Sunday should be the happiest day of our week. Right back at the beginning of history, God laid down the pattern by which we should live. God commanded Adam and Eve to work for six days, caring for the world he had made. They would find great happiness in doing that work and they would bring glory to God. But every seventh day was different. On that seventh day they should cease from the work they did on other days and spend the day doing something even more happy and glorious. “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation”. God blessed this special day:- he declared that it would bring special rewards and joys. And he made it holy. Holy simply means “set apart for God himself”. Adam and Eve were to set aside every seventh day for God himself. They were to cease from the work they did on other days and concentrate on God himself, drawing near to him, serving him directly; worshipping him.
That was God’s pattern for life. Six days for working in the world. One day for serving God in a more direct way, thinking about him, talking with him, listening to him, worshipping him.
This special day was known as the sabbath day, from the Hebrew word sabat. In many Bibles the word is translated rest, but it simply means to stop – to stop doing something. The sabbath day wasn’t a day for relaxing. It was a day to stop doing the work of the other six days, and to put God himself at the centre.
Adam and Eve’s very first full day in the world was kept as a sabbath day. They were created on the sixth day. So God’s seventh day was actually their first day! Before they started their six days of working in the garden, Adam and Eve kept one day holy for God himself.
We don’t know very much about the way believers kept the sabbath day between Adam and Moses. But we know that Noah and Abraham and Isaac and the other patriarchs did carry on living their lives in cycles of seven days. It doesn’t surprise us at all, for example, when we read of Noah sending out the birds from the ark at seven-day intervals. Believers never forgot the seven-day pattern which God laid down at creation. And when we come to Moses, we see that the Israelites remembered very clearly the meaning of the sabbath. When God sent them manna in the wilderness, they collected it up for six days but on the sixth day they collected twice as much. And when all the leaders of the congregation told Moses, he said to them, ‘This is what the Lord has commanded: Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy sabbath to the Lord…’. God’s pattern was clear: “Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is a Sabbath, there will be none” (Exodus 16:13-30). They were not to spend time on the Sabbath collecting manna. Instead they were to keep the day holy, set apart for God alone. Notice that this was before the ten commandments were given. The Israelites were already expected to keep the sabbath, before God made a covenant with them at Mount Sinai and gave them the ten commandments.
But it was at Mount Sinai that the pattern which God had laid down at creation, became a fixed law for God’s people. “Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall do no work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the traveller who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested (stopped!) the seventh day. Therefore, God blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.”
What a happy arrangement! What a kind law! Every poverty-stricken man, struggling to make ends meet, could put aside his work for one day a week, knowing that God would provide for his needs. Every tired mum could stop her baking and cleaning, knowing that God had relieved her of those responsibilities for one day. Every slave could lay aside his tools whether his master liked it or not. Even the donkeys and the oxen knew that they wouldn’t have to pull a cart or a plough on that day. All God’s people could cease from the right, necessary tasks they had to do on the other six days and they could concentrate on the most exciting, happy, rewarding work in the world – the work of serving God, listening to him, talking to him, speaking to others about him, praising him. The day was to be a “day of sacred assembly” (Leviticus 23:3) – a day when the people of God could assemble together to worship the Lord.
Some Christians tell me that the Old Testament command to keep a sabbath is no longer binding on believers. They say that it was only for the nation of Israel. Well, I think they’re wrong. If God set up the one in seven pattern right back in the days of Adam and Eve, it must be for all Adam and Eve’s descendants: for the whole human race. And I don’t believe that any of the Ten Commandments – or indeed any part of the law given to Moses – can safely be ignored. All those Old Testament commands are relevant in some way to believers today. The Lord Jesus said, “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven..”
But what if they were right? What if there were no law saying we have to put aside one day in seven to concentrate on God himself? Well I would still want to have that special day! Isn’t it grand to have one day a week when we don’t have to go shopping? Or do the gardening? Or study for exams? Or take the children to Macdonalds?
On other days I feel I have to listen to the news on the radio – it’s my duty to keep up with events. But how glad I am to have one day each week when I can forget passing events and concentrate on eternal things. On other days, I have to talk on the phone to tax people and town hall officials and voice-mail programmes telling me to press ONE now. How good to have a day when I can forget all those voices and listen to the voice I love best – the voice of my Saviour. What a relief it is to have a day when we don’t have to make decisions about what we can and can’t do. On other days, you wonder whether it’s a good use of time to watch football on the telly. But on this day, it’s settled in advance – you’re not going to do anything except give yourself to worshipping and serving God directly. On other days you’re trying to work out whether it’s right to spend money on such and such a luxury. But on this day you know you’re not going to go shopping at all, because the whole day is set apart for God.
And how rich the blessings are that God gives us when we set aside that special day for him. Meditating on God’s book may be harder work than skimming through the novels and magazines you read on other days. But when God’s Spirit speaks to us through the words of the Bible, how thrilling it is to hear his voice! Meeting with God’s people for solemn worship is far more demanding than sitting in front of the TV set. But the joy it can bring is far far deeper and more lasting. Teaching Sunday-school, sharing the gospel with elderly folk in a nursing-home, opening your home to your fellow-believers: all these things may leave you exhausted, but they also bring contentment in this world and everlasting reward in the world to come.
The Bible does not say which day in the week we should keep as our sabbath. God simply commanded that it should be one day in seven – as we say in English, every seventh day. Old Testament Israel kept the last day in the week as sabbath. Christians in New Testament times very soon started keeping the first day of the week as sabbath and called it the Lord’s Day. For most of us, if we are going to keep a sabbath at all, it will be the first day of the week, Sunday, the day on which the Lord Jesus rose from the dead. That’s the day when most of us can be free from the distractions of secular work. If the church is going to gather for a “day of sacred assembly” it will have to be Sunday. And we’re glad it is! What could be more appropriate than to gather on the day of resurrection, the day of new beginnings, and to prepare ourselves for the week ahead?
Our attitude to the Lord’s Day is a sure test of how much we love God. When two people love one another, they want to spend time together without distraction. What would you think of a young man who said he loved a girl but never wanted to be with her? If we love God, we will look forward eagerly to the one day each week we have set aside for God.
In the New Testament (Hebrews chapter 4), our life in the world to come is described as a sabbath that will go on forever. In that world we shall give ourselves to worshipping and serving God without distraction forever. If I don’t enjoy my sabbaths now – sabbaths that last twenty-four hours, how can I expect to enjoy the sabbath that lasts forever?
I’m not saying it’s easy. Keeping that one day as special for God – and enjoying it – is something we have to learn. We have to learn how to shut out the distractions. We have to learn how to make use of the time. We have to learn how to concentrate on God himself. We have to learn how to organise our family life so that the whole family benefits from the sabbath day and enjoys it. We need wisdom to handle all the practical problems that arise – what do we do when unconverted relatives drop by unexpectedly at 6 pm on a Sunday?
It begins with a simple decision. We have to settle it in our minds. The Sabbath is for God. We’re not free to use it for our own entertainment. We’re not free to give it to our employers or to our relatives. It’s God’s and it’s to be used for him.