Remember the Sabbath day
There was an article in the Church Times last Friday in which the author described why, rather than staying in bed and pulling the duvet back over her head, she went to church on a Sunday morning. Reading this article, I was struck by the fact that she gave no theological reasons for going to church (God did not even get a mention) and this led me to reflect on what the theological reasons for going to church actually are.
The starting point for thinking about this is the account given in the Book of Genesis of how God rested on the seventh day after the completion of his work of creation. We are told in Genesis 2:2 that as a result of this ‘God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it.’
The blessing and hallowing of the Sabbath means setting it aside as holy day, a day that is separate and distinct from the other six days of the week and particularly dedicated to God. This is reflected in the fourth commandment which declares:
‘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; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner 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 the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.’ (Exodus 20:8-11).
Throughout Jewish history obedience to this commandment has been a distinctive mark of Jewish identity. Jews have been willing to die rather than profane the Sabbath and when the first Christians emerged from within the Jewish people after the day of Pentecost they retained a belief in the importance of setting aside one day in the week as a Sabbath dedicated to God. The early Christians eventually came to regard many aspects of the Jewish law as not being universally and perpetually binding. However, this was not the case in regard to the Sabbath. As far back as our information goes, Christians regarded the fourth commandment as binding not only on the Jewish people (as in the case of other Jewish distinctives such as circumcision or only eating kosher food), but on all people everywhere.
Where they differed from their Jewish neighbours was in setting aside the first day of the week (the Lord’s Day, the day of Jesus’ resurrection) as their Sabbath rather than the seventh day of the week. We can see this in the references to the Lord’s Day in New Testament passages such as Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:2 and Revelation 1:10 and in the early Christian writing called the Didache which declares ‘On the Lord’s Day gather together and break bread and give thanks, having first confessed your sins so that you sacrifice may be pure.’
There is no express command in the New Testament to observe the first day of the week as a Sabbath day. However, the fact that this is something that the Church did from the earliest times, and which it did without controversy in spite of the breach with Jewish practice that this involved, indicates that it was something that had the sanction of the Apostles and therefore carried the authority of Jesus himself. It follows that observing the Sabbath and observing it on Sunday, the first day of the week, is an obligation that is as binding on Christians as observing the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week was to the Jewish people before them.
This then raises the question ‘How should we observe the Sabbath?’ The first answer, which we learn both from the creation account in Genesis and from the fourth commandment, is that so far as possible all our normal work ought to cease. God ceased from his work and we should cease from ours.
The example and teaching of Jesus in passages such as Matthew 12:1-14 shows us that works of necessity and mercy may be done on the Sabbath. As J C Ryle puts it: ‘Whatever in short, is necessary to preserve and maintain life, whether of ourselves or of the creatures, or to do good to the souls of men, may be done on the Sabbath Day without sin.’ This means, for example, that it is legitimate for doctors to care for the sick on Sunday, for farmers to look after their animals and for clergy to take services. However, everyone who is able to do so should avoid unnecessary work as far as possible.
The second answer is that the Sabbath is to be hallowed by not only to being set aside from work, but for God. We are not abstain from work simply to stay in bed, go shopping or watch rugby. To quote Ryle again:
‘It is not to be a carnal, sensual rest, like that of the worshippers of the golden calf, who ‘sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play’ (Exodus 32:6). It is to be emphatically a holy rest. It is to be a rest in which, as far as possible, the affairs of the soul may be attended to, the business of another world minded and communion with God and Christ kept up.’
It is for this reason that we should attend church on Sunday. As the homily ‘Of the Place and Time of Prayer’ in the Second Book of Homilies puts it, God’s ‘will and commandment’ is ‘to have a solemn time, and standing day in the week, wherein the people should come together, and have in remembrance his wonderful benefits, and to render him thanks for them, as appertaineth, to loving, kind and obedient people.’
As the homily goes on to say, the place where God’s people should come together for this purpose: ‘…is called God’s temple or the church, because the company and congregation of God’s people, which is properly called the Church, doth there assemble themselves, on the days appointed for such assemblies and meetings.’
In conclusion, although we live in an increasingly godless society, and although in such a society there are always multiple reasons and excuses at hand for not going to church, we need to take seriously the warning of Hebrews 10:25 not to neglect to meet together. Christians met together on Sundays for hundreds of years before the Roman Empire became Christian and Sunday became a public day of rest. Down the centuries and across the world Christians have kept meeting (and still keep meeting) on Sundays, in situations that are far more daunting than those we have to face. Most of us can go to church on Sunday if we choose to do so and this is something that we should choose to do.
To quote the homily one final time:
‘If we will declare ourselves to have the fear of God, if we will show ourselves true Christians, if we will be the followers of Christ our master, and of those godly Fathers that have lived before us, and now have received the reward of true and faithful Christians, we must both willingly, earnestly, and reverently come unto the material Churches and Temples to pray, as unto fit places appointed for that use, and that upon the Sabbath day, as at most convenient time for God’s people, to cease from bodily and worldly business, to give themselves to holy rest, and godly contemplation pertaining to the service of Almighty God: Whereby we may reconcile ourselves to God, be partakers of his holy Sacraments, and be devout hearers of his holy word, so to be established in faith to Godward, in hope against all adversity, and in charity toward our neighbours. And thus running our course as good Christian people, we may at the last attain the reward of everlasting glory, through the merits of our Saviour Jesus Christ.’