This is an edited version of a sermon preached today at the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge:
What is the best holiday you have ever been on? Our ideas of a great holiday, of course, may vary. Some people enjoy active holidays, perhaps shinning their way up a high mountain or abseiling off a sky-scraper; I personally prefer to potter about doing not very much and certainly try to avoid getting drawn into competitive games, especially croquet.
But, whatever our personal taste, surely the defining characteristic of a holiday should be that it is a complete break from our normal daily work. It is, therefore, bewildering why some people take their mobile phones on holiday on which they can be contacted by their places of work. Why would anyone want to do that while they are on holiday?
In the fourth of his Ten Commandments, God commanded his Old Testament people, the people of ancient Israel, to take a weekly holiday, a Sabbath, a rest, for that is what the word ‘Sabbath’ means – rest. In the Fourth Commandment, God commanded his people to take a complete rest from work for one whole day of every week:
‘Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour 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, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy’ (Exodus 20v8-11 – NIV).
We need to note that the Fourth Commandment applied equally to all sections of Israelite society and not just to the elite. It was a rest for everybody. And we also need to note that this Sabbath commandment was rooted in the creation narrative of Genesis, according to which God worked to create the world and then rested in order to enjoy what he had created.
How does the Fourth Commandment apply to us as Christians? How do we obey it today?
As with all the Ten Commandments, it is important that we view this Sabbath commandment through the prism of the gospel, through the lens of the fullness of the revelation that we have received in the New Testament. For whatever our Sunday means for us, it is categorically not the Sabbath Day of the Old Testament. The Israelite Sabbath was celebrated on Saturday and it was a complete, top down work stop. There is no commandment in the New Testament that every Christian must do no work on a Sunday.
For Christians in non-Christian societies that would simply be impracticable. Even at the hey-day of Christian Britain, Sunday was never a complete shut-down.
So what does it mean for us as Christians to obey the Fourth Commandment in the light of the New Testament?
Our reading this morning from the New Testament letter to the Hebrews is indispensable for our understanding of what the Sabbath-rest means for Christian believers.
The writer of Hebrews uses the term ‘Sabbath-rest for the people of God’ to describe the eternal salvation Christian believers are promised in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ: ‘There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also rest from their own work, just as God did from his’ (Hebrews 4v9-10).
In the context of this letter, the Sabbath-rest for the people of God is the new creation, the new heaven and the new earth God is going to bring about when the Lord Jesus Christ returns at the end of history. Heaven is thus the holiday Christians are looking forward to. God has promised this future to us in the New Testament gospel and he commands us to enter his rest of heaven by believing and trusting in his eternal Son, the Lord Jesus, as we travel through the wilderness of this fallen world.
The writer to these Hebrew Christians draws on the wilderness experience of the ancient Israelites in the Sinai Desert to make his point about the importance of believing God’s gospel promise. He cites the behaviour of the ancient Israelites to warn his Christian readers against harbouring sinful, unbelieving hearts. The first generation of ancient Israelites who escaped from Egypt disbelieved God’s word and refused to enter the Promised Land for fear of the pagan residents. God, therefore, excluded them from the land and condemned them to die in the wilderness, leaving their children to inherit the promise.
In the light of this judgement befalling the unbelieving Israelites, the writer to these Hebrew Christians exhorts his readers: ‘Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no-one will fall by following their example of disobedience’ (Hebrews 4v11).
So, we see in the light of the New Testament that the Old Testament Sabbath-rest points beyond itself to the rest of salvation, the eternal holiday that Christian believers are promised in the gospel of the Lord Jesus. Obedience to the Sabbath command, therefore, for us as Christians means believing God’s gospel promise each and every day of our earthly lives and intentionally looking forward to enjoying our eternal holiday with the living God in his glorious new creation.
Obeying the Sabbath commandment is about receiving by God’s grace the eternal salvation to which the Sabbath pointed, the rest of salvation that is God’s gift to his people in and through the Lord Jesus. It is about believing the gospel and living in the light of it.
Thatcertainly does involve building a rhythm of work and rest into our lives. How can a workaholic be intentionally looking forward to God’s Sabbath-rest of salvation? How could they be? He or she has made an idol out of their work and is living entirely for this world and what they can achieve within it.
We need to rest because we are creatures and not the uncreated little gods we are sadly prone to think we are. We need to rest in order to enjoy the world God has made and we need to rest in order intentionally to look forward to our eternal holiday with the loving and glorious God who has so graciously saved us in and through his one and only Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.