Does the Third Commandment Apply to Christians?
I quote my post on "What the Bible Says about tattoos," which covered some of the same ground:
. . . we can divide the commandments in the Old Testament (OT) into three types:
Cultural and Civic -- commandments for the OT Israelite culture, like commands on how to divide the land among the tribes.
Ceremonial -- commandments concerning the worship of the Israelites, like commands about feasts. Most of the OT commands are of this type.
Moral -- commandments for all cultures, at all times, like the commandment that husbands stay with their wives (Genesis 2:24, repeated by Jesus in Matthew 19:5). Moral commandments, though they may be stated first in the OT, are also found in the New Testament.
We can't always tell which type of command was meant. They are not identified as such in the Bible. The church generally does not hold that the first two types of commandments are binding on Christians. At the Jerusalem conference, the leaders wrote as follows, when Jews felt that gentile Christians must obey the ceremonial law: Acts 15:28 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: 29a that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Even some of the prohibitions in Acts 15:28-9 are not taken as binding by most Christians anymore. 1 Corinthians 8:8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. The Acts 15 statement was about the ceremonial law. It does not undo God's moral laws.
So, the first question requires an answer to another, namely, "are the Ten Commandments moral law, binding on Christians in the present?"
Historically, the Ten Commandments have been considered to be moral law, so the answer seems to be, generally, yes. At least some of them were reinforced in the New Testament. Jesus, Himself, said this:
However, apparent exceptions to the Third Commandment, which we are considering, have been made often, including, apparently, in the New Testament. What does the New Testament say about this commandment?
In Matthew 12, Jesus, Himself, seems to modify the Third Commandment:
Paul also seems to declare the Third Commandment as non-binding:
What's going on here?
I believe that there are two things going on. The first one is that, as I said, Christ was dealing with important principles, rather than the literal interpretation of the Commandments. Why do I say that? In Matthew 5, He spoke about the Sixth and Seventh Commandments, which, respectively, deal with murder and adultery. Christ made it clear that it wasn't the act of murder, or the act of adultery, but the thought, the motive. To illustrate: Have I ever had sexual intercourse with a woman who wasn't my wife, since I have been married? (This would have been adultery, which is a violation of the marriage covenant.) No. Have I ever violated the Seventh Commandment, as Jesus interpreted it? I'm afraid so. I have lusted after women. God forgive me. The principle of the Seventh Commandment is that marriage vows be honored, and not just in outward action, but in the thought life and attitude.
It seems to me that the principles behind the Third Commandment are these:
The Third Commandment is about honoring God, not about not doing certain things for a period of time. God should be honored by regular worship, including, if possible, worshiping with other people. There are other important ways to honor God, too, such as loving other people in a Christ-like way, and following Christ's commands.
Helping other people is one way to honor God, and it is more important than not doing things for a period of time.
Jesus alluded to the first two of these principles in the passage from Matthew 12 quoted above. The third principle was mentioned in Hebrews 4, and, there, linked to the Third Commandment. Jesus also told his listeners that He was the source of rest (Matthew 11:25-31) and told the disciples to rest (Mark 6:31) although He didn't link either of these to the Third Commandment.
The second thing going on has to do with the Sabbath, itself.
The original Jewish Sabbath began at sundown on what we call Friday, and lasted until sundown on Saturday. That is why those who buried Jesus on Good Friday wanted to get this done before sundown (Matthew 27, John 19). But Jesus rose from the dead on what we call Sunday, and, during even the time of the New Testament, Christians had begun to celebrate that event on that day. Today, most Christians celebrate together on Sunday, not Saturday. 1 Corinthians 16:2 refers to this: On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. So does Revelation 1:10: I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet. So one of the reasons that Paul said what he did about honoring, or not honoring, a particular day probably referred to the fact that some Christians were honoring one day of the week, and some another (and, apparently, some were not honoring a particular day).
So, I submit, there are four principles that Christians need to consider, in relation to the Third Commandment. The first three are given above. The fourth is this: My attitude must be one of love. Here's part of Mark 12, on the most important commandments: 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34a And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
I need to have a loving attitude toward those who disagree with me, including those who call Sunday the Sabbath, those who worship on Saturday, rather than Sunday, those who try to avoid doing work or purchasing on Sunday, and those whose convictions about honoring God and Sunday allow them to do things that my own convictions won't let me do. Paul referred to that in the passages quoted above.
So, let me close with some questions.
1) Is it wrong to eat at a restaurant, get gas or groceries on Sunday? It is wrong if I am avoiding corporate worship. It is wrong if I am blatantly and arrogantly ignoring the convictions of other people. Some would say, but I wouldn't go that far, that it is wrong because it keeps those who work at restaurants, gas stations, and grocery stores from church. Most of these could go to other services, and get extended periods of rest, at other times on Sunday, or on other days of the week, if they chose. Many of them wouldn't go to church in any case. Eating at home on Sunday may mean a good bit of Sunday work for my own family. That would be wrong if I am not observing any rest period during my week.
2) Is it wrong to cut the grass, weed the garden, wash clothes, fix the car, do yard work, do homework, or prepare and clean up after a meal on Sunday? I would answer this as I answered the first question. For myself, I generally avoid the activities listed in the question which can be seen by others, like mowing the grass, because some of my neighbors have convictions against doing such things, and there is no compelling reason to flaunt my own liberty in this area. But I would clean up after meals, perhaps put on a washer of clothes, and do homework on Sunday, as long as this didn't interfere with group worship or rest.
3) Is it wrong to engage in vigorous physical activity on Sunday? I answer this as for the first question, and also say that, for some people, vigorous physical activity would be rest from their work.
4) How should a pastor observe Sunday? By performing his or her duties as well as possible, with God's help. This often means that a pastor (and many lay persons) don't get a lot of rest on Sunday, because they are involved in church activities. Perhaps there is too much activity for the sake of activity, and that should be examined, for both pastor and parishioners. But, assuming that the activity is legitimate, a pastor, or another Christian who cannot get some rest time because of activity for the Kingdom, on Sunday, should be sure to get such rest on other days.
*All scripture links are to the English Standard Version, which allows such use, with proper attribution.
Thanks for reading.
Added March 18, 2015: The He Lives blog has some interesting thoughts on the theology of the Sabbath, and claims that, for the Church, the commandment is actually fulfilled in what Hebrews says about the Sabbath.
Hebrews 3:18 To whom did he swear that they wouldn’t enter into his rest, but to those who were disobedient? 19 We see that they were not able to enter in because of unbelief.
Hebrews 4:1 (Which follows immediately after the previously quoted passage.) Let’s fear therefore, lest perhaps anyone of you should seem to have come short of a promise of entering into his rest. 2 For indeed we have had good news preached to us, even as they also did, but the word they heard didn’t profit them, because it wasn’t mixed with faith by those who heard. 3a For we who have believed do enter into that rest . . .
9 There remains therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God. (World English Bible, public domain)