Beckett: Pastoral Thoughts – Keeping the Sabbath (Leviticus 19:3b)

In the second half of Leviticus 19:3, Yahweh commands, “and you shall keep My Sabbaths: I am the LORD your God.” Once again, Luther’s commentary on the 3rd Commandment on what it means for Christians to keep the Sabbath is helpful. But first, we should remember that “holy” means set apart. That the Sabbath is “holy above all other days” (LC Part 1, 80) means it is set apart from all other days. Most people set apart Friday or Saturday because it’s the weekend; they save Friday or Saturday for partying and other extracurricular activities. Meanwhile, Sunday—the Christian Sabbath—is dreaded because it reminds us that we need to go to work the following day. Some children dread waking up in the morning to go to church, as is expected of every child since they’re immature. Immature adults likewise make excuses not to attend, whether that be sleeping in, watching or going to a sports game, “I can just worship at home,” “the church is full of hypocrites,” and so on.

Before we explore what this commandment means for Christians, we should first understand that “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 so 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” (paras. 80-81).

Therefore, because we are not Jews, this commandment does not apply to us Christians in its literal sense since “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]” (para. 82). Keeping the Sabbath regularly is a matter of Christian freedom. Nevertheless, the Scriptures still strongly advise Christians not to neglect meeting together, “as is the habit of some, but [encourage] one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25). While keeping the Sabbath remains a Christian freedom, there are good reasons why one should keep it regularly and there are no good reasons why one should not keep it regularly, especially since the Day of the Lord draws nearer and nearer with each passing day.

We keep holy days like the Sabbath “first of all for bodily causes and necessities, which nature teaches and requires” (para. 83). We are all human, and the human body needs rest. We don’t need God’s commandment to tell us this because nature itself tells us. Sunday can still be a day of rest from labour. This does not mean we can abuse it like the Jews did by ignoring things that need to be done around the house, or that the children shouldn’t do their chores, etc. But even more than physical rest we have the freedom for spiritual rest in the Divine Service—to rest before the Lord and lay our burdens before Him (Matthew 11:28-30), receiving the forgiveness of sins in the Word and Sacraments.

This is something that should be done daily—every day should be set apart for the Lord. “However, since the masses of people cannot attend every day, there must be at least one day in the week set apart” (para. 85). Thus, for the sake of good order, we have chosen Sunday for the Sabbath instead of Saturday because our Lord rose on a Sunday, the day we should treasure above all others, even Friday and Saturday. (I don’t know why people love Friday so much when Friday is still a workday.) As Luther explains this commandment in the Small Catechism, “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, to reiterate, while regularly attending the Sabbath is a matter of Christian freedom, it still holds that there is every good reason to attend regularly and no good reason not to attend regularly.

Not even “there are hypocrites in the church” is a good reason, because of course there are! Everybody is a hypocrite. Pretending you’re not one of them is the worst hypocrisy of all. These hypocrites you hate so much come to church to be forgiven of their hypocrisy and the Holy Spirit strengthens them to be better while you remain at home in your self-righteousness. As St. Augustine once said, “The church is not a hotel for saints; it is a hospital for sinners.”

Not even sleeping in is a good reason because you had Saturday to sleep in, so using that as your excuse on Sunday is just being lazy; and you can take a nap Sunday afternoon like virtually everyone else does. If you stayed up partying so late the night before, that’s your own fault. Be more responsible and go to bed at a decent hour.

As John teaches in his first epistle, those who secede from the church and refuse to meet with the brethren are not real Christians since to love your brethren is to know God and abide in Him since God is love. Because God is love, it naturally follows that His beloved will regularly meet together to love one another. Therefore, for John, writing through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, those who neglect to meet cannot love one another and therefore cannot know God since God is love. Again, it is a matter of freedom, but we are free to observe the Sabbath and love one another, not free to profane it and neglect each other.

“What if I work on Sundays?” As I’ve explained elsewhere, try to change your schedule or get a different job that allows you to observe the Sabbath. If you’re unable to do so, simply do the best you can. Find another service to attend, whether that’s your church that has more than one service time or another church that works best with your schedule. Consider Luther’s warning and advisement:

…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 awake [Matthew 13:24-30].

para. 100

Therefore, what better reason do we have to hear the Word on the Sabbath lest we allow the evil foe to insidiously invade our hearts and minds and become part of his horde of children of disobedience who run amok in the world’s filth?

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