The passing of time appears to be nothing more than an unending sequence of moments followed by other moments. But this is not how humanity for the most part has experienced the passing of time. There are certain rhythms to life. There is the rhythm of the world circling our sun, cutting time into 3651/4 day segments. Because of the tilt of the earth’s axis we get the rhythm of seasons with each year subdivided into its four major seasons. The moon also gives us its own rhythm so that every 28 days a new lunar month begins. And because our planet spins on its axis, every day has its own alternation of day and night. All of these rhythms are natural and people throughout history have regulated their lives by these astronomical cycles.
When Ancient Israel began its life in the Ancient Near East, the religions of antiquity carefully followed the patterns of these cycles of nature. They had feast days to commemorate seed time and harvest, the coming of winter, the coming of spring, the arrival of a new year, or the coming of the new moon. Almost all religion was based on nature, with either the worship of nature itself or the gods of nature.
The Sabbath Days
When Israel met with God at Mount Sinai, God initiated a change in how time would be interpreted. Instead of celebrating New Year’s Day when all the other nations did, God says on the day of the Exodus, “This day shall be the beginning of days for you.” (Exodus 12:2) This new, New Year’s Day (Rosh Hashanah) was to be marked with remembering the great act of God’s deliverance.
This change in the calendar, however, was just the beginning of the way that time was to be understood by this new nation. The old feast days based on the cycles of nature were now traded-in for feast days that commemorated God’s great acts in the history of Israel. The feast of Passover was to help them remember the bypassing of Israel by the Angel of Death. The feast of tabernacles reminded them of God’s leadership in the wilderness journeyings. The feast of Pentecost celebrated the giving of the Law on Sinai. The Feast of Purim brought back the memory of God’s great deliverance during the time of the Persian tyranny. Hanukkah, the Feast of Lights would be added later to remind then of God’s renewed deliverance in the time of the Maccabee brothers during the days of Greek domination.
These major celebrations of redemption that occurred approximately every 49 days, however, were not sufficient for the sanctifying of time or this new nation. So God injected into Israel’s life a new way to manage the passing of time. God said to this fledging nation, “every seventh day is to be a special day for you. It will be a day of rest – a Sabbath.”
This directive was so important that it was included as one of the 10 commandments. This word directed Israel that for six days they would/could work but the seventh day was to be a day of rest. It has long been noticed that of all the 10 commandments this is by far the longest of them. In the Hebrew text of Exodus chapter 20 the command regarding the Sabbath is 56 words long. Years later, when the Book of Deuteronomy offers a revised version of the Decalogue, the number of words regarding the Sabbath day has been increased to 87 words. The higher word count does not mean that this directive was the most important of the ten, but that it was the most confusing one and needed greater amplification and application. Of course the question is raised, why would God give what seems to be an incidental issue such high prominence?
I think the answer lies in the great concern of God. If God is to make Israel into a holy people, he must sanctify their use of time. If he is to transform their character, he will need to transform how they spend their days. This directive was not just the gift of a loving God to give rest to an over-worked nation of former slaves, it was also a “means of grace” whereby God could bring wholeness into human life.
The Lord’s Day
When we come to the New Testament era there is a further geologic change is the use of time. The coming of Christ was so life changing that soon all of history would be divided into B.C. and A.D. The great festivals of Judaism would be transposed into celebrations of the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ and the subsequent granting of the Holy Sprit to the Church. History had been changed forever and the new festivals all pointed back to the new deliverance brought about by Jesus Christ.
In those early decades after the resurrection, the Sabbath day was also changed. All that was valuable in the old celebration was retained, but the church had a brand new event to commemorate. The older Sabbath was primarily a celebration of creation and Israel’s redemption from Egypt. A new day was needed to celebrate the deliverance from sin and death demonstrated in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In short order the Sabbath celebrations were moved from the last day of the week to the first day of the week in remembrance of the resurrection of Christ from the dead on that first Easter Sunday morning. It was not long before another change was made. The new day began, not at sunset on Friday night as in Judaism, (intimations of Good Friday!) but at sunrise on Sunday morning. It was now the Son’s Day. The Lord’s Day! The day of His resurrection!
All that was of value in the ancient Sabbath, rest from work and the celebration of God’s great acts, was continued in the church, but to that deep deposit was added another great motif. On the Lord’s Day the church is called together to hear the story of the risen Christ and to celebrate the implications of that great event for all of life. For the pattern established in the ancient Sabbath is still operant: God desires to make us into a holy people, and to do so he must find access to our use of time. If he is to transform our character, he will need to transform how we spend our days. The Lord’s day is still one of the chief means of grace that God uses to accomplish his great purpose of bringing the world to wholeness.
Think it through
Why would God place such prominence on the Sabbath day in the Ten Commandments? (See Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15.)
In Numbers 15:32-36 why would God exact the death penalty on a man for picking up firewood on the Sabbath day?
There are three main uses of the Sabbath/Lord’s Day noted throughout the Scriptures: it is to be
- a day of rest (Exodus 20:8-11)
- a day of worship (Numbers 28:9-10, Isaiah 58:13-14) and
- a day for doing good to others. (Matthew 12:1-14)
When you look at your own use of the Lord’s Day, which of these three purposes dominate and which element is most neglected? Do you need to make any changes in your stewardship of this day?
For the Small Group Leader
Jesus was criticized about his activities on the Sabbath. (See Matthew 12:1-14, Mark 2:23-3:6, Luke 6:1-11, 13:10-17.) How do his words change the way Christians are to approach this day?
Discuss the three main uses of the Lord’s Day (1) a Day of rest, (2) a Day of Worship and (3) A day for doing good to others.
Published in Light and Life , July-August, 2000.