Holy Day or Holiday? — Part One
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Holy Day or Holiday? — Part One

Exodus 20:8–11  (ID: 1692)

It’s easy to dismiss Sabbath observance as old-fashioned or culturally irrelevant. Without a conviction that God Himself has set the Lord’s Day apart from every other, we are likely to disregard its significance or fall into externalism. In this message on the Fourth Commandment, Alistair Begg describes the importance of recognizing one day in seven as God’s provision for our benefit.

Series Containing This Sermon

The Sabbath

Enjoying the Gift of the Lord’s Day Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23401

Pathway to Freedom

Exodus 20:3–17 Series ID: 20501

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you to take your Bibles, and we’ll turn to Exodus. And there in Exodus chapter 20, we read in verse 8 and following the words of the fourth commandment:

“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.”

Shall we bow in a moment of prayer?

Our gracious God and Father, this commandment, perhaps more than any other, is militated against both outside the church and inside the church. And if we’re going to come to terms with it, if we’re going to bow beneath the weight of its instruction, we’re going to need the enabling power of the Holy Spirit to convince us of the truth of the Word of God. And so we ask for that today—nothing more than that and nothing less than that—so that we may be renewed in our inner being regarding the truth of Holy Scripture. And we pray in Jesus’ name, asking this. Amen.

A number of people have spoken to me concerning the impact of these Ten Commandments as we have begun to study them together. One gentleman announced at the conclusion of last Sunday morning that he was, as he put it, “zero for three”—and as you know, we had only done three to that point. His honesty extended to the fact that he went on to say that having read ahead, he felt that the best he might hope for was one out of nine. He made contact with me later in the day to say that after some further study, his revised estimate was that he was going to be zero for ten.

Now, those observations are as helpful as they are honest. Because there isn’t one of us here this morning that is going to be able to stand up and say that we’ve kept any of the first three commandments perfectly. We haven’t loved God exclusively. We haven’t worshipped the correct God correctly. We haven’t been free of the misuse of his name. And now, as we come to the fourth commandment, we’ve got a sneaking suspicion that we’re gonna have to bow beneath the weight of this one and acknowledge that we are guilty and that we are lawbreakers.

Now, that ought not to be of a concern to us, insofar as that is the purpose of the law, or one of the purposes of the law. If we could have kept all the commandments perfectly, then God would have accepted us. But we can’t, and therefore, he doesn’t. We’re guilty, we’ve broken God’s law, and it is by means of the law that we’re made conscious of our sin. If we simply compare ourselves with other people, we may say, “Well, I’m a little better than this individual. I’m not as good as that one, but on a kind of sliding scale, I’m really not that bad. And if God grades on the curve, then presumably, I’m really okay.” But when we stand against a perfect law of holiness and place our lives in the reflection of this, we realize that we’re guilty.

Now, the whole of the Bible makes clear just why this is. And if you turn for a moment this morning, by way of introduction, to Romans chapter 3, I need to say this, and there is a sense in which I might realistically have this as the recurring introduction to all of our studies in each of the commandments, because it is equally apropos every time we turn to another one. Romans 3:19. And Paul is writing; he’s already pointed out from the Old Testament that “there is no one who does good, not even one.”[1] People don’t like to hear that. And then he says in verse 19, “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law,” the purpose being “so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” Now, just hold it there for a moment.

What Paul is saying is this: that the law of God, summarized in the Decalogue, in the Ten Commandments, is given to us as a mirror in which we see a reflection of ourselves, and when we see ourselves, we realize that we are lawbreakers, that we are guilty before a holy God. We also realize that we cannot keep this law with any sense of perfection and therefore that the law, the Ten Commandments, cannot be for us a ladder up which we climb to acceptance with God. And if there is to be acceptance with God, then we know that it must come by some other route.

Until the law of God confronts us with our sin and our need of a Savior in whom we then trust, any explanation of the Ten Commandments will fall deaf upon our ears.

That’s verse 21: “But now,” says Paul, “a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.” In other words, he says, “What I’m about to tell you is not new. The whole of the Old Testament, in the Law and in the Prophets, they’re pointing forward to this solution to the problem.” Verse 22: “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” That is the appeal of the gospel. That is the opportunity of the good news. That is the expansiveness of the offer: that there is a possibility of being put in a right standing with a holy God—I, who am guilty and a lawbreaker—and the way in which that divine transaction takes place is through faith in Jesus Christ, and it comes to “all who believe,” who entrust themselves exclusively and wholly into the care of the provision that God has made for us in Christ. For, he says, there’s “no difference … all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

So then, we see that the law confronts us with our guilt. It sends us to Christ to find forgiveness and freedom. The freedom is not a freedom to do what we want but rather to do what we should. What should we do? How may we know what we ought to do? Well, that is summarized for us here in the Decalogue, in the Ten Commandments. Here are the guidelines for freedom. Here is how children are to live with their parents. Here is how husbands are to live with their wives. Here is the sanctity of human property. Here is the sanctity of work. Here is the sanctity of life. Here is all that God intends in this great summary statement, providing for us the nature of genuine freedom. So the believer, then, keeps the law of God not believing that by keeping it we gain acceptance or approval with God, but rather, we keep God’s law as a declaration of our grateful response to his love. Until we understand that, then we haven’t really understood enough to proceed with the study of the Ten Commandments.

So let me summarize it again: until the law of God confronts us with our sin and our need of a Savior in whom we then trust, any explanation of the Ten Commandments will fall deaf upon our ears. Because the Ten Commandments are not a way to gain acceptance with God, but they are the guidelines for free living, lived out by those who through faith have believed in the provision of Christ. Okay?

So this morning, when we proclaim the law, we are inevitably categorized. We are all lawbreakers. We are either those who, having broken the law, have come to Christ for salvation and trust in that alone, or we continue as unbelievers; and if having come to Christ for salvation, we then are those who are saying, “Teach me from the Word what the parameters of freedom really are.”

And so we discovered in the first commandment that it had to do with the exclusive worship of God; in the second commandment, that it was important for us to worship the correct God correctly; in the third commandment, last time, that we are not to misuse the name of God. And now, this morning, in the fourth commandment, we discover that there is an abiding significance to a day that is holy to the Lord. The fourth commandment confronts us with the abiding significance of a day that is set apart to the Lord.

Now, there are two things that mitigate against any good understanding of this commandment, and they are these: on the one hand, an almost complete lack of conviction about any notion of the abiding significance of the fourth commandment—and we’ll address that in a moment—and on the other hand, almost total confusion concerning the nature not only of all the Ten Commandments but peculiarly of this one day.

Now, we can highlight this in a number of ways. Let me do so by quoting from the Civil War. I think it’s the Civil War, isn’t it? Stonewall Jackson? General Jackson is a legend in American history. Any of you who have read of Jackson will know that he was a man of extreme principle and character. At the very heart of this was his conviction of faith in Jesus Christ. And his extreme rigorous character attached itself also to the observance of the Sabbath. And writing in his biography, his widow says,

Certainly he was not less scrupulous in obeying the divine command to “remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” than he was in any other rule of his life. Since the Creator had set apart this day for his own, and commanded it to be kept holy, he believed that it was … wrong for him to desecrate it by worldly pleasure, idleness, or secular employment, as to break any other commandment of the decalogue. Sunday was his busiest day of the week, as he always attended church twice a day and taught in two Sabbath schools! He refrained as much as possible from all worldly conversation, and in his family, if secular topics were introduced, he would say, with a kindly smile, “We will talk about that to-morrow.”

He never travelled on Sunday, never took his mail from the post-office, nor permitted a letter of his own to travel on that day, always before posting it calculating the time it required to reach its destination ….

One so strict in his own Sabbath observance naturally believed that it was wrong for the government to carry the [mail] on Sunday. Any organization which exacted secular labor of its employees on the Lord’s day was, in his opinion, a violator of God’s law.[2]

And so his life was marked by a rigorous obedience to the law of God.

Now, loved ones, here’s the question: Is this quote from Jackson an anachronism? In other words, if Jackson was right, where does that leave us? ’Cause if we’re right, most of us, he was wrong. But one thing is for sure: we’re not both right. So we need to go to our Bibles, then, and determine who approximates to the instruction of God’s Word closely. Is it us, in our libertine rejection of the Lord’s Day, or is it Jackson, in his rigorous obedience of it?

That kinda sets the context. You’re going to have to think with me. The first service went out wearied, dragging, poor souls, beaten, trudging on their way to lunch. It’s probably not gonna be much better for you, I have to say.

I feel the alien nature of this commandment so strongly that it couldn’t be graphically portrayed any more than if I were to come up here wearing the funniest suit you ever saw, and you could say, “Oh, I understand why he’s saying that, ’cause he’s the fellow that wears that funny suit. He has a lot of quirks to him.” But loved ones, we’ve gotta get to grips with what the Bible states. There’s so much material, we can’t cover it in one sermon. So, tonight we’ll come to many of the questions that most of you are hoping we’ll address right now. We’re not going to get to them. The reason we’re not is because unless we understand the foundational element of this, those other questions about which we debate so strongly are frankly just an irrelevancy. Okay?

So, there are three points that we’re going to address. Number one, we’re going to consider the principle as it’s stated. Secondly, we’re going to look at the practice as it is observed. And then we’re going to finally come—and that will be this evening—to the practice applied. Okay? So—sorry—the principle stated, the pattern observed, and the practice applied. Okay?

The Principle Stated

The principle stated is summarized clearly in this first sentence of Exodus 20:8. All of the rest of it is an application, or an amplification, of this straightforward command—namely, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”

Now, there’s nothing particularly difficult about that. It’s very clear. What it actually means demands our attention, but the clarity with which it is stated is obvious, as with the others: “You shall do this. You shall not do that.” It is clear. Even a child can understand it. God is concerned about the sanctity of one day in seven.

So it is absolutely vital that we come to understand that there is no convincing reason to believe, as some have taught and continue to teach, that the fourth commandment is in a different category from the other nine. If you’ve been around church life long enough, you may well have imbibed the notion that we have nine commandments, and then we have one that is kind of maybe in and maybe out. Interestingly enough, the “maybe out” factor has a direct correlation with the prevailing impact of the surrounding culture. There was no “maybe out” in the mind of Stonewall Jackson. There was no “maybe out” in the minds of our forefathers in this country. There was no “maybe out” in the minds of the average Bible-believing, God-fearing church congregation even fifty, forty, thirty years ago from today. And one of the things I always do when I travel this country and I’m with older pastors, I always ask them, “Tell me about the Lord’s Day when you were a young man.” And they describe a day that is very, very different from today. Now, there’s a reason for that, loved ones, and we need to find out what it is. And we need to determine whether it’s actually progress or regression.

Well, you see, there are people who say that the fourth commandment has things that attach to it—regulations, Mosaic factors—that are such that we don’t do those things anymore, and therefore, because we don’t do those things anymore, we no longer need to be governed by this commandment. But loved ones, this is just silly talk. For example, we recognize that. There are Mosaic attachments to all of the commandments, not least of all to the fourth.

Now, in the fourth commandment, you weren’t allowed to light fires on the Sabbath day. That was a peculiar ceremonial attachment to it. If you broke the fourth commandment, the punishment was stoning. So people say, “Hey, we light fires, and we don’t stone people; and therefore, we don’t get into this fourth commandment stuff. Therefore, we don’t have a fourth commandment.” No! Because if you think it out, there were ceremonial attachments to all the other commandments. Take the fifth commandment: “Honor your father and mother that your days may be long upon the land.”[3] Is that an abiding command? Is that regularly accepted within the church? Yes! Everybody upholds that one. But the fact of the matter is that if a young man cursed his father or his mother, the punishment was stoning. The seventh commandment: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”[4] Do we give credence to that? Do we uphold that? Yes, we do. And what happened to an adulterer or an adulteress? They were stoned.

Now, we no longer stone people, because those are the ceremonial accretions that were part and parcel of the Old Testament context. But the fact that we no longer entertain that which surrounded the command in no way negates the command. It doesn’t for adultery. It doesn’t for honoring your father and mother. So the question is, loved ones, why in the world should it for the fourth commandment?

And I put it to you that the reason that it does for the fourth commandment is because we don’t like the implications of the fourth commandment. It cuts across our lives, it cuts across what we’ve become used to, it cuts across our desires for acquisitiveness, it cuts across our commitment to leisure, it cuts across the god that we’ve made of family living, and frankly, we are glad to set it apart as a different kind of command. Now, the question that you must answer for yourself is: Is there any abiding biblical validity for making that kind of distinction?

Now, we’re going to go on and follow this through, and you must think along with me. “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” In other words, sanctify the day.

The phrase here means two things. It means, first of all, remember the Sabbath day by setting it apart. That’s what it means to keep it holy; it means to set it apart. Well, in what way is the day set apart? Well, weren’t there seven days in the week that God made? Yes. Did he just call one holy? Yes. Was there to be one that had a peculiar, holy, sanctified dimension to it? Yes! So in what way was it set apart? Well, it was set apart from all the other days. It was a different day from every other day that God had created. And he sanctioned this by his own example, as we will see.

Now, the immediate reaction to that on the part of some is to say, “But you don’t understand”—or maybe not so forcibly—but to say, “Well, what about the fact that every day is the Lord’s Day?” Well, there’s a sense in which that’s true. We ought to serve the Lord every day, and we ought to serve the Lord every moment of every day. And the way in which we do our work ought to be a service to the Lord. And there is a realistic sense in which, whether we’re brushing up a factory floor, or whether we’re giving an injection or writing on a school blackboard or having somebody sign an insurance proposal form, or whatever else it is, that we recognize that God is in charge and overrules in all of those moments of every day.

But the fact is, loved ones, that even when we acknowledge that, it in no way sets aside the distinctive element of this fourth commandment isolating this one day in seven and possessing it with a distinction which God has ordained. So in other words, once we acknowledge that God is in charge of every day, it doesn’t set apart the fact that God said, “Remember this particular day in a peculiar way, and make it a different day.” Now, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that. That’s what it’s saying. That’s not an interpretation. That’s simply what it’s saying. The implications of it we can go on to discuss, but that’s what it’s saying, I think you’ll agree.

John Murray—the late John Murray—professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, says, “To obliterate [the] difference” between one day and the other six, “to obliterate [the] difference may appear pious. But it is piosity, not piety. It is not piety to be wiser than God; it is impiety of the darkest hue. The Sabbath day is different from every other day, and to obliterate this distinction … in thought or practice is to destroy what is the essence of the institution.”[5]

Now, there is a wealth contained in that statement. Let me summarize it for you: the recognition of the distinction of the day is indispensable to its observance. The recognition of the distinction of the day is indispensable to its observance—so that unless you and I be convinced that God has distinguished this day for all of time, and that because he has distinguished it in this way, we must live within the framework of what he has laid down, then any attempts at keeping the Sabbath day will simply be as a result either of legalistic externalism, or as a result of a kind of time-honored tradition, or as a result of the reinforcement of what has become customary for us. Okay?

Every breath I breathe is a gift from God, and he is in charge of my time.

Now, I grew up as a child in Scotland in exactly that position. And all children must! For if we ask a child whether they like the idea of a different day on the Lord’s Day, the answer is “No, I do not, frankly.” So, we wouldn’t ask them. We would tell them: “This is the framework.” And any child unredeemed, unregenerate, is going to buck the system, say, “I don’t like this, and I don’t like this day, and I don’t want to do this, and I don’t want to worship. And I certainly don’t want to do it twice, and I’m not going in a choir, and I don’t like the Sunday school, and I’m sick and tired of the whole operation.” “That’s fine, honey. I heard you. I’ve been there. Now let’s go. Let’s just continue, just as we said we were doing. We’re on our way.” Okay?

Now, unless the day dawns when God by his Spirit redeems that child, and in the heart of that child, what to that point has been simply the observance of custom, and it now becomes the conviction of their tiny life—then, from that day, everything changes. Because once they have become convinced, once they have ownership of the principle in their own lives, then they no longer do things simply as a result of constraint, but they do them as a result of an internal conviction.

Now, as true as that is of children, it is true of us all. And that is why many of us continue to buck the idea of the Lord’s Day—because it is a conviction about its distinction which creates relevance to its observance. And since we have never come to a conviction about its distinction, any time anyone suggests to us that this is what may comprise the Lord’s Day, our answer is “Who do they think they are to tell me what I’m going to do with my time?” It’s not your time, and it’s not my time. Every breath I breathe is a gift from God, and he is in charge of my time. And he who created time and parceled it in the way that he intended intends that the utilization of time shall bear testimony to the distinction of his creative handiwork and shall bear testimony to the fact that we are his covenant children.

You see, the same thing is true of any commandment. If you take the commandment, for example, in relationship to adultery: if you and I are only going to keep the commandment regarding adultery on the basis of its pragmatic usefulness—“Well, that’s a good idea, you know, you’d get yourself in a lot of trouble”—but not as a result of its rightness, not as a result of divine authority, not as a result of an internal conviction, then we are left to the winds of circumstance to blow upon us. Then we’re in a situation, and somebody says, “Why not?” And since the commandment is simply a kind of practical accretion for us and is not an internal conviction for us, then the smell of the perfume or the heat of the evening or the drive of the passion may be enough to take us right into total sin, because we’ve never internalized the command. God’s law had never been written upon our hearts.[6] We had never said, “I delight to do your will, O Lord.”[7] We’d never settled this issue: “I am the Lord your God. You shall do this.” We had never bowed there. We had never internalized its truth. And so, as soon as the circumstances went against us, we were swept into chaos.

That is exactly, I put it to you, what is happening with the Lord’s Day in the continental United States and in the Western world at large. We have vast numbers of people who have never become convinced of the distinction of the day. They have no internal conviction about the day, about its abiding relevance. And so when somebody says, “Why don’t we do this, why don’t we go there, why don’t we do whatever it is?” the answer is “Yeah, why not?” Because, after all, the only lingering notion that we have of any abiding relevance of the command is that it has something to do with not lighting fires and not riding your bicycle or not doing a bunch of stuff that we have picked up from somewhere along the line. But we don’t have any notion of it in our hearts.

So, if I can express it as clearly as possible: observance of the Lord’s Sabbath quickly becomes obsolete if it does not spring from the sense of sanctity generated and nourished by the fact that God set apart this day for our good. So it’s not irksome. It’s not a punishment. It’s a phenomenal, liberating privilege. But until we understand the distinction and apply it, we will internalize any expressions of it as either anachronisms or quirks of human personality.

How else could Chariots of Fire sweep the Academy Awards, and sweep a nation of nonchurchgoers and churchgoers, and, by and large to almost a hundred-percent degree, completely pass people by in terms of the implication of what the whole movie was about, at least in Liddell’s side of things? Remember him with the royalty, and the head of the Olympic committee, and that scene where they bring him in and sit him down? “Now, come on, Liddell. For the sake of your king and for your country, you put aside these silly ideas of yours about the Sabbath and about the Lord’s Day.” Remember his reply? “I would never set aside my king or my country, save that there was a higher power, a higher authority, the one who sets up kings and the one who brings down kings. And I will not run.”[8] And there isn’t a person in the movie theater who didn’t find something inside of them saying, “Man do I love that kind of conviction!” What was it? It was a conviction about the distinction of the day. And once he settled that, then everything flowed from it. But until you settle that, nothing’ll flow from it except legalism and the constraints of custom and tradition.

If I may be pardoned a personal illustration—I always tell the young people this—I never studied on a Sunday. Never studied on a Sunday. I got myself in difficulty sometimes as a result of it, but I never studied on a Sunday. All through school, I never studied on a Sunday. Why? Because I thought that a two-by-four would hit me on the head if I did? Why? Because I thought that if I didn’t study on a Sunday, that I’d be able to walk past the library and people would say, “Oh, what a pious person Begg is”? They knew I wasn’t a pious person. Why didn’t I do it? ’Cause I had a conviction that God had hit on something really good with this one-day-in-seven thing. And furthermore, it was right. And so I just didn’t study. What it meant was that I could worship, I could eat, I could fellowship, I could have the time of my life on the Lord’s Day. First I had determined the distinction of the day, and then the application followed.

That’s the first element in the sanctifying of the Lord’s Day. It is a setting apart. It is a making a difference of one day from the rest. God distinguished one day from the rest. He distinguished it himself by what he did and what he didn’t do.

The Pattern Observed

The second element to it is—and it’s just the other side of the coin—that keeping it holy makes clear to us that the difference which God has ordained in this day is a difference of a specific kind. The day is not simply a day set apart from other days, but it is a day set apart to the Lord. So the key to the Sabbath is not inactivity. The key to the Lord’s Day is not just waking up and lying in your bed till about eleven o’clock or half past twelve and saying, “Well, it’s a day of rest. Therefore, I did it.” That’s not it.

The day of rest is a day which has a positive dimension and focus towards the Lord our God. It is not simply kept from our everyday routine, but it is kept for the Lord.

And see, this is where people say, “Well, I don’t know why we have all these services. For goodness’ sake, isn’t it supposed to be a day of rest?” Well, tell me about it, would you? See, you don’t understand. Neither do I. But this is it. The rest which God has ordained is a rest from labor and a rest to him. The day of rest is a day which has a positive dimension and focus towards the Lord our God. It is not simply kept from our everyday routine, but it is kept for the Lord. It is a rest of another kind of activity. We rest from the ordinary activities of the other six days. Why? Because we might be released into the worship and contemplation of the glory of God. That’s why!

Now, the fact that some people don’t do this and don’t do that and don’t do the next thing because they’re a bunch of legalists, that’s their problem. But the fact of the matter remains that if we would “remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy,” we distinguish it from all the other days, and we do so by distinguishing it by exercising our hearts in the religious exercises of worship, and of study, and of prayer, and of piety, and of acts of mercy and of kindness, and so on.

Now, I recognize—and I can’t disassociate myself from this—that I have the benefits of a Scottish heritage. Amazing benefits in relationship to this! The danger in it, though, is that you go, “It’s cultural! He’s just coming off with a bunch of that stuff from across the sea.” That’s why you and I will have to think it out together. But I was brought up to understand this. That’s why we visited old ladies in the hospital on Sunday afternoons. Why? Because it was a great day for acts of mercy!

That’s why the Pharisees tried to tie Jesus up in knots with the man with the shriveled hand. The guy with the shriveled hand comes, the Pharisees say, “Hey, you gonna heal him today? You gonna break the Sabbath, Jesus?” Jesus said, “You guys don’t know what you’re talking about. You can’t come up with all these external rigmaroles,” he said. “If you had a sheep and it fell in a ditch, would you get it out on the Sabbath?” They all looked shamefacedly at each other, because of course they would. He said, “You crazy rascals, look at this man here. Do you not think a man with a shriveled hand is more important to God than one of your sheep lying in a ditch?” He says to the guy, “Stretch forth your hand.” He stretches it out.[9]

What was he doing, setting aside the Sabbath? No, he was setting the Sabbath aside from the ridiculous accretions of the Pharisees—all the little bits and pieces that they added to it. And the danger is, you see, that in setting aside any intrusions of Pharisaism, what we actually do is we throw the baby out with the bath water, and we’re left, as so many of us frankly are to this point in our lives, with only nine commandments.

So, the principle stated is such that we might enjoy the privilege of God’s presence, the study of God’s Word, the fellowship of God’s people, uninterrupted by both employment and leisure which draws from us a devotion to Christ in a singular way on other days.

Now, we’ll come to the application tonight. And if it was possible, we could have a question-and-answer session on it. I don’t know about that. We’ll have to think about it. But I mean, not instead of the study, but there’s a million questions that are raised by it. But here’s the thing, loved ones: Does this strike you like something you would want to do? Spend a whole day, as it were, without your newspaper, and without CNN, and without recreation? The answer is “No, I don’t like the sound of it.” Do you know what? You don’t like the sound of heaven. You don’t like the sound of what it’s going to be to be in the presence of Christ for all of eternity.

Six of us go away to a cabin on the lake. We go away because we love one another and we’re glad of one another’s company. We’re there for two and half days, and suddenly, somebody at a mealtime says, “Do you wanna know something interesting? We never turned the TV on. I don’t even know what’s happening in the world. We never read a newspaper. I haven’t even called the office. You know what? I never called to check on my handicap.” Why? Because the context of fellowship and love and enjoyment is so all-consuming.

Loved ones, I’ve gotta say something: whenever our experience of worship is so devalued and our notion of the Lord’s Day is so disintegrated so as to conceive of it in such a way that we believe that religious exercises are supposed to get over and done with as fast as they possibly can so that we may “get on with the day,” then we stand condemned before the fourth commandment.

We ought actually to be getting down on our knees and thanking God for the privilege of being brought under the orb of influence of a church that has determined on the basis of the Holy Scriptures that we will give every opportunity on the Lord’s Day for all the things that the Lord’s Day was intended to mean: for worship, for prayer, for study, for fellowship, for holy contemplation. And the fact that it does not appeal to us says more about the low level of our spiritual appetites than it does about anything else.

Now, when we come back this evening, we’re going to pick it up at this point. But the fourth commandment makes it clear that God has provided this day to worship him undisturbed by personal business or pleasure. And the question is, what should we welcome so much as a day of worship and service to God, uninterrupted by the routine and the rush and the scramble of work and recreation?

That’s the principle stated. The pattern applied we’ll go on to consider. And then this evening, we will also come to some of the areas of application as we have opportunity to.

Let me just give you a flavor that, again, either falls into the realm of anachronism or falls into the realm of something to which we might approximate. This is a description by a guy whose name was Donald MacDonald. He was the minister of Greyfriars Free Church of Scotland in Inverness for many years. He died in [1977]. Addressing the issue of the Lord’s Day and how it might be profitably shared, he says, “I shall cherish the memory of it as long as I live, [the] Sabbath in my native Island of Lewis in my boyhood days.”[10] This is his experience as he grows up as a child in the Outer Hebrides. Don’t let us allow geography to put us off. The Ten Commandments don’t apply any better in the remote parts of the Western Isles of Scotland than they apply in the heart of the continental United States.

He says that the Sabbath day “was prepared for on Saturday evening. All the household work was finished earlier than usual. Tomorrow’s meals, as far as that was possible, were prepared, and by ten p.m. the family gathered and ‘The Book was taken.’”[11] In a Scottish Highland home, to this day, if you are there for a meal, the host in the home may at one point towards the end of the evening say, “Shall we take the Book?” Now, you may be forgiven for thinking that he’s referring to the Sears catalog or the Yellow Pages or something, but he’s referring to the Bible. And so, he says,

“The Book was taken.” … However late with their household work some might be on other nights, on a Saturday there would not be one light in a hundred to be seen at 12 o’clock midnight. The Sabbath itself began with family worship …. Public worship began usually at 12 noon. Hundreds of people made their way to the House of God. The only way to get there was by walking, yet almost everyone who was able to go attended, although many lived several miles away. Evening worship was at 6 o’clock, and again everyone who could go was there. Particularly impressive was the complete silence that prevailed throughout the day. Not a stroke of work was done. There was no noise of car or cart. Between church services no-one was seen outside his own house except those who had to take their cattle to drink. Should anyone be seen going up or down the main road, people would come to their doors to ask one another if they knew who it was, being absolutely certain he was going for medical aid for some ill person or to deliver an urgent message. Inside the house no books were read but the Bible and religious books; all other books were put away on Saturday night. Conversation about worldly things was not allowed. Frequently relatives and friends who had a long distance to walk to the church, came into my parents’ home between services, and their conversation was always of a religious kind. As a rule they discussed points made by the preacher in the morning service. This was the way the Lord’s Day was observed as I remember it.

“That,” he says, “of course, was in a country place.”

Unhappily it is now impossible to get a quiet Sabbath similar to that which I have described. Wherever we go Sabbath desecration has penetrated to the most isolated hamlets and homes. Sunday newspapers, radio, [television] and pleasure-loving tourists have left no corner, however remote, untouched. Yet, in spite of all of this, it is possible for believers to enjoy the blessing of God on His day, and now I shall explain how they can obtain it.[12]

And tonight, when we return, we will try and tackle, in this very different geography, some twenty years on, the practical applications of the observing of the fourth commandment.

Let us pray together:

Our God and our Father, now we realize why the Bible says, “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”[13] As we gaze into the mirror of your law and see ourselves, we know we need a Savior. And I pray today that you will convict and convince of sin in the lives of some—that as our service ends, they may not be able to leave but to come and pray and get some literature and settle the issue of faith, believing in Christ; that others of us who, by our disregard for your law, live lives pragmatically, pleasing ourselves, that you will catch us, that you will consume us with your grace and your goodness, that you will create within us convictions so that we are not suffering under external rules nor routine customs nor buffeted by the expressions of the culture of our day.

Remind us that we are a holy nation, a chosen people, a people belonging to God, that we might declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.[14]

Write your Word upon our hearts, we pray, that we might live to your glory.

And may grace, mercy, and peace from Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be the abiding portion of all who believe, today and forevermore. Amen.

[1] Romans 3:12 (NIV 1984).

[2] Mary Anna Jackson, Memoirs of Stonewall Jackson by His Widow (Louisville, KY: Prentice, 1895), 74–75.

[3] Exodus 20:12 (paraphrased).

[4] Exodus 20:14 (KJV).

[5] John Murray, “The Sabbath Institution,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 1, The Claims of Truth (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976), 209.

[6] See Jeremiah 31:33.

[7] Psalm 40:8 (paraphrased).

[8] Chariots of Fire, directed by Hugh Hudson, written by Colin Welland (Warner Bros., 1981). Paraphrased.

[9] See Matthew 12:9–13; Mark 3:1–5; Luke 6:6–10.

[10] Donald MacDonald, “How to Spend the Sabbath Profitably,” Banner of Truth, December 1985, 12.

[11] MacDonald, 12.

[12] MacDonald, 12–13.

[13] Romans 3:23 (KJV).

[14] See 1 Peter 2:9.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.