Our parents and grandparents may recall ‘blue laws’—local regulations prohibiting businesses from operating on Sundays. Most of us can even recall a time when youth sports leagues did not schedule games and practices on Sundays.
But these days, Sunday looks no different from Saturday in our culture as we fill the day with activities, shopping, and even work. Stores, restaurants—and even warehouses and call centers—are now operating with full staff on Sundays.
So what do you do if you’re a Christian, and your employer requires you to work on a Sunday? You don’t want to say ‘no’ and lose your job. So you begrudgingly go to work, but in the back of your mind you wonder, “Will God forgive me for working on a Sunday?”.
While God has commanded us to observe a Sabbath rest, He does not require that we specifically observe our rest on Sundays. Even when we fail to observe a Sabbath rest, we trust that God forgives the sins of all who repent.
Sunday as Sabbath
If you’ve read our piece about the origin of Sunday worship, then you know that in the Old Testament, Sunday was not the observed Sabbath. In fact, Sunday was the first day of the workweek. The early church began gathering on Sunday mornings in order to encourage one another and prepare for the week ahead.
The tradition of observing Sabbath rest on Sundays grew out of this gathering and worship time, concurrent with the transition from a six-day to a five-day workweek.
The important thing for us to understand is that a six-or-five-day workweek is consistent with God’s commands and His desire for us, but a seven-day workweek is not.
Remember the Sabbath
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy… For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.Exodus 20:8, 11
The observance of a Sabbath rest is a big deal. After all, it is enshrined in the Ten Commandments, the foundational document of all Old Testament law.
The purpose of the law is twofold. The first is to provide physical rest for our bodies. God designed us to work because He is a God who works (Genesis 2:15), but He also designed us to benefit from resting periodically.
So He not only commanded rest, but He gave us the gift of the Sabbath to protect our rest. This is why Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)
Second, our Sabbath rest is not simply a time of bodily rest (though that is important), but of spiritual rest and refreshment. It is a day that God made holy—set apart—unto Himself.
By observing Sabbath rest as God intends, we demonstrate that we are depending on Him, and not exclusively on our own work, trusting in His commands, and devoting a portion of our time to communion with Him so that we may strengthen our walk with Him.
The Sabbath and Legalism
As mentioned at the onset, some of us have no choice but to work on Sundays. Our stores and restaurants need to keep running. And if our hospitals were to close for a day, the impact on society would be devastating!
It might seem incongruous to consider Sunday brunch in the same vein as a functioning emergency room, but this is precisely the same incongruous challenge that Jesus encountered when the Pharisees challenged his lack of Sabbath-keeping.
It is well established that Jesus healed on the Sabbath:
- The invalid at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:5-15)
- The man with the shriveled hand (Matthew 12:9-14)
- The woman crippled by an evil spirit (Luke 13:10-16)
In each of these instances, the Pharisees challenged the lawfulness of Jesus’ healing work. The gospels also record an occasion where Jesus’s Sabbath observance was challenged because of a simple act of food preparation:
At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”
Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.”Matthew 12:1-2, 5-7
In response, Jesus challenged the Pharisees to consider the spirit of the law, instead of the letter of the law—a letter that had become overdrawn by the minutiae of Sabbath regulations.
Just as Jesus defended his disciples picking and eating grain by pointing out that the duties of the temple priests required them to work on the Sabbath, he also answered challenges to his healings in a similar manner:
- He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” – Matthew 12:11-12
- The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” – Luke 13:15-16
- “Now if a boy can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, why are you angry with me for healing a man’s whole body on the Sabbath?”– John 7:23
Time and again, Jesus emphasized that the Sabbath isn’t for sloth, it is for honoring God. Sometimes, the God-honoring thing to do is to perform a kindness for others.
Honoring the Spirit of the Sabbath
It is good for our bodies to rest, and it is good for our souls to be refreshed by communion with God. Each of us should establish a time in our week to do just that. A time when we can gather with other believers for encouragement is ideal. But if that time isn’t possible we must not forsake our rest time.
Our rest time also serves to give us a foretaste of eternity. In heaven, there will be no toil, no pain, and no weariness. We will be in a state of continuous rest because we will be in the direct presence of God, who continuously refreshes us.
There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his.Hebrews 4:9-10