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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Langley Canadian Reformed Church
 Langley, B.C.
Title:The Lord of the Sabbath
Text:LD 38 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic: 4th Commandment (Resting)

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Suggested songs:

Psalm 84:1-3

Hymn 1B

Hymn 32

Psalm 92:1-3

Psalm 92:4-6

Readings: Matthew 11:25-12:14, Luke 4:14-30

Text: Lord’s Day 38

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

Some of you have probably heard upwards of 50 sermons on this Lord’s Day in your life so far. I imagine that many of them have mentioned the fact that there is hardly a more controversial topic in Christian families than how we obey the fourth commandment. In fact, someone even did a study on that in the Netherlands. The study calculated that there were over a half million arguments every year about how to keep Sunday holy. And the debates, discussions, and arguments keep going, also in our families.

In light of that, isn’t it remarkable that the Heidelberg Catechism avoids giving an extensive commentary on what can and can’t be done on Sunday? In dealing with the fourth commandment, the Catechism takes a cautious and sober approach. Perhaps some of us would rather have the Westminster Catechisms on this point. The Larger Catechism, for instance, has seven long questions and answers – it takes up two pages with small print in the edition I have. When you read it, you get a clear idea of what you can and can’t do on the Lord’s Day. But our confession is totally different.

There’s a good reason for that. The main author of the Catechism was Zacharias Ursinus. In his other writings, he shows how the fourth commandment has both a ceremonial and a moral aspect. The moral aspect, keeping one day out of seven holy – that’s something that remains forever and is binding on all men. But there’s also the ceremonial aspect. Keeping the seventh day of the week, the Sabbath day, our Saturday, keeping that holy – that’s something that was only there for Old Testament Israel. Since the coming of Christ, it has been fulfilled and passed away. But even this ceremonial aspect is instructive for believers today. And the Catechism actually focuses on this aspect more.

To get a clear idea of what’s happening here, let’s stop for a minute and look up Belgic Confession Article 25 [read it from Book of Praise]. The Old Testament sabbath is one of those ceremonies mentioned in that article. The truth and substance of this ceremony remains for us in Jesus Christ. The fourth commandment points us to Christ. He’s the one who, in Matthew 12, called himself the Lord of the Sabbath. And when we see that clearly, then we can see where the Heidelberg Catechism is coming from and we can also make a responsible application of the fourth commandment to our lives today. So, the theme for this afternoon’s sermon is this:

What the Fourth Commandment Reveals about the Lord of the Sabbath

We’ll consider:

  1. The grace he came to give.
  2. The rest he came to bring.
  3. The liberty he came to announce.

1. The grace the Lord of the Sabbath came to give.

You may remember that the Bible gives us two full versions of the Ten Commandments. We have a version in Exodus 20 – this was the original version given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. Then we also have a version in Deuteronomy 5. There Moses reminds the people of Israel of the Ten Words. There are some differences between those versions, and we’ll get into one of those differences in a minute. But now let’s just notice that both versions start exactly the same way. Both start with the introductory words, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” These words about salvation are the background against which we have to read all the commandments that follow. Salvation comes first – and this salvation was an act of God’s grace. The people didn’t deserve it. Deuteronomy 7 makes it clear that there was nothing in the people themselves that caused God to save them from their miserable existence in Egypt. Deuteronomy 7:8 says, “But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” So, the introduction to the Ten Words speaks about God who keeps his promises, God who gives grace.

And we see that grace also in connection with the fourth commandment. The version given in Deuteronomy 5 specifically ties the fourth commandment to the exodus from Egypt: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” So, Israel was reminded to observe the Sabbath in memory of God’s gracious act of redemption. The people were slaves – they were totally unable to help themselves. But God came to their rescue. He set them free. The Sabbath was set aside as a day to remember and celebrate the salvation which came by grace alone.

The exodus from Egypt was the big salvation event of the Old Testament. As such it clearly and powerfully pointed to the big salvation event of the whole Bible, the redemption accomplished by Christ in the New Testament. That’s where we see the depth of God’s grace in stunning detail.

In his ministry, the Lord Jesus also showed the depth of God’s grace in connection with the Sabbath, with the fourth commandment. Look at what happens in the passage we read from Matthew 12. The Lord is out with his disciples on the Sabbath. The Pharisees are shadowing him the entire time. First, they pick at him because the disciples pick some grain. In his answer, Christ shows that the Pharisees had ignored the broader context of Scripture in how they interpreted the fourth commandment. Then he goes into a synagogue and heals a man with a withered hand. But before he does that, the Pharisees try to trap him by asking whether it would be okay to heal on the Sabbath. Christ’s answer makes it plain: healing, acts of mercy – all this fits with the character of the Sabbath day. The Sabbath day is about remembering and celebrating God’s grace – why would it be wrong for the Messiah to heal at a time such as this? Shouldn’t he just keep on showing God’s grace, especially on this day – that day that is really his day? This man didn’t deserve to be healed, but the Lord Jesus gave it to him. In doing this, Christ showed them and us the true depth and meaning of the fourth commandment. It’s about remembering, celebrating and doing grace! That, by the way, is why the Christian church worships on the first day of the week – because we remember and celebrate God’s grace in Christ’s resurrection!

All this points believers today to a responsible way of understanding this commandment. We’ve been shown God’s grace in Christ too – all of us have received what we don’t deserve: life, joy, peace, hope for eternity. Now, filled with the Holy Spirit, we want to remember, celebrate and share that same grace. We’re thankful that we’ve been brought into a relationship with our Creator through the blood of the cross. We’re filled with love for God. And so, we’re also filled with a hunger for God, a hunger for a deeper understanding and experience of his grace in our lives.

You see, our living out of the fourth commandment always has to be tied in to God’s grace in Christ. And that’s what the Catechism does. The Catechism right away speaks of the means of grace – the preaching of the gospel, for instance, and the celebration of the sacraments – things that take place on the Lord’s Day in our worship. This is where we receive a deeper experience and understanding of God’s grace in our lives. The worship services are where the grace of God in Christ is announced and applied to us and our daily lives. The worship services are where we participate in praying for God’s grace in our lives and in the lives of others. The worship services are where we share God’s grace by giving generously to those in need. And so, we have to ask ourselves: why would I want to do anything on this special day that would interfere with my receiving more gracious blessings from God’s hand in Christ? Why would I want to do anything that would interfere with my sharing God’s grace with others through the worship of his people? Why would I let anything stand in the way of that?

Let’s now go on to consider our second point:

2. The rest the Lord of the Sabbath came to bring

A few minutes ago, I mentioned the version of the fourth commandment in Deuteronomy 5 and how it connects with the exodus from Egypt. Now let’s look for a minute at the version from Exodus 20. It works with the pattern of rest found in the story of creation: “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.” In other words, Israel was commanded to rest in imitation of God’s sabbath rest.

What was the character of this Old Testament rest? Well, the idea was that there were six days for work and for regular activities. That did not mean that the people had to work six days. It meant that God had given them six days for their work. There were six days available for work. But one day out of every seven was to be made special. In the earliest days of the Old Testament, the seventh day was to be reserved for rest and refreshment. In fact, the Hebrew word “Sabbath” means a rest, a stopping from work.

Predictably, this Old Testament rest came to be heavily legalized. People wanted to know what fits the definition of work and what doesn’t. We all know that most people love rules. They feel comfortable knowing what they can and can’t do. So, the Jews came up with all kinds of man-made additions to the fourth commandment. For instance, they decided that you were allowed to kill lice on the Sabbath, but not fleas. Why not fleas? Because they were a kind of predator and killing predators was considered to fit their definition of work. This sort of thing became the subject of innumerable rabbinic discussions and writings.

That’s the kind of context that the Lord Jesus came into. He came into the world to fulfill and restore the fourth commandment, also in this aspect of rest. And again, we see him doing that in Matthew 12. He was breaking free of all kinds of legalistic conceptions of the fourth commandment. What do we mean by “legalistic”? Legalism is when you get entirely absorbed with questions of what can and can’t be done. Legalism is when the law either becomes or is in danger of becoming a means of measuring up in God’s eyes, man’s eyes, or both. When the disciples were picking grain on the sabbath, they did not measure up to the Pharisees and their understanding of the law. The Lord Jesus showed the Pharisees that it was they, who by separating mercy from the law, they were the ones falling short of God’s will. He demonstrated that the fourth commandment was not an end in itself. It has to be understood in its context – it’s about rest, giving relief, it’s about God doing good for man. And the Lord of the Sabbath, the one who owns the day because the day pointed to him – he showed that also with his healing of the man with the withered hand. God does good to man on this day, but man can and should also do good to man. If people can do good for animals on the Sabbath, why can’t people do good to one another? This is what the Lord of the Sabbath was about – doing good and giving rest and relief – and this is also what his Sabbath was about. When you get caught up in disputes about definitions of work, you’re in danger of missing the point.

In Hebrews 4, God clearly ties the work of Christ to the rest given in the fourth commandment. Verses 9-11 of that chapter say, “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.” Here, rest is tied into rest from sin. Christ came to give us rest from our warfare against God, our working against God’s will for our lives.

See, this is where the Catechism draws out its second point in Lord’s Day 38, “that all the days of my life I rest from my evil works.” Christ has given us rest – he promised that in Matthew 11:28, “I will give you rest.” Because of Christ and his perfect obedience for us, also his obedience to the fourth commandment, God looks at us and he sees people who are at rest from their sins. This rest gives us a relationship with God. And because this is so, we want to see what God sees become what we see in our lives. We want that rest to become a greater and greater reality in our daily existence. This means that our justification (what God sees) leads us to make our sanctification (our daily struggle for holiness – what we see) a priority in our lives. We’re thankful that we’ve been made right with God – that we have a relationship with him through Christ. That drives us to greater measures of love and thankfulness.

So, the rest given by Christ, our being made right with God, will also affect our attitude about the Lord’s Day, about Sunday. We read the Scriptures and we see Christ’s attitude and, out of love and thankfulness, we want to follow that. He showed that the fourth commandment is about a day characterized by doing good, by giving rest and relief to others. That insight is going to affect how we think about shopping and eating out on Sundays. Are we giving rest and relief to others when we insist on using seven days a week for our shopping? You see, guided by the Holy Spirit, we’ll use Christ’s attitude towards the fourth commandment, his fulfillment of it, as our guide to Christian living.

One more thing before we move on to the next point. The connection between works and rest brings out something unnerving. The fact is, for many of us: we want to work. We feel we have to work. We like our work. We often find our identity in our work. Somehow, maybe subconsciously, we think that work is what makes us measure up. But when we experience Christ’s rest, we shouldn’t feel compelled to work seven days per week. We should be able to set it aside, even if we enjoy it. Of course, there can be necessary work. Some are police officers or involved in the medical field or other such things. But here too, the danger is that we can rationalize all too easily. Watch out for the heart that says, “Yeah, but…” Because Christ came to give us rest. God gives us six days in which we can work. He gave us one day to rest and reflect, to worship and celebrate.

Now let’s consider our last point:

3. The liberty the Lord of the Sabbath came to announce.

The fourth commandment mentions the Sabbath day. But if we look elsewhere in the first five books of the Bible, what we call the Pentateuch, we find a range of ceremonial days that are related to the Sabbath. In fact, there are also Sabbath years. One year out of every seven was regarded as special. And then there was also a jubilee year. That happened every 50 years, after 7 cycles of sabbath years.

Liberty was an important theme with these sabbath and jubilee years. During the sabbath years, debts were to be forgiven. If you owed someone money, the other person would forgive the debt forever. Freedom from financial enslavement characterized the sabbath year. With the jubilee years, liberty was to be given to all the inhabitants of the land – all the slaves were set free. Land that had been taken to pay debts was returned to the family from whence it came, and so on. Liberty was the theme of these sabbath ceremonial days, just like with the weekly sabbath and its emphasis on freedom from slavery in Egypt.

That weekly sabbath was easy enough to observe for Old Testament Israel, at least externally. Unfortunately, they found it a lot harder to follow the laws about the sabbath years and jubilees. In fact, it appears from Scripture that Israel never consistently obeyed these laws. They built up all kinds of manmade rules around the weekly sabbath, but the sabbath years and jubilees were ignored – and so was the liberty envisioned by these laws.

This all changed when the Lord of the Sabbath appeared on earth. In Luke 4, the Lord Jesus came to the synagogue in Nazareth – on the Sabbath day. Regular worship was a habit of our Saviour too! He was asked to read from Isaiah. Luke reports that he read from Isaiah 61 and 58 – passages that speak prophetically about the weekly sabbath and the jubilee. The Lord Jesus made it clear that he is the one who has fulfilled those ceremonies. He said, “Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” The Lord Jesus came to announce the liberty and freedom encapsulated in those laws that were never fully kept! He came to be liberty and freedom for God’s people. He came to bring to the full the ideal of these Old Testament laws. This is why Christ was anointed by the Holy Spirit!

So, the fourth commandment and its related ceremonies were about liberty then, pointing to the spiritual liberty God’s people have in Christ. Freedom from sin, its effects, liberty from spiritual oppression. But how does that apply to us today?

We have been made free by Christ – we’re also free from having to try and earn our salvation by following the law. But our freedom is not for the purpose of sin. We have been liberated by Christ to be his people. We’ve been made free so that we, empowered by the Spirit who lives in us, can follow his ways. Like Christ, we’ve been anointed by the Holy Spirit. Why? So that we can make sacrifices of thankfulness, like it says in the first verses of Romans 12. Think also of what we read in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works.” This follows right on the heels of the well-known passage where the Spirit tells us that we’ve been saved by grace through faith. God has created us free in Christ. Why? So that we would use our freedom for expressing our love and gratitude for our Saviour with good works. So that we would use our liberty to follow the law of our God – so that we can give maximum glory to him.

If we apply this in a general way, as Spirit-filled believers, our aim is to live out of the liberty we’ve been given in Christ. We’re free from sin and we want to live as those who are free from sin. That means we’ll naturally want to stay away from whatever or whoever might endanger the exercise of our liberty. And especially on the Lord’s Day! That’s the day that we celebrate our liberty in Christ. So, as much as it lies in us, we’ll want to stay away from whatever might water down or endanger the celebration of our liberty in the communion of saints. It’s like having a 25th or a 50th wedding anniversary every Sunday. Can you imagine a husband or wife deliberately planning to be away from their spouse on such a big day? To spend time with somebody or something else? You’d wonder at the health of their marriage. Well, it’s the same way with the bride of Christ, isn’t it?

You see, the fourth commandment is all about liberty, grace, and rest. It’s about remembering and celebrating these things as they’ve come to us in Christ. The fourth commandment really has the gospel as its basis. In its essence, the fourth commandment is not about doing this and not doing that. It’s about the Lord Jesus and what he’s done for us. Only when we’ve looked at Christ and his work in faith, only then can we begin thinking about what our thankfulness is going to look like. And I’m sure the discussions on that point will continue. But if we keep our eyes on the Lord of the Sabbath, we’ll keep these discussions from degenerating into legalistic and meaningless debates about dos and don’ts. After all, our relationship with God is not determined by what we do. It’s about who we are, who we are in Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath. AMEN.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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