“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, 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 on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11)
Jesus Christ said both yes and no to Sabbath regulations. Christ said yes to the rest day, but a resounding no to the rabbinical additions. He contended with the scribes continuously over their interpretation of the law, with the complex hedge they built about the law to protect it.
Christ is speaking of himself as being Lord of the Sabbath. What does this mean? First, we know that Christ did not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17-19).
“Fulfilling the law” has several meanings. It means that he obeyed the law. That is why he was in the synagogue on the Sabbath and why he obeyed the rest of the Old Testament moral law although he opposed the rabbinical interpretation.
The rest day as a special day is somewhat similar to nighttime. Man has to have several hours of rest every night. Most normal, healthy people are delighted that they can go to bed and rest at night. They don’t feel it is something laid on them that is very hard to do. Even so, some things must be done at night, and in an emergency a person may skip the rest time. In a similar way, Christ indicates some exceptions to the law of the rest day and some emergency situations. He said it was all right to grind grain informally and thus prepare necessary food to eat (Mark 2:23-27). He said also that it was all right to water cattle on the Sabbath (Luke 13:15). In fact, he commanded a man to pick up his bed and take it home (John 5:8). So there are “works of necessity” that must continue on the rest day, and Christ was against a dry legalism that hurt people instead of helping them. Then Christ healed on the rest day (Mark 3:1-5) and was angry with the religious leaders for even thinking he should not heal the man. According to their rabbinical teaching, it was wrong to heal on the Jewish Sabbath. He was angry with them because “works of mercy” are not only legitimate; they are a necessary part of the rest day: healing the sick, pulling cattle out of ditches (Matt. 12:11; Luke 14:5). These then are exceptions to the law of rest: works of necessity and mercy.
Then there is work involved in the service of God (Matt. 12:5). For spiritual leaders the rest day is the busiest day of all. But it is a special service to the Lord of the rest day and to his people, making it possible for them to worship and serve.
We hold that the law of a rest day was established by God at the time of creation both by example and by ordinance. When the time came for him to reveal in permanent form a summary of his moral requirements of man, this commandment of the rest day was included. It was also incorporated in the entire ceremonial system as a special sign of redemption and covenant relationship. In subsequent years, teachers of the law, who were not authorized to write Scripture or give an authoritative revelation of the will of God, created an enormous compendium of obligations for Sabbath observance. When Jesus came, he spoke with authority and cut away all the scribal additions. He faithfully observed the commandment as God originally gave it. He illustrated the kind of work that was permissible in the spirit of the day. Works of necessity, mercy, and service to God are not a violation of his intent in giving the commandment, but rather a part of his intent. This much is clear.
We conclude that a rest day is a good thing, one of God’s good gifts for the welfare of mankind. It is a law rather than a recommendation because a recommendation would be no blessing at all. It is the binding aspect of the rest day that releases one for rest and worship. If the rest day is merely recommended, we are not free to rest from the pressures of life and turn without hindrance to joyful fellowship with God and his people. We must still face the pressures and frustrations of mundane obligations. But a required rest day sets us free. To turn away from our daily occupation to spend a day in fellowship with him and service for him must certainly please him even more than offering to him a portion of all our possessions in token of the fact that all belongs to him. The only way the careful observance of the rest day commandment could displease our Lord would be if a person looked to that obedience as a means of earning merit or as a way of salvation.
In light of God’s action in resting after work, his setting aside at that time a day of rest sacred to himself, the subsequent commands of Scripture concerning a day of rest, the example and teaching of Jesus Christ in affirming and interpreting the Old Testament standard, and the observance of the first day of the week by the New Testament church as a special day of worship, we must recognize Sunday as a special day of rest, worship, and service to the Lord.
Notice how every topic we study centers ultimately in God. Also note the outcome when God is not given first place in any standard, how quickly it disintegrates into meaningless and powerless, even destructive half-truth.
True love begins and ends with God. He defines it by his own character, and all other loves reach their potential only when yielding to love for God as supreme. Law is based on God’s character—his expressed will that we be like him. Thus, to violate his law is to violate his person. Even human authority derives its authority from God and must give an account to him for how that responsibility has been discharged. Those under human authority owe ultimate allegiance only to God. All sin is, in the final analysis, against God. This is seen in the fact that sin is falling short of God’s glorious righteousness, that sins of the mind and heart are crucial, and that sin is, above all, breaking the first four commandments. Lust is God-given appetite gone berserk, and covetousness is, at root, idolatry. Pride is the essence of sin against God, for in it man attempts to usurp the credit due God and establish his own autonomy.
Thus, “God first” is far more than a theoretical, appropriately courteous starting point for Christian living. It is intensely practical and, in fact, the only way to integrate all the other horizontal relationships. God in person is the beginning and ending point of all truly biblical choices.