What Sunday Should Mean To YouErwin W. Lutzer | March 23, 1986
Selected highlights from this sermon
God gave the Sabbath as a day of rest and reflection. Even though He didn’t need to rest Himself, God modeled this pattern of one day of rest following His creation of the universe.
Yet the New Testament church did not observe the Sabbath, and the Scriptures reflect that shift. So let’s spend our Sundays rejoicing at God’s grace in our lives.
Those of you who saw the film, Chariots of Fire, know that the focal point of the story is a young man by the name of Eric Lidell. And what made Chariots of Fire so appealing was that this young man, a great athlete from the University of Edinburgh, was going to join the Olympics, and everyone knew that if he did, with his tremendous running speed he would win and probably break all records. But the problem was that the trial heat to get into the Olympics was on a Sunday, and he would not run on Sunday. No way! The Prince of Wales actually tried to convince him to run on Sunday, and told him, “Why don’t you just simply set aside this particular little conviction you have and just run a race that will take only a few minutes. And Eric wouldn’t. He stuck to his convictions. Now interestingly I think if I remember the story, someone else ran in his place and eventually he was able to get into the Olympics, and he won.
But the question is should Eric have run on Sunday? Would that have been all right? Would you have run on Sunday? Let me ask that question? Today we have baseball players who play on Sunday who are Christians, and football players who play on Sunday, and many of them evidently are born-again Christians. And so what should our response be?
We find in the Bible that God said very clearly in that famous controversial fourth commandment, “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy,” and then God goes on to give the details. “Do not do any work. Don’t let your oxen do any work. Don’t let your servants do any work. And if anyone does any work, let him be put to death.” What a commandment! What a controversy that it has generated!
People don’t know quite what to do about Sunday. You know the Puritans believed that Sunday should really inherit all the regulations of the Old Testament Sabbath, and so they had certain restrictions that you could, for example, comb your hair on Sunday, but you couldn’t shave on Sunday. In fact, I remember my own father would shave on Saturday night when we were growing up, and he would not shave on Sunday.
I don’t know how many of you had that upbringing, but those kinds of ideas are very prevalent. Back in the Eastern United States when these issues were discussed with the emphasis of Puritanism, there was a young pastor who lived in an area where there was a lot of ice and snow, and one day he skated to church on Sunday, and the elders didn’t know what to do. I mean is it right that a pastor should skate to church on Sunday? And so they met together to discuss this big huge problem and the final conclusion was, “Yes,” they told him, “you can skate to church on Sunday just as long as you don’t enjoy it.” That’s the conclusion that they came to.
So the question is, “What do we do about Sunday?” Now in order for us to understand this let us first of all recognize that in the Old Testament the Sabbath Day was a very holy day. We’re talking about Saturday. The Sabbath was a very holy day, and I’d like to suggest that that day had certain characteristics and the first characteristic was rest. It was a day of rest.
Now take your Bibles and turn to Genesis 2 where we can see this clearly spelled out. It says in Genesis 2:1 where the Lord had created the heavens and the earth, “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.”
That’s a startling statement. Here God is creating and he rests. Now have you ever created one single thing? No scientist has ever created anything out of nothing. And here God is creating billions of tons of material by just simply speaking the word. Now obviously we would think anybody would be tired by the time he got to the seventh day, wouldn’t he? And the text says that God rested.
You’ll notice in the passage we read from Exodus it says that God was refreshed on the seventh day. You know we read that and the theologians tell us, of course, that God wasn’t weary, and I guess we’d agree with that. I mean it is heresy to think that God needed a break because he had been working so hard those days. And yet I might just, in the interest of promoting a little heresy, ask how do we know that God wasn’t tired? Maybe he was, but very probably the real reason why he rested is not because he was tired but rather because God was emphasizing right from creation that there is a principle of one day in seven that ought to be observed. And God was so anxious to build this principle into the very fabric of the universe that he himself laid his own reputation on the line and his own example on the line and said, “I myself rested on the seventh day after working six.”
Now what we learn from this passage is not just that God rested but also that God worked. You know there’s another side to that fourth commandment. It says, of course, “Remember to keep the Sabbath Day to keep it holy,” but the rest of the commandment says, “Six days thou shall labor.” Work is a gift of God. You say you don’t like all the gifts that God may have in mind for you, but work is a gift of God. I feel sorry for people who can’t work.
You say, “Well it came about because of the fall of man.” No. You read in Genesis 2:15, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it,” and that was prior to the fall of chapter 3.
So God expects people to work. Blessed is the person who can work. Work keeps us out of a lot of trouble. You know I feel sorry for people who are so wealthy that their children inherit millions of dollars or even thousands of dollars and the children don’t have to work. One of the greatest curses you could possibly put upon children is to make sure that they are well taken care of and they never have to work. Work is built into the fabric of life. God says, “I worked. You work.” But the other side of the coin is God says, “I rested. You rest.”
You know the fourth commandment is a tremendous blessing because God is being generous with his people. He is saying, “I am taking into account your human needs.” Rest is a blessing of God. We always think that people are lazy and they try to get out of work. That’s often true but the other side is that there are so many people who will work themselves to death if given a chance. So God says, “Six days you work, and you rest one day.” Did you know that that is best for our bodies?
During the French Revolution the idea arose that they wanted to take France and to cut out of its social life every single vestige of religious influence, and so the social planners of the day realized that this idea of one day in seven is a Judeo-Christian idea. Don’t tell the ACLU. These folks recognized that it was, so do you know what France did in those days? They decided to go on a different schedule of one day of rest in ten, but it did not work. People became weary. They found out that they became unproductive on the job. Their bodies were not able to handle it, and one of the French social scientists finally said, “Let us observe Sunday in the name of hygiene if not in the name of religion.”
So you see, your body was built in such a way that it needs one day of rest in seven. That is the very best way that you can take care of your body. It is one of the most interesting pieces of social legislation for God to say, “Six days thou shall labor, and one shall be of rest.”
So you have Marxist countries that talk about the good of the working man, and the need to take one day off in seven, and those Marxists don’t know it, and don’t tell them, but the idea of one day in seven (not one day in ten) is a Biblical Judeo – Christian idea that is woven right into the fabric of all civilizations. Whether you are in China or Thailand or wherever, there is one day a week that is set aside and it is special.
God says, number one, “It should be a day of rest.” And if you are working seven days a week you are violating what God has lain down. You are rebelling against God’s intention for man.
There’s a second characteristic. It should be a day of reflection. Turn to Deuteronomy 5:12. Notice what the Lord says here. He is reiterating the Ten Commandments and he gets to the fourth again. The text says, “Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you.”
By the way, don’t you get the impression that God didn’t want them to do anything on that day? At least that’s what seems to be coming through to me as I read that verse. “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord our God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.”
Rooted in creation yes, but also rooted in redemption of the people of Israel out of Egypt. What God is saying is that you ought to keep that day. It is a day to reflect upon your life in Egypt and the redemption that God has brought about. What a beautiful day in which to recite Psalm 103.
“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” It’s a time of remembrance. It’s a time of reflection. It’s a time of evaluation. It’s a time when we think about God and our relationship to him.
So first of all it was, of course, a time of rest, but also a time of reflection. When you were resting you were thinking about your relationship with God.
Now, have you ever been in love? I have and still am. But you know when you love somebody you like to be with them everyday. You know couples like to call each other on the telephone every night as if such great momentous events took place during the day that they can’t wait until the weekend. You know how that is. Well no, some of you apparently don’t, but anyway, when you are in love you like to speak to that person as often as possible, but then you like to have extended times of fellowship when you say, “I’d like to be able to spend the whole day with you and get caught up.”
That’s what God says the Sabbath is all about. You are in fellowship with me every single day but then there is one day that is set aside. It is sanctified and it is holy. It is set apart for God and it’s a time of rest and reflection. A physical necessity – it is rest. A spiritual necessity – it is a time of reflection. That’s what the Lord is asking us to observe, or asking Israel to observe.
Now we come to the $64 question. What about Jesus Christ’s relationship to the Sabbath? Jesus six times in the New Testament is specifically accused of having broken the Sabbath. The Pharisees were constantly getting on him.
For example, one day he and his disciples were walking through the fields of grain, and they took some of the heads of wheat and they rubbed them in their hand, and they ate that grain. And everybody said, “The Old Testament says you’re not supposed to thrash on the Sabbath Day,” and they are thrashing. They are harvesting, and Jesus said to them, “Now wait a moment. The Sabbath was made for man’s benefit, and if we have to eat on the Sabbath day we eat. If your ox falls into a pit on the Sabbath day you pull him out.” There are these necessities of servant hood that you have to do on Sunday or rather on the Sabbath that are perfectly legitimate. If you are a nurse and you have to work on Sunday to help people what better way to commemorate God’s rest and God’s interest in the human race than to have deeds of kindness on the Sabbath day?
And then Jesus healed people, and remember they said, “Wait a moment. There’s nothing in the Old Testament that says you can heal a person on the Sabbath day.” And Jesus once looked around glaring in anger because of all of the flack that he was getting for healing people on the Sabbath. And Jesus said, “What is better to do? Shall I do evil on the Sabbath day? Is it wrong for me to do good on the Sabbath day?”
They called him a Sabbath breaker. In fact they called him a continuous Sabbath breaker. We don’t have time here to look into all the passages, but I just want to say that I don’t think Jesus broke the Old Testament Sabbath because he came to fulfill the law. And if Jesus Christ was under the law of the Old Testament, it is unlikely that Jesus broke the Old Testament Sabbath, even though he said he was Lord of the Sabbath. What’s more likely is that all kinds of little laws and traditions were drawn up to protect that day, and Jesus was someone who loathed tradition. He constantly was speaking against it. He was saying to the people, “You nullify the word of God through your traditions. You are always adding all kinds of little regulations to what God has said, and you are making it more stringent and more unexplainable than God’s word.” And so that’s what happened.
In 1954 Time Magazine reported that in Tel Aviv there are some elevators in hotels that go constantly all day. They are set to go all day and they stop at every single floor because the Orthodox Jews do not want to press a button on the Sabbath day. So you see what really happens is that there are laws that grow up regarding the Sabbath and people begin to so emphasize those meticulous laws when God says, “You are missing the point. I had intended that you would have a day of rest and worship and reflection, and here it has been reduced to a time when you are nit picking regarding all kinds of small little regulations.” Well, that’s one question.
We come to another question and that is why does the Christian Church not observe the Sabbath? And this, of course, is a tremendous controversy, as you well know. Some of our Seventh Day Adventist friends will tell us that we are breaking the law of God. And in response, of course, all that we can do is show them the New Testament, how that the early church began to meet on the first day of the week, and they took this time of rest and reflection and they changed it into a time of rejoicing.
Now just to give you an idea, for example, if you are taking notes, in John 20:19 it says that they gathered together on the first day of the week. And then maybe we should take time to look at Acts 20 where you have the early church again meeting on the first day of the week. It says in Acts 20:7, “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day.” The breaking of bread refers to communion, and you’ll notice that it was on the first day of the week. In First Corinthians 16:2 Paul says, “On the first day of every week, you ought to keep in store a certain amount of money that you may be able to give it when you gather together in worship.”
It seems impossible to me that God would have intended that people keep the Sabbath when all of Paul’s epistles and all of his writings say nothing about any Sabbath day violations that are going on in the Church. In fact, Paul says just the opposite.
Now I know I’ve asked you to turn to many passages today, but could you turn to one more? Let’s take Colossians 2 where Paul is speaking specifically to the issue of Sabbath days, and special events like that that people were commemorating. And I won’t take time to give you the total context and that which precedes it and follows it, but in Colossians 2:16 it says, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.” Paul says, “Don’t let anyone judge you regarding these things.”
And in Romans 14 he says, “One day one person esteems one day above another. Another esteems every day alike.” He says, “You have to be fully persuaded in your own mind.” So nowhere in the New Testament do we have all of the Sabbath day regulations transferred over to Sunday. Sunday becomes the voluntary day of rejoicing and praise and gratitude, and it’s a day when people can do and serve God in the way in which they ought, but not under the compulsion of the Old Testament.
Now you know, of course, that oftentimes in American history there has been a transfer from the Sabbath day to Sunday with all of the regulations. Parenthetically, have you ever eaten a sundae? How many of you have ever gone into a store and had a sundae? Only 42 of you? I thought more of you liked ice cream. Do you know where that got associated? In Evanston, Illinois! You’ve heard of that place. What happened was there were no stores open in Evanston and finally one store opened on Sunday and served only ice cream, and so the idea arose that you would have a sundae. You’d be able to buy ice cream. And that’s the origin of the association of having a sundae and eating some ice cream. Well we’ve come a long way since that time, haven’t we, with everything virtually open on Sunday?
Now what I’d like to do is to take all the loose ends and tie them together and give you three conclusions. All right? And this will help us, I think nail some important things down regarding Sunday and the Sabbath, etc.
First of all, the regulations of the Sabbath are not transferred over to Sunday in the New Testament. For example in the book of Exodus 35:3 it expressly says that you shall not light a fire on the Sabbath. You can imagine, of course, that this would create problems for those of us who live in the Midwest if we tried to apply that on Sunday. They were not to go out and even gather manna on the Sabbath day. You were not to go a Sabbath day’s journey or there was a certain limitation, I should say, as to how far you could go and travel on the Sabbath, and there were all kinds of regulations that were a part of that that are explained in the Old Testament. And today I must say that we do not transfer those to Sunday.
Now what about Eric Liddel? Should he have run that race on Sunday? Well let me answer this way. If he thought that he was disobeying God, of course he should not have because the Bible says that whatever is not of faith is sin. If you think that you are disobeying God and then you go ahead and do it anyway, you are sinning, even if it’s in something that perhaps you may be mistaken about such as eating meat unto idols and running a race on Sunday.
I would simply say that in the minds of believers some might be free to run the race on Sunday, and some might not be. Paul says, “Don’t judge one another regarding some of these matters.”
What about that young pastor? Should he have been able to skate to church on Sunday? Well, of course he should have been able to skate to church on Sunday, and what the elders should have said is, “We want you to skate to church and we are commanding you to enjoy it.” That’s what they should have said because obviously to say that you should skate without enjoyment is indeed foolish.
So I don’t see a transfer of the regulations of the Old Testament Sabbath to Sunday, but I’d like to make a second conclusion and this is the second. It’s that the principle of one day in seven is woven right into the fabric of the universe. The idea that God rested predates the giving of the law and God rested on the one day after he had done all of his creation as a principle that I think transcends all time. So to observe Sunday in principle is being completely Biblical and right. And what kind of a day should it be? Well let it be a day of rest. Let it be a day of reflection and above all, let it be a day of rejoicing. Let it be a day in which we are edified and strengthened by the gathering together of the body of Jesus Christ. Let it be a time in which Jesus Christ’s resurrection and ascension into heaven is exalted and thought about and a day in which we worship him together.
The Bible says that we should not forsake the assembling of ourselves together as the manner of some is, but that we should be together, we should provoke one another unto good works. Our hearts have to be knit together in love, Paul says in Colossians, so that we can enter into all the inheritance that there is in Jesus Christ.
While I am on the topic, there are many of you here whose participation at Moody Church is minimal. You may come Sunday morning and then we do not see you; you are not involved in any ministry. So let me say very quickly that we are very glad to have you here. Come back again next week, but do you know it is so important within your sphere of life to become more closely knit together with other believers to experience the inheritance that there is in Jesus Christ. That’s why it’s so important in a church like ours that you participate in a smaller group such as a Sunday school class or a Bible study where you are able to get to know others, and where there is interaction and prayer and the bearing of one another’s burdens. And I encourage you in the name of Christ to be all that God wants you to be to become involved in the lives of other believers and in hearts knit together in love. All that to say this - that Sunday is a day in which that ought to happen as we worship the Lord our God.
There’s a third conclusion and that is that Sunday is really a reminder of God’s grace. Do you realize that in the Old Testament (this has been pointed out), which was an age of law (of course there was grace in the Old Testament) the law was given by Moses and grace and truth came by Jesus Christ? In the Old Testament during the age of law the idea was that after you worked six days you would be rewarded with rest. It’s interesting that in the New Testament the first day of the week is observed as the day of rest, which really means that while law says if you work hard you get to rest, grace turns that around and says you begin with rest in order that you might be able to work. And it says in the book of Hebrews that there still remains a rest for the people of God. It’s such good news for tired Christians. There is a rest coming for the people of God. He may be speaking there about the millennial kingdom but notice Jesus Christ’s words. “Come unto me all ye that are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” I should have pointed out that the Hebrew word for Sabbath, Shabbat, is rest.
Jesus Christ, you see, comes along and says, “Freely as a gift I give you rest, and now that you have received rest you are free to be able to serve me and to be able to walk with me, and to be able to labor in my work.”
Let me use the life of Martin Luther to illustrate this. Here’s a man whose prime objective in life is to be right with God. I mean that’s what he wanted above all else, which incidentally is the most important question. The question is not whether or not the earth’s resources are going to wear out or whether or not we’re going to be at war. That’s important but not nearly as important as where you’re going to spend eternity. So here he is. He’s pursuing this right relationship with God and Luther says, “I flogged my body perhaps 40 or 50 times but how do I know that God doesn’t demand 51?” In other words Luther was saying, “I’m looking for rest. I’m looking for security, a sense of knowing that I belong to God. I want to be at rest in my soul and have assurance that I am on my way to heaven,” so he confessed his sin sometimes six hours at a time. The problem was this. In order for a sin to be forgiven it has to be confessed. In order to be confessed it had to be remembered, and Luther’s problem was “how good is my memory.” And sometimes after six hours he could still think of one that he had overlooked. Do you think that leads to rest? That leads to bondage and frustration and uncertainty.
Then one day when he was studying the book of Romans he came to that fantastic conclusion that righteousness is a gift of God, given in response to faith. Forgiveness is a gift of God, given in response to faith. It is a free gift conferred upon those who give up trying and believe in the merits of the completeness of Jesus Christ’s work. And after that he was a man at rest and free to be able to serve.
God says to us today that there is a rest for the people of God. Jesus says, “Come unto me, all that are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest,” and I give you the gift freely, upfront, and after it has been received you have the opportunity of serving me. It’s not a matter of being rewarded at the end of labor. It’s a matter of being rewarded at the beginning. That’s grace – before you’ve earned it, and then after that you can serve me and you can love me.
The Sabbath is rest. Sunday is a time of rest, but above all Jesus is the giver of rest to those who believe in him.
Let’s pray together.
Our Father, we do want to thank you that Jesus Christ fulfilled the Sabbath and we thank you that he is our rest. We think of those, Father, who today may be searching and going from one part of the world to another, from one church group even to another. We pray that you’ll help them to stop and to know that they can find rest in Christ who said, “Come and I will give you rest.”
Enable us, Father, to see him, as the ultimate rest for God’s people. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.