What's so special about Sundays?
For most people in the West, the answer is, “Not much.” Life continues pretty much like the previous six days—except that, if you live in the UK and you’re a parent, you spend your time ferrying your kids to Sunday morning sports, and the supermarkets annoyingly shut at 4pm. (Readers from other nations will no doubt experience their own country’s quirks.)
But for Christians, Sunday remains a special day. They all go off to church on Sunday morning—and some even go back on Sunday evenings too. So, what’s it all about?
How it all started
"Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.”
It all goes back to the beginning of time. After summarising how God created everything at the dawn of history in Genesis 1, chapter 2 begins with the words, “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” His blessing of this seventh day and deeming it to be “holy” (meaning “different” or “set apart”) marks it out as different from all the previous days— a “holy” day to be revered. For although his work on each of those days in chapter 1 was deemed “good”, none of them was “blessed” like this one was. This day was marked out as different because it was the day that God looked back on his work and “rested”— and the Hebrew word for “rested” (the Old Testament was written in Hebrew) comes from the root word for “Sabbath”, from which the day would get its name. God rested—not because he was tired, but because his work was done.
In doing this, God was establishing a pattern for healthy living for the whole of humanity: six days of work and one day of rest.
Of course, we aren’t God; and that means our work doesn’t always get done by the end of the week; and the temptation can then be to drag that work into the seventh day. But human experience shows that, when we don’t take a weekly day of rest, we end up suffering for it. In the days following the French revolution of 1789, the new government tried to decimalise the week, giving workers one day off in ten; but the project soon had to be abandoned because people simply got exhausted. God knew best all along.
God’s appointed day of rest was designed to bless us, not curse us.
What happened to the Day of Rest in the Old Testament?
While a day of rest was given by God as gift to all humanity, it was also given a particular significance for his people, Israel. For them, the day of rest was not just a blessing to be received but a command to be obeyed, written into the Covenant that he made with them. Observing it was written into the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), the very heart of God’s Law for Israel, and keeping it became a “sign” of the relationship between God and them, becoming associated not just with “resting” and “revering” (Exodus 20:8-11) but also “remembering” what God had done for them in freeing them from slavery (Deuteronomy 6:12-15). It also became a day for special rejoicing in what God done for his people, and special offerings were made on that day (e.g. Numbers 28:9-10).
Resting, revering, remembering and rejoicing – four key features of the Sabbath.
Sadly, the Sabbath wasn’t always kept as it should have been in Old Testament times. Sometimes people got too busy to keep it and started to treat it like any other day; and whenever that happened, God sent prophets to challenge his people that they weren’t just breaking rules, but they were breaking relationship. But equally, some people went in the opposite direction and got incredibly legalistic about the Sabbath, creating long lists of what they felt constituted “work” and becoming self-appointed “God’s policemen” to ensure that others didn’t break their rules. The Pharisees in the New Testament are good examples of this, which is why they clashed with Jesus so much who had no time for their nit-picking rules that turned God’s gift into a burden. Jesus said that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). God’s appointed day of rest was designed to bless us, not curse us.
What happened to the Day of Rest in the church?
It wasn’t long before the early Christians changed the “Sabbath” from Saturday (the day commemorated by Jews) to Sunday. Why? Because the resurrection of Jesus from the dead had changed everything for them; and so since Jesus had risen on a Sunday, “the first day the first day of the week” (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16;2; Luke 24;1; John 20:1), they began to meet together “on the first day of the week”, to worship and break bread together (Acts 20:7) and to bring their offerings (1 Corinthians 16:2). All Christian denominations today, with the exception of Seventh Day Adventists, still see Sunday as their special day.
Some will find gardening thoroughly invigorating, while others will find it exhausting. Some will find reading helps them to unwind, while others will find it boring.
Christians aren’t obligated to keep the “Sabbath” like Jews were; for that command was part of God’s covenant with them, not with us; and the Apostle Paul challenged Christians who wanted to make a “law” out of keeping the Sabbath (Colossians 2:16-17). However, since God himself modelled the principle of six days work followed by one day of not working, Christians have seen it wise to follow his example.
Exactly what helps us to rest, revere, remember and rejoice will vary from one person to the next. Some will find gardening thoroughly invigorating, while others will find it exhausting. Some will find reading helps them to unwind, while others will find it boring. We are all different and each of us has to find exactly what works best for us to help us recharge our physical, emotional and spiritual batteries.
If we are a Christian, then meeting with God’s people to rest, revere, remember and rejoice together should certainly be a foundation stone of the day, as it has been for the church for the past two thousand years. If that’s something that regularly gets squeezed out of your life, then it’s time to stop and do a spiritual health-check on yourself. Missing the odd Sunday church meeting is probably inevitable; missing them regularly means something is profoundly wrong. It’s all too easy to get sucked into “busy Sunday” syndrome, especially if our children have team games on Sundays; but we need to determine what are our priorities.
If we’re not a Christian, it’s still wise to take a day of rest; for the day of rest principle is a God’s gift to all humanity, not just Christians, and if we try to work more than God himself did, then we are heading for trouble. That doesn’t mean sitting at home doing nothing; it means doing things that help recharge our batteries, readying ourselves for the week ahead.
It’s all too easy to get sucked into “busy Sunday” syndrome, especially if our children have team games on Sundays; but we need to determine what are our priorities.
Another kind of rest…
But there is another kind of rest that the New Testament speaks of. Hebrews 4:1-11 tells of the importance of us entering “God’s rest”. In the previous chapter the writer used the Old Testament story of how all of God’s people escaped slavery in Egypt but how very few of them entered the rest that God had planned for them in their promised homeland of Canaan. He says that it’s possible for Christians to be like that too: saved, yet never really entering into all that God has for us, because we still keep “working” to be accepted by him rather than simply receiving his salvation and grace as a gift and living in the good of that. We experience more of God by trusting more, not by trying harder.
A second aspect of his argument is that there remains an even better “Sabbath-rest” for us to enter one day: the assurance that, if we have truly put our faith in Jesus, then when we die, we will go to spend a glorious eternity spent with him. And that is a rest that we definitely need to ensure we don’t miss out on.
If a weekly day of “rest” has got squeezed out of your life, why not give it a go? You have nothing to lose, and may find you have everything to gain.