The theme for the ARP denomination this year is “Fresh Insight from Ancient Paths.” The theme is based on Jeremiah 6:16, “Thus says the Lord, stand in the ways and see, And ask for the old paths, where the good way is. And walk in it. Then you will find rest for your souls.”
In Jeremiah 6:16, God is calling the people of Judah to turn from their own sinful ways and back to His ways. The picture is of a person at a road intersection, having to choose a particular road to follow. God calls His people to pause and consider the road they will choose, essentially God’s road (the old or ancient paths) or the other roads that are not of God – “Stand in the ways and see.” The verse teaches that following God’s ways leads to “finding rest for our souls.” Unfortunately, the Israelites chose their own way, the road leading to finding no soul rest; “we will not walk in it” (Jer. 6:16d) was their response.
One of these old/ancient paths of God that rest our souls is devotion to the Sabbath. We often think of the Sabbath as “Sunday” since that is the day Christians are to observe it. Common questions today are: is the Sabbath really important in the Bible?; is it really important to me as a Christian today?; does it really apply to the contemporary church? Let’s answer those questions one by one.
First, its Biblical importance. In the Ten Commandments, the Fourth Commandment is, “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 the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” – Exodus 20:8-11. Simply that God chose the keeping of the Sabbath as one of the Ten Commandments speaks of its vast importance. As B.B. Warfield wrote, “The presence of the Sabbath commandment in the midst of this series of fundamental human duties, singled out to form the compact core of the positive morality divinely required of God’s peculiar people, is rather its commendation to all people of all times as an essential element in primary human good conduct.” All of the Ten Commandments came from God and all are, therefore, equally important.
The Sabbath’s Biblical importance is further seen in the fact that God instituted the Sabbath just after He finished His creative work (Ex. 20:11; Gen. 2:2-3). God, as a Spirit, did not need rest ,we people do. However, God rested on the seventh day in order to establish a permanent pattern for mankind to follow. This fact is given as the underlying basis for the fourth commandment – “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day” (Ex. 20:11). The Sabbath is a “creation ordinance” since it is grounded in God’s creative work and therefore applies to all people for all times.
Made for Man
The Lord Jesus puts His own stamp on the importance of the Sabbath when He states that, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Jesus expressly stated that the moral law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, is in effect for all times – “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:17-18).
The Biblical importance of the Sabbath is the same today as it has been since God instituted it on the seventh day of creation.
Why is the Sabbath significant now in your life as a Christian and in the life of the contemporary church? “Sabbath profanation has of late years been making progress with fearful rapidity…” wrote Robert Shaw. One would think Shaw wrote this today; he actually wrote it in 1845 to describe declining Sabbath observance in Scotland. Today, it is harder than ever to observe the Sabbath. In recent decades, Sunday has become simply another day in the week. Most employers no longer close on Sunday, businesses are open for “business as usual”, and the options for entertainment on Sunday are just as numerous as the other six days. It was not that long ago that a small degree of Sabbath observance in the United States was built in to the fabric of society – a vestige of a country founded on Christian values. Not today. So why is the Sabbath still significant in your life and in the life of the church you attend – despite what the world says?
First, we must understand that God gave us the Sabbath as a blessing. “The Lord blessed the Sabbath day” (Exod. 20:11). We are to “call the Sabbath a delight” (Isa. 58:13). Jesus stated, “The Sabbath was made for man” (Mark 2:27). Many Christians see Biblical Sabbath observance not as a benefit but as a burden or restriction on what they would like to do on Sundays. This is a faulty view. John the Apostle tells us that God’s commands “are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). James tells us that true freedom and blessing for the Christian is actually found in following God’s “law of liberty” (James 1:25). As John Murray wrote, “…liberty consists in being captive to the Word and law of God. All other liberty is not liberty but the thraldom of servitude to sin.” Psalm 119:44 tells us that we walk at liberty when we seek God’s precepts in our life.
Second, we must understand that God made the Sabbath because you and I need it. Why do you and I need the Sabbath? Two reasons: as John Murray stated, “It is…a rest from the ordinary employments of the other six days. But it is also a rest to and rest in the Lord.”
Exodus 20:9-10 commands that we do our normal work six days of the week – “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work” – but we are to rest and not perform that work on the Sabbath – “but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work…” B.B. Warfield wrote, “Unbroken toil is not good for us: the recurrence of a day of rest is of advantage to us, physically, mentally, spiritually.” I have a friend who has worked in carpentry for years. We are both the same age. Not long ago a member of my family ran into him at a local store. The family member later asked me why my friend looked so much older than me. The answer came to me suddenly; he had worked seven days a week most weeks for a number of years in a row. God made us humans as creatures who need mental and physical rest from our worldly occupations and recreations one day in seven. God rested Himself on the seventh day of creation to set a precedent for humankind to follow since God made us to need that day of rest. So, as Murray wrote, the Sabbath, “…is…a rest from the ordinary employments of the other six days.”
Murray continued, “But it is also a rest to and rest in the Lord.” This is the second reason why we need the Sabbath. Warfield wrote, “We are to rest from our own things that we may give ourselves to the things of God. Man’s true rest is not a rest from human, earthly labor, but a rest for divine heavenly labor.” It is “the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10) and not our day. Thus, it only makes sense that we totally orient ourselves to God on His day. We are to “remember it to keep it holy” (Exod. 20:8) by public and private worship, by focusing our thoughts and words on the things of God, and by performing works of necessity and mercy. We find true rest for our souls in this manner. We humans are comprised of two parts: physical/body and spiritual/soul (Rom. 8:10). Did you know you need spiritual/soul rest as much as you need physical rest? Jesus said so in Matthew 11:28-29, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Our Saviour expressly says here that we are to come to Him for soul rest. One of the main ways we “come to Jesus” for soul rest is by dedicating our Sabbath to God and the things of God so that our spiritual batteries can be recharged.
You and I NEED the Sabbath. We need that one day in seven to rest our tired bodies and minds from the daily grind of the other six days. Also, we need the Sabbath to rest our weary souls by purposefully directing ourselves to the things of God.
What about the contemporary church? Is the Sabbath important for the church in 2015? Yes. Today’s Church needs the Sabbath just as much, and possibly more so, than in previous times. As I said earlier, we are busier than ever before and the world is pressing in on us more than ever. Sunday is simply another day in the week for society today. Without intentionally setting aside one day in seven for God our religion will necessarily deteriorate. C.S. Lewis said, “It is only in the presence of God that we learn to behave ourselves. And, when the sense of His presence is diminished, humanity tends to lark about.” One of the sources of the modern church’s “larking about” is a lack of emphasis on Sabbath observance where we intentionally push back from the world and intentionally enter into God’s presence. In 1890 Robert L. Dabney remarked about the state of religion in part of Protestant Germany where the Sabbath had been rejected, “…leaving the populace without a weekly rest and without Christianity. Experience proves that to neglect the Sabbath day is virtually to neglect religion.” Green wrote in his Lectures on the Shorter Catechism, “No Sabbath, no religion, is a maxim which you may safely apply, both to individuals and to communities” – and, I would add, to churches also.
There is much talk these days about “church revitalization” in denominational circles, including in our denomination. One of the key ways to see our churches revitalized is by Sabbath observance in the church. Sunday mornings at church is often mostly taken care of in regard to the Sabbath. Sunday school and worship are vital in Sabbath observance. However, what about Sunday evenings? Ending the day in congregational worship or Bible study and prayer is a great built in help to our churches on the Lord’s Day. The Sabbath includes the entire day – “remember the Sabbath day” (Exod. 20:8).
When Sunday morning and evening times are set at church, that leaves a few hours in the afternoon. What do we do with that time? Westminster Shorter Catechism Question #60 states, “The Sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except
so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.”
Practically speaking, how do we follow this in 2015? There is much that could be said here but I will give just a few points to consider.
- First, recognize that God fully gives us the grace to follow any of His commands, including the Sabbath – pray for God to help you make the Sabbath a priority and He will. For families, it will take some prior planning on Saturday to ensure details that would detract from Sabbath observance are minimized. Husbands should help their wives to ensure she gets as much of a Sabbath as possible.
- Second, over lunch and in the afternoon, instead of idle discussion, steer your conversations toward the sermon or Sunday school lesson.
- Third, some tough decisions may be necessary with regard to sports practices, games, etc. Trust that God will honor those tough decisions we make for His glory on the Sabbath.
- Fourth, turn the TV off and pick up your Bible or some devotional reading.
- Fifth, go visit someone that needs to be shown Jesus’ love – at their home, in a nursing home, hospital, etc. Doing any of these things will easily take up those few hours in the afternoon before Sunday evening church activities and you and your family will experience the blessing of having your souls refreshed in doing them.
What if you have a job that is a “work of necessity” on Sunday (pastor, nurse, fireman, dairy farmer, etc.)? Make sure you take another day for the Sabbath. There are other questions you may have about the Sabbath in regard to your specific life situation and I would encourage you to work through those questions with your pastor.
One final point of importance. As we observe the Sabbath we are reminded that our ultimate rest as Christians awaits in heaven (Heb. 4:3-11). Geerhardus Vos wrote, “The Sabbath…teaches its lesson through the rhythmical succession of six days of labour and one ensuing day of rest in each successive week. Man is reminded in this way that life is not an aimless existence, that a goal lies beyond.” As Peter put it, “…according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). During the time of the Apostles the day of observing the Sabbath was changed from Saturday to Sunday to mark Jesus rising from the dead on Sunday. Jesus was “raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25) and, as we faithfully observe the weekly Sabbath, we are reminded that we will be raised with Him to glory. Charles Hodge said, “[The Sabbath] is the day…to rejoice in the hope of [Christ’s] salvation.” We Christians need such a reminder every week (if not every day) where we then freshly rejoice in this great hope of our own resurrection to glory with Jesus.
The promise of God is that if we choose His “ways/paths” we will find that “soul rest” we all so desperately need. One of those “old paths” is making the Sabbath a priority in our personal life and in the life of the church.
Rev. Stuart Fowler is the pastor of Crowders Creek ARP Church in Gastonia, NC. He is married to Dana and they have three children Steven (14), Samuel (10), and Carolanne (5).