“Moses assembled all the congregation of the people of Israel and said to them, ‘These are the things that the LORD has commanded you to do. Six days work shall be done but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death'” (Exodus 35:1-2).
Historically, the Jews observed the Sabbath on Saturday because it was their seventh day on their calendar. The reason why we as Christians observe the Sabbath on Sunday is because Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath, rose from the dead on Sunday. Clearly, then, in this passage, and others before this, working on the Sabbath is sinful and the threat is to be put to death. So, the Christian who reads this might wonder, “Have I sinned because I’ve worked on Sundays? Is my salvation at stake? Is God going to put me to death?” The quick answer is no!
What follows is the long answer: As Lord of the Sabbath, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, Jesus Christ fulfilled this law command for you and me (Matthew 12:1-8; Luke 6:1-5). By working on the Sabbath Himself, Jesus fulfilled the Law’s command (cf. Matthew 5:17). Should you work on Sunday? No, because it is still the day of rest the Lord has prescribed for you. This is the day where you receive the Lord’s means of grace in His Word and Sacraments. On the other hand, can you work on Sundays? Yes, because of the Lord’s fulfilment.
Whether one works on Sunday or stays home to watch a sports game on Sunday, two questions need to be asked. The first is: Is this an idolatry issue? As one reflects on this question, we must go to Luther’s explanation of the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods.” He writes, “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” Furthermore, Luther continues in the Large Catechism, “A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress. So, to have a God is nothing other than trusting and believing Him with the heart” (LC, Part 1, 2). So, the question must be asked, “In what do I fear, love, and trust more? God or my job/this sports game, etc.? Who is my god?” And whomever your god is, you obey him because you fear, love, and trust in him.
The other Commandment one should reflect on is the Third Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy,” which Luther explains, “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” Thus, we should ask ourselves: “Why am I missing church? Do I despise preaching and God’s Word? Is work/sports, etc. my excuse for missing church?” Furthermore, a section from Luther’s longer explanation in his Large Catechism is worth quoting in full:
[God] commanded that it should be regarded as holy above all other days. This commandment was given only to the Jewish people for this outward obedience, that they should stop toilsome work and rest. In that way both man and beast might recover and not be weakened by endless labour [Exodus 20:8-11]. Later, the Jewish people restricted the Sabbath too closely and greatly abused it. They defamed Christ and could not endure in Him the same works that they themselves would do on that day, as we read in the Gospel [Matthew 12:11]. They acted as though the commandment were fulfilled by doing no manual work whatsoever. This, however, was not the meaning. But, as we shall hear, they were supposed to sanctify the holy day or day of rest.
This commandment, therefore, in its literal sense, does not apply to us Christians… The ordinances were attached to particular customs, persons, times, and places, but now they have been made matters of freedom through Christ [Colossians 2:16-17]…
Second, and most especially, on this day of rest (since we can get no other chance), we have the freedom and time to attend divine service… However, this keeping of the Sabbath, I point out, is not restricted to a certain time, as with the Jewish people. It does not have to be just on this or that day. For in itself no one day is better than another [Romans 14:5-6]. Instead, this should be done daily. However, since the masses of people cannot attend every day, there must be at least one day in the week set apart.LC, Part 1, 80-82, 84-85
In short, this Commandment was given to a specific people in a specific culture at a specific time and place. Therefore, it no longer applies to us in its literal sense because (1) we are not Jews and (2) Christ also fulfilled this law for us. However, for the sake of good order, we still set apart (literally “sanctify”) a day for the purpose of gathering to hear God’s Word and receive His forgiveness. It is also good that we have this day for bodily rest since no person can work tirelessly without causing harm to their physical and mental health. Not only do we continue to keep the Sabbath on Sunday because Jesus rose on a Sunday, but it also just happens that Sunday is the best day to keep the Sabbath since no one can keep it every day.
This brings us to the second question: Is work on Sunday unavoidable, that is, is it necessary? I would wager that at least once in every person’s life, it becomes necessary to work on Sunday for at least a day or for the entirety of that particular job. Just as idolatry would profane the Sabbath, so it would be an abuse of the Sabbath if one were to be required to abandon their vocation and, therefore, suffer in their livelihood. God has given us each of our vocations for a reason, and He does not intend that we abandon them. Since we are talking mostly about jobs, God has given us these vocations to provide our daily bread. If you are unable to alter your schedule so that you can attend church on Sunday, you are not sinning since it is required for you to fulfil your vocation, insofar as you find another time to keep the Sabbath since you are still in need of bodily rest, the Word, and forgiveness. It would only be a sin if (a) work or some other thing is your idol, or (b) you despise preaching and the hearing of the Word (i.e., the gathering of God’s saints) and therefore use work to purposefully avoid church. But if altering your work schedule is unavoidable, it is no sin.
When I was in college, for example, I studied full-time, and with my schedule I could only work on Saturdays and Sundays as a private security guard. It was important that I work so that I could eat, pay bills, and so I wouldn’t have to collect unemployment. I worked in the evenings on Saturdays and the mornings on Sundays, so I couldn’t attend church on Sundays. It pained me that I had to miss church on Sunday and my boss wouldn’t let me reschedule to a later time on Sunday (despite my explaining to her that it’s extremely important to me that I go to church on Sunday mornings). So, I found a church that had a service on Saturday mornings. Fortunately, though, my job in security granted me not only a lot of time to get homework done but also time to read my Bible. Once I no longer needed that job, I went back to attending church on Sundays. Let your conscience guide you as you make these decisions.
Luther’s closing thoughts on this Commandment are noteworthy as you ponder it. Note his sarcasm in the beginning:
Let me tell you this, even though you know God’s Word perfectly and are already a master in all things: you are daily in the devil’s kingdom [Colossians 1:13-14]. He ceases neither day nor night to sneak up on you and to kindle in your heart unbelief and wicked thoughts against these three commandments and all the commandments. Therefore, you must always have God’s Word in your heart, upon your lips, and in your ears. But where the heart is idle and the Word does not make a sound, the devil breaks in and has done the damage before we are aware [Matthew 13:24-30]. On the other hand, the Word is so effective that whenever it is seriously contemplated, heard, and used, it is bound never to be without fruit [Isaiah 55:11; Mark 4:20]. It always awakens new understanding, pleasure, and devoutness and produces a pure heart and pure thoughts [Philippians 4:8]. For these words are not lazy or dead, but are creative, living words [Hebrews 4:12]. And even though no other interest or necessity moves us, this truth ought to urge everyone to the Word, because thereby the devil is put to flight and driven away [James 4:7]. Besides, this commandment is fulfilled and this exercise in the Word is more pleasing to God than any work of hypocrisy, however brilliant.LC, Part 1, 100-102