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Online Text Sermon - The Folly of Sabbath Breaking

PreacherRev. Maurice Roberts, Inverness
Sermon TitleThe Folly of Sabbath Breaking (Date and time not certain. Pre Assemblies Rally)
Sermon ID497

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We have a clear warrant for believing in a Christian Sabbath. The notion of a Christian Sabbath is not part of the antiquated tradition of our Puritan and covenanting heritage. It is not a mere vestige of John Knox's Reformation Settlement on the Scots nation. It is not simply a little bit of Victorianism surviving into the twentieth century. Our warrant for observing a Sabbath Day in this modern age is derived from the most assured of all sources, from the Bible.






Let it be once admitted that there is a final revelation of the will of God in Scripture, and there can be no avoiding the conclusion that there is a Christian Sabbath. That is precisely the position you and I must hold. We have a final, once-for-all word from God. That final word is not just the four Gospels; it is not just the sayings of Jesus; it is not just even the New Testament; it is definitely not the Apocrypha; but that final and infallible revelation is the whole Bible, Old and New Testaments taken together as a unity. Given that then, it follows by a train of invincible logic, that there is a Sabbath Day to be observed till the end of time. That is the position we must hold to. That is what is assumed in all I say here.

Given the Sabbath Day, I wish to urge just one argument with you. I want to argue that it is folly to break the Sabbath Day. It would be quite possible to argue that Sabbath breaking is sin: that it is an accursed thing: that it draws down the wrath of God. All that could quite easily be argued, but what I confine myself to at present, is simply this one thought: that Sabbath desecration is foolishness; that it is folly.

Let me then give you my reasons for asserting that this is so. I am required by my subject to begin with a definition. What do we mean by Sabbath breaking or Sabbath desecration? Permit me to offer a definition of this. Sabbath breaking is the needless doing of things on the Lord's Day, which are inconsistent with the purpose for which that Day was appointed by God. Conversely, Sabbath breaking is the unjustifiable neglect of those things on the Lord's Day which the will of God requires.

The arguments then, that I am about to advance, are in support of simply this: that it is folly for men to do needlessly on the Sabbath whatever is inconsistent with the nature of that Day. Likewise, it is folly for men to omit to do on that Day whatever the revealed will of God requires to be done on that Day. Let me then proceed to adduce the arguments in mind to show that these things are so.


The first reason why Sabbath breaking is folly, is that Sabbath breaking, consciously or unconsciously, ignores the nature of the whole created universe. The Bible teaches us that God made the world in a certain way, and with certain inbuilt norms, patterns, rhythms and laws. To live in conscious or unconscious defiance of these, is to live out of step with the whole created order. But amongst these inbuilt laws, is the seventh day rest, which we refer to as the Sabbath Day. It is original, it is an undetachable part of the created order, required by the physical, mental and spiritual nature of man; so that when we read of the first Sabbath in the Bible, it is of something basic, of something fundamental and unchangeable in the world order that we read. Hence, the Bible record is given with no small degree of emphasis and repetition. God tells us this: "On the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made (Genesis 2, 2-3).

We should not fail to notice that in this account, brief as it is, there is emphasis and significant repetition. The Sabbath Rest is a peculiar part of the very creation itself. It is not simply that God made or appoints it, like other things in the created order. More than that, the Sabbath Rest is a sacred part of creation; it is hallowed by His blessing; it is sanctified by His example. The conclusion is inescapable, that for us to ignore or to profane the Sabbath is foolishness on our part. It is to trespass wantonly on the forbidden. It is to insult the wisdom of God. It is to disregard the nature of the world order, which God has made to be the framework in which the life of man is to be lived.


I pass to a second argument. Sabbath breaking is folly because it challenges God's authority as The Lawgiver and Judge of men. When God gave His codified Moral Law to mankind on mount Sinai, there was a specific mention made of the sacredness of the Sabbath. "Remember the Sabbath Day," He said, "to keep it holy" (Exodus 20, 8). This is not found in the form of an appendix to some greater law. It is not a command derived by inference from some deep religious need of man. God gave this law in the form of a clearly worded and distinct individual command: "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy." It will not satisfy the logic of the case for certain modern teachers to assert that the Sabbath belongs to the realm of the ceremonial, or to laws peculiar to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament.

The fact is that God has embedded this Sabbath law deeply into the heart of the Decalogue, and has given it independent existence so that it stands on its own feet and comes to us as an integral part of the whole Moral Law, of which the eternal God is Author and Vindicator. Hence, it follows, that for men to ignore the Sabbath is to ignore their own best interests, to take up the sword against their divine Lawgiver, and to challenge His power to punish them as their Judge. Looked at in this light, we must say that the Sabbath breaker is foolish and unwise.

I am well aware of course that many would be ready to take issue with me at this point. Many, even church-going people, would like to argue that the idea of a Sabbath belongs to the Old Testament period in which revealed religion wore a sterner aspect and had graver sanctions attaching to it. After all, they say, did not Christ frequently challenge the Pharisees over their rigid Sabbatarianism? And did not Paul classify Sabbaths and the new moons together as parts of the Old Testament shadows, of which Christ in the New Testament is the body and substance?

This line of argument has always been popular with a certain brand of churchmanship. It is to be found in the writings of the anti-Puritan party from the seventeenth century to the present day. Let us look at this objection to a permanent Sabbath law to see what the argument is worth.

Did Christ abolish the law of the Sabbath? That is the question. On the very contrary, He is at pains in the Sermon on the Mount to repudiate and reject such a thought in the strongest possible terms. Listen again to these emphatic words of Christ on the subject of the permanence of the Moral Law. "Think not," He says, "that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled" (Matthew 5, 17-18). It is evidently of the Moral Law that He speaks, because He immediately goes on to expound some of the Commandments of the Decalogue. This forthrightness, when asserting the perpetuity of the Moral Law, is found elsewhere in Christ's preaching. To the very same effect as His words in Luke 16, 17 "It is easier," He says, "for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail."

Add to these texts another which should fill us all with a deep sense of fear. I say this advisedly, for Christ is here speaking in this text about truly converted persons who are careless in their observance of the Ten Commandments. Listen to this I say. "Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5, 19). Clearly, He is speaking of the converted because they are in the kingdom, which no unconverted person could be said to be. But why are they so accounted as least in the kingdom? For the simple reason that they break, and teach others to break, the least Commandments. I say we all might well tremble at such words, even though we possibly claim to be converted.

No, Christ took exception only to a Pharisaic and Rabbinic, or manmade idea of how to keep the Sabbath. With the Sabbath Commandment as such, He had no quarrel whatsoever. On the contrary, He asserts that the Sabbath was made for man, and that He is the Lord of it (Mark 2, 27-28).

The objection claims also the support of Paul. Paul, they urge, wrote that Sabbath Days are a shadow of Christ. At first sight admittedly, there seems to be some force in this objection. But on further examination the evidence does not by any means support their conclusion about a weekly Sabbath. Of all the writers of the New Testament, none is so frequently found to assert the divine and permanent nature of the Moral Law, as Paul. He defines the law like this: "The law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good" (Romans 7, 12). He uses the term 'the law' over, and over again to denote the Decalogue. "By the law is the knowledge of sin" (Romans 3, 20). The problem of the unconverted man he says is just this: that his mind "is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be" (Romans 8, 7). So that for Paul the Decalogue is thought of as an organic unity, as a distinct entity in which all the particular Commandments are thought of as belonging together, and hanging together in one. The Ten Commandments for Paul are not simply laws (plural), but the law, a term he uses so often that it is a kind of commonplace in his writings.

To extract the Sabbath Law then from the Decalogue, and to relegate it to the realm of Old Testament shadow and type, was unthinkable for Paul. Some other explanation must be found for the way he can speak of the Sabbaths as shadows. Such an explanation is ready to our hand, and hardly difficult to find. He is referring in such passages, not to the weekly Sabbath, but to the Old Testament Jewish annual festivals and monthly ceremonies, which have now all passed away. These, he says, are forever past. He is not alluding to the fourth Commandment, which in his mind is an integral part - as I have said - of the law of God, which is permanently binding on men. This has long been the view of a great body of the most learned and reliable commentators and there is no reason for us to depart from it.

Neither Paul, nor Christ, removed the fourth Commandment from the Decalogue. So then, if we should wish to avoid being called 'the least in the kingdom of God', let us both do and teach the Commandment to sanctify the Sabbath as Christ has taught. Let us believe that the fourth Commandment, like all the other nine, is holy, and just and good. To believe and to teach otherwise is folly.


I turn now to a different line of argument, one, which we perhaps do not weight as often as we ought to do. I refer to the line of argument that the Sabbath Day is the one day of the week on which it is possible to get, and to give the greatest good. It is perfectly true that all our days should be lived to the glory of God, and that all time is to be redeemed, but whilst this is always to be admitted as true, the Sabbath Day or Lord's Day is the Day when the highest good is to be obtained for ourselves and for others.

On this Day the servants of Christ worldwide, unite to make a concerted effort each week, against the powers of darkness. On this Day, the Gospel trumpet is sounded throughout the earth in every tongue and amongst every race of men. On this Day, by way of eminence, the throne of grace is addressed both publicly and privately. The hosts of God's church militant rally to their respective congregations to fight the good fight against sin and the devil. The richest efforts of Christian ministers and men are poured into the labours of this Day. All their studies, all their prayers, and all their aspirations for the good of fallen men is concentrated into the hours of the Sabbath in a special manner.

There is, consequently, a greater sense of expectancy among the people of God everywhere on this, than on other days. Apostolic doctrine, breaking of bread, fellowship and prayer - take on a more powerful influence on this holy Day, than they have at other times. Add to this the secret blessing of God, that God blessed this Day and hallowed it, and it becomes still more evident that it is a foolish course which men follow when they fail to sanctify the Sabbath Day.


I come now to a still further argument, and again, one which is perhaps too much neglected. To ignore the Sabbath Day in this Christian age, and in our Christian land, is to act more foolishly than the blind heathen of the pre-Christian world. It is fairly clear from occasional references and the literature of the ancient heathen world that a Sabbath Rest - one day in seven - was both known and, to a certain degree, observed. Allow me to give you some of the evidence for this.

Of the three branches of Noah's family after the flood, that of Ham was the least favoured. Of Ham's family, the portion descended from Canaan was the worst of all. Of them God said, "cursed be Canaan" (Genesis 9, 25). Yet, of the Phoenicians, a Canaanite race, we have the following testimony in antiquity: "The Phoenicians consecrated one day in seven as holy." These are the words of the Greek writer Porphyry. "The Phoenicians," he said, "the Phoenicians of all people, consecrated one day in seven as holy." The Greeks are noted to the modern world for their polytheism and sensuality, yet they observed a Sabbath for all that. Two of their earliest and most noted poets tell us this: 'the seventh day is holy'.

The Greek philosophers and poets were men of genius, but they were in thick religious darkness. Yet, even of them we are told by the church historian, Eusebius, almost all the philosophers and poets acknowledge the seventh day as holy. He is referring of course to the Greek world. Vastly worse than the Greeks in many ways, were the Barbarians or non-Greeks. Yet, of these, we have the testimony from the Jewish historian, Josephus: "No city of Greeks or Barbarians," he says, "can be found, which does not acknowledge the seventh day's rest from labour."

The Romans were no lovers of the Hebrew religious outlook, yet one of their own poets has to admit this: Tibullus it is, who says, "The seventh day which is kept holy by the Jews is also a festival to the Roman women." May we not say with sorrow then that on the last day, many of these ancient nations whose names are today a byword for immorality and superstition, will rise up to condemn the Sabbath breaking of Christian Britain - Britain with its Bibles, its pulpits, its churches, its religious literature, its fine traditions, its godly ancestry. Surely, it is no small mark of the degeneracy of an age like this, that the Sabbath Day is desecrated by men of all ranks of society. What shall we call this Sabbath breaking but the sheerest folly?


I have not the time to add more than one last argument to what I have said already of the foolishness of Sabbath breaking, and it is this: the neglect of the Christian Sabbath or Lord's Day, by modern Christians is a departure from the practice of the early church of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. The evidence is quite full, but I make no apology for giving you these testimonies, both from the New Testament and from the early church fathers, to show how seriously they kept the Lord's Day.

Paul can address the church at Corinth like this, you remember: "Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him" (1 Corinthians 16, 2). The Apostle John, toward the end of the first century AD, informs us that he was in the Spirit on the Lord's Day; that was the first century; that was the apostolic church. What of the second century? Ignatius, says this, "Let us keep the Lord's Day," he says, "on which our life (he means Christ) arose". Let us keep the Lord's Day on which Christ arose, he means.

Justin Martyr puts it in this way: "On the day called Sunday, is an assembling of all who live in the city or country." Irenaeus says, "On the Lord's Day every one of us Christians keeps the Sabbath"; what a fine comment we might make on that word from Irenaeus. Fancy today if this were true of us, "On the Lord's Day," he says, "every one of us Christians keeps the Sabbath." The older church kept up the same practice in the following centuries as the later writers inform us. Tertullian calls it 'the holy day of the Christian church assemblies and holy worship'. Ambrose of Milan, one of the finest men of the early church, says this, "The Lord's Day was sacred, or consecrated, by the resurrection of Christ." Finally, Augustine, the greatest of all the church fathers has this to say on the subject: "The Lord's Day," says Augustine, "was by the resurrection of Christ declared to Christians, and from that time, it began to be celebrated as the Christian festival."

So much was the keeping of the Lord's Day holy, a part of the life of early Christians, that it became one of the insignia of their Christian faith. The heathen would put this question to the early Christian martyrs: "Do you keep the Lord's Day?" This is what they had to say when these early Christians faced fire, or the faggot, or imprisonment, or the arena of the lions. This was the question they would commonly put to them: "Do you keep the Lord's Day?" Dominicum Sylvasti: Do you observe the Christian Sabbath, they mean? That you see was one of the acid tests of a genuine profession of allegiance to Christ.

I must leave the argument there, but I close with a brief word of personal application. I beg you my friends, never needlessly be absent from the House of God on the Lord's Day. I am well aware, that there are such things as works of necessity and mercy. I am aware too that nurses, and doctors, and policemen, and perhaps a few others, simply must do shift work on the Sabbath, but I repeat my appeal. Never, needlessly be absent from church on the Lord's Day. I know that there are Ten Commandments and not just this one. I agree that there are still other laws of God beside the fourth Commandment, but even so, I would urge my point again: never be unjustifiably absent from church on the Lord's Day; it is folly.

The modern crazes - for 'Sabbath touring' and for 'Sabbath bussing'; for 'Sabbath holidaying' and for 'Sabbath picnicking'; for 'Sabbath cruising' and for 'Sabbath jaunting' - are by every argument of Scripture, Christian tradition and good sense, nothing short of folly. Let us stop the rot in our own lives, in our own families, in our own churches, in our own children. If we begin in right earnest to do that, who knows but that God may open the windows of heaven and pour us out a blessing till there be no room to contain it.

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