Sunday and Sabbath - Prof. J. Geertsema

Taken from the Clarion (Jan. 9, 1987) Vol. 36, No 1,

A world-wide question

We begin this 1987 volume of Clarion by paying attention to the Sunday and its relation to the Sabbath.

Some time ago I received a copy of Horizon, the paper of the Women's Societies in Ontario, with an article on the Sunday written by sr. J. Helder. She speaks about the Sunday in such a way that it comes across very clearly that this day of worship is a gift of God and, therefore, a day of rejoicing to be enjoyed by God's people. It is good to reflect on what she says.

Further, I also kept in store for this occasion two articles on the same topic in The Monthly Record of the Free Church of Scotland of September and October of last year. In them the author, the Rev. John L. Mackay, deals with the question whether the Sabbath as a day of rest is a creation ordinance. This question does not receive attention in the essay of sr. Helder, but it is important. The Rev. Mackay says that this matter has been a controversy within the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches throughout the centuries. This controversy can be summarized in the question: Is the "sabbatarian theory" the one we have to follow or should we adhere to the "dominical theory?" Since we have permission to publish any article from The Monthly Record, we will use these articles to show that this matter is discussed not only among us, but also in other parts of the world, in other Reformed/Presbyterian Churches.

It will be clear that the "dominical theory" views the Sunday as just the day of the Lord (Dominus) on which the believers meet for worship, because on this first day of the week the Lord rose from the dead and on this day the New Testament congregation met for worship. In this view there is no real connection between the Sunday and the Old Testament Sabbath. It says that Christ is the fulfilment of the Old Testament Sabbath, as He is the fulfilment of the Old Testament animal sacrifices, and therefore, again like those animal sacrifices, it is, and must be, abolished as the Old Testament day of rest, of no work. This means that, according to this view, the Fourth Commandment as such no longer has any bearing on the New Testament church.

It is evident that the "sabbatarian theory" claims that the Fourth Commandment, speaking of the Sabbath as the day not only of worship but also of rest, is still in force for the New Testament church, although the difference in dispensation must be taken into account.

Modern destruction of the day of rest and worship

The background of the articles in the magazine of the Free Church of Scotland is the fact that Christians in Scotland are engaged in a battle to keep the Sunday as the day of rest in their modern society. There are business people who are working hard for Sunday shopping. The same battle is being fought in our Canadian society. Especially in Ontario and Manitoba, as well as in British Columbia and other parts of the country, this issue is at the center of attention at the moment.

In this battle not all Christians are united. Many do not see the need for this struggle. They have no principle objections to open stores and working on Sundays, because they do not see the connection between the Fourth Commandment and Sunday observance. Although also among those who adhere to the "dominical theory" there are people who will fight for maintaining the Sunday as a day of rest and worship, nevertheless, this theory easily undermines the force of the struggle against the destruction of the Sunday as the day of rest, and against further secularization of our society.

The big question

In the whole debate the big question is: Does the Fourth Commandment have its foundation and root in God's covenant with Israel, made at Mount Sinai, or in His creation work as well? Is the gift and commandment of the one day of rest in the cycle of seven days a temporary, ceremonial ordinance for ancient Israel only, or is it also a creation ordinance which holds a gift and calling for all times? The Rev. MacKay argues for the latter.

Those following the "dominical theory" base their argumentation on texts in the New Testament like Colossians 2:16 and 17, where the Apostle Paul writes that the Sabbath is "only a shadow of what is to come," while "the substance belongs to Christ." The Rev. Mackay also mentions Galatians 4:9-11 and Romans 14:5,6. My view is more in line with that of the Scottish minister. And I do not think that this view is "one step away from some heresy or sectarian thought," as the Rev. VanDooren writes. Of course, we have to watch for legalism, also in this matter. That, if I understand him well, is what the Rev. VanDooren also wants to warn against. Salvation is in Christ only, and not in anyone or anything else, also not in keeping certain manners of acting on the day of rest, nor in keeping the day of rest in itself.

However, when I read that the Sabbath is "only a shadow," I took my Greek New Testament and discovered that the word does not occur there. It is added in the translation and can lead to wrong conclusions. Fact is that it can and must be said that the Sabbath day as the one day of rest in the seven-day week is a creation institution, which cannot be said of the other institutions mentioned in Colossians 2:17: (annual) festivals and the monthly returning new moon days.

This is a significant matter. When the LORD commanded Israel to keep the Sabbath, He placed the observance of this day in the whole body of Old Testament laws and commandments for Israel's life in the covenant, in the promised land.

The Sabbath commandment now received an aspect that stressed the fact that these commandments were given to ensure Israel's holiness to the LORD. The Sabbath was now surrounded with a number of typically Israelite and ceremonial regulations.

We can also mention some other laws. Israel was not to eat unclean animals. They became unclean when touching a dead body. It was: do not touch, do not eat, as ways to remain ceremonially holy. God gave these and other commandments to remind His people in many ways and all the time: I am holy; therefore, you must be holy. Paul shows that commandments and a keeping of commandments does not make or keep us holy. Forgiveness of sins and a life of holiness to the LORD is only possible through a living faith that connects with Christ. Christ, with His blood and Spirit, is the substance, the body, the real thing. The Old Testament commandments which Israel received on Mount Sinai are a shadow pointing to Christ. Thus, what is typically Israelite is shadow. In its place Christ came as Saviour. In Christ the believers are holy, and all days of the week are holy to the LORD.

But this does not take away the fact that there remains the aspect of the day of rest as a creation institution. It does not mean that with Christ that one day of rest in the week, in principle, has been abolished. Christ is Lord of the Sabbath. He can do with it what He wants. He rules it.

The change from Sabbath to Sunday

The change from Sabbath to Sunday started with the resurrection of Christ and His appearing in the midst of His disciples with His blessing on the first day of the week. It continued with His appearing again in their midst, now with Thomas also present, on the first day of the following week. It continued further with the custom of the early churches to meet for worship in the very same first day of the week.

Nevertheless, as far as is known, the early church in Palestine continued to keep the seventh day as the Sabbath, at least until the fall of Jerusalem, while the early church in the Roman empire met on the first day of the week for worship early in the morning, before work, but did not have that day as a day of rest.

We can see here the providential care of the LORD. Had the early Palestinian church immediately abolished the seventh day as her Sabbath day, she would have put up a big obstacle on the way of the gospel to the old covenant people. Abolishing the seventh day would have turned the Jewish people against the gospel and against the church. Reaching the Jewish people with the gospel was, at that time of transition, of more weight than the change from the seventh to the first day as day of worship and rest. God does not want His people to act as revolutionaries. He does not work that way Himself either. Christ is and was Lord of the Sabbath. The Sabbath has to serve Him and His ongoing church-gathering work.

The Gentile churches had many slaves and servants in their midst. Taking off from work on the first day of every week would have been revolution in the eyes of the unbelieving masters, while one of the things that is stressed so strongly, also to the Gentile churches, is that even the least impression of revolution must be avoided, in order that the opponents of the gospel may not have a reason to put a blame on the church of Christ.

Nevertheless, there came a time of rest and freedom for the Christian church when the Roman emperor, Constantine, became a Christian in the beginning of the fourth century. From then on the Sunday, as the Day of the Lord, more and more became the day of worship and of rest again. God's creation gift came back through His providential care, to be a blessing for mankind again. Christ showed Himself Lord of the Sabbath which was given to man at creation, maintained in specific OldTestament garment to Israel, and granted also to the Christian Church and its surrounding to be a blessing for them.

Indeed, there had been the change from the seventh to the first day of the week, because it was the day of the resurrection of Christ. Life on earth, including the gift of the day of rest, is no longer only rooted in, and based upon, God's work of creation. It is now rooted in, and based upon the work of salvation of Christ, His death and resurrection. This new life comes now from Him and through Him, who obtained it at the cross and revealed it in His resurrection from the dead. But it is still that same life that God created in the beginning, in paradise. Christ's redemption work is work of restoration. That is why a restored creation institution is still a blessing for mankind.

What is our calling?

Our Western world is throwing God and Christ out. Modern man wants to be "free" again, not realizing that this "freedom" is slavery to the greatest slave-driver of all: Satan. Satan wants to destroy that Christian, God-given day of rest with his deceit, because he wants to destroy God's work. He wants to destroy the church as pillar of the truth and light in this world. And he wants to bring the world more and more under his rebellious rule, whereby even the remnants of what God gave are to disappear.

Two things should lead us, Christians, in this situation: care for the church and compassion with the world.

Also in our midst there is a trend slowly to take things easier on the Sunday. We are becoming less strict. We allow more today than we did before. Is filling the tank of our car at a gas station, when it is empty on a Sunday, becoming just a normal thing? Is going to the store on Sunday to buy something that one just needs(?) and does not have, not so bad anymore? Are young people using the Sunday, of course after the services, to do their homework for school or college or university, especially in busy times?

Is it so that in these and many other so-called little things, the Sunday is becoming more like the other days of the week, while it was different before? What we should realize is that all these little shifts in our behaviour are even so many little points with which world conformity so easily enters our lives and, with it, the churches of Christ for which He gave His life on the cross. We take a little more freedom here and allow ourselves a little more there. And the reason is, basically, in most cases, our own selfish convenience, or pleasure, or need as we see it. We do not deny ourselves the little things. We seek ourselves. And we call it our Christian freedom!

Sure, we have our Christian freedom. But is that a freedom to serve ourselves and our convenience and likes? Or do we have that freedom to serve the Lord and preserve and build His church with Him and for Him in holy commitment?

We are bombarded from all sides with the attitude of modern man who lives for himself. And we take that attitude over before we realize it, since we have a sinful heart that is inclined to selfishness.

Care for the congregation of Christ, her holiness to the Lord, her preservation as bearer of the light of Christ - that must determine all our behaviour, also as it regards the way in which we have our day of worship and rest. Therefore we are called to resist and fight world conformity in all its forms, also on the point of our "Sunday observance." "All things are lawful, but not all things build up," writes the Apostle Paul (I Corinthians 10:23). And he adds: "Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbour." Paul's behaviour is ruled by this device: Put no stumbling block before a Jew, nor before a Gentile, nor in the church. And you know that a stumbling block is anything that can lead to sin.

In the second place, compassion with the world should lead us. We believe that without knowing and serving God according to His Word, without worshipping God, without faith in Christ, there is no salvation, no hope, nothing. We know that putting the commandments of God to the side brings chaos and destruction. A society that seeks renewal through revolution chokes itself in its own blood. A society that allows murder and killing destroys itself. A society that is built upon unfaithfulness in marriage, in family, and in society, breaks itself down.

A society that seeks to grow from stealing leads itself to bankruptcy. A society that lives from lying and deceiving ruins itself. A society that is ruled by selfish envy and jealousy and strife devours itself.

I just mentioned six of the Ten Commandments. It is simply impossible to transgress God's commandments without evil consequences. The same is true with respect to the first four of the Ten Words. A world without a day of rest and worship runs to perdition, because it is and wants to be a world without God. And a world without God is a world in darkness. Compassion with that world should urge the church to keep her light of the gospel bright and pure by living out of Christ, by the gospel, in newness of life, for God, through the Holy Spirit. This is living by the will of God, of which the Ten, all Ten, Commandments are still the basic revelation. Showing this light with word and deed in dark surroundings, therefore struggling to keep the church obedient in faith to her Saviour and Lord, that is showing compassion to a world which is lost in its enslaving, ruinous "freedom."