ought to endeavor to protect it from improper activities. That it calls us to a kind of careful, thoughtful use of our time. That it says to us, ultimately, this is not a day for idleness or simply doing as we please, but neither is it to be a burden, because if we really understand it, presumably it is an exquisite delight. That it is a day for reverential, for thoughtful use.
And that reverential, thoughtful use is coupled with genuine joy. And the determining factor of our conduct is whether this activity or that activity defiles or honors the sanctity of the day—whether it is a mere indulgence, whether it is a matter of personal pleasure or preference, or whether it actually is conducive to sweet delight in the Lord himself and in the ordinances he has provided. The principle of the Sabbath is not about obeying a long list of rules. The Sabbath gives us an opportunity to prioritize God and delight in spending time with him. You're listening to Alistair Begg on Truth for Life Weekend. If you missed any of the messages in our study of the Sabbath or would like to re-listen to the entire series, you can listen to or watch or download any of these messages for free at truthforlife.org. Just search for the title which is, simply enough, The Sabbath.
While you're on the website, check out one of the books we're recommending this month. It's called The Grumbler's Guide to Giving Thanks. There's an old song that goes, count your blessings, name them one by one, count your blessings, see what God has done.
That's a helpful lyric and it reminds us to appreciate the gifts God has given rather than spending a disproportionate amount of time counting our disappointments. So how do we refocus and live lives that are more fully marked by gratitude? Well, the book The Grumbler's Guide to Giving Thanks is perfect to lift you out of your thanklessness slump. It was written by a self-described recovering pessimist and he shares the journey that led him to seeing the joy of the Lord in everyday blessings. Visit truthforlife.org to find out more about the book The Grumbler's Guide to Giving Thanks. I'm Bob Lapeen, thanks for listening. Join us next weekend as we begin a series titled The Grace of Giving. Why should we give? We're going to look at the Apostle Paul's example for direction. The Bible teaching of Alistair Begg is furnished by Truth for Life where the learning is for a living.
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