And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak also to the children of Israel, saying: ‘Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you. You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.’” And when He had made an end of speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses two tablets of the Testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.
So what does scripture indicate is permissible on the Sabbath?
The Bible teaches that certain works are permissible on the Sabbath: works of necessity and mercy. In the section above regarding Christ’s teaching on the Sabbath, it was noted that works necessary to the proper observance of the public worship of God are permitted on the Lord’s day (Mt. 12:5): preaching, teaching, collecting tithes, the singing of psalms, travel to and from worship, etc. If the priests could do religious work in the service of the temple without breaking the Sabbath, then certainly religious work done for the greater Temple, Jesus Christ, is permissible. Another necessity is the refreshment of the body with food and drink (Mt. 12:3-4). One cannot properly worship and meditate upon Christ and His works when one is famished or dying of thirst. The Lord’s day is a day of joy, celebration and victory (Ps. 118:22-24), and thus under normal conditions is not a day of fasting, sackcloth and ashes. One must care for one’s animals on the Sabbath by feeding and watering them. Works of necessity also involve taking care of emergencies: invading armies, fighting fires, floods, earthquakes, car accidents. If it is permissible to save the life of a beast on the Sabbath (Mt. 12:11-12), then it is permissible to save human life also. “But in all these things it should be regarded, that the necessity be real, and not pretended: for it is not enough that the work can be done to such advantage on another day; for that might let out people on the Sabbath, if it be a windy day or so, to cut down their corn, whom yet God has in a special manner provided against, Exod. xxxiv. 21.”
Christians must never confuse an inconvenience with a genuine necessity or emergency. If worship is to be missed, it should be because of a real sickness or hazard. Some treat a slight fatigue as a serious flu or a half inch of snow as a blizzard simply because they are lazy and do not really want to attend to the means of grace. Others break the Sabbath who turn ordinary providence into a crisis. These are motivated out of greed rather than laziness. “Hence though the weather and season is rainy, yet it is not lawful to cut down or gather in corn on the sabbath, their hazard in this case being common and from an ordinary immediate providence. Yet suppose that a river were carrying away corn, or that winds were like to blow them into the seas, it were lawful in such a case to endeavour to prevent that, and preserve them. Because (a.) that comes by some more than ordinary dispensation of providence in the weather, and affects and puts in hazard this corn more than others. (b.) Because there is no probability of recovering these in an ordinary way, though the weather should alter, but there is hope of gathering in of such as are in the fields [outside] that reach of hazard, if the Lord alters the season.” Those who turn necessity into a loophole to mow lawns, chop wood, harvest crops or pull weeds are perverting the commandment to their own detriment and destruction.
Works of mercy are also permitted. Jesus said that “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Mt. 12:12). If it is appropriate to have mercy upon an animal in distress on the Sabbath, then it is even more appropriate to help a person in distress (Mt. 12:11-12). Thus, caring for the sick and relieving the poor are good and lawful on the Sabbath. The church has always acknowledged that necessary hospital and nursing-home work are permissible on the Lord’s day. If it is lawful and good to minister to man’s temporal needs on the Sabbath, then it is also good to minister to man’s spiritual needs (preaching the gospel, witnessing, ministering in retirement communities or prisons, counseling, passing out tracts, etc.). “Works of mercy and charity are very proper and acceptable to Christ on this day. They were proper on the ancient sabbath. Christ was wont to do such works on the Sabbath-day. But they especially become the Christian sabbath, because it is a day kept in commemoration of the greatest work of mercy and love toward us that ever was wrought. What can be more proper than that on such a day we should be expressing our love and mercy towards our fellow-creatures, and especially our fellow-Christians? Christ loves to see us show our thankfulness to him in such a way as these. Therefore, we find that the Holy Ghost was especially careful, that such works should be performed on the first day of the week in the primitive church,” as we learn from Paul’s exhortation to collect tithes for the poor saints in Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16:1-2).
It is important that civil governments and employers acknowledge the Lord’s day and accommodate those who are involved in works of necessity (e.g., police, firemen, the military) and mercy (e.g., doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, hospital workers) in such a way that they can attend public worship as often as possible. Thus in a society that honors God’s law, a rotation system should be used so that people could have at least two or three Sundays off each month in order to worship God publicly and partake of the Lord’s supper. On the weeks in which Sunday employment is required, a day of rest must be given in place of Sunday, to follow the pattern of one day of rest in seven as closely as possible. “Further, if necessity obliges us to engage in secular employments on the Lord’s day, as in the instances of those whose business is to provide physic [care] for the sick, let us, nevertheless, labour to possess a spiritual frame, becoming the holiness of the day, so far as may consist with what we are immediately called to do.” One must also make sure that one is truly engaging in a work of necessity. There are many medical procedures (e.g., plastic surgery, removal of warts) that do not need to be scheduled for the Lord’s day. “Finally, if we have a necessary call to engage in worldly matters, and so be detained from public ordinances, we must endeavor to satisfy others that the providence of God obliges us to act as we do; that so we may not give offense to them, or they take occasion, without just reason, to follow their own employments, to do which would be a sin in them.”
Preparation for the Lord's Day
Not only must Christians go to bed at a decent hour, but they must also prepare their affairs in such a way as to avoid the temptation of engaging in unnecessary labor or commerce on the Lord’s day. If the house is dirty, clean it on Saturday, so that if people come to lunch after church, you will not be tempted to rush home and clean up. Make sure that the car has plenty of gasoline in order to go to and from public worship (or for emergencies). Businessmen and students must prepare for Monday’s affairs on Saturday, not on Sunday. Paperwork or homework must be finished on Saturday. The preparation for Monday’s activities should be thorough, so that on the Lord’s day the mind may be fixed upon God and His works. Thorough preparation will help one avoid the temptation of thinking about the Monday morning business meeting, algebra exam or sales conference.
Housewives should prepare for sabbath meals as much as possible on Saturday. There are many kitchen duties, such as the kneading and baking of bread, preparing stuffing, cooking and mashing potatoes, that do not need to be done on the Sabbath. Moses spoke to this point in Exodus 16:23: “This is what the LORD has said: ‘Tomorrow is a Sabbath rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD. Bake what you will bake today, and boil what you will boil; and lay up for yourselves all that remains, to be kept until morning.’” “The meaning of this is, that they were to gather the manna, working which would take up a considerable time, and to grind or prepare it for baking or seething. This was a servile or laborious work, and might as well be done the day before. Accordingly, they were commanded then to dispatch or finish it, that they might rest in and sanctify the Sabbath immediately following.” This law does not make it unlawful for Christians to prepare and heat up food on the Lord’s day (for a certain amount of preparation is necessary), but it does teach that food preparation should be handled as much as possible on the day prior to the Sabbath, that we may apply ourselves more diligently to the means of grace and rest.
There is also a spiritual preparation for the Lord’s day. This, of course, involves, first of all, repenting of any known sins to God. Second, if there is any known enmity between oneself and another Christian, reconciliation should be sought if at all possible (Mt. 5:23-24). Third, we should pray fervently that God would not only forgive our sins but also fill us with His Spirit on the approaching day. We should pray for God to subdue our fleshly appetites, worldly cares and unclean thoughts in order that we may focus in worship upon Christ, study His Word, and feed upon Him spiritually at His supper. We also should pray for the special assistance of God in the preparation and delivery of His Word by the teaching elders of the church, and that the Holy Spirit would convince and convict hearts unto a greater sanctification. Even the Apostle Paul exhorted the Ephesians to pray “for me, that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel” (Eph. 6:19). “We ought to be very importunate with God, that he would sanctify and fill our thoughts, from the beginning to the end of the Lord’s day, which he has consecrated for his immediate service and glory.” Fourth, we should read and meditate upon the preacher’s text for the next day, if it is known. We should “desire the pure milk of the word that [we] may grow thereby” (1 Pet. 2:2). What a wonderful privilege to have the Lord’s day, a day in which the cares and vanities of life are forgotten, a day of blessed fellowship, communion and celebration with our Lord Jesus Christ.
The sabbath day is the day that God has set aside for the public worship of Himself. This involves preaching from the Bible, reading the Word of God, the administration of the sacraments, the giving of tithes, hearing the Word of God, prayer to God, and the singing of psalms. Those who believe and teach that church attendance and public worship are optional do not understand the Scriptures.
When God has given us six days in which to conduct our affairs, the missing of public worship for sleep, business or personal pleasure is inexcusable. The state of our hearts is proved by our outward actions (Mt. 6:16-20); to neglect the public honoring of Jesus Christ for any reason other than illness or emergency proves that one’s love and allegiance to Christ are a sham.
It is not an accident that the great decline of Lord’s-day observance has occurred at the same time that unbelief, apostasy and wickedness have permeated western culture. The love of God and of His day go hand in hand. When the love and fear of God no longer exist, His day is not honored. “If we did indeed love God as we ought, with all our heart, and soul, and mind, and might, we would not say, when we have been attending upon him two or three hours in public worship, ‘Now we have surely done enough for this day,’ when we are invited, encouraged and appointed still to continue our communion with him,—still to feast upon his holy word, and repeat our addresses at the throne of his grace in our closets and families. Would we be so soon weary of an intimate conversation with a friend we love and take pleasure in? No; with such a friend we contrive how to prolong the time of converse, and when the hours of sitting together are expired, we stand together, and, as those that are loath to part, bid often farewell, are we add to this a walk together for further discourses; is this thy kindness to thy friend, and wilt thou say of communion with thy God, ‘Behold what a weariness is it!’ and contrive excuses to contract it, to break it off, or cut it short?” May God increase our love toward Him and thus enable us to sanctify His day as we ought. “The stream of all religion runs either deep or shallow, according as the banks of the sabbath are kept up or neglected.”