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Keep the Sabbath

God has a prescription for our frantic busyness: true rest in Jesus that leads to Sabbath joy.


Today we'll be looking mainly at Deuteronomy chapter 5, and we're reading verses 12 through 15. Hear the Word of the Lord:

Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 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 or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.

I've been reading in various newspapers how sleep deprivation has reached something of epic proportions. Apparently, we're very far behind in the amount of hours that we get these days. Martin Lloyd Jones was once addressing a group of medical students on the importance of having a regular—daily—quiet time with God. He waxed lyrical on this matter, but one or two in his audience of medical students felt that he didn't quite understand their predicament in terms of how busy they were, even though Jones himself had been trained as a doctor. Jones said, "I make one exception to this rule—the rule of daily devotional time in prayer and Bible study—and that is for mothers of young children."

The way we use our time tells us where our real priorities lie. Time is not given to each of us in limitless supply. We only have a certain amount of time in each day, and we are only given a certain amount of time in our lives. Therefore, while the car we choose or the kind of clothes we buy say something about who we are as a person, the way we spend our time reveals our deepest and strictest priorities, because we all know time is so limited. Our spent time cannot be brought back, and we understand that. So even if we use our time playing video games until three in the morning, the way we use our time speaks of what we value. This command, this passage in front of us, is of great interest because God is clearly telling us that he expects us to use time in such a way that he is our number one priority; he expects us to set aside one day in seven for rest. It is a matter of great importance.

Someone said to me the other day that in these times we wear busyness like a badge. Everyone has to be busy, and so this passage addresses our whole life at its most practical, daily reality, doesn't it? But this passage is also intellectually challenging, for the fourth commandment as it is at first glance does not appear to be one that most Christians keep. The Sabbath was once our Saturday, and though there are a few Christians who do keep Sabbath on Saturday, it is no longer the day of rest established in Christian tradition. Even Sunday, which has been established as the day of rest within Christian tradition, is no longer observed as the Sabbath was in Bible times. So what is going on here, and what does it mean for us? Why does the Sabbath seem to be ignored by so many? I want to show you that we need to learn to rest in Jesus. That's what this message is about.

Understanding the purpose of the Law

First, don't be a legalist about the law. We really can't get a feel for what is going on in this passage until we understand the purpose of the law as a whole. If we don't have that, we'll just feel that the Christian interpretation of this passage is ducking what the passage is obviously saying on the surface.

Now, the easiest way to see this is to remember that right here in Deuteronomy, Moses will be told by God that another prophet like him will be raised up. Who is God talking about? Well, that promise is partly fulfilled in the prophets in the Old Testament, like Isaiah and Amos and all the rest, but they knew that they were not the real fulfillment of that promise. So even here in this book of the Lord, there is a sense of incompleteness.

If you compare the two versions of this fourth command, one here in Deuteronomy and the other in Exodus, you'll find there are some differences between them. If one version is in the Bible, why is the other one there, too? Each gives different reasons for this law, and we'll learn why they're both important for us. But straightaway, we can see the incompleteness of the law. It was never intended to be complete. As the Book of Hebrews puts it, "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken by his Son whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe" (Hebrews 1:11-12). There's nothing like those verses in the Old Testament.

We must understand the spirit of the law: what the law is really about and what it points to. God's way of working in the Old Testament is very far from static. Think of Abraham: he wandered, never receiving the Promised Land. He was promised it, but he never got it. So there's always this sense of something still to come. Even when the Israelites finally did enter the Promised Land, they didn't ever subdue all the nations there. That was incomplete.

So the land that God promised does not mean the specific physical land. That promise was never completely fulfilled. Then there are all these ceremonies for dealing with sins, but any thinking Jew must have realized that the blood of a goat could not assuage the sins of a man or a woman. Those ceremonies must have been pointing to something else—but what? They didn't know what we now do. They were just looking forward.

Then there were the judges, one after another. Then came David, but the eternal kingdom that was promised to come to his son, the eternal king, never came to his son. The kingdom was split. Where was this promise going to be fulfilled?

All the prophets, Isaiah and the rest, do not just call for justice and obedience to God's law; they look forward to the suffering servant, as Isaiah put it. He would pay the sins of his people so that they might return from exile, so there might be a second deliverance from a spiritual Egypt, that God might put his Spirit in them and establish a new covenant where no man would need teach another, but each would hear the Lord say, "This is the way, walk ye in it."

It all looks forward. Consider the temple. It was rebuilt after the exile, when it had been destroyed, but even in its rebuilt state, the temple was so pathetic in comparison to the original temple, that those who remembered the first one wept at the comparison. But in Ezekiel's vision the temple was so grand. Where was it all pointing to? It pointed to the one who said, "Destroy this temple and in three days I will rebuild it." John's gospel tells us that it's Jesus who fulfilled the law—a prophet, priest and king.

You can see why we need to put this fourth commandment in the context of all of that to see where it's going and what it's about. No one could keep the law; rather, the law was intended to lead us to the one who did keep it—Jesus—and who died for the law breakers like you and I. When we read the Old Testament, we are to read it as a book about Jesus. Nowhere is that more specifically true than in this fourth command.

Depending on God

Both aspects of the fourth commandment—what we find in Deuteronomy and what we find in Exodus—are about dependence, trust, or rest, upon God and ultimately upon Jesus.

Let's look at the command in Exodus first: "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 20:11). The reason given for the Sabbath day command here is resting from creation. In six days the Lord made the heavens. But he rested on the seventh day. Rest is the reason for the Sabbath.

What does that tell us? It tells us that we, too, should rest. If God needs a break from work, surely we do, right? But what more do we know about this seventh day? Look with me at Genesis 2:2-3: And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation." Are you familiar enough with the rest of the days of creation to notice a glaring omission from this day? Every other day of creation has this phrase at the end of it: "And there was evening, and there was morning, the sixth day." Here, we have nothing. So we know that the creation rest on the seventh day was unusual. There's no recorded end to it. Again, we have this principle of incompleteness in the Old Testament. It's pointing somewhere; it's leading up to someone. The rest is completed in someone who is to come.

The other aspect of this dependence upon God, this trust elsewhere in Jesus, is found in our passage in Deuteronomy. What is the reason given here for this fourth command? It says in verse fifteen: Remember. "Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore, the Lord your God has commanded you to keep the Sabbath day." Now, these are not mutually exclusive reasons—creation and redemption—but they're complementary encouragements to dig deep into the spiritual meaning of the laws. Paul says, "The law is spiritual." If they're spiritual, why does it say here to keep the Sabbath rest? Because the Israelites were rescued from Egypt, not of their own work or power, but entirely of God's.

Now we need to see how these two things encourage us to depend upon God. He is our Creator, He is our Redeemer. The Sabbath principle is not about a work of detailed observance of minute laws. That would be the very reverse of its intention. The Sabbath is intended to point us to the fulfillment of God's promises in Christ, where we can rest from our works in he who is our Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer. Do you see, then, how the context of this command begins to shape us towards a right interpretation of it, so that we can correctly apply it to our lives? We've seen how the law in general is an incomplete story that leads up to fulfillment in Christ, and now we've seen how the Sabbath in particular is intended to lead us similarly to this command's completion—a place where we're rescued from a spiritual bondage—a spiritual Egypt—by Christ, of whom the prophet said, "Out of Egypt I will call my Son."

Working hard without workaholism

So what does this all mean? To begin with, look at verse 13: "Six days you shall labor and do all your work." The Bible nowhere encourages laziness. There may be a day of rest, but there are six days of work. We often consider work a necessary evil—that's why it's called "work." But in the Bible work is an expression of the creation commission to go forth and subdue the earth, to tend the garden that God originally gave to Adam and Eve and still sustains us today. It is true that the garden this side of the fall has all sorts of thorns in it, and you get various cuts and bruises as you tend it. As you work, yes, there will be difficulties. It's also true that we must not worship our work. There's a saying that says, "Too many people today worship their work, work at their play, and play at their worship." It's often true, isn't it? We must not idolize our work. For if we are ultimately about our job, what happens when we lose it? We lose a great sense of our identity. Our identity needs to be in our God, not in our work.

We've seen that principle already in these commandments. Any obsession is idolatry. We might love what we do, but we must not be obsessed by our career, doing well, being famous, or earning money. Any of these things can be used for God and his glory, but none can be our primary focus. The gospel has come to free us from such bondage to self. But we are to work. The apostle Paul, talking with people who were looking for handouts from the church, says, "Apply this principle: If they will not work they cannot eat." That's very practical, isn't it? God never intends us to zip off into super-spiritual land where we can do nothing and expect raisin cakes to fall into our mouths. We have to work for a living. The Bible says so. You may ask, "But doesn't the Bible also say that God will take care of us and feed us like he takes care of and feeds the birds?" Yes, indeed he does. But even the birds have to go around and do a little bit of pecking to get their food, and so do we.

In this matter of time and how we use time, we are not to think of work as a waste of time—not at all. Work is a means of worship. We are not to worship work, but work is a means of worship of God. Work is good. It's from God. It is fallen, of course, but it is commanded: Six days shall he work. Paul takes this principle and applies it when he says that we are to work hard as unto the Lord, not just for our human boss when he is watching. That means that Christians are not to be worse workers than other people; rather, we are to be better. We work because we know we are working for God. He sees what we do, and it's for him and his pleasure.

You wouldn't have expected a call to work in a passage about the Sabbath, but it's a balance, isn't it? For our spiritual worship needs to be through our whole bodies, our whole lives. When I preach I am worshiping God. When you listen to sermons you are worshiping God. And when you work you can worship too, for you can do it as unto God.

Finding true rest in Christ

What about the rest that the Sabbath calls for? As a principle I think it still pertains to us. Now, Jesus makes it plain that the Sabbath has been fulfilled in him, but his teaching also suggests that the principle of rest is still to be active in the Christian conscience in terms of a calendar rest on a specific day. Jesus says, "Man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man and the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath" (Mark 2:28). He says that the strict use of the Sabbath is a type, a pointer to him. The Son of man is Lord of the Sabbath. The Sabbath points to him, it's being fulfilled in him, and therefore that's what the command is about.

But this idea of a day set apart for worship of God pertains to us. It remains in the New Testament but it shifted to the Lord 's Day, as it's called, or the first day of the week. Why did that shift take place? Because Christ rose from the dead on the first day of the week. From then on it was on the first day of the week, as recorded in Acts 20, that the believers "gathered together to break bread." And in 1 Corinthians 16:2, we see that Paul encouraged Corinthian Christians to set aside a sum of money as a collection for the poor on each first day of the week, much like we still do today with our offering. And it was on the first day of the week when John in Patmos saw the revelation of the Book of Revelation. John says in Revelation 1:10, "On the Lord's Day, I was in the Spirit," when the word of God was revealed to him in a very special sense.

So there is this pattern in the New Testament of what we call "Sunday" being termed "The Lord's Day" because that was when Jesus rose again. It's important just to see that. It doesn't mean that all the rules and regulations of the Sabbath apply now to this day. At least I don't think so. Yet, this day is important. It's important that we have time to hear from God. What's more, I think there is a creative principle of rest—one day in seven—that seems to be sort of hard-wired into the universe, into the way we as people tick.

The Soviet Union—the atheistic organization in Russia and its satellite republic—once attempted to have 10-day working weeks because they thought it would be more productive. They had to reverse their policy because it didn't work at all with people's natural constitutions. We need to rest. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, as they say. And not taking rest at all is not listening to the maker's instructions. Our internal organs and mental processes are bound to wear out if we don't rest. You can pull an all-nighter every now and then, but if you're in the habit of working all the time, you'll likely just break down. The work you do will get gradually poorer, or you will go to work but not really work when you're there. And at some point, whether you take a day in seven or not, your body will take that rest. We need to see the principle of rest, and we need to apply it to ourselves and take time off.

Is working non-stop not a form of self-dependence? Is it not a lack of trust in God as our Creator and as our Redeemer, for the two reasons given in the two versions of this fourth commandment? God will take care of our work. Follow the maker's instructions. Work six days, yes, and work hard. But you don't need to work all the time. It's counterproductive and it shows a lack of faith in God's provision. Resting from work is a little like sleeping. Sleep is an expression of dependence upon God. You rest in his arms. You give away your worries to the night. So it is with taking a day of rest. By taking aone day of rest in sever, we are not being workaholics; we are not worshiping our work; we are worshiping our God and trusting him to take care of us.

There is more on this principle of regular rest that still pertains to us. In the Book of Hebrews, we find these words to Hebrew Christians: "So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his" (Hebrews 4:9-10). The whole Sabbath principle here is about resting in Jesus—not trusting in our own works' righteousness but in Jesus' sufficient sacrifice for our sins. Here, "the Sabbath" isn't referring to a specific day but rather an entire posture of resting in Christ.

This truth is even clearer in Paul's letter to the Colossians: "Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ" (Colossians 2:16-17). This brings us to our original point: the law was a shadow of its true fulfillment: Christ. The Sabbath is just a shadow; Christ is the substance. Jesus is what this is all about.

So what does this mean? Well, it means some very deep things about our hearts, about our souls, about our spiritual lives. Christian life is all about this: resting in Jesus. It's about taking to him our sins, our failings, our faults, and letting him have them, and taking instead his yoke upon us. Letting him be the master. This kind of trust and dependence is easy enough to articulate, but it's actually difficult to do.

If you're a child, and you're carrying a heavy load that's really too much for you, and your father comes along and offers to take the load off you, you have a choice at that moment. You can struggle along on your own with this burden that as a child you can't possibly carry. Or you can offer it up to your father and let him carry the load. And of course, as we get older we want to think that we can do it ourselves, and in a certain way we can. "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways" (1 Corinthians 13:11). But in Sabbath rest there is a need to simply let God—to let go. For starters, we are to let go of our worries: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:6-7). That's living out the Sabbath principle as a Christian. It comes down to resting from our moral self-righteousness, from trying to work our way into heaven, and instead trusting God, depending on Christ's sacrifice, and taking his yoke—his leadership—upon you. Let that take hold of your heart and your mind and your soul, and let the Sabbath rest permeate out to all your faculties and activities so that you are like a man standing in the eye of the storm. Life's troubles are still there, but you are kept in perfect peace, for you know that nothing can take away from you your rest in Christ. He is with you in the storm. Christ can say, "Be still," and the wind and the waves will die down. Jesus Christ himself is your rest, your Sabbath.

Serving others on the Sabbath

But this Sabbath rest is not just for the Christian. It's also a principle of outreach. Look at verse 14 in Deuteronomy again: "On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you." Even the sojourner needs a rest, so this Sabbath rest is an evangelistic message. It encourages us to do a work of evangelism. As we live in this Sabbath way, we also hold it out to others. Perhaps you have been striving, perhaps you have been seeking, perhaps you are fraught, perhaps you are doing nothing outwardly but you are inwardly churning. You have no rest. You have no peace. But here there is a Sabbath. It's a wonderful promise: There is rest in the name of Jesus to all who will come to him and be saved.


So what does this all mean? It all means that the seventh day is ongoing. It is now fulfilled in Christ. But the final day of rest is still to come. "'Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.' 'Blessed indeed,' says the Spirit, 'that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!'" (Revelation 14:13).

Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Understanding the purpose of the Law

II. Depending on God

III. Working hard without workaholism

IV. Finding true rest in Christ

V. Serving others on the Sabbath