Interpreting and apply the fourth commandment takes a great deal of skill and wisdom. Of course, this is true for all of the ten commandments, but the sabbath requires special care. It is enormously significant to note that once one moved out of the land of Palestine, one encountered a different cultural situation. In Israel the Sabbath was culturally, even politically enforced. It was part of the accepted social structure. This was not the case in Ephesus or Corinth or Rome.
What many Christians forget is that the very possibility of a Sabbath rest for most people in any given culture depends upon those in authority. Or to put it another way: it is the particular duty of those in authority to grant and enforce the Sabbath. Note the language of the Sabbath law. It is not merely given to each individual within the culture, but God says “in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner within your gates” (Exodus 20:10). It is directed primarily toward those who have the authority to release others from the burdens of their normal six-day work—heads of households, masters, and the elders within the gates. Notice the phrase “within your gates.” Remember the gate of the city was the seat of the government. It was the place where the judges sat to pass laws and adjudicate cases. God expected legislative implementation of this commandment by Israelite authorities.
The Sabbath commandment demands social enactment and enforcement. This helps explain why it is given at this particular time (Mt. Sinai) in redemptive history and not earlier. God’s people had never before been organized into a nation until Mt. Sinai. In fact, without legislative implementation, the Sabbath law is impotent. It simply cannot accomplish what God intends. Among other things the Sabbath law is designed to protect sons and daughters, servants, slaves, and workers against abuse. They are weak and vulnerable at the hands of those in authority over them. The Sabbath is a gift given to provide them weekly refreshment. If the heads of households, masters, and elders do not submit to the Sabbath law, then servants are in trouble. You see, if the law only has force for individuals as they see fit, then sons and servants are left to the mercy of their superiors. Even if they wanted to keep the Sabbath, the could never do so without the blessing of their superiors. That's why the language of the law zeros in on those who have the power to release their subordinates from working one day a week.
The Sabbath, then, is the gift of God to the entire culture or nation. But it is mediated to everyone through those with cultural power. That means without a godly society and laws to enforce the Sabbath, it cannot be kept. The very people it is designed to protect cannot benefit from the law unless their masters either voluntarily comply or are compelled by law. Most of the people in any culture are indentured to a master (employer) and are therefore at their master’s mercy. In some sense, too, everyone is under a superior, who has the power to bind or loose with regard to the day of rest.
Therefore, a culture must become Christian before most people receive the gift of one day in seven off. If you were a slave in first century Ephesus and under a pagan master, did you get one day in seven off? No. Did you get the first day off? No. If you were a Christian indentured to a Roman master, did you get the Lord’s Day off? No. You had to worship early in the morning or late at night. Whose fault was this? The Christian slave’s? No. It was master’s and magistrate’s!
Now maybe you can see why the New Testament epistles, written as they are mostly to Christians living in cultures dominated by Roman or Greek pagan legal systems, do not bind Christian slaves with keeping the Sabbath. If they refused to work for their masters, they would be killed! What good would it do for Paul to insist that the Christian slave not work on the Lord’s Day? It would surely mean the execution or torture of Christian slaves. (Just for the record: I'm not assuming a easy, unqualified connection between the old Sabbath and the new Lord's Day. I have more to say on this in my next post.)
A weekly day of rest, then, is God’s gift to individuals mediated through familial and cultural authorities. Without a godly society and laws to enforce it, this commandment cannot be kept. Without those in authority acknowledging their duty towards God and towards those under them, this commandment cannot be effective.
What does this mean for us? As our culture abandons more and more of it's Christian heritage, we should expect that many of our parishioners will be put back into situations similar to those experienced in the early church. They cannot be asked to fall on their proverbial swords if their masters (employers and legislatures) turn their back on Christian wisdom and legal precedent, refusing to give them Sunday off. This is simply to recognize what ought to be obvious—that we no longer live in the same sort of Christianized cultures as did our Puritan forefathers in 17th-century England, Scotland, and America.