Restoring the Sabbath

Charles II touching the scrofulous.

One matter about which Christian students sometimes have questions is the keeping of days of rest. Having created the world, God rested on the seventh day; in the law of Moses, he confirmed his ordinance of days of rest by commanding ancient Israel to work six days and on the seventh cease completely. Today, no less than in the days of Moses, we have the example the Lord has set: as testified even by the rhythms of the earth itself, there is a time to labour and a time to cease. This necessity is written into nature itself, which no ordinance of man will take away, and to which the opposition of man can make no law at all. Let him beware who in the name of grace and truth in Jesus Christ makes bold to declare all nature abolished in favour of his own acquisitive desire.

And let him who has not imagined Sabbath, even he who is not a Christian, first mark what humane value there is in a weekly day of rest. Peter Hitchens says,

Does anyone miss the British Sunday, when our cities were like vast, well-ordered cemeteries, the sky always seemed to be black with impending rain, and a deep quiet fell on the land?

Actually, I do. I chafed at it as a child, because children don’t grasp the point of such things. Now that I know what it was for, it is too late.

I know this partly because of the experience of being in Cairo on a Friday morning, or Jerusalem on a Saturday, cities where a universal day of rest still exists, in defiance of all the racket and commerce of the 21st Century.

Before you have even opened your curtains or fully woken from sleep, you can sense that the day is different from all the others. You can feel the peace in your bones and blood.

But any Christian practice of a day of rest, as by nature it must be social, is incomplete without the power of the civil magistrate. Without such a power protecting its practice from the concrete predations of internationalist finance and (as much as lies in temporal care) the spiritual prison of greed, even among Christian believers the exercise of days of rest, though a testimony, is only a shadow of justice, an impoverished manifestation of the righteousness of God.

Godly magistrates or not, however, a day of rest will not even begin in earnest until the deacons, even if they have little civil influence at first, have urged and organized the people to do what they can and commit to more as they are able. And until we are convinced of what integral part the day of rest plays in – one might say – social justice, and until we have grappled with the principle of natural law which made it a wise and just commandment in the Old Testament, we shall always be convincing ourselves to limit its application, to quench the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. It is crucial, therefore, that the Church think about the meaning of the Lord’s just order and seek to do what she can, not for her own sake but for the sake of the world to which she is sent. This will entail far more than lies within the ability of individuals alone, and its practice needs to encompass the common good of man.

It is unseemly, for instance, for Christians to keep a Shabbos goy within their gates, working for them while they rest. Such devices are a means of jihad against the Canaanites; but now that the Son is come, and the gospel brought to the heathen, such warring measures are beyond the purview of Christian politics and ethics. The gospel is conquering the earth promised to us as part of our inheritance, but it proceeds by the word brought to all nations, a testimony of the Son’s saving power and purpose.

Arguably, the Sabbath allows of necessary labour during harvest, as was done in Europe. Even so, such necessity cannot be allowed to reduce days of rest to a dead letter, nor yet to the custom of the middle class only. For the spirit of the law, consonant with not only the general law of charity but also the Mosaic law’s specific provision for the household’s servants and even its animal chattels, is to give rest even to the lowliest and humblest, that those who have no power of resistance may, by the justice of their masters, be given times to rest their bodies and souls for the testimony of God’s kingdom. The law of charity rules over the demands of money, as Christ rules over coinage of every inscription; and he who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life for many, he also desires that those who hold power, even lawfully, on days of rest should count it a blessing to give liberally, not requiring the service of their subordinates but rather washing their feet. For is it not the case that our resting is in the finished work of Christ, in justification by faith alone, that what we rejoice in is a certain æquality before God as justified sinners? Is it not clear that power and authority come from God for the good of those who by the law of nature must submit to it? Therefore let not one’s own prætended necessity be the occasion of denying rest to those with no power to take it.

So who is the Shabbos goy? He is an Amorite, whose hardening wickedness of 400 years has moved the justice of God to dispossess him from the land. Who will so præsume of anyone who, like Onesimus, might become a brother in Christ, and to whom one has the Christian duty to proclaim the gospel? Are there any such Amorites even among the Jews, who have assumed an ethnic identity both apostate and anti-Christian?

Along these lines the deacons must reflect on just application. It is not as simple as being the godly among the ungodly, the godly as a whole society separate from the ungodly: for Christ came into the world to save sinners. As long as the gospel is for all men, as long as Jesus of Nazareth gave his life for all, we must so keep days of rest as to testify to the world concerning the righteousness of God. It must give rest for our souls, but it must also call to the weary unbeliever to come to Christ, that in Christ he may enter the everlasting rest in which we believers rejoice in this world and are glorified in the world to come. The Son of God will come to be our judge, and his righteousness must be the clothing of the Church until he returns through the clouds descending.


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