Observing the Sunday - J. Helder
Taken from the Clarion (Jan. 9, 1987) Vol. 36, No 1,
Much has been said about the Lord's Day and several questions have been posed. Is it necessary to go to church twice? What is wrong with working occasionally on Sunday? In what way are we bound to the fourth word of the Decalogue? Is there continuity between the Sabbath and the Sunday? In this essay, I will attempt to show what the Bible and the Catechism have to say about this matter, what has been practised through the centuries and what our perspective should be on the Lord's Day.
"Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days shall you labour and do all your work but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. In it you shall not do any work." Thus the Lord told His people.
For the Israelite the Sabbath was two things: A solemn rest and a holy convocation (compare Leviticus 23:3; II Kings 4:23). The Sabbath with its ordinances was not an end in itself. If that were the case, man would have been a slave to it. The Sabbath was a blessing for the Israelite. The Lord blessed the Sabbath day and gave it as a happy day of rest to His people, a day on which they could refresh themselves, gather new strength physically and spiritually and enjoy the fruits of their labour, as the Lord had done on the completion of His creation work. The rest on the seventh day was a privilege which the heathen nations did not have. But there was much more to it. The Sabbath day rest was also a shadow and a prophecy of the true rest which the Lord would grant and of which Israel already had a foretaste in the liberation from the bondage of Egypt. True rest was the deliverance from bondage to sin and Satan. The Sabbath served as a sign between the Lord and His people of the coming Eternal Rest.
For the people who did not fear the Lord and failed to see the grace behind the Sabbath demand, the Sabbath became a day which deprived them of the opportunity to do business (see Amos 8:5). The day became a burden, a day of do's and don'ts. The rabbis who saw the day as an end in itself heaped rule upon rule on the day instead of seeing it as a means to direct their hope in the Messiah.
The Pharisees, who charged Jesus and the disciples with breaking the law by helping themselves to grain on the Sabbath, were shown the true character of the day. The Lord reminded them of what David had done in taking the showbread which was forbidden. The Lord showed the Pharisees that the law was not given to make life unbearable for the people of God, but rather to direct them in the life of hope and gratitude. Hence his remark in Mark 2:27 "Man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man" that is to say: The Sabbath was made to be of service to him, to assist him, to make his life rich and full, to better fulfill the purpose for which man was made, namely, the service and glorification of God.
For the true people of God, therefore, the keeping of the Sabbath could not be anything but a delight. On this day they were given the opportunity to come together in worship, to praise the Lord for the blessings He had given to them. It was a remembrance day of God's wonderful acts, His acts of creation and redemption set in the light of the coming Christ.
You need only turn to the Psalms to see the joyful character of the Jewish Sabbath. With Christ's coming, the Lord of the Sabbath brought the dispensation of shadows to completion and consummation. With the fulfilment of the ceremonial aspects of the Sabbath, the day as such was rendered of no effect by Christ. The teachings of Paul clearly show this. The change brought about by the coming of Christ, His death and resurrection is not that our day of rest is now on Sunday instead of Saturday; no, the change is that the Old Testament Sabbath was brought to its fulfilment and replaced by the beginning of the eternal Sabbath. This is the rest from sin and Satan. Therefore Christ is able to say: "Come to me all you who are heavily laden and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:22).
We may live out of that rest which Christ has gained for us and we may do that every day of our lives. How we do this is answered beautifully in the catechism; "that all the days of my life I rest from my evil works, let the Lord work in me through His Holy Spirit and so begin in this life the eternal sabbath." The Sunday is not holier than any other day. The call of God in Christ comes to me every day. Each day I may be a child of His Sabbath, partake of God's rest in Christ. In Christ I possess the freedom to lay aside my work for the purpose of worshipping God, for meditating on His works along with my fellow believers and to gain physical respite.
That the day of worship has changed is an undeniable fact. The early church under the leadership of the apostles, abandoned the Jewish Sabbath day. The keeping of that day did not fit the Christian era. With the abandoning of the Jewish Sabbath, however, the young church initiated the custom of observing the first day of the week in honor of her risen Lord. On that day Christ arose from the dead; on that day He appeared to His disciples (Luke 24:36; John 20:19, 26); on that day the Holy Spirit was given (Acts 2) and on that day Christians began to hold their worship services (Acts 20:7; I Corinthians 16:2). Though relinguishing the Sabbath command, the early church still honoured the spirit of this commandment when it eventually introduced the custom of resting as well as worshipping on the first day of each week.
Let's go through history for a moment and see how the Lord's Day has developed. From Scripture we learn that the early Christians came together on the first day of the week to commemorate Christ's resurrection by preaching the gospel, partaking of the Lord's Supper and giving to those in need. (Compare with Lord's Day 38 and Corinthians 11, 14, 16) Second century Christians, in accordance with apostolic teachings, observed the Lord's Day as a festival period. Yet many Christians were compelled to work every day. Therefore they met before sunrise and gathered again in the evening. Although they were not privileged to have a day of rest, they still lived in the eternal Sabbath period. Thus Sunday as we know it, simply did not exist. Through the next few centuries, the idea was developed to also rest on the first day of the week. In 321, Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor, commanded his subjects to rest on Sunday. Christians in the fourth century rested on that day because they understood the Sunday to be the Lord's Day, a day to commemorate Christ's resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. For them Sunday was a day of joy and thanksgiving spent in prayer, praise and communion.
During the Middle Ages (500-1500) the church came under the ban of legalism. While the early Christians rested on the first day because they had the freedom to do so, in the Middle Ages the Sabbath rest was strictly enforced by both church and state. In this way the joy and thankfulness which had marked the early Christians' celebration of the Lord's Day was smothered by casuistry.
During the time of the Reformation the focus shifted again - from the strict observance of stifling laws on the Lord's Day to the freedom which had characterized the Lord's Day observance. The Christians had to learn again that they lived through grace not works. The Reformers observed the Sunday as a day of rest in the light of the freedom given by Christ, though there were differences of opinion as to how the day was to be spent. Luther felt that church services once a Sunday was enough, though he did maintain that resting one day out of seven and worshipping on that particular day was not restricted to Sunday since all days of the week are holy. For practical reasons, however, the Sunday was designated for worship and relaxation. Calvin had the people come together twice a day, for worship in the morning and for religious instruction in the afternoon as did John Knox. These two educated the people not to spend the rest day idly. The Reformers did agree that recreation had a place on the Sunday. I would like to point out that Sunday was the only day that could be used for recreation in those times.
At the end of the 1600's we hear a different tune and the fourth commandment was applied literally. All sorts of regulations were made with which one could recognize the "violaters of the Lord's Day." We see the vacillation from one extreme to the other; from the literal application of the fourth commandment to the abuse of Christian liberty. The proper concept of the Israelite's Sabbath and our Lord's Day was often misunderstood.
What should be our perspective on the Lord's Day? About working or engaging in recreation the Catechism has nothing to say. We are Sabbath-children aren't we? We may live in the freedom which Christ has obtained for us. From what we have learned about the character of the Sabbath and in light of history we may consider ourselves very privileged that the Lord has directed events that we may exercise our freedom and take our rest on the Sunday and may worship in that freedom. When we consider all this, Sunday is not a boring day at all but a day in which to celebrate. What better way is there to spend our rest days than to open God's Word (not only on Sunday) and to meet with His people in honour of the Lord? What better way to observe the Lord's Day than to rest on it and to rejoice in the restoration of the eternal Sabbath that was already there in creation? Then Sunday is a special day, a feast day, and there isn't a problem of whether I may do this or that or when does the Sunday begin and end. Will we spoil the Lord's Day with taboos for the day or will we abuse our freedom to do whatever we wish? Let us remember that each Sunday brings us closer to our eternal Sabbath which is at the same time our eternal labour in service to God!
The Sabbath-Sunday Problem - G. Van Groningen, Editor;
The Lord's Day - Paul K. Jewett;
This is the Day - Roger T. Beckwith and Wilfrid Stott;
From Sabbath to Lord's Day - D.A. Carson, Editor;
The Sabbath Institution - John Murray;
Foundations of the Sabbath in the Word of God - B .B. Warfield, D.D., LL.D.;
Sermon Series Preach the Word, Lord's Day 38 - Rev. L. Selles, Prof. J. Faber