Jesus, Our True Peace and Sabbath Rest

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“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, 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, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:8-11).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
It was New Year’s Eve 1995. We had just moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana so I could begin my studies to enter the seminary. While Aimee and I were shopping for groceries, I suggested we choose a bottle of wine to celebrate her birthday the next day. We picked out a bottle that looked like it might fit our (at least at that point) totally unrefined tastes and limited budget and put it into our cart. As the cashier rang up our purchases, she set aside the bottle of wine and said, “You can’t buy that. It’s Sunday!” This was our introduction to Indiana’s “blue laws.”
Are you familiar with “blue laws”? A blue law is one restricting activities or sales of goods on Sunday to accommodate the Christian Sabbath. The first blue law in the American colonies was enacted in Virginia in 1617. It required church attendance and authorized the militia to force colonists to attend church services. Other early blue laws prohibited work, travel, recreation, and activities such as cooking, shaving, cutting hair, wearing lace or precious metals, sweeping, making beds, kissing, and engaging in conjugal relations. The Puritans believed that a child was born on the same day of the week that he or she was conceived. Therefore, the parents of a child born on a Sunday were punished for violating the blue law nine months earlier.1
Though established for religious reasons, guess who is fighting the hardest to prevent Sunday liquor sales in Indiana? Retail liquor stores! Because Sundays tend to be one of the busiest shopping days anyway, most consumers would rather just pick up their alcohol at the grocery store or convenience store instead of making another stop at the liquor store earlier in the week and so liquor retailers fear they could lose as many as half of the stores. So, regardless of what you might think of the concept of blue laws in the first place, their continuation is now mostly a matter of economics rather than deeply held religious beliefs.
But is this what God intends in the Third Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”? Can you really keep the Lord’s Day holy simply by refraining from work, purchasing alcoholic products, shopping, and certain recreational activities? Or is God looking for something more from His people? For His people? After all, didn’t Jesus say: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27)?  
God’s purpose in establishing this day of rest was primarily intended to restore people, not make them slaves of arbitrary rules and regulations.   Throughout the Old Testament, God sought to impart social justice for His people, Israel. He legislated controls to greed and oppression. Every Sabbath year (seventh year), debts were canceled and slaves were released. Every fiftieth year—the year of Jubilee—anyone whose family lands had been lost had those lands returned. The growing gap between rich and poor was to be contained.
Originally, the command to rest from work was a law to control the masters of households. The more work they could get from their employees, servants, slaves, wives, and children—the wealthier they became, so there was always the temptation for abuse. The Third Commandment checked such greedy impulses by legislating a day of rest for the master and his entire household—including servants, foreign visitors, and even animals.
These laws were radical innovations. The Third Commandment was part of these “statutes and rules so righteous” given to Israel that would make other nations marvel and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deuteronomy 4:6, 8). In a day of tyrannical control, when might made right, the Third Commandment demonstrated a people under obedience to a God of love, mercy, and righteousness, who demonstrated the same in their lives.
Unfortunately, by Jesus’ time this law of mercy and love and had become a law of oppression. Though once it was a beautiful blessing, Satan had turned it into a curse. Instead of demonstrating a merciful God, the Sabbath protections became gods of their own. For example: In defining rest, the scribes noted thirty-nine categories of work that must be avoided on the Sabbath. One was the carrying of any burden. Well, what about carrying a small child on the Sabbath? Debate finally concluded that this was permissible as long as the child was not grasping a stone. But what constituted a stone? And so it went on and on.
Pious Jewish soldiers would rather die than profane the Sabbath. The Book of Maccabees records the heroics of a band of Jewish zealots who refused to raise their weapons on the Sabbath, permitting the Syrian army to slaughter them, their wives, and their children. They died obedient to the Sabbath, believing that God would reward them eternally. Obedience to the Sabbath was their god.
The Sabbath became perverted because of man’s attempts at self-righteousness. The Pharisees taught that observance of the Sabbath rest was the ultimate obedience to God. Only if you observed the Sabbath perfectly would you be acceptable to God. In fact, they went so far as to teach: “If all Israel would observe one Sabbath rest perfectly, the Messiah would come.” Do you see why this was so dangerous? It twisted things around! God’s love and salvation became dependent on man’s goodness, instead of on God’s goodness and grace!
In the New Testament, this corrupt teaching about the Sabbath was opposed, especially by Jesus and St. Paul. In defiance of the Pharisees’ man-made traditions Jesus boldly healed on the Sabbath (Luke 6; John 9). He allowed His disciples to pick and eat heads of wheat as they walked through a field on the Sabbath (Mark 2), and then He defended their actions before the Pharisees. Jesus would not let human self-righteousness get in the way of His service of mercy. Quoting the prophet Hosea (6:6), Jesus reminded the Jews, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifices’” (Matthew 9:13).
In his letter to the Christians at Galatia, St. Paul warned: “You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you” (Galatians 4:10-11). In Ephesians 2, the apostle asserts, “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (v.8-9).
God is concerned about serving His fallen, suffering world. That was the original purpose of the Sabbath. When the Jewish leaders wanted to kill Jesus because, according to their rules, He broke the Sabbath, He responded to their charge: “My Father is work until now, and I am working” (John 5:17). In works of mercy, Jesus exemplified the way the Sabbath should be observed. God does not stop His deeds of compassion on that day and neither did Jesus.
In fact, Jesus is the fulfillment of the Sabbath. “This commandment, therefore, in its literal sense, does not apply to us Christians. It is entirely an outward matter, like other ordinances of the Old Testament. The ordinances were attached to particular customs, persons, times, and places, but now they have been made matters of freedom through Christ. ”2 St. Paul advises the church at Colossae: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17).
We can give thanks that God is at work without stopping. Not only does He uphold all His creation by the power of His Word, including healing the sick and lame, but He extends His grace to all people through His Word. His Spirit works in the hearts of believers as He directs and rules us in His grace and works against the unbelievers in their sin. God’s compassion does not take a holiday. In fact, nowhere does He show His compassion more today than when we gather to worship with others to receive His gifts of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.
It is with this understanding that Luther suggested that a better way to keep the Lord’s Day holy is to worship: “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”
So, is God-pleasing worship a result of God’s Law or His Gospel? Is worship primarily about what we do for God, or what He does for us? Certainly, worship is commended in the Law. However, for a Christian to observe God’s Third Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” is the fruit of God’s Gospel, which He proclaimed before giving the Commandments: “I am the Lord your God…” (Exodus 20:2).
Martin Luther explains: “Whenever God’s Word is taught, preached, heard, read, or meditated upon, then the person, day, and work are sanctified. This is not because of the outward work, but because of the Word, which makes saints of us all. Therefore, I constantly say that all life and work must be guided by God’s Word, if it is to be God-pleasing or holy. Where this is done, this commandment is in force and being fulfilled.”3
The “sanctifying” that God speaks of in His Word is not a result of what we do on the Sabbath. It is the other way around. Sanctifying the Sabbath is what God does in us through His life-giving, proclaimed, taught, and living Word. “I am the Lord who sanctifies you” (Leviticus 22:32).
In a world where most people assume worshiping, or “sanctifying the Holy Day,” is something man does, Luther’s explanation may be difficult to accept. But let’s go back to our text. “The Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” We cannot make the Sabbath day holy. God has already done that! Through His Word and Sacrament, God continues to make it holy.
We are called to keep it holy. As you listen and receive His gifts in the means of grace God continues to work this in you. Worship is like everything else in which God is involved with you: “It is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
God works for us. Jesus worked for us. We are saved by His work of salvation. He lived a holy, righteous life in our place. He died on the cross in our place. He suffered hell in our place. He paid for our sins, so we are free. He does not expect us to be perfect as Jesus was perfect in our place. Perfection is His gift to us. We stand before Him holy and righteous and free.
The Sabbath was not intended by God to help people become perfect. That is impossible. Our attempts to keep the Commandments leaves us guilty, uncertain, and rebellious. We stand righteous before Him, not because of our goodness, but because of His goodness, His grace, His gift. This is not something that we can earn with our own good works or worship, but was purchased by Christ’s holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death. Christ fulfilled the Sabbath, and God no longer requires us to observe the Sabbath day and other holy days of the Old Testament.
The Sabbath perversion was rejected and removed. Therefore, by the second century, Christians had given up observing the Sabbath, which was on the seventh day, Saturday, according to Jewish rules. They changed it from a day of drudgery and fear into a day of worship and fellowship—as God had intended—and moved it to Sunday, the first day of the week, the day of Jesus’ resurrection.
The day was devoted to collections for the needy, receiving tithes and offerings for the Lord. It was a day to concentrate on the Lord’s work, a day to serve Him in His vineyard. But most of all, it was a day for Him to serve His people through Word and Sacrament. The day was devoted to the study of Scripture, as Jewish law had originally decreed.

How do we observe the Sabbath today? During the week, we have personal devotions; but on one day (usually, but not necessarily, Sunday) we gather with others to grow together around the Word. We devote the day to reflection, repentance, and renewal. We jump off the merry-go-round, get out of the rat race, and let God confront us about where we are going and what we are doing. The Sabbath was intended to restore those bonds of love and care that we need in order to cope with the ups and downs of life. It was intended as a day to share with and pray for one another. The other six days we use to keep life and limb together. We work to feed our families and keep a roof over our heads. This day we concentrate on the deep and enduring parts of life, the things that last all eternity. Because Christ completed His perfect work of salvation for us, we can honor Him and the day set apart for Him.
“Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). Holy means “sacred, special, set apart.” It is the Lord’s Day, the day He intended to hold us close in His unfailing love. He looks forward to it every week.
And so do we! For as we gather together for the worship service each week, our Lord continues to serve us with His love and mercy. Jesus is our true peace and Sabbath rest. Through His Word and Sacraments, our Lord brings us forgiveness, life, and salvation. Indeed, for His sake, you are forgiven of all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

2Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. 2005 (Edited by Paul Timothy McCain) (367). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

3Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. 2005 (Edited by Paul Timothy McCain) (369). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.


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