What God establishes as normal in Creation, we expect to remain such throughout all of time. (Consider also the distinction of the genders and the institution of marriage.) Therefore, it comes as little surprise to find the distinction of this day included in the Ten Commandments – enshrined in the Moral Law. Moreover, the fourth commandment explicitly uses what God did in Creation as its foundation. Again, before moving on quickly, our hearts must duly note the significance of this day and its enduring relevance.
Wouldn’t “thou shalt not work” have sufficed?
Since God is the author of this command, the repetition is far from redundant. Surely, it is designed to reinforce God’s intentions regarding our application. A defining difference of this one, set-apart day is that it is to be unburdened by work. “You shouldn’t work!” All “whataboutisms” are taken care of: …neither should your son, your daughter, your employee etc.
It is at this point in fleshing out an application to this command that things can get particularly confusing. By the time Jesus came, for example, the effort to unburden the day of work became a very burdensome work in itself. People were neither allowed to drag a stick behind them (that would be plowing) nor pluck ears of corn with their fingers (that would be harvesting).
Jesus responded to this with a powerful corrective. He essentially reminded people that while the day was indeed set apart, it was also blessed. This day has a unique goodness to it. As Jesus put it, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). In other words, our approach to this day shouldn’t be one of dread because of what we don’t do; it is a day to approach with delight because of what we get to do.
Having been unburdened of the duties of work, we are freed to rest and worship. Our hearts and minds are like pendulums throughout the week, always swinging from one necessity to the next: from one thing on our to-do list to another, from sending an email to attending a doctor’s appointment, from chairing a meeting to doing the laundry, from studying for a test to taking care of the ironing. Of course, we set our minds on Christ; we read His Word and pray. However, as part of God’s good plan, we work.
Having been unburdened of the duties of work, we are freed to rest and worship. This is truly a blessed day indeed!
Jesus also provided more helpful and corrective instruction regarding how we apply this command. While God rested from His creative work on the seventh day, He didn’t cease from all work. For example, He continued to rule over the universe and to sustain all things. Such work is good and necessary. If, in fact, He refrained from all work, the universe would have vanished! Likewise, Jesus provides categories of work that He qualifies as good on this day. Technically, one could argue that pastors work on this day.
Jesus reminds us that such works of piety are good and necessary (Matthew 12:5). Likewise, he taught that works of mercy are perfectly acceptable (Matthew 12:11-12). If a mechanic sees someone standing by a broken down car on his way to church, should he stop and help fix it? Of course! What if a friend asks him to change the oil? The final category Jesus gives us, helps with that. He taught that works of necessity are fine (Matthew 12:2-3). While cooking a meal is “work,” it is also necessary. Milking cows is necessary. Feeding nursing home residents is necessary! Changing a friend’s oil? Not so much. That can wait till Monday.
These categories of work, therefore, help us to process individual scenarios. Is the work requested by the boss a work of piety, a work of mercy, or a work of necessity? If not, then I would counsel the person not to work!
Not out of a legal spirit, but out of loving obedience to Jesus.
Even if I concluded that the work was, in fact, necessary, I would not consider the issue fully resolved. The fact the person could go to work with a clear conscience, doesn’t necessarily imply that that would be the wise thing to do. There are many other questions that I would want to work through:
Will the person still be able to attend a service on Sunday even if he works? How many Sundays in a month will she need to work? How will this affect his family? Will choosing to work affect his devotion to Jesus? Is the work something many others could do, or is she particularly skilled and qualified to do it? All of these questions, and more, matter.
Anything that dulls our devotion to Jesus, no matter how lawful it is, isn’t good.
Does this spiritual rest annul the need of this weekly day of physical rest, as some argue? No more, I would argue, than the fact that we are part of the bride of Christ annuls the relevance of marriage.
The fact that in gazing upon these pictures we see something far greater than the pictures themselves means that we must look at them! This picture of rest is one we must take time to look at, every week, for the rest of our lives. For in gazing upon it, we see something that enthralls our hearts. That’s why God hung it on the wall! In fact, once we start looking at this picture, it’s hard to stop.
Sunday — the best day of the week!