By Robert C. Shannon
A preacher once prepared a series of sermons on the Ten Commandments. He gave one the title, “The Commandment You Cannot Keep.” That created a lot of interest. People were hoping it was the one they were having trouble with. That Sunday he preached on “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.”
The Commandment You Cannot Keep
He based his sermon on Deuteronomy 5:12-14. Here the Sabbath is clearly related to Israel’s escape from Egypt. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day” (v. 15). The preacher was right. There is one commandment you cannot keep and this is it.
Unless your ancestors were slaves in Egypt you cannot keep the Sabbath. No Gentile can keep the Sabbath. Most readers of The Lookout cannot keep the Sabbath. It is a commemoration of an event in Jewish history and refers to the collective memory of the descendants who escaped Egypt in the Exodus. Gentiles do not have this collective historical memory and so have nothing to remember.
In Exodus 31:13 God says to the Jews, “This is a sign between me and you.” In Ezekiel 20:12, in the context of leading the Jews out of Egypt, God says, “I gave them my Sabbath as a sign between us.”
Careful Bible students will notice that the Sabbath is never mentioned before the Exodus. The word is not in the book of Genesis. There is no evidence that anybody ever kept the Sabbath until the escape from Egypt. Enoch walked with God, but there is no mention that he kept the Sabbath. Abraham was the father of the faithful, but there is no mention that he kept the Sabbath. There is no hint that Isaac or Jacob or Joseph remembered the Sabbath day. The word first appears in Exodus 16:23. Until the Exodus there was nothing to remember!
The Sabbath does not commemorate Creation. Creation is an illustration of the Sabbath, not the reason for it. This is a common misunderstanding. If the Sabbath commemorated creation, surely men like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would have kept it.
Not in the New Testament
Nine of the Ten Commandments are repeated in some form in the New Testament. For example, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” is repeated in 1 John 5:21: “Keep yourselves from idols.” The commandment “Thou shalt not steal” is repeated in Ephesians 4:28: “Let him that stole steal no more” (American Standard Version). The commandment “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” is reflected in the Lord’s Prayer: “Hallowed be Thy name.”
Why is this commandment missing in the New Testament? It is because we live under a new covenant. The old covenant was difficult to keep then and would be impossible to keep today. They were forbidden to prepare food on the Sabbath, to gather firewood, to kindle a fire, to bring in sheaves of wheat, to tread the winepress, to load a beast of burden, or to harvest crops. It was a violation of the Sabbath to pick a flower, cut a branch, tie a knot in a rope, or carry water for an animal to drink. You could care for the sick only if the patient was in danger of death. The penalty for violating these laws was death!
The prophet Jeremiah predicted a new covenant (31:31, 32). Jesus said Communion represented the blood of the new covenant. The book of Hebrews tells how the new is superior to the old. The apostle Paul emphasizes this in his letter to the Colossians and specifically mentions the Sabbath in 2:16.
The first Christians were Jews and continued many of their former customs. When Christianity spread to the Gentile world, a question arose, “How much of the law of Moses must a Gentile keep?” The answer is recorded in Acts 15:24-29. Four things were named. The Sabbath was not among them.
A young preacher in rural Kentucky noticed one year that the rains had delayed the harvest and the crops were spoiling in the fields. Then there came a lovely Sunday perfect for harvesting. All of the men in his congregation were in church on Sunday morning. They were all in the fields harvesting on Sunday afternoon. They were back in church on Sunday night. He could not find anything to criticize about that!
Not a Substitute for the Sabbath
Sunday is a separate day to commemorate a separate event. Certainly, there are parallels between first-day worship and seventh-day worship. The Jewish Sabbath commemorated their release from bondage in Egypt. Sunday commemorates our release from the bondage of sin. That release was accomplished in the resurrection of Jesus, which took place on the first day of the week. In the Russian language, the word for Sunday means “resurrection.” The coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles at Pentecost was on the first day of the week. The church was born on the first day of the week.
In the New Testament, after the resurrection, whenever the followers of Jesus were together and the day is mentioned, it is the first day of the week. Were they together on other days? Certainly, but on those occasions the day of the week is not mentioned. When they are together and the day is noted, it is the first day of the week. That was the case the week after the resurrection when they met in Jerusalem. That was the case at Troas when Paul preached until midnight. That was the assumption when the Corinthians were instructed to take up an offering.
Naturally, first-day worship echoes some aspects of seventh-day worship but it is not the case that somebody simply changed the day from Saturday to Sunday. Sabbath keeping can only work in an agricultural society. In modern society it is simply impossible. It was intended for a specific people, living in a specific place at a specific time.
A Christian can be a fireman or a policeman or work in a hospital emergency room and be on duty on Sunday. A Christian can work in a factory and work on Sunday. Many manufacturing processes are such that the equipment cannot be shut down for Sunday. It would take a week to get it up and running again.
East Tennessee has always been an intensely religious region. When the TVA dams and generators were built, cheap electrical power arrived and with it new industries. For the first time, rural people had regular work. But these new industries were of such a nature that you could not shut them down for one day out of every week. Many people needed those jobs, but they were not comfortable with working on Sunday morning. Suddenly area churches began to have large congregations on Sunday nights and again on Wednesday nights. People made an accommodation to things they could not change.
Since, as Jesus said, the Sabbath was made for man, then there must be an underlying need for us to have a day when we set aside our daily routine and devote ourselves to rest, reflection, and remembering gratefully what God has done for us. Whenever possible, Christians should avoid regular work in order to concentrate on these things.
The Lord’s Day
We all know that AD stands for Anno Domini—the year of our Lord. It is also true of the words for Sunday in what are called the Romance languages. In the languages derived from Latin (Spanish, French, and Italian) the words for Sunday carry an echo of the Latin word for Lord. Words like Domingo, Domenica, or Dimance all suggest that Sunday is the Lord’s Day.
This should not surprise us. As early as the time the book of Revelation was written, believers called Sunday the Lord’s Day (Revelation 1:10). Several Christian writers, writing between AD 90 and 150 called Sunday the Lord’s Day. Numerous burial stones and plaques note that a person died on the Lord’s Day.
It used to be common for Christians to use that term instead of Sunday. It was a good practice. It reminded people one day in seven belongs to God, just as one dollar in 10 belongs to God. We will do well to return to a use of that term. We will do even better to fill the day with activities or worship and service that make it truly the Lord’s Day.
Robert C. Shannon is a freelance writer in Valle Crucis, North Carolina.
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