Whose Day is it?

On Nov. 19, 2011, Dr. Bob Gonzales published a blog post entitled:  “Does All Worship and No Play Make Jack a Holy Boy?  Sabbath-keeping according to Isaiah 58:13.”  The provocative nature of the title gave me a strong disinclination toward reading it. However, a couple years later I began preparation to preach two sermons as a concise defense of what I consider to be the Biblical doctrine of the Sabbath as it is summarized in our beloved 1689 Confession of Faith.  Part of my focus was to be on Isaiah 58, so I thought I should read the article, especially since I’ve noticed that it is often referenced by Dr. Gonzales and others on the “Reformed Baptist Fellowship and Theology Forum” whenever the subject of the Sabbath comes up.  It would be a tremendous understatement to say that I was extremely grieved by what I read.  I was deeply grieved by his two primary assertions, and equally disheartened by many of the comments made by other respected Reformed Baptist pastors.  I contacted Dr. G and asked him if anyone had publicly challenged him on these two assertions, and he replied that other than the few challenges in his comment section and a debate on the Puritan Board, he was unaware of any.

I cannot help but respond publicly to these two assertions (which I will identify in a moment).  I have no credentials to speak of, so it may seem futile for me to challenge a respected Reformed Baptist pastor and educator.  I am not even a sheep-breeder of Tekoa or a fisherman of Galilee.  I’m just some guy who loves the Lord’s Day, but that is what I am, a man who loves the Lord’s Day because I love the Lord of the day.  Therefore I now humbly enter the blogosphere with a defense of the Puritan view of the Lord’s Day as opposed to the view set forth by Dr. Bob Gonzales.

Two Primary Assertions

Dr. G bases his view of Lord’s Day activity on two primary assertions:

1.  The phrases “your own pleasure”, “Your own ways”, “finding your own pleasure” and “speaking words” in Isaiah 58:13 must be limited to the types of sinful acts previously rebuked in the passage, and anyone who fails to so limit them is “barking up the wrong tree”.

2.  The primary focus of the Sabbath is not the worship of God, but rather, it is our own rest and refreshment.

I will address these in reverse order because I believe the second contention is a more grievous error.

Here is Dr. G’s argument for the second assertion:

“Rest” as the Primary Aim of the Sabbath

According to the Scriptures, the primary aim or purpose of the Sabbath is rest:

Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed (Exod 23:12, emphasis added).

That physical rest is in view is supported by the following considerations. First, the antithetical construction of the fourth commandment where seventh-day rest is juxtaposed with six-day labor supports this conclusion (cf. Exod 20:9-10; 31:14-15; Deut 5:13-15). Second, the phrase “you shall rest” translates the Hebrew verb שבת, which literally means, “to sabbath.” In this context, the verb is synonymously parallel to the verbs נוח (“to rest”) and נפש (“to be refreshed”), both of which refer elsewhere to physical rest and rejuvenation when predicated of human activity.14 Third, the fact that the Israelite’s animals are also to be relieved of their burdens to that they “may have rest” points to physical rest rather than worship (“spiritual rest”) as the primary aim. Fourth, instances of Sabbath-breaking, whether real or alleged, primarily center on a failure to rest from unnecessary labor rather than a failure to engage in public or private worship (Exod 31:14-15; 35:3; Num 15:32-36; Neh 13:15-18; Jer 17:21-22; Amos 8:4-8; Matt 12:1-2; Luke 13:14; John 5:16-17). So physical rest and rejuvenation is the primary aim or focus of the Sabbath day.

Notice in particular his summation: “So physical rest and rejuvenation is the primary aim or focus of the Sabbath day.”  I must confess, I was brought to tears as I considered what was written here.  I never thought I would see the day that a Reformed Baptist pastor and educator would publicly deny that the primary focus of the Lord’s Day is the worship of the Lord of the Day!  To be fair, I must point out that elsewhere he does refer to corporate worship as the “highpoint of the day”, but I believe this does little to relieve the burden cast by his claim.

Let us address his four arguments used to conclude that physical rest and rejuvenation is the primary aim or focus of the Sabbath day, then we will make some positive assertions as to why the worship of the Lord is the primary aim and focus of the day.

Argument 1:  “The antithetical construction of the fourth commandment where seventh-day rest is juxtaposed with six-day labor supports this conclusion.”  We do recognize that the fourth commandment differs from the other nine in that it makes both positive and negative demands.  We are commanded both to keep the day holy and to abstain from the labor required on the other six days.  How exactly does this support the conclusion drawn by Dr. Gonzales?  He does not elaborate.  Surely we do not believe that keeping the day holy is exhaustively defined by refraining from vocational work!  Yes, to keep holy literally means “to set apart” but I believe every Christian knows instinctively that Biblical holiness and sanctification mean, not simply to set apart, but set apart unto the Lord.  Would any Christian in his right mind consider the man who spends the entirety of the day in his recliner watching the NFL and refraining from all vocational work to be keeping the Sabbath holy?  Since physical rest is indeed stressed in the commandment do we rightly conclude that this is the primary reason for the command?  I believe the Puritans had a right understanding of the commandment when they concluded that this rest from physical labor was to make room for a more essential labor, the worship of our great Creator and Redeemer.

We must bear in mind the summary character of each of the ten commandments.  None of them is meant to exhaustively detail what the Lord requires.  Rather, each is a summary of a category of commandments, and we look elsewhere in God’s word for further exposition of the fuller detail as to how each commandment is to be kept.  For instance, the prohibition against adultery does not simply forbid intercourse with someone other than your spouse, but all forms of lust, as the rest of the Scriptures attest.  So we must look to passages such as Isaiah 58 etc. to receive a fuller understanding as to what it truly means to keep the day holy.

Argument 2:  “The phrase ‘you shall rest’ translates the Hebrew verb שבת, which literally means, ‘to sabbath.’ In this context, the verb is synonymously parallel to the verbs נוח (‘to rest’) and נפש (‘to be refreshed’), both of which refer elsewhere to physical rest and rejuvenation when predicated of human activity. “   The fact that physical rest is included in proper Sabbath keeping in no way requires us to conclude that this is indeed the primary focus of the day.  Physical rest and refreshment is indeed a blessed part of keeping the day holy, but shall we therefore conclude that the spiritual rest and refreshment found in worship must be secondary?  Which is truly more refreshing for the child of God?  Which is the greater blessing of this day, blessed by the Lord our God from the creation itself?

Argument 3:  “Third, the fact that the Israelite’s animals are also to be relieved of their burdens to that they “may have rest” points to physical rest rather than worship (‘spiritual rest’) as the primary aim.”  This again points us to the fact that physical rest is indeed part of proper Sabbath-keeping, but shall we really conclude that since animals are to rest, and animals cannot worship, then worship is not the primary reason for our rest from vocational labor?  I do believe that the aspect of physical rest was often overlooked among the Puritans, and I would therefore disagree with those of them who prohibited naps, but it is quite a leap to Dr. G’s conclusions from here.

Argument 4:  “instances of Sabbath-breaking, whether real or alleged, primarily center on a failure to rest from unnecessary labor rather than a failure to engage in public or private worship.”  As for the real instances of Sabbath-breaking found in the scriptures, indeed they are primarily failures to rest from labor, but I think this can easily be understood without drawing the conclusion that worship is not the primary focus of the day.  This points us first of all to the more rigorous requirements of the Jewish Sabbath as opposed to the Christian Sabbath.  It is also a result of the more outward focus of the Mosaic Covenant as opposed to the more inward focus of the New Covenant.  As to the alleged Sabbath-breaking, here we have a completely different story.  The Pharisees repeatedly falsely accused our Lord of breaking the Sabbath.  It was their incorrect and erroneous understanding of the Sabbath that our Lord so often went out of His way to rebuke and correct.  It just makes no sense at all to draw conclusions about what proper Sabbath-keeping entails by referring to the wicked and false accusations made against Lord of the Sabbath by His enemies.

Let us consider some thoughts that should lead us to the conclusion that the primary focus of the Lord’s Day is the worship of the Lord of the Day, and that physical rest and refreshment is merely secondary.

First of all, to put it as plainly as possible, it is the Lord’s Day!  The Lord’s Day!!!  The day is His. He is the Lord of the Day.  Our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has set this day apart for Himself in much the same way that He has set apart the Lord’s supper for Himself.  (See Dr. Richard Barcellos on this subject)  The Lord our God blessed and set apart this day unto Himself.  Yes, the Sabbath was made for man, it is a blessing to him.  But what is the greatest blessing of the Sabbath?  Is it really the physical rest and refreshment we receive?  Really?  No!  The greatest blessing of the Lord’s Day is communion with the Lord Himself, primarily but not exclusively in the corporate worship He has ordained.  The risen Lord meets with His people in a peculiar way on His day, that is our greatest blessing.  That is the primary aim and focus of the day.

Secondly, consider the position of the fourth commandment in the Decalogue.  As far as I am aware, every reformed view of the ten commandments places the fourth commandment in the first table of the law, the table that focuses on our relationship with God as opposed to the second table that primarily focuses on our relationship toward men.  I have seen some place the fifth commandment in the first table, but I have never seen anyone place the fourth commandment in the second.  I believe the Puritan understanding of the first table could be summarized this way:  All four commandments display how we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.  As they are all focused on our relationship with God they all pertain especially to worship.  1.  Who we worship, the Lord and the Lord alone.  2.  How we worship, exclusively by the means He has appointed.  3.  The gravity of our worship, even to speak His name without proper reverence shall not be forgiven.  4.  The time allotted for our worship, one day in seven.  Quite frankly, I do not see how Dr. G’s view leaves the fourth commandment in the first table.  If the primary focus of the day is our own rest and refreshment, and as he exegetes Isaiah 58, the principal breaking of the Sabbath is by mistreating others, this commandment is not primarily vertical but horizontal.  Obviously I would not consider this as a primary argument, but it is very interesting food for thought.

Thirdly, what does it mean to keep the day holy?  I assert that it cannot simply mean to set the day apart merely by refraining from the labor of the other six days.  (see our NFL fan example)  The Lord did not just set the day apart, but set the day apart unto Himself.  He is to be our primary focus on that day.  I do not condone a Pharisaical speech restriction (see my sermons on the subject sermon 1 sermon 2).  However, I do believe that the view expressed in the 1689 is both Biblical and accurate.  The Puritans did not take Isaiah 58:13-14 out of context when they drew the conclusion that our thoughts, speech and actions should remain focused on the things of God for the entirety of the day.  We will take this up in more depth when we address Dr. Gonzales’ interpretation of Is. 58.

Pastor Mike Waters (BTW, If you haven’t heard him preach, give yourself a real treat and download something of his from sermonaudio.com, you will not regret it.) challenged Dr. Gonzales about what it means to keep the day holy in the comments section of the blog, but I found Dr. G’s response to be quite unsatisfying.  He said things like “Note that God doesn’t sanctify the Sabbath by focusing his mind exclusively on non-earthly matters. He actually reflection on and celebrates what he’s accomplished the previous six days.”  The 1689 view does not demand that we focus on “non-earthly matters”, it commends us to contemplate our God and what He has accomplished, is accomplishing, and will ultimately accomplish on this earth as well as in heaven.  As the fourth commandment points us to worship Him for His work as our Creator and Redeemer, as He looked back in satisfaction over His accomplished work, we are to look back and worship Him for that which He has accomplished as well as that which He will ultimately bring about.  Again, He says: “Perhaps, Mike, it’s this future-looking aspect of Sabbath-keeping that you’re especially concerned about. If we focus too much on the world that now is, don’t we run the risk of losing our vision for the world to come?”  How is focusing on Christ equal to focusing on the world to come instead of the world that now is?  Christ is King now, Christ is Lord now & Christ is God now.  We are to worship and serve Christ now.  All our confession is pointing out is that the way we serve God on the Sabbath is different from the way we serve God the rest of the week.  It in no way implies that we must only focus on the world to come, this is a ridiculous rabbit trail in my opinion.

Fourthly, consider how we know that the day has changed from the seventh to the first day of the week.  First, the gospel writers consistently stress that Christ rose, completing His work of redemption, on the first day of the week.  Then we find that our Lord especially meets with His disciples on the first day of the week, being conspicuously absent on the seventh day of the week.  Then the Holy Spirit is poured out on His church on the first day of the week.  But we also recognize the change by the activities directly attributed to the disciples on the first day of the week.  Do we recognize that the first day of the week is special because the disciples are resting and recreating on that day?  No, we recognize that the scripture authors point out that on the first day of the week the disciples are gathered for worship.  We know that the Lord’s Day is the first day of the week because that is the day that the Lord peculiarly meets with His people as they gather together to worship Him.

I think it is also important to recognize that the enemies of true religion have, in the past, used recreation on the Lord’s Day as an instrument to begin the destruction of that holy day.  I do not believe that is Dr. Gonzales’ motive at all, please do not attribute that accusation to me.  But the world hates the Lord’s Day and Satan hates the Lord’s Day, and they seek to rid the world of it.  They often do this in subtle steps, and the first step is often to introduce recreation on that day to distract God’s people from that one thing needful, God Himself.  At the end of the day, all Dr. Gonzales is advocating is the allowance of bike riding and volleyball and feeling free to talk sports on the Lord’s Day, it just seems amazing to me that he would strike at the very heart of the commandment, denying the Christ centeredness of the day in order to allow us to play.

In summary, the primary focus of the Lord’s Day is the Lord of the day.  Physical rest and refreshment, while having an important role in keeping the day holy, cannot rightly be seen as the primary aim or focus of the Lord’s Day. The day is the Lord’s, and its primary focus must be on Him.

Before addressing Isaiah 58 I must pause to point out what is to me the greatest of ironies.  In October of the same year as this blog post he wrote a short series making the claim that John Piper’s “Christian Hedonism” is what the Puritans taught, even referring to their doctrine as Puritan Hedonism.  I interacted with him privately on this subject pointing out the clear and in my opinion undeniable difference between the two positions.  John Piper’s view is that the primary focus of the Christian life ought to be the active seeking of enjoyment in God above all else.  The Puritan view is that seeking and finding enjoyment in God is an important and necessary element of the Christian life, but not one Puritan, to my knowledge, ever made the claim that the Christian’s primary focus must be to actively seek the happiness that we find in God.  This is clearly seen in the way that Piper does not advocate the Puritan’s answer to the first question of the shorter catechism but finds it necessary to change it.  I deal more fully with Christian Hedonism here, but here is my point.  After making the plea that we should follow John Piper’s idea that seeking our own personal enjoyment in Christ is the primary drive for the Christian in all of life, he then, less than 2 months later, makes the claim that our primary focus on the Lord’s Day is not Christ Himself, but the rest and refreshment we receive from ceasing from our vocational labors.  What incredible irony.

A “more contextual reading”?

Now to deal with the “more contextual reading” of Isaiah 58:13-14.  To begin with, I heartily agree with much of what Dr. Gonzales has to say about the passage, even with some of his conclusions.  He rightly points out that the entirety of Isaiah 58 is a pericope. He rightly points out the chiastic structure of the passage.  He accurately portrays the focus on the passage as the Lord’s rebuke of those hypocritically “seeking the Lord” while acting in an ungodly manner toward their servants etc.  He focuses a great deal on the fact that works of mercy are not merely “exceptions” to Sabbath-keeping, but integral aspects of the proper use of the day.  (Though I would argue against his assertion that the 1689 treats them as mere exceptions.  (“The Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men are …taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.” Ch.22 Par. 8)

In my opinion, the error he commits that allows him to conclude that “doing your pleasure”, “doing your own ways”, “finding your own pleasure” & “speaking words” must be limited to those types of sins previously rebuked in the passage is this:  He makes the false assumption that the sins previously rebuked were committed on the Sabbath, that the Lord was specifically rebuking these hypocritical God seekers for Sabbath-breaking.  This assumption can clearly be demonstrated to be untenable by the following considerations.

First of all, at the very outset of the passage in v. 2 we read “they seek Me daily.”  This certainly points us away from any idea that Sabbath-breaking is the issue at hand.  Those under rebuke hypocritically seek the Lord daily, or day by day, and ask why they have not found acceptance with Him.  There is nothing at all in the passage to point away from their sin also being daily, or day by day.  This is supposed to be a more contextual reading.  Is that what we have if we take a passage that is plainly dealing with daily hypocritical rituals and treat it as though it is dealing with Sabbath-breaking?  I for one don’t think so.

Secondly, the specific days on which these hypocrites are rebuked for exploiting and beating their laborers are “fast” days.  There is not even an inkling of a hint that these “fast” days were Sabbath days.  I can find nowhere in Scripture where a connection between fasting and weekly Sabbath observance is remotely connected.  The Lord provided manna for the Sabbath on the previous day, this certainly points away from any connection in my opinion.  It is, of course, conceivable that even though the Lord makes no connection between fasting and the Sabbath, these hypocrites could have.  There is absolutely nothing in the passage that even infers this though.  So his conclusion that the only Sabbath issue addressed in v. 13 is “a hypocritical religious ritual on the Sabbath that’s used as a cloak to cover the pursuit of one’s selfish and sinful agenda” is completely unfounded.   The weekly Sabbath is not mentioned or referred to anywhere in the passage before v. 13, and there is nothing in v.13 itself that in any way necessitates such an idea.

As clear as it is that the sins rebuked earlier in the passage were not rebuked as Sabbath-breaking, even if they were it would be a false conclusion to limit the Sabbath-keeping expounded in v. 13 to a ceasing from those sins.  Take this situation as an example.  If a child is talking back to his parents and we rebuke him with the command that he must honor his father and mother, are we in any way inferring that the command to honor father and mother is limited to not talking back?  God’s commandments are “exceedingly broad”.  While we must be careful not to extend them beyond what God has expressed, we must be equally diligent not to limit them as it appears Dr. Gonzales has done here.

One might then ask, “If Sabbath-breaking was not the issue of rebuke previously in the passage, how can we explain its appearance in vv. 13-14?”  I believe this is a question easily answered from the passage itself.  The hypocrites are sited in v. 3 as asking the Lord “Why have we fasted and You have not seen?  Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?”  They are asking why their worship is not accepted in God’s sight.  He rebukes them for their hypocrisy in vv. 3-5.  Then He sets forth what an acceptable fast really is in vv. 6-7.  In vv. 8-12 He further sets forth true religion in a way that would be accurately summarized as “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” and accompanies this with promises of blessing and reward if they would be faithful to reflect His merciful character in this way.  Then in vv.13-14 we have the climax of the passage, as our gracious and merciful Lord sets forth what He Himself considers acceptable worship with the most beautiful and clear exposition of what it truly means to keep the Sabbath holy.  They had asked why their worship was not acceptable.  God answers by not merely pointing out what was wrong with the worship they were giving, but also setting before them the positive example of the worship He desires to receive.

The Puritans and those who have followed in their tradition have recognized this passage as an exposition of what it means to keep the Sabbath holy.  Keeping the Sabbath holy means to focus our hearts and minds upon Christ, for it is His day.  All those lawful diversions that He allows us to enjoy during the week are to be set aside.  They are “our” ways, thoughts and pleasures.  They are lawful diversions during the week in that they divert our hearts and minds from the difficulties and hardships that the dominion mandate brings with it.  They are not lawful diversions on the Lord’s Day because on that day they divert our attention as well, but on the Lord’s Day we ought not to seek to be diverted, but to focus our hearts and minds upon God.  We will call the Sabbath a delight, because we delight in the Lord all the day.  If we accept Dr. Gonzales interpretation of the passage, all we are told about the Sabbath is that we should not break other commandments on that day.  We call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable and honor Him… by doing what we are supposed to do on every other day.

Dr. Gonzales summed up his opinion of the Puritan view with:  “All worship and no play makes Jack a holy boy.”  Read again the fine exposition by Matthew Henry that Dr. G sited in his blog post and I think you will find that to be a very poor caricature.  I would sum up the 1689 view of Isaiah 58:13-14 in this way:

Resting from work, amusement and play,

Helps us to delight in the Lord of the day!


His Throne is Forever and Ever!


5 comments on “Whose Day is it?

  1. Richard Smith says:

    John Howe: “We are to desire the enjoyment of God for His own glory.”

    Comment on: Shall the Sabbath day, which is given by a thrice holy God, really be given to men just for the sake of men?

    John Howe: “However all the acts and operations of true and living religion be in themselves delightful, yet apply yourselves to the doing of them for a higher reason, and with a greater design than your own delight. Other wise you destroy your own wor therein, and despoil you acts of their substantial, moral goodness, and consequently of their delightfulness [true delightfulness] also. That is not a morally good act, which is not referred to God, and done out of (at least) an habitual devotedness to him, so as that he be the supreme end thereof. You would therefore, by withdrawing and separating this reference to God, ravish from them their very life and soul; yea, and perfectly nullify those of them that should ve in themselves acts of religion.”

  2. Richard Smith says:

    John Howe: And if this be not the thing, but merely self-satisfaction, which you chiefly have in pursuit under the name of delight in God, you beat the air, and do but hunt after a shadow. For there is no such thing as real, solid delight in God anywhere existing, or ever will be, separately and apart from a supreme love and addictedness of heart to him and his interest, as our chief and utmost good; which temper of spirit towards him, must be maintained and improved by our fixed intuition and view of his glorious greatness, and absolute excellency and perfection, and the conguity and fitness which we thereupon apprehend, that we and all things (as all are of him) should be wholly to him, that he alone may have the glory.”

    Comment: The Sabbath day cannot be for the good of man unless it is intended to enable men to delight in and glorify God for the glory of God Himself.

  3. Douglas VanderMeulen says:

    John Sommerville’s work on secularization suggest a progress in how it effects thinking and living. His steps are secularization of space, then time, third language, then work, followed by art, power, personhood and science.

    I think that it is interesting that Sommerville see at the headwaters of secularization the change in understanding space and time. We have been created for God and His glory, not merely for 6 out of 7 days, but in everything we do (I Corinthians 10:31). There is every reason to understand the shifting away from a robust theology of the Lord’s Day as symptomatic of a secularization of not only how we think about time, but how we read and exegete the Scriptures.

    Whatever our understanding of the Sabbath Day ought to be, it must included the Lordship of Christ. Mark 2:28 “So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Christ’s kingly rule over the Sabbath and the secularization of time are mutually exclusive.

  4. Sam Waldron says:

    Thanks, Rex. Fine stuff. I really appreciate and agree with your views. Dr. Sam Waldron

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