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The Principle of Sabbath Rest


“Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God.” (Exodus 20:8-10, NLT)

My generation will probably be the last that remembers “blue laws.” Up until the 1960’s, most businesses in my hometown were required by law to close on Sundays. Department stores, supermarkets, and most service stations shut down as an attempt to impose Sabbath sanctity on the operation of businesses. At best, a few restaurants in town stayed open in order to accommodate the after-church diners, although some congregations refrained from patronizing such establishments on Sunday.

But life in general proceeded at a more peaceful pace then. Not only did we observe a day of rest, we didn’t have interstates, fast food, and non-stop organized activities for children. My family had strict rules about what behaviors were unacceptable on Sunday, such as housework, yard work, or physical activity such as sports. Such customs were a way to remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. We understood, of course, that the Sabbath was a Saturday, and Sunday was “the Lord’s day.” We just observed Sunday as the New Testament application of an Old Testament standard.

But times have changed. Sunday is now just like any other day of the week. We use it as a day to catch up. If you’re sedentary during the week, you seek physical activity. If you didn’t get a chance to do the laundry, the dishes, the lawn, the shopping—you catch up on Sunday. In the 21st Century, Sunday has become a day to catch up on what we didn’t get accomplished in our over-crowded lives and to forget all of our problems from the previous week. We use Sunday to reconnect with our spouses and children because we’ve been too busy during the week to see them. And we attend worship if we don’t have a better offer. Whatever it is, it is not about remembering. Though we may not realize it, we are teaching our children to be busy. During the earliest stages of life we are molding their minds to sense that free time is wasted time.

The value of time is not lost on our culture. We value time more than money, evidenced in our willingness to spend significant dollars to be more efficient and save time. But living without margin in our schedules is having a profound impact. Research shows that 44% of Americans believe that if they continue to live life at its current pace they will face major health problems. Another 40% of Americans admit to being on the emotional edge because of their schedules, and 84% of Americans say they need to spend more time with their families.

The fourth commandment was given for a purpose. But that purpose was not legalism. The religious leaders of Bible times counted 39 words in the fourth commandment, and then took 39 times 39 and came up with 1,521 prohibitions for the Sabbath day. It was strictly enforced, and became a litmus test for piety. So what relevance does Sabbath observance have for us in the 21st century? What does God think about time? Why has he established the principle of rest for his children?

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