It’s no secret that Americans are among the hardest working people in the world. We pride ourselves on it. And not only do we work hard, we rarely stop to rest. The United States is the only developed nation that does not require employers to give paid vacations or paid holidays.  Of those who do get paid vacation, more than half of American workers (55%) do not use all of it.  For many, taking a day off is not an option. Some work overtime, others work two or three jobs just to make ends meet. Americans are willing to work such long hours that in some industries, the government has had to step in with laws to ensure that people with occupations that are especially dangerous or demanding, don’t work more than is safe. For example, flight crews and truck drivers are limited to a certain number of hours they may be on duty in any 24 hour time period. It may frustrate you if your package is late or your flight is delayed because the driver or pilot was sleeping, but hey, better late than dead, right? The laws that govern work and rest in those industries are meant to save lives.
As we continue our series on the Ten Commandments, we’ll see that the third commandment functions much like a labor law. God said: remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. In this commandment God guards his gift of rest – he commands rest for our bodies so that he can give us rest for our souls.
With the third commandment, God is saying, in effect: “Don’t just do as I say, do as I did!” In six days, using only the toolbox of his Word, God fashioned planet earth, everything on it, and the universe in which it spins. (Note that this verse is a subtle rebuke to anyone who is tempted to compromise with evolution and allow that six days could mean “six periods of millions of years” – because God certainly did not intend the Israelites to work for six million years and then rest for one million!) God labored six days and rested on the seventh – thus sanctifying it, setting it apart. Now God wanted his people to do the same: work six days and rest on the seventh. Why was a day of rest so important that God enacted a law to protect it? In short, because God knew that the Israelites were people of little faith. What? What does rest have to do with faith? Well, why do we bust our butts from sun-up to sun-down 5, 6, 7 days a week? Why do we spend more time than necessary at work and then keep our phones on just in case more is needed? Why do we scrimp and save and strive for retirement under the assumption that no amount is ever enough? Isn’t it because we struggle, really struggle, to trust that God will keep his promise to provide for our daily needs? Isn’t it because we have a tendency to trust what we can do with our hands more than what God promises to do in his Word? We may call it the American work ethic, but at heart it’s doubt, it’s unbelief. Jesus rebuked his disciples for this kind of lack of trust in God when he told them do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘what shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:31-33)
With the third commandment, God was telling Israel: “Look, if I can create the universe in six normal days and keep it going generation after generation, I’m pretty sure I can provide you with everything you need for life on earth.” God proved this point to the Israelites when he gave them an extra helping of manna on Fridays so that they didn’t need to go out on Saturdays, the Sabbath Day, to collect any. (Exodus 16:5) As if that weren’t enough, Moses added another thought to this commandment when he repeated it just as the Israelites were about to enter into the Promised Land: remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5:15) Why did the Israelites even have the luxury of taking a day off of work? Only because God had rescued them from their slavery in Egypt. To ignore it was to say: “God, you might be able to create the universe, to crush Pharaoh’s army and part the Red Sea – but my dinner, my mortgage, my retirement – I’ve got to take care of that myself!” One man in Israel with this faithless attitude went out and gathered wood on the Sabbath day. The Lord had Moses and the Israelites stone him to death for his lack of faith. (Numbers 15:32-36) Why was God so serious about this commandment? Because the Sabbath was to serve as a weekly object lesson that his relationship with people never was and never could be based on anything they do. Instead, it was based solely on what he had done and would do for them. Every Sabbath was a silent sermon in which God was declaring: “Do nothing as a reminder that I made you, I will preserve you, and I will save you. Do nothing but trust my promises!”
But what does the Third Commandment have to do with us, NT Christians? Maybe you’ve noticed that we don’t rest – or even gather for worship – on Saturdays anymore. Should the church council line us up in the parking lot and throw stones at us? No. The New Testament makes it clear that we are no longer under the ceremonial part of God’s Law – the part that mandated when and how the Israelites were to worship. Paul wrote to the Colossians: therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17)
And now we have the ultimate purpose behind the 3rd commandment, don’t we? The ultimate purpose was not just to give the Israelites a day of rest for their bodies; it was to give them time every week to ponder how their God would one day give them perfect rest, both for their bodies and their souls. That perfect rest would come through Christ. The other reason we work so hard and so long without rest – and without taking time to hear and read God’s Word – is not only that we lack faith that God will provide, it’s that deep down inside we can’t get rid of the notion that we must do something to earn God’s mercy, forgiveness or love – that somehow our eternity depends on what we do. At the end of each long, exhausting work day, part of me – and I’m guessing part of you – wants to be able to look at God and say: “Did you see that, God? Did you see how hard I worked, how diligent I was, how much I accomplished? Did you catch that God? Aren’t you pleased? Haven’t I earned your favor?”
While this commandment no longer mandates that we do nothing but worship on Saturdays, God still does use this commandment to guard the time we need to rest in his Word; the time we need to gladly hear and learn God’s two most important truths: 1) That if our eternity is based on our work – we are going to hear “You’re fired” – in more ways than one – on the Last Day. Why? Because our work is never good enough. We don’t give our employers the perfect respect they deserve, we are never honest or diligent enough, we never finish all our tasks and we do nothing flawlessly. Therefore, on the Sabbath day – whatever day we celebrate it – we hear the Law. It tells us that left to ourselves we would be damned to spend all eternity in the fires of hell – where there is no rest. (Revelation 14:11) A terrifying thought that drives us to repentance and leads us to the second truth: 2) that by God’s grace, our eternity does not depend on our work ethic or diligence, it depends completely on Jesus. Jesus, who worked in his human father’s shop during the week, but never, ever missed a service at the synagogue. (Luke 4:16) Jesus, who never doubted his Father’s loving care – perhaps most clearly evidenced by his sound sleep in a boat on the storm tossed Sea of Galilee. (Matthew 8:23-27) Jesus, whose work of sharing the Gospel was the most important job ever given – but who also took regular time to rest, to be alone with his Father in prayer. Jesus, whose life of perfectly balanced labor and rest covers our lives like a blanket. Jesus, who willingly undertook the back-breaking labor of carrying our sins to the cross, suffered the hellish punishment they deserved, declared once and for all that the hard work of salvation was completely and utterly finished – and then, bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30) Do you remember what Jesus did after that, on the Sabbath? He rested. And on the third day he rose again as proof and a pledge that God has prepared an eternal Sabbath rest for us in heaven – which, incidentally is why for centuries Christians have set aside Sunday for worship.
Guarding the time necessary to rest and consider all that our perfect Laborer did for us is what the writer to the Hebrews was driving at: there remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience. (Hebrews 4:9-11) Let us make every effort to enter that rest…did Martin Luther have that admonition in mind when he wrote his explanation to the Third Commandment? We should fear and love God that we do not despise preaching and his Word, but regard it as holy, and gladly hear and learn it. We can’t say for sure. But it certainly helps us understand why Luther would connect the Sabbath day with hearing God’s Word. It’s through the Word – and the Word alone, that we receive rest for our souls – because in the Word we are told repeatedly that because Jesus has done it all; there’s nothing left for us to do for salvation.
So should we rewrite the Third Commandment to read: “Be in church every week”? The truth is that you can come to church every Sunday and still be guilty of despising God’s Word. If we revert to viewing church attendance as primarily something we do for God, then we are again trying to earn God’s favor and worship will always be a burden. If we hear the Word of God but fail to put it into practice, James says that we are as foolish as a man who looks at his face in the mirror and then after walking away forgets what he looks like. (James 1:22-25) If we demand to have our egos pumped up or our ears tickled with the latest, greatest manmade doctrines, then we are despising the one thing that God promises will give true rest to our souls: his Word. In the end, this commandment is primarily aimed at our sinful nature, which will need to be beat over the head with the command to remember the Sabbath day until the day we die. Our new man on the other hand, craves every opportunity to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to his Word for the new man knows and believes the Savior’s gracious invitation: come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-29) God did not write the Third Commandment to burden us; he gave it to guard the precious rest he wants us to have now and eternally.
Although God meant for the Third Commandment to be a blessing to his Old Testament people, they rarely kept it. When they did, it was often only out of a sense of duty. It’s easy for us to fall into that same trap and imagine that we’re too busy accomplishing the important tasks of life to take the time to listen to and meditate on God’s Word. But what we’re really saying is that we’re too busy to rest in God’s grace and love. Slow down. Take a break. Open your Bible. Not just because it gives your body a bit of the rest it needs – let’s not kid ourselves, 60 minutes isn’t going to do the trick; but because the forgiveness of sins, peace, and promise of eternal life Jesus dispenses here gives your soul the rest it so desperately needs. Amen.