Day of Rest
The Lord's day in the Gospel Age
First Day of the Week
The first Jewish converts to Christianity ‑ the Apostolic Church ‑ were scrupulous Sabbath keepers. The New Testament shows that if they erred at all it was on the side of extremism in this respect, and several times they are counselled not to regard the keeping of new moons and Sabbaths as ends in themselves, but only as means of grace. To this observance of the seventh day, however, the early Christians, both Jews and Gentiles, speedily added the special observance of another ‑ the first day.
It was on the first day of the week that the Lord Jesus Christ rose from the dead. So great an impression was made upon the minds of the first believers by that great happening, the event that changed their lives, that from the beginning they developed the custom of setting aside the first day of the week for assembly together. It was a day for the breaking of bread or the sharing of a common meal, preaching, prayer and worship. This was quite a different thing from the Jewish Sabbath, and was not intended to supplant that institution. It was additional, to commemorate something of an entirely different nature. Traces of this custom are to be found in Acts 20.7, telling of Paul's visit to Troas, where the first day of the week was evidently the usual meeting day, and also in 1 Cor.16.2. For the first three centuries both days were kept by the Christian church, the seventh as a Sabbath rest, and the first for assembly and worship. Doubtless, those Christians whose lives were spent in agricultural pursuits and in the country found the ideal more easy of attainment than those who laboured in the cities in one or another aspect of the then industrial system; but the consistent stand made by these early believers for their "first day" of assembly and worship had its reward when the Emperor Constantine by an Imperial Edict in A.D. 321 made the observance of Sunday, and the cessation of business and trade on that day, an obligation upon all dwellers in cities and towns. We literally owe our Sunday to Constantine!
Shortly afterwards, A.D. 366, the Council of Laodicea formally released all Christians from any obligation to observe the Jewish Sabbath ‑ the seventh day. Quite naturally, therefore, the first day of the week became the day of rest and cessation from work, the day of prayer and worship, and of assembling together with those "of like precious faith."
Who can doubt that the secret of much of the power inherent in the early Church, enabling them to 'go forth conquering, and to conquer', resided in this sincere and faithful allegiance to the principles underlying the Fourth Commandment? That day spent in communion with God and with each other; that simple ritual of sharing with one's fellows; that pouring out of the heart and soul in an ecstasy of praise and worship before the Throne of the Most High, must surely have inspired them with new courage and fresh strength, and enabled them to withstand with serene confidence the raging of the pagan power using its cruellest artifices to force from them a denial of their faith. As with Israel, so with the Christian Church, her best days and her happiest days were those during which the Sabbath was observed, and when the blessed day fell into disuse and disrepute the virtue went out of communal spiritual life.
The Catholic Church during the Middle Ages maintained this early insistence upon the cessation of business and labour upon Sunday, exhorting to worship and religious devotion, and holding the day as set apart, in addition, to rest and recreation. This latter aspect was not prominent before, but a little reflection will show that innocent recreation is but the logical extension of rest and relaxation. It has been a great tragedy that the original recreation endorsed by the Church has developed into organised amusement, which is quite a different thing, leading to the evils of what is called the "Continental Sunday". It was probably at least partly in reaction to this that the Puritans during the time of Cromwell (sixteenth century) forced the observance of Sunday into the narrow grooves for which it has become proverbial. Every form of recreation was forbidden: Sunday was made to be a day of religious devotion without exception, and severe penalties were laid upon those who contravened the law. This bigoted intolerance was repeated a century or so later in America where the first colonists, seeking to escape from the religious tyranny of the Mother Country, became just as intolerant themselves. In both lands Sunday observance was quite as circumscribed with ritual and ordinance as was the sabbath in Judea at the time of the First Advent.
Reaction against Sabbatarianism
The history of this Age, then, depicts three phases in the keeping of the Sabbath. The early Church maintained the Divine principle of rest and worship inviolate, gradually transferring the seventh day rest to the first day, until by the end of the fourth century Sunday was firmly established. For the next twelve hundred years the Catholic Church insisted upon the weekly day of rest and recreation, this being followed in the English-speaking countries ‑ not elsewhere ‑ by a Puritan phase in which all the evils of Rabbinic sabbath legislation were repeated. A reaction was bound to come, and the Industrial Revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the consequent growth of big towns and cities, and, later, the increase in travel and amusement facilities gave that reaction its chance. Men and women, herded together in factories and workshops, ofttimes compelled by the new commercialism to spend long days on monotonous or irksome tasks, hailed the weekly break as a means of indulging in diversions denied them during the week. Declining religious faith ‑ and, within the nineteenth century, the spread of Darwinism and Rationalism ‑ coupled with the virtual end of the "hell-fire" bogey, cast down the last barriers, and people who had never been given any conception of Sunday other than that of a rather gloomy period of religious devotion turned right about and made it their weekly day of amusement and entertainment.
Commercial interests were quick to exploit this reaction. Each year witnessed an increase in the number of men and women who must labour on Sunday to provide their fellows, not with necessities, but with luxuries and entertainment. Church congregations dwindled whilst cinema queues lengthened. Not a little of the nervous strain of modern times, and the evils attendant thereon, must be attributed to the frantic rush for amusement and diversion, the excessive travel and holiday-making, so characteristic of our Sundays today. Men do not realise that in their failure to observe the Divine rule of a periodic slowing down of the tempo of daily life, a short breathing space wherein the physical frame can recover its vitality and the mind be refreshed by its dwelling on things higher than of this earth, they are sowing the seeds of their own destruction.
So the desecration of the Sabbath goes on. Gone, in the towns; fast going in the countryside, are those quiet, peaceful days when the factories and mills were silent, the shops closed, and the people "walked to the House of God in company". The present generation is largely oblivious to any special significance attached to the day. They know nothing of its past history; they know only that it is the day when they may cast aside the responsibilities and obligations of the week and expend their energy in every form of diversion the day can be made to hold. The sign of Noah is fulfilled in the land. "They knew not, until the Flood came, and took them all away."
A Positive View
One aspect of the Christian witness to-day, therefore, is to demonstrate, by example and precept, the Divine Will regarding the observance of the day. At a time when the gospel of humanism is preached in active opposition to the gospel of Christ there is need for practical demonstration that the ways of God, which were made for the benefit of man, are eminently practicable, and in the long run the only ways which will ensure to man the full and free development of the wondrous possibilities latent in his nature.
"If thou turn away thy foot from the Sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord, honourable, and shall honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words ‑ I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth." (Isa.58.13-14). Profound truth is enshrined in those words of Isaiah! Conscientious and reverent observance of Nature's weekly rest day results in physical and mental wellbeing of an order which cannot be attained in any other way. The believer who spends his Sunday in this way will find that he takes up his normal routine on Monday morning feeling, as the common saying has it, "on top of the world". This modern expression is the literal counterpart of the Hebrew idiom which is translated "to ride on the high places of the earth", and the thought which Isaiah tried to express was precisely that which is conveyed by our everyday allusion.
It may be fitting, therefore, to suggest a few of the considerations that determine happy and satisfactory Sabbath-keeping.
Rest, service and worship
There are three foundation principles which may be taken into consideration. Sunday is, firstly, a day of rest; secondly, a day of service, and thirdly, a day of worship. Rest, service, worship; these are the essential characteristics of the day which God has ordained for human wellbeing.
It will be noticed how aptly this compares with the Divine commission originally given to man. That also could be summed up in three words— Labour, Service, Worship. Labour, to make use of the earth's resources and products for the sustenance and enrichment of human life; service in the brotherhood of man, a state of society in which every man is his brother's keeper: worship, expressed in the whole-hearted allegiance of every man to God the Father of all, who has created us to have dominion over this material creation. That ideal will be fully realised when the Divine Plan is complete and evil has been driven from the hearts of men. In that fair land which Isaiah saw in vision, when sorrow and sighing will have fled away, the threefold commission will be fully observed. Men will labour, serve and worship God six days in the week, and on the seventh they will hold holy convocation to him in Sabbaths more glorious than anything the world has ever, as yet, experienced.
The Sunday rest enjoined upon Christians is not merely an arbitrary cessation of labour, an enforced inactivity in a world which was made for activity. The essential characteristic about Sunday is, rather, that there should be a cessation of the daily routine involved in gaining a living. In Israel's day the gathering of manna was suspended during the seventh day. The equivalent of that today is the abandonment of the daily struggle to live, and a resting upon that which has been gained during the six days. It is often argued that such a course is not practicable under conditions of life today. Public services must be maintained; water, electricity, transport, must be provided. Such arguments are often put forward by those who have personal interests militating against the observance of Sunday as a day of rest. There can be no doubt that in a Christian state of society a much higher degree of cessation could be obtained than does exist. The cancellation of unnecessary activities, including those forms of daily labour not essential to the life of the community, such as closing of shops and places of amusement, would effect a vast change in the amount of labour which 'must be done' on Sunday.
Many years ago Lord Macaulay told the British Parliament "We are not poorer in England, but richer, because we have, through many ages, rested from our labour one day in seven. That day is not lost; while industry is suspended, while the plough lies in the furrows, while the Exchange is silent, while no smoke ascends from the factory, a process is going on quite as important to the wealth of nations as any process which is performed on more busy days. Man, the machine of machinery, the machine compared with which all the contrivances of the Watts and Arkwrights are worthless, is repairing and winding up, so that he returns to his labour on the Monday with clearer intellect, with livelier spirits, with renewed corporal vigour". Unhappily the picture drawn by the noble lord is not true of England to-day.
Now how should this time, if thus redeemed from the workaday world, be utilised? Not in sloth and inactivity, for that is quite out of accord with the Divine way. True, the haste and stress of weekdays can be absent and all actions performed with a leisureliness that is rarely possible on any other day, yet activity of some sort there ought to be. Such activity divides itself naturally into three aspects.
First comes that recuperation which is a necessary component of the weekly rest. As a general principle it may be concluded that any form of activity which is so dissimilar from the normal weekday occupation of the particular individual concerned as to constitute mental and physical relaxation, and to be recuperative in its effect, can be legitimately regarded as a factor making for 'Sabbath rest'. William Wilberforce, the man who did more than any other to abolish slavery, once declared that man's power of mental endurance could only be conserved by this proper treatment of the Sabbath. He had seen men of mighty intellect whose keen minds had failed them prematurely and he was satisfied that in every such case the cause was neglect of this Divine law. It is good, surely, to give serious thought to this aspect of the subject, and with clear knowledge of all its implications, to include in every Sunday as it comes, that variety of rest, relaxation, recuperation ‑ physical or mental, or both ‑ which is necessary and desirable in the particular case. In this, as in so many things, the needs of individuals will vary, and no man may judge his brother. Sufficient is it if we use our sanctified judgment to do what seems to us to be the acceptable will of God.
The second aspect of "restful activity" is well summed up in the term 'good works'. Our Lord performed works of healing on the Sabbath as on any day; the care with which it is pointed out in several instances that the day concerned was the Sabbath seems to indicate that especial attention was desired to be directed to this fact. We can manifest the same desire to assist suffering humanity and carry out such works of mercy as are within our powers. Thus Sunday becomes peculiarly a day in which we may find time to render services to those in need or in distress, to visit the sick, to set hands to works of kindliness. In ways which will present themselves in their variety to the sincere Christian it is possible to devote part of the day of rest to the service of one's fellows, freely giving even as we have freely received.
Last, but by no means least, comes the supreme purpose of the day ‑ corporate worship. It is true that those whose lives are completely and utterly devoted to the Divine service endeavour to maintain the attitude of personal worship and communion with their Heavenly Father throughout all hours of every day. Nevertheless this privileged condition is largely individual; there is a virtue, a power in corporate worship, the joining together with one's fellows in audible praise and united prayer, that is very helpful to the full development of Christian character. Whenever the possibility exists, therefore, there should be an "assembling of yourselves together" and an ascending before God of praise, prayer and thought in company together.
The radio or television service is no substitute for corporate worship. For the aged, infirm and isolated unable to reach a place of worship, it is a boon; but no Christian who has the opportunity meet and worship with others of like faith is justified in choosing the comfort of the home and armchair instead. Perhaps those who indulge themselves in this manner do not stop to reflect that it is a sign of disrespect to the Almighty and betokens a lack of reverence for Him.
Rest—Service—Worship. Let these be the ideals we set before us in our endeavour to discern our Father's will, and then in our doing we will be richly blessed. By these things shall we derive week by week spiritual strength to serve in good stead when the dark and evil days come down.
AOH This article was written over fifty years ago.