In his daily devotional, For the Love of God, Don Carson poses a question at the end of his comment on Leviticus 23.
How should the people of the new covenant remember and commemorate the provisions of our great covenantal God?
Leviticus 23 is all about the setting up of festivals for the Israelites to commemorate the acts of God in their history – the Festival of Weeks, the Passover, the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Trumpets and Tabernacles. They recall what God has done from God bringing them out of slavery in Egypt, to his ongoing provision of the harvest and his ongoing work of Atonement.
At the heart of these festivals are sacrifice and offerings, and rest. The Israelites are continually told to ‘do no regular work’ (see verses 3, 8, 21, 25, 30, 35, 26). These festivals are to be a day of rest.
A few months ago I was interviewed for a piece on local radio about Sunday Trading hours. About 15 years ago the laws were relaxed and shops began to open on Sundays, albeit for shorter hours than on other days of the weeks. There were a few exceptions – Christmas Day and Easter Day were to retain the old laws with restricted trading on these days. This year talk has been to relax these laws even further, and allow full shopping hours on these days. I was asked what I thought of this. Why did we have a day once a week when shops were shut?
The answer, I think comes from what Sabbath was originally for.
- It was to rest. Humans are created with a need to relax and recharge. We do it on a small scale each day by sleeping, but we need a larger scaled rest once ever seven days. Does it have to be every seven days? If wee keep going for too long, we burn out. Even God rested after his creation.
- To have time with family. Relationships need to be nurtured and time with family in increasingly being crowded out of life. The early Soviet empire experimented with a continuous calendar of five and six day weeks, with a fifth of the population having a different day off so that 80% of the workforce was working at any one time. For various reasons, it didn’t work, but one of them was that it destroyed family life. They reverted to a seven day week with a common day off.
- To remember and worship God. This was the point of all the Israelite festivals – to stop for a time and remember what God had done for them. We have shopping available six days a week, do we really need another and are we crowding out time to contemplate what God has done for us?
- By having a Sabbath rest, we are not only remembering what God has done, but trusting him for it. This is one day when people weren’t allowed to go to their fields and look after their crop. By not working we are trusting God to provide the growth for the food and ultimately to provide the food itself, rather than relying solely on our own work. This I see as very valuable as it reminds us where all of our provision comes from in the first place.
Having said that, does the Sabbath Rest have to be on a Sunday? No, but having a common day of rest for the whole society helps. Historically, the Jewish Sabbath (and early Christian Sabbath) was a Saturday, and some Christians still keep this day holy. But if shops do open on a Sunday, they will require people to staff them and will make spending time with families more difficult if people are called into work. In countries where Sunday trading is still limited, families use the opportunities to go to parks and have picnics and meals together. In the UK, Sunday is now just another shopping day.
Of course, there are always going to be some who have to work on a Sunday, being a minister I am one of them. In this case the principle of taking one day off to rest, remember God, and spend time with family still applies, regardless of which day of the week it is.