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The Holy Sabbath: 12. Its Observance

By A.W. Pink

      From Studies in the Scriptures Publication: December, 1939

       previous articles it has been shown that the Sabbath was instituted in Eden, observed by the Patriarchs and renewed at Sinai--and that Israel's prosperity and enjoyment of God's blessings was to a large extent determined by their observance or non-observance of this Divine ordinance. Turning to the New Testament we have seen that Christ expressly affirmed the Sabbath was "made for man" and not for the Jews only, that He is "Lord of the Sabbath" and therefore invested with authority to determine which day of the week shall be sanctified as a holy rest. And we saw in Hebrews 4 the Apostle proves that "another day" than that which obtained under the old covenant has been appointed for its celebration during the Christian era--the first day suitably celebrating the Saviour's entrance into His mediatorial rest. This is demonstrated by the practice of the early Church (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1, 2).

      We are now to consider the all-important matter of how the Sabbath is to be kept. The chief end of God's Word and of all instruction therein is that the doctrinal principles which it enunciates may direct us unto a performance suited thereto. The light which we receive from the Living Oracle lays upon us a binding obligation to walk accordingly. Doctrine must regulate deportment. This was the grand rule laid down by the Supreme Teacher: "If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them" (John 13:17). The design of our learning Scripture Truth is for us to obtain such an understanding thereof that conduct accordant therewith may be produced. Where there is knowledge without the corresponding discharge of duty, the truth is held "in unrighteousness" (Rom. 1:18), and then double is our guilt. Practice must conform to the precept.

      It is, then, to the practical side of our subject we now turn: may Divine wisdom be so granted us that we are preserved from going to an undue extreme either on the right hand or on the left. No one who is acquainted with human nature or who is conversant with the history and literature on this branch of our subject, can honestly doubt there is a real danger of failing to preserve the balance here--as everywhere. On the one hand care must be taken lest in our zeal for the sanctity and spirituality of the Sabbath we go to an excess in multiplying rules for its observance, and thereby fall into the Pharisaic error of rigour and excess. On the other hand, there is a far greater danger today of erring on the side of laxity and of accommodating the laws regulating this institution to the lusts of the flesh and yielding to the corrupt practices of an evil and adulterous generation.

      The strict requirements of God's holiness must be insisted upon, no matter how the world scoffs at or opposes them. As these very lines are being written [1939] God is manifesting His displeasure at the increasing desecration of His holy rest-day by disturbing the rest of Christendom--those nations which have enjoyed most of the privileges of the Gospel being seriously threatened with war. And the blame for this widespread desecration rests first and chiefly upon the churches: by the banishing of the Law from its pulpits, by the feeble or total lack of protest to legislative bodies for letting down the bars and legalizing the profanation of the Lord's Day, and by the general worldliness of its members. It is therefore high time that Christian leaders should faithfully expound the Fourth Commandment and cease accommodating it to the perverse wills and ways of the ungodly.

      Sad, indeed, is the declension in genuine piety. The foundations have been forsaken, standards have been lowered, the spirit of compromise has prevailed till now, "Truth is fallen in the streets." Nor can the apostasy be checked by temporizing the commands of God to the corrupt course of the world. Yet we must beware of adding to those commands. Said the Puritan Owen, "I will not deny but that there have been and are mistakes in this matter. Directions have been given, and that not by a few, for the observance of a day of holy rest, which either for the matter of them or the manner prescribed, have had no sufficient warrant or foundation in the Scriptures. For whereas some have made no distinction between the Sabbath as moral and as Mosaic, unless it be merely in the change of the day, they have endeavoured to introduce the whole practice required on the latter into the Lord's Day."

      How is a happy medium in Sabbath observance to be obtained? What will preserve us from undue laxity on the one side, and unwarrantable severity on the other? Where shall we turn for that much-needed guidance which will deliver us from the grievous yoke of Pharisaical excess, and which will also prevent us from degenerating into the lawlessness of our Moderns? We have searched long and diligently for a satisfactory answer to this question, but (amid much that was helpful on other branches of our subject) have failed to meet with anything clear and definite. Personally our firm conviction is that we shall be kept from going wrong in this matter, if we, first, adhere strictly to the letter of the Fourth Commandment; and second, apply that commandment to the details of our lives in the spirit of the New Covenant.

      It should be apparent that we have now arrived at the most important branch of our subject. Unless both writer and reader are genuinely and earnestly desirous of keeping the Sabbath in a manner which will be pleasing to the Lord and beneficial to the soul, then all our previous efforts to prove that this Divine ordinance is binding upon us today, will avail little or nothing. But the task before us now is no easy one: our chief difficulty being the avoidance of too great editing on the one hand, and too much brevity on the other. We do not wish to extend these articles to the point of wearying our friends, yet we must not abbreviate so much that we withhold the help which is desired upon various problems that exercise not a few. Some have had no instruction upon Sabbath observance: others have been given so many rules to follow that a spirit of bondage has been engendered. We shall therefore endeavour to steer a middle course.

      Taking Exodus 20:8-11 as our starting point, we note first that that which outstandingly characterizes this season is its sacredness: "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy." This is basic and foremost. It is "the Lord's Day," being instituted for His honour and glory. God, by the appointing and blessing of it, has made this day: we, by the worship of Him and performance of spiritual exercises therein, are to keep it holy. And let it be carefully borne in mind that holiness pertains not only to external actions, but also and mainly to the spring from which they proceed, namely, the heart: unless we sanctify the Sabbath in our hearts, the performing of outward devotions will avail us nothing As the other six days are concerned mainly with secular things, the seventh is to be consecrated unto spiritual ends. Holiness stands opposed not only to all that is sinful, but also to the use of such things (our time and energy) as are commonly employed.

      "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy": not a part thereof, but the whole of it. In all countries where Romanism dominates, its deluded votaries spend a part of the morning in religious exercises, and for the balance of the day give themselves up to feasting and pleasuring. Sad to say this evil is becoming more and more rife in Protestant circles: though we may not yet have gone to the same lengths of profanity as is general "on the Continent," yet thousands in this land who attend some morning service, spend the afternoon and evening in making social calls on their friends, car riding, and other fleshly and worldly activities. It is this unholy mixture, this "lukewarmness"--being neither hot nor cold--which is so nauseating to the Lord. Because it is the Lord's Day, we rob Him of His due if we regard any part of it as ours.

      The second thing we note in Exodus 20:8-11 is that the Sabbath is expressly affirmed to be a day of rest: "the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work." That prohibition is qualified (as the example and teaching of Christ made clear) at two points only: the doing of that which is really essential to life and health, and engaging in acts of love and mercy. Apart from those exceptions, all work and labour--be it manual or clerical, physical or mental--is Divinely forbidden. And this, as was pointed out in earlier articles, is a merciful provision of the Creator for His creatures. Continuous toil is injurious to our constitution. "The Sabbath was made for man," for his well-being, because he needed one day of rest in each week. This law is as binding upon and holds good for the wife equally as for the husband, for the servant as much as his master, yea, for his beasts of burden too.

      This law is as binding upon our private lives as upon our public, upon the way in which we conduct ourselves within the home as on the outside. It is just as real a profanation of the Holy Sabbath for a merchant to cast up his ledger or write business letters on that day, as for a farmer to go out and plow his fields or sow corn. So, too, is it equally sinful for his wife to prepare and cook elaborate meals on the Lord's Day as it would be for her to do her weekly washing and ironing then. Nor can this be evaded--as many seem to suppose--by the mistress accompanying her husband to the morning service and leaving her daughter or maid to cook the biggest dinner of the week. Alas, in many homes, not only does the cook have no rest on the Lord's Day, but it is the heaviest one of the week for her.

      Let us next point out that there is a positive side to the Fourth Commandment as well as a negative. Not only are we to abstain from all worldly business, but we are to be active in spiritual exercises. A day spent in idleness is not one which is kept holy. The Day of Rest is not to be one of indolence, but one of blessed and sacred diligence. Physical rest is necessary, but spiritual rest is yet more essential. In its higher aspect, true Sabbatical rest is the soul resting in the Lord. This is evident from the fact that the Sabbath is both an emblem and a pledge of the eternal rest of the saints, concerning which it is said "His servants shall serve Him" (Rev. 22:3), which means that they will be actively engaged in His worship. Inasmuch then as the duties of this day are eminently spiritual, they are such as lie beyond our own powers to perform, and therefore we must seek the aid of the Holy Spirit.

      A third thing we should observe is that the Sabbath is to be a season of rejoicing: "This is the day which the LORD hath made: we will rejoice and be glad in it" (Psa. 118:24). The immediate context contains a grand Messianic prophecy, wherein the triumph of Christ was set forth. Under the figure of "the Stone," He is viewed first, in His humiliation, as despised and rejected by men, as being refused by the builders. Next He is portrayed in His glorification, as owned and honoured of God, as being made "The Headstone of the corner." The exaltation of Christ was in three stages: when He was raised from the tomb, when He ascended to Heaven, and when He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. "This is the LORD'S doing: it is marvellous in our eyes" (v. 23). The exaltation of Christ was wholly of the Lord: the product of His eternal counsel, the product of His mighty power; and it is the subject of never-ceasing wonderment to His redeemed.

      "This is the day which the LORD hath made," and therefore it is peculiarly and pre-eminently "the Lord's Day," and so it is expressly denominated in Revelation 1:10. It is the day which the Lord made specially for this Christian dispensation, namely, the first of the week. It is the day which has been made forever memorable by loosing the Redeemer from the pains of death. It is now the day in which His people are to celebrate the Saviour's victory over the sepulchre. And therefore Christians must exclaim, "we will rejoice and be glad in it": not only because of its appointment, but because of its occasion, for Christ's resurrection was both for His own honour and for our salvation. Holy mirth, then, should fill our hearts at this season: Sabbath days ought to be unto us as foretastes of Heaven itself. Then let us welcome each weekly return of it, and duly tune our hearts to show forth His praises therein.

      The order of Truth in the passage last quoted, is the order we must observe if we are to enter experimentally therein. We shall be glad and rejoice in proportion as our hearts are truly occupied with the risen Redeemer and of our being risen in Him. As Spurgeon well put it, "What else can we do? Having obtained so great a deliverance through our illustrious Leader, and having seen the eternal mercy of God so brilliantly displayed, it would ill become us to mourn and murmur. Rather will we exhibit a double joy, rejoice in heart and be glad in face, rejoice in secret and be glad in public, for we have more than a double reason for being glad in the Lord. We ought to especially rejoice on the Sabbath: it is the queen of days, and its hours should be clad in royal apparel of delight."

      What abundant cause have we for rejoicing therein! The resurrection of Christ marked the end of His inexpressible humiliation, and signaled the beginning of His unending glorification. It demonstrated that He had made an end of sins, effected reconciliation for iniquity, and brought in everlasting righteousness (Dan. 9:24). It affords proof of God's approval of the Mediator's work and the acceptance of His sacrifice. It meant that the whole Election of Grace were delivered from death and Hell when their federal Head became "alive for evermore." The resurrection of Christ is both the pledge and the prototype of the resurrection of His sleeping people. "If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above" (Col. 3:1). And what are those things which are above? Spiritual rest, spiritual joy--complete deliverance from our warfare with sin, unalloyed rejoicing in the Lord. Then "seek" them: by the actings of faith, by the exercise of hope, by the outgoings of love. We should have a double enjoyment of the things above: by anticipation now, by realization then.

      The same keynote is struck in the first stanza of Psalm 92. It is to be noted that the inspired heading to this Psalm is, "A Song for the Sabbath." And what is its opening theme? This, "It is a good thing to give thanks unto the LORD, and to sing praises unto Thy name, O Most High: To show forth Thy lovingkindness in the morning, and Thy faithfulness every night. Upon an instrument of ten strings, and upon the psaltery; upon the harp with a solemn sound. For Thou, LORD, hast made me glad through Thy work: I will triumph in the works of Thy hands. O LORD, how great are Thy works; and Thy thoughts are very deep" (vv. 1-5). Praise is Sabbatical work: the joyfulness of hearts resting in the Lord. Since a true Sabbath can only be found in God, it is essential that we be supremely occupied with His perfections on that day.--A.W.P.

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