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Please explain: If the Sabbath law no longer applies, why do I have to go to church?

“Really? You’re going to church again? Didn’t you just go last week? Don’t you know all that stuff already? Are you really going to learn anything new or different? Why do you have to go?”

We may have heard those questions from people who see us pull out of the drive every Sunday or know we worship regularly online. “Can’t you just skip it? You don’t want to catch the virus. You can go when all this is over. And besides, you really don’t have to go, do you?” Even our children might ask similar questions.

There’s one more source for those questions. We struggle with them too. When the alarm goes off Sunday morning, we hit our snooze button and decide to fall back in our warm bed and just not go. Online services may make it even easier to skip. After all, why do we have to worship?

Well, of course, God says in the Third Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” It’s pretty clear that we have to go. Jesus emphasized its importance. He said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). We still do have to keep the Ten Commandments. So we conclude, “I guess I have to go to church. I guess I will get out of bed after all.”

Have to?

It’s easy to break down the Old Testament into the things we have to do and the things we don’t have to do. Is this law something that God commanded for Old Testament worship? Well, then, I don’t have to do it. Or is this law part of God’s moral law for all time, like the Ten Commandments? I guess I have to do those. We like clear expectations and goals, so this can be a comfortable way of viewing God’s Old Testament law: Do all that God’s moral law requires!

Yet we still want to think that we earn something from God by doing what he asks. One expert in the Old Testament law asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25). Yes, what must we do? Jesus’ own disciple Peter asked him, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” (Matthew 18:21). The Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). But those who were asking weren’t approaching their situations with the right mindset. Each time, the lesson came through: It’s not about what we have to do; it’s about what Christ has already done.

It really has never been about what we have to do. While the Old Testament does have many lists of rules and regulations for God’s people, even at that time the Israelites were not saved by the laws they kept and the things they had to do. They were saved by faith in the coming Messiah who would be the fulfillment of the law in their place, just as he is for us. The Bible is not just a set of rules, and it never has been. The Bible is the story of our salvation in Jesus.

But what about the Ten Commandments?

The Ten Commandments summarize God’s will in a neat, concise package. Martin Luther thought they were foundational for teaching children and adults alike what God desires from his people. But none of that makes the Ten Commandments into a checklist to make sure we have done enough to get to eternal life.

The Christian church throughout its entire history has had trouble understanding what it means that Jesus fulfilled the law of God for us. Some early Christians, especially with a Jewish background and an Old Testament mindset, believed that people still had to follow certain Israelite customs in order to truly be God’s people. A large portion of the New Testament is dedicated to squashing that idea. Paul writes strongly in Colossians 2:16,17, “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” The law is fulfilled! We are not bound by the civil and ceremonial practices of Israel. Obedience to them does not entitle them—or us—to be God’s people or earn his love and approval.

The Third Commandment is there to guide you to that Sabbath rest in the gospel.

But even as Christ is the fulfillment of all the law, the law is still useful for us today. We can learn a lot about God’s will from the civil and ceremonial laws, even if we don’t sacrifice bulls and goats in our worship services. We also can learn much about God’s will from the Ten Commandments in more direct and applicable ways. All Scripture, including God’s will revealed in the Ten Commandments, is useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking, and training in righteousness (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16).

So does the Sabbath Day matter?

The law of God was clear for Israel: There was to be no work or play on the Sabbath. If we aren’t bound by those restrictions, as Jesus made clear, then does the Sabbath matter at all? The answer is yes, because the essence of the Sabbath Day—and, hand in hand with it, the essence of the Third Commandment— was rest and renewal primarily for the soul.

The mandated rest of the Sabbath day was rooted in the seven days of creation. The purpose of weekly Sabbath rest was to give God’s people an opportunity to focus on his Word. We don’t observe Sabbath regulations anymore, and we don’t even use the same day prescribed back then, but when we set aside time each week to gather for worship, we are keeping the Sabbath Day holy in our New Testament context. The Third Commandment helps remind us to worship, not as an obligation but as Spirit-worked desire.

Let us not give up meeting together

Some Sunday mornings, the bed may seem extra comfy. When your desire for church is at its lowest, perhaps that is when your need for church is at its highest. At those times, the Third Commandment is there to guide you to that Sabbath rest in the gospel. We come together to find rest in Jesus after all of our life’s unrest and trouble. Not only do we hear again of our forgiveness, but we also find mutual support and encouragement in the family of believers. Your brothers and sisters in Christ benefit from your presence in worship just as much as you do.

God’s law was given for our good. God doesn’t need our worship—it is for our benefit! In worship, God provides rest in his Word and strength in the sacrament.

It’s good to know you don’t have to go to church. But even when you don’t want to, remember that you get to.

Author: Jared Natsis
Volume 108, Number 3
Issue: March 2021

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