Since 1937 Gallup has tracked the decline in church membership in America. 2020 marked the first year that membership dropped below 50%. This trend applies across every demographic and subgroup of America. We cannot point the finger at one particular generation or denomination. We are simply becoming less and less religious across the board.
Surely, the decline in Church membership is the product of a decline in church attendance. Only 22% of Americans say they attend Church every week, and another 9% say they attend almost every week. Our commitment to weekly Church attendance reflects our willingness to prioritize what God prioritizes.
To the degree that we justify working or treating Sunday like any other day of the week, is the degree to which we have become conformed to the patterns of this world (Rom. 12:2). To suggest that there are 365 holy days, that every day should be treated as the Lord’s Day, is to suggest that none of them are holy.
This morning’s passage is a call to restore a right observance of a day that God has set apart from Creation. Yes, there are some differences in when and how it is observed under the New Covenant, but I hope to provide a bit more clarity about its ongoing relevance for believers today.
Let me be clear, the Christian Sabbath is a secondary matter that should not disrupt fellowship. A firm stance still allows room for disagreement about the particulars. In fact, there have been significant differences among reformed Christians throughout history. The Second Helvetic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Westminster Catechisms all have different interpretations regarding the Sabbath.
However, none of that implies that we should ignore the issue altogether. It is a subject of tremendous import to God. “Sabbath” is mentioned in at least 159 verses of the Old Testament. Dr. John Gerstner would simply read those passages out loud to his students so none could say it was an insignificant topic.
In this passage, the Israelites exhibit a readiness to desecrate what God made holy, namely the Sabbath day. Unfortunately, the modern church falls into the same worldly patterns. We have a tendency to compromise rest and worship on the Lord’s Day for personal and selfish gain.
Rightly understood, Sabbath observance serves to sustain our faith and restore our joy in worship.
Read Nehemiah 13:15-22
I. How to Observe A Holy Day
Derek Thomas Our view of the Sabbath—even the Old Testament Sabbath—is often so negative that we can see no reason for these draconian threats from Nehemiah.
In Genesis 2:1-3, on the seventh day, God rested from his creative work the previous six days. As a creation ordinance, the Sabbath is on par with work and marriage. They were not merely commands given to a single nation or only to be observed during a particular era. They were pre-fall commandments universally and perpetually binding upon humanity.
This instruction was passed on and practiced by the patriarchs. Cain and Abel offered their sacrifices at the end of the week, on the seventh day. Saturday was a significant day of worship. The Sabbath was explicitly mentioned in Exodus 16 and reflected in the details regarding the collection of manna. When the Israelites rebelled against the Lord and broke the Sabbath command by going out to gather manna, the Lord said, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws?” (Exodus 16:28). This implies that Sabbath-breaking was one of their repeated failures—prior to receiving the Ten Commandments!
The Sabbath is not complicated, but we oftentimes make it confusing in order to minimize it. Consider the simplicity of the commandment (Ex. 20:8-11). The Fourth Commandment contains four general principles, two positive and two negative:
- Remember the Sabbath Day – Implies prior knowledge, not forgetting, observing, and celebrating.
- Keep it Holy – Set apart. Not common. When the Lord declares something to be holy, who are we to make it common?
- Do Not Do Any Work – Not inactivity (cf. Gen. 2:1-3).
- Do Not Employ Others – The commandment has universal application. Even the sojourner was instructed to refrain from work (Ex. 20:10). We will see this application in Nehemiah 13. How can we pay someone to perform a task that would be sin for us to perform?
We don’t have time to get into the more technical aspects of the moral, civil, and ceremonial divisions of the law that apply to this commandment this morning. But I would encourage those who are interested to listen to the four sermons I preached on the 4th Commandment back in 2020. Suffice it to say, these general Sabbath principles are still very relevant to us today and we would do well to recover them in our own practice.
Our attitude towards the fourth commandment may reveal the state of our heart. How do you fight formalism (going through the motions) in worship? You structure your whole day around it by preparing your heart for worship and anticipating to delight in singing, praying, sitting under the preaching, celebrating the Lord’s Supper, and enjoying the fellowship of the saints. When it isn’t a delight, we don’t refrain from participating altogether, we repent of our attitude and seek a more god-honoring posture.
Otherwise, we quickly slide into worldly attitudes about the Lord’s Day.
II. How to Profane A Holy Day (15-18)
One of the primary reasons Israel was sent into exile was due to their idolatry and Sabbath-breaking. One of Ezekiel’s most powerful visions was of the glory of the Lord departing from the holy of holies, then past the threshold and cherubim, outside of the temple and the city (Ezekiel 10). The Lord departed because of their repeated rebellion against Him. And Ezekiel describes that rebellion as profaning the day that God had sanctified (Ezekiel 20:12-13).
Nehemiah is recorded later, after several waves of exiles had returned to Jerusalem. But, although many had returned, the city and its walls were still broken down. Nehemiah led the people in rebuilding the wall and then reestablished everything according to the law of God.
Deep moral and spiritual crisis existed even after returning from the exile. Ezra expounded from the Book of the Law the people wept over their neglect of God’s Word. They specifically understood their need to obey the Sabbath commandment (Nehemiah 9:14). They recommitted themselves to honor the Sabbath day by not buying when foreigners came with their goods (Nehemiah 10:28-31). However, their promises were quickly forgotten.
How did the people break the Sabbath? Working, but also selling (v.15) and buying (vv.16, 20). Apparently, Phoenician merchants from Tyre had established a colony in Jerusalem. The Israelites had fallen into the same sins that sent them into the Exile to begin with (vv.17-18; cf. Jer. 17:19-27)! Remember, in the previous passage we considered how the grain offerings for the Levites were no longer being collected. Yet, the people were selling heaps of grain for themselves—on the Sabbath (Brown)!
Every example of how the Jews were profaning the Sabbath were explicitly forbidden in the Law. They violated the fourth commandment by working (Ex. 20:10; Deut. 5:14)! They worked during the harvest (Ex. 34:21). They loaded grain on their donkeys instead of giving them rest (Ex. 23:12).
Acceptable Forms of “Work” on the Sabbath
Jewish tradition took passages like this and elaborated with additional rules to be followed when observing the Sabbath. For instance, since the law forbid ploughing a field on the Sabbath, the Pharisee’s forbid combing one’s hair on the Sabbath. They held people accountable for obedience to their tradition. We see this in several of their confrontations with Jesus.
- Works of Necessity: When Jesus and the disciples plucked some grain and ate it on the Sabbath, they were accused of working (Luke 6:1-5). They were harvesting and threshing the wheat. In his response, Jesus refers to David and his men eating from the temple “showbread” that was reserved for the priests (1 Sam. 21:1-6). Jesus and David were both in need of nourishment. They weren’t buying their meals at the market on Sunday, they were simply taking advantage of the gleaning laws that allowed the poor to pluck grain from the edges of the field.
- Works of Mercy: When Jesus healed the lame man and told him to pick up his mat, the Jewish leaders accused him of compelling the man to break the Sabbath (John 5). According to Jewish tradition (not any biblical Sabbath commandment), a mat could be carried if someone was on it, but if it were empty—it should not be carried. Again, Jesus corrects their faulty application of the Sabbath commandment.
- Works of Piety: Anything related to the worship service (Setup/Cleanup, Preaching, Leading in Singing, Ushering, Security, Nursery, etc.).
What I like about these exceptions is they focus our eyes upon what we should be doing on the Lord’s Day rather than what we cannot do. The Lord’s Day is a privilege to enjoy, rather than a burden to bear.
That leads us to the importance of reforming our practice…
III. How to Reform A Holy Day (19-22)
Nehemiah’s response was to shut the gates on Friday evenings in order to prevent commerce altogether on Saturday (19). Some of the merchant colony decided to lodge just on the other side of the gate (20). Maybe they were hoping to conduct business under the cover of night. Or, maybe they were selling to those traveling into Jerusalem before they entered the city. Or, maybe they were ensuring a good spot in the marketplace as soon as the gates were reopened. Amos rebuked Israel for outwardly observing the Sabbath but inwardly longing for it to end so they could get back to making money in the market (Amos 8:5). Either these merchants were in outward rebellion of the law, or they were inwardly rebellious, but it is clear they were not submitting to God.
Here’s the point: The Fourth Commandment was applicable to Gentile merchants even when Israel was a vassal state, under Persian rule.
Furthermore, Nehemiah ensured obedience to Sabbath observance by establishing purified Levite guards at the gate (22). In other words, Sabbath observance in the city was deeply connected to Sabbath worship. The Levites were the appropriate choice to symbolize the fact that the whole city was to set apart the whole day for rest and worship.
Isaiah clarifies the purpose of the commandment (Isa. 58:13-14). Although Isaiah’s ministry occurred before the Babylonian exile, his prophetic message paints a narrative of life before, during, and after that exile. This particular section reflects upon their return from exile. The Sabbath was just as important after exile as it was before. This is consistent with Ezekiel and Nehemiah.
Isaiah lays out the conditions of Sabbath observance:
- Negative: Turn away from your pleasure/business on the Sabbath (Isaiah 58:13).
- Positive: Honor and revere the day. “Call the Sabbath a delight!”
We should be intentional about how we spend the Lord’s Day, but let us not forget the blessings attached to this commandment! The Puritans called the Lord’s Day “The Market Day of the Soul”. It is like going to the grocery store when you’re hungry. Everything looks so appetizing. You wind up getting far more than you intended. Sundays should be like that for the believer. It is the most appropriate day of the week for saints to feed their souls upon Christ and His word throughout the day.
- Enjoy communion w/ God. Not impatiently longing to be elsewhere…
- Enjoy Christ’s victory over our enemies and praise God for his ongoing work in your life.
- Enjoy the benefits of your salvation in weekly Lord’s Day worship and then celebrate the rest of the day in fellowship with Christ and his bride!
Rightly understood, Sabbath observance serves to sustain our faith and restore our joy in worship.
During this time of cultural chaos and unrest we ought to be delighted to find a command from God that has so much joy attached to observing it. Sabbath rest actually preserved Israelites from oppressive economic practices. It was greed that drove many to ignore the Sabbath. When we forsake our own pleasures on the Sabbath (Isa. 58:13) we find a superior pleasure satisfied in God (Isa. 58:14).
Christ has perfectly fulfilled our Sabbath rest. And because of that fact, we now walk in obedience out of gratitude. Christ’s fulfillment of the fourth commandment does not free us to profane it, anymore than his fulfillment of the other nine commandments frees us to break them. The Gospel has not freed us to lie, steal, commit adultery, and murder. Neither has it freed us to profane the Lord’s Day.
That pleasure is found in our communion with God and it will overflow onto our neighbors as well. The Sabbath has a direct relationship to Christ’s summary of the two greatest commands. Observing this command involves a love that will not remain internal, but it will extend in sacrificial service of others.
The author of Hebrews discusses Sabbath rest just before making an appeal to consider Christ as our high priest who sympathizes with our weaknesses (Heb. 4). He was tempted in every way that we are, yet without sin! It is only because of the perfect work of our Savior that we can fumble our way through life striving to enter the rest (Heb. 4:11) that He alone is able to provide.