I went to Israel back in 2011. I went as part of a group of pastors and deacons who got ordained the previous year. During the first leg of the trip, we stayed in Tiberias, which is on the Sea of Galilee. There was a sign in the front lobby that said that the hotel featured something called “Sabbath elevators.” I had no idea what Sabbath elevators were. But I found out at sundown on Friday. I was on the sixth floor of the hotel, and I was meeting friends down in the lobby for dinner. So I pushed the call button on the elevator and after a long wait, the elevator doors finally opened. No one was in the elevator. I pressed the button marked “1.” The doors closed, and then the elevator stopped at the fifth floor—even though I hadn’t pushed that button. And there was no one there waiting for it. Then the elevator stopped at the fourth floor. No one was there. Then the third floor. No one was there. “What’s going on?” I thought.
A hotel employee got on the elevator. I said, “I think something’s wrong with the elevator,” I said. He literally rolled his eyes at me! I’m sure he was thinking, “Tourists!”
It took me a minute, but I finally figured out what “Sabbath elevators” are: If you are an orthodox Jew, and it’s the Sabbath, even pushing an elevator button is considered illegal “work.” Sabbath elevators enable people to ride the elevator without having to do “work.” You might have to wait a long time, but if you’re patient, you’ll eventually get where you need to go.
With all respect and love for our Jewish friends, I was horrified. Like, “How legalistic!” I thought. To think that merely pushing a button would constitute a violation of the Fourth Commandment—“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
But not so fast… I thought about my own background. Like most kids, I disliked doing chores, and my main chore in the spring and summer was cutting the grass. But even though, according to my rural cousins, I was a “city boy,” my parents were both from the Deep South. This meant they would not let their son be seen by neighbors cutting the grass on Sunday. We could do all kinds of other things on Sunday—including skipping church to go to Atlanta Falcons games… But they drew the line at cutting the grass. Which worked out well for me, of course, since I never wanted to do it anyway. But I especially liked it when it rained on Saturday, on the day that I was supposed to cut the grass… because I knew I got not just one day off, but two days off! Because I wouldn’t have to do it on Sunday.
So that wasn’t so bad… But I had friends down the street who were independent Baptists—the Southern Baptists were apparently not Baptist enough for them—and they could hardly do anything on Sunday besides going to church. Going to movies? Forget it! Going to the nearby mall? No way! Go to the arcade? Yeah, right! It felt like prison to me! And they even had to go to church on Sunday night—and obviously no one wants to do that, right? Not many Methodists do, apparently!
But at the time I thought, “I’m so glad I don’t have to observe the Sabbath like my neighbors do… that’s so difficult!”
And that thought crossed my mind back in 2011. Trying to keep the Sabbath like that is so difficult! And I felt relief: Like, “I’m so glad we Christians don’t have to do that!”
But now I see that this is the wrong way to think about it. As Christians, we should never have the following thought: “Thank God we don’t have to observe the Sabbath the way these orthodox Jews do… or even the way my neighbors down the street do… because that seems really, really hard.” No. Because… it’s strict Sabbath-keeping is not “really hard.” It’s actually impossible. Obeying the Sabbath the way God requires is impossible… for all of us. Even for the well-intentioned person who is afraid that pushing an elevator button breaks the Sabbath! Even for my friends down the street whose parents wouldn’t let them go to the movies on Sunday. It’s impossible for them, too—because of sin!
Needless to say, my own family was hardly “keeping the Sabbath” when I was a kid, and we didn’t cut the grass on Sunday! Even if we had obeyed that “law”—“Thou shalt not cut the grass on Sunday,” and a thousand more laws besides—we would still fail to keep the Sabbath the way God requires! Just as we would fail to keep the nine other commandments as well!
See, a Christian response to the fourth commandment—or the Third Commandment, or any other commandment—isn’t to say, “That’s hard”… No, a Christian response is to say, “That’s impossible! Thank God that Jesus perfectly and completely fulfilled the Fourth Commandment, along with the rest of God’s Law, on my behalf. If he didn’t do that for me, I would be rightly condemned by God, I would rightly be separated from God for eternity, I would rightly be sent to hell! So I thank God that Jesus has saved me from that—that he accomplished for me what I was utterly incapable of accomplishing for myself… apart from God’s grace!”
But when I was a kid, I didn’t understand all that. When I was a kid, and I heard about all the things that my neighbors down the street had to do, or avoid doing, on the Sabbath, and I naturally thought, “Do we have to do that? Do we have to keep the Sabbath?” Or—since I’ve already told you that we can’t keep the Sabbath—maybe I should put it another way: Do we have to at least try to keep the Sabbath?
And that’s a question for us to consider first… This is one of the Ten Commandments, after all, and most of us modern-day Methodists are probably far less scrupulous about Sabbath-keeping than my neighbors down the street—or probably even my parents when I was growing up. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that our culture has changed…
So… do we have to keep the Sabbath as Christians?
Sometimes in debates with progressive United Methodists, our progressive friends accuse so-called “traditionalists” like me—who believe so strongly in the authority of scripture—of picking and choosing what parts of the Bible to obey. And perhaps they would say that since Sabbath-keeping is so hard and inconvenient, Christians like me are not trying very hard to do it anymore.
But is that true? Is our obedience, or lack of obedience, to the Fourth Commandment an example of “picking and choosing”?
My short answer is “no,” but let’s try to answer the question biblically.
First, we know for sure that the early church—the church described in the Book of Acts—worshiped on Sunday—and that over time, Sunday came to be regarded as the new Sabbath day. Why? Because Sunday was the day of the resurrection. Christians always worship on Sunday in part to celebrate Easter, Christ’s own resurrection day. We see this, for instance, in the Book of Acts. If you have your Bibles, and you should, turn to Acts 20, verses 7 and 8:
On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered.
“There were many lamps”? Why lamps? Because they weren’t meeting in the morning; it was nighttime. I’ll come back to that. But these Christians were “breaking bread”—i.e., worshiping and celebrating the Lord’s Supper, on the first day of the week, Sunday.
Also in 1 Corinthians 16:2, Paul is talking about an offering that he will collect from the Corinthian church the next time he comes to visit. This offering is for the church in Jerusalem, which is suffering from a famine. Paul writes, “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.”
Notice: “On the first day of every week…” Christians were gathering on Sunday.
So despite what some eccentric Christian groups believe today, Christians have worshiped on Sunday from the beginning. The Christian Sabbath became Sunday, rather than Saturday. The reason, as one pastor puts it, is this: “Just like the work of the first creation was finished on the seventh day of the week, the work of the new creation in Christ was finished on the first day of the week by the resurrection of Jesus.”1
And what did Christians do on this new Sabbath day? To answer that, let’s go back to Acts 20. Remember: This church of mostly Gentile Christians in Europe is meeting at night. Why? Because in the ancient Roman world, what would most people be doing during the day on Sunday?
That’s right: working. Some of you watched that PBS show from England, Downton Abbey. It told the story of early-20th-century aristocrats and the servants who worked for them. At one point, a man who was from the middle-class was having dinner with these wealthy elites, and he referred to “the weekend.” And one of the noble ladies interrupted to ask, “What’s a weekend?”
Because for this woman, who never had to work a day in her life, every day was a leisure day!
But in the ancient world, the same was true: There was no weekend. Unless you were very wealthy, Sunday was a work day, just like any other day!
And if you look back at this passage from Acts 20, it tells the famous story of this poor young man named Eutychus, who is at church on Sunday night. Look at verse 9: “And a young man named Eutychus, sitting at the window, sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked still longer. And being overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead.”
He fell out of a third story window and died—but not to worry: Paul prays for him, and God miraculously raised him from the dead.
And people make jokes about what a boring preacher Paul must have been, but not so fast! Eutychus fell asleep at midnight, but the poor guy had probably been up since early morning working! And that was true for the rest of the church. They went to church every Sunday, but the church met around their work schedules. Most of them didn’t have the luxury of taking Sunday off of work.
And it’s increasingly true today, unfortunately, that taking an entire day off of work “resting in God” may be impossible. And the Bible says, “That’s okay.”
But in saying that, am I also saying that the Fourth Commandment no longer applies?
No! God forbid! It just means that for those of us who are in Christ, we are meant to practice a deeper and truer form of Sabbath observance. When we are born again through faith in Christ, the author of Hebrews tells us, we experience what ancient Israel were unable to experience because of sin: We experience Sabbath rest2. As Hebrews 4:9 and 10 says, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.”
And what does Jesus say?
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”3
Are you experiencing this Sabbath rest from Christ? It’s available to you! It’s available to all of us, in our hearts, by the power of the Holy Spirit, through faith in Christ!
When I was a kid, I didn’t understand this deeper meaning of Sabbath at all. And if any of us today is tempted to ask the question, “Do we have to observe the Sabbath,” maybe we still don’t understand it!
Why on earth would we ask, “Do we have to observe the Sabbath?”
If we’re Christians, why wouldn’t we instead ask, “Do we get to observe the Sabbath?” I mean, Why wouldn’t I want to experience this Sabbath rest as often as possible? What’s wrong with me and my faith that the prospect of setting apart a day—or even hours during the week, or time each day—for nothing but “resting in the Lord” would seem like some kind of terrible burden to me?
Because remember: All ten of these Ten Commandments are outward expressions of what we should want to do anyway… in our hearts. It should be our deepest desire, first of all, to want to please God by keeping his commandments. No questions asked. We don’t need to second-guess God. We can trust that he knows what’s best for us. So if God says keep the Sabbath. “Okay, I’ll do it!”
But even more importantly, why wouldn’t we want to enjoy resting in God? Spending time in prayer and worship? Experiencing more of his love and mercy? Growing closer and closer to him?
What is wrong with us that we wouldn’t want to do that?
That fact that you and I struggle to “take a Sabbath” or find “Sabbath rest” is not God’s fault… for giving us a commandment that’s too hard or too burdensome for us to obey. No, the fact that we struggle to take a Sabbath or find Sabbath rest is our fault! Because we simply don’t trust that our heavenly Father will take care of us and give us what we need! And I don’t mean to judge my own parents too harshly, but why were they so willing—on a regular basis—to miss church—and even to miss the opportunity to enjoy Sabbath rest on Sunday… in order to go to Falcons games on Sunday afternoons? Unlike our work schedules, Falcons games were not something they had to go to. That was a free choice they made.
But why am I even asking? I know why they chose Falcons games over Sabbath rest. And it’s the same reason, ultimately, that I often choose other things over Sabbath rest… and it’s the same reason you often choose other things over Sabbath rest. Because we don’t really believe that if we rest in God that God will take care of our deepest needs… We don’t really believe that God can or will satisfy our deepest needs. We think we need all these other things in our lives to do that—and we don’t want to risk missing out on all these other things… so Jesus takes a back seat.
So for my parents, they were finding something in Atlanta Falcons football that they were afraid they wouldn’t find if they stayed home and went to church… and worshiped and prayed and read God’s Word…
And again… I’d be the biggest hypocrite if I stood up here and said that I didn’t know how they felt!
Psalm 37:4 says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desire of your heart.”
But when we fail to find Sabbath rest, we are proving that we don’t really believe it!
Psalm 23:1 says, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” I shall not want what? Anything! “Because I have everything I need in Christ.”
But when we fail to find Sabbath rest, we are proving we don’t really believe it!
Philippians 3:8 says, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Surpassing worth?
But when we fail to find Sabbath rest, we are proving we don’t really believe it!
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then, in his joy, he goes and sells everything he has and buys that field.4” Wait? He sells everything? Including his season tickets to Falcons games?
Yes. But when we fail to find Sabbath rest, we are proving we don’t really believe it!
And that’s ultimately the problem that the disciples have in today’s scripture from Mark’s gospel. They’re on the Sea of Galilee. They’re in the midst of a terrible and what they perceive to be a life-threatening storm. They’re afraid they’re going to die. And what is Jesus doing? He’s enjoying this deep Sabbath rest I’ve been talking about… To say the least, Jesus is not afraid. He has so much confidence and trust in his Father that he’s able to do what we know is impossible when we’re feeling anxious and afraid: He’s asleep.
But look at the question that the disciples ask him in verse 38: “And they woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing.’”
I love that question. Do you not care?
Isn’t that our biggest fear? That our Lord doesn’t care about us? That our Lord is asleep on the job—at least the job that we think he should be doing? Or if he’s not sleeping, maybe our Lord is too busy or distracted to care about us?
And this is where, by the way, the Third Commandment comes in. Think about those times when you take the Lord’s name in vain, or indeed, when you curse in general. If we’re honest, most of the time we do it because, in that moment, we’re angry or frustrated because we’re pretty sure that we know better than God how to run the universe. And when we curse, we’re expressing anger at God because he’s not doing what you need him to do! At least what we think we need him to do! And in that moment when we curse we’re giving voice to our anger at God in the most vulgar, offensive, disrespectful obscene way imaginable!
We wouldn’t dare use our mother’s name as a curse word, yet we speak this way about God our Creator, who died on a cross to redeem us, who rescued us from sin and gave us eternal life, who is living within our hearts through the Holy Spirit! It ought to be an unthinkable sin, and yet it’s so commonplace, even on the lips of Christians!
So what do we all need to stop this behavior… to straighten up… to stop breaking these commandments?
Would it help if I reminded you not to take the Lord’s name in vain—as if you somehow forgot that doing so is a sin?
No, you don’t need that… It wouldn’t do any good.
What you need is the same thing the disciples needed in today’s scripture. See, they thought they needed this storm to cease its raging. They thought they needed these winds to stop blowing. They thought they needed these waves to stop crashing into their boat.
But they were wrong… Jesus shows them they’re wrong. They didn’t need anything other than what they already possessed. They didn’t need anything other the One who was with them all along. They didn’t need anything or anyone other than Jesus!
Aren’t you tired from not being able to find Sabbath rest for your souls? You need Jesus! Aren’t you tired of being afraid and worried all the time? You need Jesus! Aren’t you tired of just being so angry and grumpy and irritable because things—external circumstances—aren’t going the way you think they should?
You need Jesus… Of course, if you already have Jesus, because you’re already his disciple, you need more of him.
- John Piper, “Remember the Sabbath Day and Keep It Holy,” 6 October 1985. desiringgod.org. Accessed 25 February 2021.
- Hebrews 4:1-10
- Matthew 11:28 ESV
- Matthew 13:44-45 ESV