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Monday, May 16, 2011

Remember the Lord's Day - Is there a ‘Christian sabbath’? (Part 3)

The following is from "Remember the Lord's Day" by Dr. Peter Masters. You can purchase the book here



If the Lord's Day is to reflect the spirit and standards of the old sabbath, what latitude, flexibility and exceptions are possible, and by what authority? The answer lies in the teaching of our Saviour, and we turn to the pivotal text, Mark 2.27-28: ‘He said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath.’

This last statement (also in Matthew 12.8) is the key to the sabbath today. Christ rules the sabbath, because by his coming he fulfilled the symbolism of the Jewish sabbath, purchased our salvation, then took over the day, filling it with greater meaning.

Christ, being the one through whom all benefits to the human race are given, is the original designer of the sabbath, and he possessed the right to interpret it. The Jews had added considerably to the Old Testament rules for the sabbath, making it severe and burdensome, and these were reproved by the Lord. In Matthew 12 we have the record of how he was passing through a cornfield on the sabbath day, when his disciples began to pluck and eat the corn. The watching Pharisees complained that they were breaking the law of the sabbath, but Christ said to them – ‘Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungred, and they that were with him; how he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat…?’

The Lord told the Pharisees they were wrong, pointing to the example of David who fed his men from that which was exclusively provided for the priests. It was legitimate for them to be fed in an emergency, because the sabbath rules should yield to necessity. It was always the case that things which are essential could be done on the sabbath. In extenuating circumstances, in emergency, David was in order to do what he did even in the Jewish era.

The Old Testament forbade taking in the harvest on the sabbath, but even this rule would have yielded to absolute necessity. The great 16th-century Swiss Reformer Henry Bullinger, referring to examples of sabbath emergencies, wrote the following: ‘If, then, on the sabbath day it be lawful to draw out of a pit a sheep, or an ox in danger of drowning, why should it not be lawful likewise to gather in and keep from spoiling the hay or the corn which by reason of unseasonable weather has lain too long and likely to be worse if it stay any longer? Liberty is granted in cases of necessity.’

In Matthew 12.5 the Lord also pointed to the requirement of the law of Moses that priests should work on the sabbath in connection with worship, technically desecrating the sabbath, but their holy work was exempted from the sabbath rule. The sabbath, despite its apparent inflexibility and prohibitions, always did yield, said the Lord, to special duty or necessity, and to works of mercy. This is obviously the case today, but necessity should not become a word so elastic that it stretches to cover anything we want to do, so that wholehearted dedication of the day to God is ruined. It has to be a real necessity. People must have it in their hearts and minds to honour the Lord's Day, but sometimes there are exceptional circumstances.


The standard for the Lord's Day is spelled out succinctly in the great Protestant confessions. People should ‘rest all day from their own work, words and thoughts about their worldly employment, and recreations,’ and be ‘taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of his worship.’ What, then, are the possible exceptions?

Let us be practical. You might run out of petrol on the Lord's Day, and you are at fault, because you should have taken care to fill up the day before, and for four reasons: (1) to avoid worldly distraction; (2) to avoid setting a bad example to others; (3) to avoid supporting unnecessary employment on the day of rest and worship; (4) to honour and obey the sabbath principle. However, if you are in a tight corner, and it is a matter of necessity, and you would be marooned by not doing so, then you may have to turn into the filling station on the Lord's Day, but you should not make a habit of it. You will not have committed a moral sin, but you should never allow yourself to slide into disregard for God’s day.

In the case of the Jews, disregard for the sabbath incurred a terrible punishment, because the sabbath was the sign of the covenant, and breaking it constituted repudiation of that covenant. The Lord's Day, by contrast, is not the sign of that Jewish covenant, and breaking it does not amount to rejection of our relationship with God. However, to wilfully disregard the Lord's Day is an infringement of the fourth commandment, which Christians should gladly and willingly embrace as part of the perfect law of liberty.

If somehow a person or a family has no food, and there is no one to whom they may turn for help, they may have to go to a shop on the Lord's Day. They may be prepared to fast, although little children should not be subjected to that, but such measures should be the last thing we want to do. We should never plan to shop on the Lord's Day, but the sabbath does yield to genuine necessities.

If you are going on holiday you should not plan to board a train or an aircraft on the Lord's Day, for that is not a necessity, and is certainly outside the spirit of keeping a day for the Lord. It is therefore an act of disobedience, and of indifference to God’s requirement. Such an act would also support the indifference of the travel industry to God’s day. The Lord Jesus Christ showed that the sabbath can yield to necessity, but in good conscience it must be a necessity.

Is it a necessity for believing young people to become entangled with school journeys, camps and sports days, which will eliminate their Lord's Day? Should birthday parties be accommodated on the Lord's Day? Of course not, because one of the great purposes of the Christian sabbath is to place decisions before God’s people, so that they may choose him, and thereby witness to all around them. Thomas Watson aptly said of the Jewish sabbath that it was ‘a great badge of their religion to observe this day’, and the same goes for today.


Many Christian people, far more in the United States than in Britain, go to restaurants for dinner on Sunday, but how can this be a necessity? Furthermore, it supports an unnecessary catering industry which sneers at the Lord's Day, and compels staff to work contrary to the creation decree and fourth commandment. The Puritans allowed home cooking, pointing to Simon Peter’s mother-in-law caring for the Saviour on the sabbath (but not feasting, or very elaborate dining).

We know of pastors in the USA who would not dream of hiring workers on the Lord's Day, but on that day they go to restaurants which do. Is not this inconsistent thinking? The practice of eating out on Sunday was definitely not approved of by evangelicals in the past. It is something which has become widely acceptable only since the 1960s, and has more recently spread to engulf Christians in other parts of the world.

At the Metropolitan Tabernacle a large number of people bring their lunch on Sunday to the lower halls so that they can proceed afterwards to children’s Sunday School ministry, and we are by no means the only church where this occurs. If we seek to bring the lost into God’s house on the Lord's Day, and to proclaim him to all, it is not right to encourage unnecessary industry and employment on that day. The same thinking would apply to buying Sunday newspapers. We should be conscientious about such matters, and yet the Lord's Day, as the old saying goes, ‘is to be observed not in the spirit of the law, but in the free spirit of the Gospel’.

What about turning on the television on a Sunday? Well unless you are going to listen to a few lines of news or something of that kind, it is surely totally unnecessary for a believer to turn on an instrument of public entertainment on a Sunday. I would strongly urge everyone who names the name of Christ, to keep the television off on the Lord's Day, for although it may sound legalistic to some, to have a no-television rule on Sunday will enable you to honour and hallow the Lord's Day with Christian thinking and fellowship. Surely, it is a clear breach of the perpetual sabbath principle to switch on secular entertainment on the Lord's Day.

Concerts (including so-called Christian cantatas) are surely out of place, and how tragic it is that many services of worship today are designed to be entertainment shows!

Some people have to work on the Lord's Day, and we are not talking here about easy cases, such as works of mercy by doctors or nurses, but of other occupations. There are many believers who are compelled to work on the Lord's Day or they would not be able to work at all, and who greatly wish they did not have to. Is it wrong? Not if it is an unavoidable necessity. If they really cannot obtain any other work to keep their families, we cannot judge them, for they are in a very similar situation to that of countless converted slaves in New Testament times and subsequently.

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