Grain-Gleaning and Sheep-Rescuing: Sabbath Works of Necessity
Written by David Kranendonk
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Reformed Practice - Sabbath Observation

“The danger is very real that the Christian pilgrim as he lives his life in this world will adopt the habits of the world. That this is more than an imaginary danger among quite evident from a growing number of undesireable practises and habits which are a hindrance to the proper observance of the Lord’s Day. For example, (a) the enticement to unnecessary Sunday labor is increasingly heeded; (b) the number of habitual “oncers” at divine worship is apparently growing....” These words were published in The Messenger of March 1963. They are a quotation of the Christian Reformed Classis of British Columbia report of September 1962. This issue is even more timely today. We need to ask: What does the Lord consider “unnecessary Sunday labour”?

Rest and Work

The fourth commandment states: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work....” As the very word “Sabbath” indicates, this day is a day of rest. We are to rest from our daily work for several reasons: to be refreshed physically; to find rest for our souls in Christ Jesus; to seek, experience and praise God for His work; and to have a foretaste of that rest that awaits the people of God. This first day of the week is set apart from all the other days and devoted to God as an especially blessed gift of God. As the Church Father, Chrysostom, said, “the Sabbath was not allowed for idleness, but that men being withdrawn from the cares of temporal things, its rest should be spent in spiritual things.”1

A simple reading of the commandment might suggest that all work is to cease on this day. However, the standard clarification is that no work is to be done on the Lord’s Day except for “works of piety, charity, and necessity.” For example, the Synod of Dordt (1618/1619) made an official statement that, “This same day is thus consecrated for divine worship, so that in it one might rest from all servile works (with these excepted, which are works of charity and pressing necessity) and from those recreations which impede the worship of God.”2 The Westminster Shorter Catechism confesses, “The Sabbath is to be sanctified

by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.”

Scriptural Basis

A commonly cited proof text for works of necessity is Matthew 12:1-12. The first verses of this passage recount how the Lord Jesus was walking with his disciples through the fields on the Sabbath. As they walked, the disciples reached out to “harvest” heads of grain, rub them between their fingers to “thresh” them, and then pop them into their mouths. The Pharisees confronted the Lord Jesus with this Sabbath desecration by harvesting. They must have appealed to the instruction of Exodus 34:21: “on the seventh day thou shalt rest: in earing time and in harvest time thou shalt rest.”

The Lord Jesus responds by reminding them of how the hungry fugitive, David, came to the tabernacle on the Sabbath and ate the shewbread which was only intended for the priests. He argues from the lesser to the greater: If David was allowed to violate a ceremonial law when he was on the Lord’s business on the Sabbath, surely Christ and his followers may break a man-made law about the Sabbath. As “Lord of the Sabbath” he teaches that we may lawfully per- form those things which are needful for the welfare of our bodies.

In this same passage Christ shows it is lawful to perform work directly related to the worship of God. A butcher was not allowed to kill animals, but a priest was commanded to do so as part of the Sabbath worship of God (Matt. 12:5). He also concludes that, since the Lord desires “mercy and not sacrifice,” it is “lawful to do well on the Sabbath” and alleviate suffering.

Works that Promote the Sabbath

How have “works of necessity” been defined? Zacharias Ursinus, an author of our Heidelberg Catechism, wrote: “works which carry out [the sabbath’s] true intention and so establish it, as all those works which so pertain to the worship of God or religious ceremonies, or to the duty of love towards our neighbor, or to the saving of our own, or the life of another, as that necessity will not allow them to be deferred to another time, do not violate the Sabbath, but are especially required in order that we may properly observe it.”3An important element here is that, to be a necessary work, a work must promote the sanctity of the Sabbath day as well as love to God and our neighbour.

Necessary work promotes the overall rest and worship of the day. One Puritan catechism asks, “What servile works are permitted on the Sabbath? A. 1. Such as further the proper works of the Sabbath.” Activities that facilitate and promote the actual Sabbath work of worship are appropriate for the Sabbath. Such labours relate directly to the worship of God and the care for our bodies and animals. The Lord is not like the Egyptian taskmasters who demanded bricks without giving straw. He provides for our daily needs on His day to enable us to seek and serve Him.4

Works that Cannot Wait

The Puritan, John Wells defines “works of absolute necessity” as those “which could neither be done before the Sabbath, nor deferred till after.” He gives as examples treating wounds, fighting house fires, or defending the nation. These works display God’s love, rather than break God’s law.5 Some of these works are foreseen. The Lord Jesus gives the example of the farmer who lets out his ox and leads him to water (Luke 13:15). The ongoing care of your family and animals is a regular work of necessity.

Other necessary works are unforseeable. The Lord Jesus refers to the one who rescues his sheep which has fallen into a pit (Matt. 12:11). He does not know the day before that his sheep will fall into the ditch and would be cruel to leave it in the pit until the next day. Jesus also instructed the church to pray that their flight from danger would not be on the Sabbath day (Matt. 24:20). Flight is necessary because flight cannot be postponed to the next day. Work that results from sudden calamities like floods, fires, storms, ilnesses, or accidents is necessary because the Lord desires mercy and not sacrifice. John Murray infers from Matthew 12:3-4 that “dire necessity warranted the doing of something which under normal conditions would have been a culpable violation of divine prescription and restriction.”6

Sometimes, your daily work may seem a “dire necessity” that cannot wait till Monday because you need to have it done be- fore a set deadline. A student has a project due Monday, a businessman has a deadline to meet, another has a meeting on Monday morning. They justify working on the Lord’s day by appealing to God’s will that we keep our commitments. However, the problem here is a failure to plan properly ahead of time and be diligent before the Lord’s day. The man who collected firewood on the Sabbath should have planned ahead (Num. 15:32). We are to “remember the sabbath day” ahead of time and plan accordingly.

If we do not prepare for the day, we ought to be willing to suffer the consequences, rather than let the Lord’s day rest suffer. When lack of foresight makes a work necessary, such as when we have failed to have enough gas in the car and need to buy it on the Lord’s day, the Puritan, Nicholas Bownd, says we “must do it...lament- ing our former negligence...that we did not provide for it, praying to God to forgive us our sin.”7

God has given six days for our work. If we think our work cannot be done in those six days and that we need the seventh, we charge God with unfairness for giving us seven days worth of work and only six days in which to do it. We also show ingratitude for the precious gift of a day of rest.

A Test

Let us heed Dr. Joseph Pipa’s challenge: “Everything we do [on the Lord’s day] should be measured by the question, ‘Does this pro- mote the purposes of the day?’”8 Is what I am thinking of doing needed for my or oth- ers immediate physical welfare or to enable me or others to worship and rest? Could I have done it yesterday or can I postpone it until tomorrow without immediate harm? How can I best keep His day holy?

Rev. David H. Kranendonk is the pastor of the Free Reformed Church of Bornholm, Ontario. This article was printed in the FRC Messenger and is republished here with permission.


1. Cited in Thomas Young, The Lord’s-day (1672), 179.

2. H.H. Kuyper, De Post-Acta of Nahandelingen van de nationale Synode van Dordrecht in 1618 en 1619 (1899), 184-6. Translated by R. S. Clark.

3. Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism (1852; Reprint, P & R), 559.

4. William Gouge, The Sabbath’s Sanctification (1641), 12-16.

5. John Wells, The Practical Sabbatarian (1668), 17.

6. John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 1 (Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), 213.

7. Nicholas Bownd, The Doctrine of the Sabbath (1595), 116.

8. Joseph A. Pipa, Jr., The Lord’s Day (Christian Focus Publications, 1996), 79.