Remembering the Lord’s day

Lord’s Day 38

Question 103. What doth God require in the fourth commandment?

Answer. First, that the ministry of the gospel and the schools be maintained; and that I, especially on the sabbath, that is, on the day of rest, diligently frequent the church of God, to hear His word, to use the sacraments, publicly to call upon the Lord, and contribute to the relief of the poor, as becomes a Christian. Secondly, that all the days of my life I cease from my evil works, and yield myself to the Lord, to work by His Holy Spirit in me; and thus begin in this life the eternal sabbath.

Secular Western culture, along with much of modern Christianity, has rejected the fourth commandment. The reasons for this rejection include 1) evolutionism, which rejects the creation week; 2) secularism, which puts so much emphasis on human achievement and pleasure; and 3) dispensationalism, which misunderstands the use of the law in the New Testament church. Because of this, the teaching of the fourth commandment is especially necessary and urgent today.

The urgency, however, is much closer to home. We may not be evolutionists, secularists, or dispensationalists, but the importance of this commandment and its requirements are still slipping from us. As the world around us, and other Christians, use this day more and more for their own pleasure, the temptation becomes stronger and the conscience less convicted with regard to the Sabbath. Technology has a way of crowding our lives and time, also on Sundays, and soon it becomes accepted to “take pleasure in” the Sabbath-desecrating activities of our age—for example, professional sporting events.

It is good for us, then, to be reminded of the reasons for maintaining the Christian Sabbath on the first day of the week, and to see the spiritual blessings of keeping Sunday as the Lord’s day, a day of rest from secular employment and pleasure, and a day consecrated to the worship of God.

Reasons to keep the Sabbath

The first reason is that God created a seven-day week. Not only did God create in six days and rest the seventh, but God created the seven-day week itself as a basic measurement of time. In the creation of that week, God ordained and set aside one day as a day of rest. God Himself rested, not because He was weary, but as a pattern for man to follow. He created a day of rest because man, physically, mentally, and spiritually, needs to rest from his labors. He created the day of rest as a day for man to find his rest in God, and to enjoy the work of God. Creation is the first reason.

The second reason is that the fourth commandment is one of the moral requirements of God’s law. There were in the Old Testament also civil and ceremonial laws, which had to do with Israel’s life as a society and with Israel’s worship with a view to the coming of Jesus Christ. Those civil and ceremonial laws were expansive and comprehensive, and the use of them passed away with the coming of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. In contrast to those laws, God established His moral law of Ten Commandments, which He wrote with His own finger on two tables of stone, to be a permanent statute for man. The Sabbath requirement is one of those ten permanent, moral requirements. As we look at the fourth commandment from a New Testament perspective, we acknowledge that there is a ceremonial aspect, namely the keeping of the seventh day as the Sabbath; but this does not mean that we dismiss the entire commandment. Exodus 20:11 says that God “blessed”—not the seventh day—but, He “blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.” The Sabbath is not necessarily Saturday, but it is this: one day of the seven, as a rest day. That God “hallowed” that day means He set it apart, the whole of it, as a day of worship and rest.

The third reason we are to keep the Sabbath day is that this is a pattern and requirement throughout Scripture. The prophets spoke to this. Isaiah 58:13-14 contrasts using the day for yourself, for your pleasure and for doing things your way, to your using it as God’s day and finding your delight in Him. And so, when Jesus comes, we see that He customarily entered the synagogue on the Sabbath day to worship God (Luke 4:16). Also, in His disputes with the Pharisees, Jesus did not speak dismissively of the Sabbath itself, but rather addressed the legalistic abuse of the Sabbath that denied mercy (Mark 3:4). So also Isaiah speaks of God’s blessing remaining on the New Testament church from one Sabbath to the next (Is. 66:23). If nothing else, this means that the New Testament church would continue to keep the Sabbath, and to measure time according to the creation week of seven days, punctuated with a day of rest and worship.

Fourth, we are to keep the Sabbath day holy, and now especially Sunday, because this was the day on which Christ not only arose, but also gathered that same day, and subsequent Sundays, with His disciples until His ascension. And so, in Acts, we find that the church had gathered on the first day of the week, to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. And later, in its establishment in Troas and Corinth, the church continued to gather for public worship around the word and sacrament on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; I Cor. 16:2). When Jesus said in Mark 2:28, “Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath,” He meant that the weekly day of rest belonged to Him, and in light of that we are to read Revelation 1:10, in which John says that he was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day.” John is saying that, on the day that belonged to the risen Lord, the first day of the week, he was worshiping God in the Spirit.

Added to this, and here is our fifth reason for keeping the Sabbath, is that historically the New Testament church has worshiped God on the first day of the week, rejecting the idea of Saturday as the Sabbath as heretical and cultic. The church’s practice throughout history is not determinative, but it is weighty. Only in the last fifty or so years has this practice, which has lasted for 2,000 years, been rejected. There is, in that rejection, a certain spiritual arrogance, in which one sets himself up above those who have preceded him, and rejects the leading of the church by the Spirit. In connection with this, we should note that the rejection of the biblical idea of the Sabbath has quickly led the church away from the Word of God in many other areas, including the Bible’s teaching on marriage, worship, work, authority, and so on.

Delighting in the Sabbath

For the believer, keeping the Sabbath day should not be viewed as a chore and a duty, but rather a joy and a blessing.

The word “sabbath” means rest. God gives us rest to enjoy all our days, but especially on, and never apart from, the Sabbath. We find this idea of “rest” throughout Scripture. God brought Israel from Egypt into Canaan, the land of rest, and when all the Canaanites were conquered, David had rest from his enemies (I Kings 5:4). This rest was not only physical, but was a picture of the rest that is ours in Jesus Christ. Hebrews 4 tells us that once Joshua had given the Israelites rest in the land of Canaan, he spoke to them of another rest, yet to come, which is the spiritual rest of the heavenly Canaan. This spiritual rest comes to us through Jesus Christ, who says in Matthew 11:28,

Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.

Our souls need rest from the burden and toil of sin. Sin brings turmoil. The guilt of sin weighs on the mind, and one cannot rest. The power of sin dominates in one’s life and there is no calm. The consequences of sin bring one into misery. For all this, Jesus is the Rest-giver.

It is in connection with this spiritual rest that God gives us the Sabbath day, with all its spiritual activities, as a day to reflect on our rest in Him, to enjoy that rest, and to look ahead to the rest that will be ours in heaven. He does this especially through the preaching of the gospel, in which He speaks peace to our souls, and through the sacraments that He ordains for the strengthening of our faith. All the activities of the Lord’s day should lead us into the enjoyment of that rest.

Resting on the Lord’s day does not mean we stop working, but it means that we engage in a spiritual labor in which we develop and maintain our spiritual life. Through prayer, hearing God’s Word, private study of Scripture and other good Christian literature, and by fellowshipping with other believers we begin to enjoy the eternal rest that will be ours together in heaven. What a joy to focus on such eternal realities and blessings!

With this perspective on Sunday, keeping the Sabbath should be a delight. Paul says in Romans 7:22, “I delight in the law of God after the inward man,” and John states, “the commandments of God are not grievous” or burdensome (I John 5:3). If salvation and the joy of salvation in fellowship with God is ours through Sabbath keeping, then there is nothing burdensome at all about this commandment. Then we see what Jesus means when He says that “man was not made for the sabbath, but the sabbath for man” (Mark 2:27). In the beginning when God made the Sabbath, He had in mind our delighting in the blessings of rest in Christ.

Sabbath day blessings

What wonderful blessings are ours through keeping the Sabbath! These blessings include knowing God and experiencing communion with Him, peace through the forgiveness of sins, the hope of glory, and the joy of the communion of the saints. There are blessings that come to our families as we sit together to read and discuss God’s Word and to pray. There are blessings that we enjoy immediately, and there are blessings of everlasting value.

To the degree we forsake the Sabbath, we forsake also these blessings. Where one does not gather with fellow believers to hear God’s Word, but instead uses the day in selfish ways, he will grow ignorant of God, and that selfishness will begin to infect his life and relationships in other ways. Not only will he deteriorate spiritually, but this will affect his family and, ultimately, the church will be affected. Church attendance will wane, the practices of Christian living will become a burden, and soon one will walk away from the Lord and will walk with the world.

In the Sabbath God is giving us something that the world can never give.

As Isaiah says, our delight in the Lord will come through delighting in the Sabbath (Is. 58:13, 14):

If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honorable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord.

Questions for Discussion

1. What arguments do people use against keeping Sunday as the New Testament Sabbath?

2. The Jews in the Old Testament observed the Sabbath on the last day of the week; we observe the first day of the week. Why the change?

3. The fourth commandment includes a reference to the doctrine of creation (Ex. 20:11). How is keeping the Sabbath day related to the doctrine of creation?

4. What biblical indication is there that this commandment is a moral requirement also in the New Testament?

5. What, according to the Catechism, is the main requirement of this commandment?

6. Which elements of worship are mentioned in the answer of the Catechism? Are there any other elements to add to this list?

7. How, according to the Catechism, should our keeping the Sabbath affect the rest of our Christian living?

8. In Deuteronomy 5:15, a different reason is given for keeping the Sabbath than in Exodus 20. What is the spiritual significance, for us, of the reason given in Deuteronomy 5:15? How does this teach us that our obedience is motivated by gratitude?

9. What is the spiritual rest typified in the Sabbath?

10. What delight is there for us in keeping the Sabbath? How can we teach our children to delight in the Sabbath?

11. What are some of the blessings in your life from observing the Sabbath?