Delighting in the Lords Day

During the mid-90’s, millions of American households were infested by strange, small creatures called Beanie Babies. The Ty toy company discovered that occasionally “retiring” certain dolls would cause their demand and value to skyrocket. To protect their “investments,” serious collectors put heart shaped plastic cases around the tags or sealed them in glass trophy cases. Being the loving big brothers we were, John and I found the rarest Beanie Babies for our sister, Julianne. But one day, I came into her room to inspect her impressive stock only to find her buried in a pile of Beanie Babies with a blissful grin on her face. I got angry. “Julianne, you’re smashing them! Look! This one lost its tag! You’re not supposed to play with them!” Her smile faded to a frown and she said, “Then, what fun are they?” I’d forgotten that this gift wasn’t meant to be locked away on display. It was meant to be enjoyed.

The Jews of Jesus day made a similar mistake regarding the Sabbath. They’d taken one of God’s choicest gifts, divinely designed for man’s deepest blessing, and wrapped it in the barbed-wire of their legalism. They’d twisted the day of rest into the day of running a gauntlet of manmade rules. We’re prone to do the same. Do you see the Sabbath as a day of precious privileges or painful prohibitions? Do you delight in the Sabbath or dread it? John 5:9-17 presents a stark contrast between a pharisaical and faithful view of the Lord’s Day and shows that the Lord’s Day is a gift.

A Pharisaical View of the Sabbath

Jesus just healed a man who’d been invalid for 38 years beside the pool of Bethesda, ordering him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk” (John 5:8), "Now," John tells us, “that day was the Sabbath. So, the Jews said to the man who had been healed, ‘It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed’” (John 5:9). Who were these Jews? They were Pharisees; a strict sect of moralists who’d risen to prominence in the intertestamental centuries leading up to Jesus’ day; Jerusalem’s self-proclaimed purity police who’d spotted what they believed to be an infraction. But was it? Would Jesus, could Jesus, ever tell someone to violate the law of God? No! By taking up his mat this man hadn’t broken the law of God, but of the Pharisees.

After God completed his work of creation, he rested on the 7th day and thereby blessed and consecrated it. He crowned it as the prince of days promising heavenly reward to those who cease from their labors and rest in him on that day. This is clarified in the 4th commandment that forbids work on the Sabbath, which since the resurrection of Christ, has been the first day of the week (Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:2, Revelation 1:10). But rather than allowing God’s word to stand in all its simplicity and rather than allowing God’s people to exercise liberty in applying the law to their own lives, the Pharisees listed 39 types of forbidden work like tying and untying, burning and extinguishing, writing and erasing, and (let’s not forget!) carrying.

You see, a pharisaical view of the Sabbath is legalistic. Legalism is looking to God’s law as the source of righteousness instead of the summary of it; like the rich young ruler who, after hearing Jesus recite some of the commandments, said, “all these I have kept.” Such a high view of self is only ever the result of a low view of God. When Luther surveyed the Everest heights of God’s law with its demands for perfect holiness in word, thought and deed, he said, “This word is too high and too hard that any man should fulfill it.” But the Pharisees replaced God’s law with their own petty lists of do’s and don’ts. They dynamited Sinai down to a small pile of rubble they could scale and hail themselves as righteous from the top.                                 

It's easy to adopt the same legalistic view of the Sabbath, commending ourselves as righteous for our dos and don’ts (getting to church on time, taking the day off from work, not mowing the lawn or washing laundry) all the while our hearts are far from Christ. His law doesn’t convict us. The hymns don’t move us. The preached word doesn’t cause our hearts to burn within us. We just go through the motions and check our boxes. It is so easy to slide into that legalistic view of God’s law. Though it is our joyful duty for which Christ died to free us, we must never rest in our performance of the law but in Christ’s perfect performance of it, for us.

How did the healed man reply to the Pharisees’ attack? John tells us in John 5:11-13, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’” So they asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place.”

Isn’t it interesting that the Pharisees made a list of 39 prohibitions instead of 39 privileges? Isn’t it interesting that instead of seeing the miraculously healed man and rejoicing they only saw his rolled-up mat and recoiled in anger? Isn’t it interesting that instead of praising the miracle worker, “they persecuted Jesus for breaking one of their rules” (John 5:16)? Why? Because a pharisaical view of the Sabbath is focused on the prohibitions not the privileges of the Lord’s Day.

In his excellent article my friend, Stephen Spinnenweber, likened the Sabbath to a weekly honeymoon. Do you remember your honeymoon? Do you remember the thrill of first love? My wife, Jordan, and I spent a week in Seattle exploring the downtown shops, eating like royalty, admiring the beauty of God’s creation at Mt. Rainier, and cruising the San Juan Islands watching for whales. Our focus that week was resting from the wedding and rejoicing in the gift of love. There was no work allowed; no laptops, no emails, no social media, and no tv. All this without a word of complaint because the privileges of that week utterly eclipsed the prohibitions.

Shouldn’t we approach each Lord’s Day with the same attitude of anticipation? Shouldn’t we be so enraptured by the covenant love of God for us sinners, by the pleasure of communing with our creator, the relief of resting in the finished work of Christ, the delight of corporate singing, the joy of Christian fellowship, the peace and power that come through the teaching of God’s word and the preaching of the gospel that our ordinary work and play would naturally fade into the background? David sang, “I was glad when they said to me ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD’” (Psalm 122:1)! But are you? Are your children? Or is your heart overcast by the prohibitions of the day? Are you so upset about the things God’s forbidden you can’t see and savor the things he’s inviting you to do and the promises he’s made to you?

What promises has God made to those who strive to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy? Consider Isaiah’s life-changing “Sabbath if/then statement”: “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly, then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 58:13-14, emphasis mine).

One does not need to know exactly what “riding on the heights of the earth” or feasting upon “the heritage of Jacob” means to know that they are to be desired above all! A pharisaical view of the Sabbath sees only the prohibitions, but a faithful view of the Sabbath sees through them to the promises and privileges.

A Faithful View of the Sabbath

“Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you’” (John 5:14).

What’s the first thing you would do if you were suddenly healed after years of paralysis? Due to recent breakthroughs in bionics, a walking exoskeleton called, Rewalk, is getting paralyzed veterans back on their feet. Adam Gorlinski walked a marathon in his new legs. Steve Holbert traveled home to stand before his father. Derek Herrera went for a walk with his wife. And the man in our passage went to church. It was the Sabbath, so the text says, Jesus found him in the temple. You see the Lord keeps his promise. He will be found by those who seek him. He will never fail to meet with his people on his day when they come to him in Spirit and truth.

Like the one leper who after his cleansing returned to Jesus, the impulse of this healed man was to give thanks to God for his grace and mercy. You see, a faithful view of the Sabbath is irresistibly drawn to worship. Jesus found him in church on the Sabbath.  Where would Jesus find you on the Lord’s Day? In church or in bed? Among the saints or up in a deer stand or out on the golf course? Singing his praises or sitting in the bleachers? Matthew Henry said, “The streams of religion run deep or shallow, according as the banks of the sabbath are kept up or neglected.” God give us such hunger for his worship and word we would gladly answer the call to worship on his day.

A faithful view of the Sabbath will also be focused on Christ: “The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him” (John 5:15). This man didn’t know the name of the man who healed him when first asked by the Pharisees… but he did now! And we can see him going to find the same Pharisees to say, “It was Jesus! Jesus healed me!” In the very same way, our Lord’s Day must ring with that most beautiful name, the name which means “God Saves,” the name loved by angels and feared by demons, the only name given under heaven by which men may be saved, the name that is above every name at which “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11). The church must preach his name, pray his name, sing his name, baptize and commune in his name and bear witness to the name of him who healed us from sin’s fatal paralysis by dying on the cross in our place; who bought us and brought us into the family of God at the cost of his own blood; and who strengthens us to walk in holiness by sending his Spirit into our hearts. As we meet in our churches week after week, may it be the deepest longing of our souls: “give me Jesus.”

Finally, we see that a faithful view of the Sabbath is engaged in Sabbath work. Now that they had a name, the pharisees went and found Jesus and confronted him over his healing of this man. How cruel and blind these Pharisees were. Alexander McLaren said, “They had no human sympathies for the sufferer…but they shuddered at the breach of the Sabbath… They did not acknowledge that the miracle proved Christ’s Messiahship, but they were quite sure that doing it on the Sabbath proved His wickedness.” But Jesus answered, them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17).  Indeed, there is work to be done even on the Sabbath! God the Father, Son, and Spirit are busy on the Lord’s Day driving back the powers of darkness and saving and sanctifying the people of God. Our prayers are answered on Sunday and the ministry of God’s word is powerful because God doesn’t take the day off. As we follow in our Savior’s footsteps, we must realize that we have work to do on the Lord’s Day. Our resting is an active resting. We have already discussed the primary work of the Lord’s Day; worship. But it is clear from the life & ministry of Christ that time not spent in worship should be taken up in works of mercy and necessity.  

In 1994, an Italian named Mauro Prosperi competed in the Marathon of the Sands; the toughest footrace on earth, a 6-day, ultramarathon covering 156 miles through the Sarah Desert. On the 4th day of the race, Prosperi was in 7th place when a sandstorm hit. Determined to maintain his position, he kept his heading and ran blind through the storm. But 8 hours later, when the storm subsided, he was lost and alone in the desert. For days he wandered the dunes on the brink of death, surviving on bird eggs, beetles and bats until at last, on the 9th day, he found an oasis pool in the wilderness. He told reporters, “I threw myself upon it and gulped with abandon”

Dear friends, in the dry and weary wilderness that is life in a fallen world, the Lord has hewn out for you a Sabbath oasis, where you can drink form the streams of living water flowing cool and clear; where you can rest your souls beneath the shade of his mercy; where God himself will meet you to bless you and dress your wounds with the balm of his grace. Don’t run past the oasis. Run to it. Run to it and rest.

Jim McCarthy is the Senior Pastor of Trinity PCA in Statesboro, GA.