What is the Lord's Day?
Biblical background, Old Testament
If we are going to explore what the Lord’s Day is, then everyone understands that we need to begin with the Old Testament and see what it teaches about the Sabbath Day.
Where do we begin? Let us begin at Exodus 16:23. There we find the first record of obligatory Sabbath observance. You know the story. Israel was just in the desert. The Lord was feeding them with manna from heaven. The Lord gave them enough on the sixth day (Friday) so that they could gather twice as much and so have enough for the seventh day, — a day the Lord called the Sabbath Day. There would not be any manna on the Sabbath Day. The extra they gathered on Friday would be enough for them on Sabbath.
Some of the people went out on the Sabbath Day to gather manna but found none. This made the Lord very angry. He told them that they were to stay still on the Sabbath Day and not go out. They were to rest.
This command to rest on the Sabbath Day was set in stone, literally, when God gave the Ten Commandments. The Fourth Commandment says:
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work... For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
This is when and where keeping the Sabbath Day holy, resting from work, became an official covenant obligation. That is clear from Nehemiah 9:13-14:
You came down on Mount Sinai; you spoke to them from heaven. You gave them regulations and laws that are just and right, and decrees and commands that are good. You made known to them your holy Sabbath and gave them commands, decrees, and laws through your servant Moses.
Although keeping the Sabbath Day became a covenant obligation at Mt. Sinai, it had for Israel creatorial significance. It commemorated God’s work of creation and God’s rest. The Fourth Commandment as we have it in Exodus 20 ties the keeping of Sabbath to God’s resting on the seventh day of creation week. There we read in Genesis 2:2, 3:
By the seventh day God had finished the work He had been doing; so on the seventh day He rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that He had done.
God demanded that his covenant people rest on the Sabbath Day to show that they believed God was their Creator and would take care of them.
Of course a question wants to be asked at this point: Was the Sabbath Day there between Genesis 2 and Exodus 16? Did the patriarchs observe the Sabbath Day? We cannot say with certainty. We can point to how the Lord told Israel to “remember” the Sabbath Day. This seems to indicate a restoration of usage. Perhaps an originally commanded Sabbath Day had been forgotten. The seventh day was holy from the beginning. There was religious activity from the beginning. The early patriarchs may have worshipped the Lord especially on the Sabbath. The fact, however, remains that there is no mention of obligatory Sabbath observance until Exodus 16. Arguments from silence do not convince either way.
In Exodus 31 we read about how strictly Israel was to observe the Sabbath Day. Anyone who did any work on the Sabbath Day was to be put to death. In verse 16 God calls the Sabbath Day a covenant. It was a sign between Him and his people. It was a holy day. Working on it would desecrate it. Anyone who would desecrate the holy day by working on it would trample this covenant sign underfoot. And so he would be cut off from God’s people – excommunicated – and put to death.
These very strict sanctions are repeated in Exodus 35:1. Anyone who does any work on the Sabbath Day was to be put to death. They were not even allowed to light a fire in their homes on the Sabbath Day (v 3).
The law about what to do with Sabbath-breakers as we find it in Exodus 31 and 35 is given in the context of the building of the Tabernacle. They had to observe the Sabbath Day even in doing something as holy and great as designing and building the Tabernacle of God.
In Numbers 15:32-36 we read an account of a Sabbath-breaker being put to death. A man was found to be gathering wood on the Sabbath Day. The witnesses brought the man to Moses. Moses did not know what to do with the man and about his offence. The Lord said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” He had to be excommunicated by the church and put to death.
A very good rule of exegesis is to consider the context of a portion of Scripture. The Holy Spirit is the primary author of scripture. We believe that He did not haphazardly throw laws and narrative together. For instance, if a piece of narrative is inserted in between laws, then we need to ask why the Holy Spirit arranged that part of Holy Scripture that way.
Here we find an instance of narrative following some law. What is the context in this case? It comes in the context of the Lord giving the law about unintentional sins and defiant sin. In the verses 22-29 of Numbers 15, the Lord gives laws about the sacrifices that are to be brought if someone sins “unintentionally.” As Dr. Van Dam says in an article about the translation of the word “unintentional,” this is referring to the sin of man “…as he wanders away from the demands of God, in his weakness as a sinful human being.” Any sin committed because of human frailty could be forgiven. There was a sacrifice for it. But there was no sacrifice for defiant sin (Numbers 15:30-31). Defiant sin is sin with uplifted hand. It is sin committed in “…open apostasy and impenitent contempt for the law.”
This is the only distinction made between sins: on the one hand, unintentional sin committed because of human weakness, repented of and forgiven; on the other hand, defiant sin committed with full knowledge of the law, of what one is doing, and with a hand raised in contempt for God. Someone who committed the latter sin was to be excommunicated.
That’s the context in which we find the narrative of the Sabbath-breaker in Numbers 15:32-36. Contemptuous of the law – the covenant obligation – that forbade work on the Sabbath Day and commanded rest, he went out to gather wood. The church had to excommunicate him, to stone him to death. It seems an extreme punishment for picking up sticks on the Sabbath Day, but he was trampling the covenant underfoot.
In the second edition of the Ten Commandments, as found in Deuteronomy, the Sabbath Day receives another layer of significance. There, as you know, another motive is added for observing the Sabbath Day. The motive is (Deuteronomy 5:15):
Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath Day.
Now the Sabbath Day was said to have redemptive significance as well as creatorial significance.
The prophets also spoke about the Sabbath Day. Isaiah 56:2 says that the man who keeps the Sabbath Day without desecrating it is blessed. Again in Isaiah 58:13ff, an extended beatitude is pronounced upon the one who keeps the Sabbath Day holy:
If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honourable, and if you honour it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.
In Ezekiel 46, we can read about how the gate in the inner court of the temple that faced east was to be opened (only) on the Sabbath Day, and how the prince of God’s people was to enter through the gate into the temple yard. He was to stand there in worship while the priests were to offer sacrifices on his behalf.
In the prophets not only do we find positive statements about the blessedness and joy of the Sabbath Day; we also read prophetic indictments against Sabbath-breakers. In Jeremiah 17:19ff, the prophet forbade in no uncertain terms any Sabbath work. They were not allowed to carry any load on the Sabbath Day, either out of their houses or through the streets of the city. If they would carry a load or do any work, God would burn the city with unquenchable fire.
Amos indicts the people who longed for the Sabbath Day to be over so that they could get back to work and make money. If we go to the end of Old Testament history, we can read about Nehemiah, the governor of Jerusalem, getting angry about Jews and Gentiles working on the Sabbath Day (Nehemiah 13:15ff).
If we summarize the Old Testament teaching of the Sabbath Day, then we conclude that keeping the Sabbath Day became a covenant obligation at Mt. Sinai in the Fourth of the Ten Commandments. It had for Israel both creatorial and redemptive significance. Of special significance is the deeper layer added in the Ten Commandments as they were re-given in Deuteronomy 5. That Israel was to commemorate the rest God gave his people from bondage in Egypt on the Sabbath Day shows that the Sabbath is part of God’s counsel of salvation. Desecrating the Sabbath Day by working was breaking covenant. Their observance of the Sabbath Day was a sign of their special covenantal relationship with the Lord. Desecration of it was trampling God’s grace under foot. And therefore, gathering wood, lighting a fire, carrying a load, or any other work, was punishable by death at the hands of the congregation.
Greater Sabbath legislation
We also do well to remember that the Sabbath Day was part of a greater Sabbath legislation. In Leviticus 22-25 we read law about the Old Testament festivals. There was the Sabbath Day, the Sabbath Year (every seventh year) and the Year of Jubilee – the seventh Sabbath Year. As Ezekiel 20:12 says, after God had set his people free from bondage in Egypt, He had given them his Sabbaths (plural). Jubilee and the Sabbath Year were about redemption. So was the Sabbath Day. All the Sabbath legislation spoke of salvation and it reached its climax in the year of Jubilee.
Biblical background, New Testament
The New Testament
When we turn to the New Testament we need to pay careful attention to what Christ did on the Sabbath. As He came into the world, as He ministered to God’s people, as He preached the gospel, true Sabbath was breaking into the world. His preaching and his healing brought Sabbath rest to the people of God. As Hebrews 4 teaches, the Joshua of the Old Testament could not bring the people of God into the final rest. A better Joshua had to come. Jesus Christ came to bring rest. He is the Lord of the entire Sabbath rest legislation. We’ve been set free from slavery. The Redeemer has come, and we have rest.
Luke 4:14-21 – Sabbath fulfilled
Luke tells us that when the Lord began his earthly ministry, He attended the synagogue service in Nazareth and there read from Isaiah 61 about the Year of Jubilee. Then He said that this scripture was fulfilled in their hearing, fulfilled that very day. He had come to proclaim the good news, the rest to which the Old Testament Jubilee was pointing forward. All the Sabbath legislation of the Old Testament which came to a climax in the Year of Jubilee was fulfilled that day as Christ began his gospel-preaching ministry.
Let us now look at those places in the gospel and see what the Lord Jesus did on various Sabbath days in order to put into effect that gospel Sabbath rest – to be the body that cast a shadow back to the Old Testament Sabbaths.
Matthew 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-3:6; Luke 6:1-11
In these parallel passages, two events are recorded. The disciples plucked some heads of grain on the Sabbath and, as Luke tells us, rubbed them in their hands. Effectively, they were harvesting and threshing. The Pharisees objected to this Sabbath day work.
Their objection would have been based on Exodus 34:21 (“Six days you shall labour, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest”) and on the prohibition of picking up manna (Exodus 16).
How did the Lord respond? He did not debate different interpretations of the Old Testament texts (and those debates were current). Rather, He told the Pharisees that they needed to understand that the Son of Man, the Messiah, was now in their midst. He made reference to how David broke the law by eating the holy temple bread and how the priests desecrate the Sabbath day by working at the temple without incurring guilt. Then He solemnly told them that one greater than the temple was in their midst. They needed to realize that. The Son of Man, the promised messianic king of the house of David, the fulfilment of the Sabbath day gospel, was in their midst. What were they arguing about?
Then Jesus healed the man with the shrivelled hand on the Sabbath day. The scribes and Pharisees objected to this, as they considered it work. Since the man’s life was not at stake, Jesus ought not to have healed him. The Lord responded by saying that it was good to do good on the Sabbath day.
The contexts in which the gospel writers place these episodes are also very instructive. Matthew places these episodes right after he records Jesus speaking those famous words:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Matthew tells us that these Sabbath day episodes happened “at that time.” This is instructive. Jesus came to give rest – the redemptive rest proclaimed by the Sabbath day. Especially the healing of the man with the shrivelled hand shows how Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, the royal Messiah, the one greater than the temple, came to give rest. The man no longer had to worry about his bad hand. He could function again in the community.
Mark and Luke place these same episodes in a different context. For example, Mark places them right after he records how Jesus proclaimed Himself to be the bridegroom. The time for festivity has arrived with the coming of the bridegroom. The new kingdom order has come. The new comes in place of the old. The new cannot be sewn on to the old, just like a new patch cannot be sewn on to an old garment. The new cannot be poured into the old, just like new wine cannot be poured into old wineskins. With the coming of the Messiah a new era has arrived. He has brought the redemption proclaimed by the Sabbath day.
Other Sabbath healings in Luke
In Luke 13:10-17 the Lord heals a woman who was chronically deformed for eighteen years on a Sabbath day. The synagogue ruler objected because there were six days to do such things and work ought not to be done on the Sabbath day. Jesus showed the hypocrisy of such sentiments. Any Jew would “unbind” his ox or donkey to let it drink on a Sabbath day. How could they object to his “unbinding” this woman and setting her free from Satan?
In Luke 14 we read about the Lord Jesus healing a man who was afflicted with dropsy on the Sabbath. These passages show us what our Lord Jesus Christ is about. He is about healing, setting people free, liberating those who had been bound by Satan, and bringing Sabbath rest. He sets us free from the dominion of the evil one, sin, and all its miserable consequences.
In the Gospel according to John, we find similar teaching. In John 5, on a Sabbath day, the Lord healed a man paralyzed for thirty-eight years. He told him to pick up his mat and walk. The Jewish leaders met the man walking through Jerusalem carrying his mat and told him that he was breaking the law.
We should not brush this objection aside too quickly. Both Nehemiah 13 and Jeremiah 17 forbade the carrying of burdens on the Sabbath day. The man was carrying a burden. It was an open and shut case. Neither should we try to rationalize the matter by debating how to define “a burden.” The Lord does not enter that debate. He does not say: “Oh, but carrying a mat does not qualify as carrying a burden.” Rather, the Lord spoke of his relationship with God the Father and declared Himself to be God. He said, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.”
And so the Jews hated Jesus for two reasons: “For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill Him; not only was He breaking the Sabbath, but He was even calling God his own Father, making Himself equal with God” (John 5:18). He revealed Himself here as the one who came to do the good work of the Father, to bring healing, joy, and life to God’s hurting people. They saw Him as a Sabbath-breaker – covenant-breaker – and so wanted to kill Him. They did not recognize Jesus as the Mediator of the covenant, the one who fulfilled the Sabbath day. They did not see that He was bringing rest from God.
Summary of the Sabbath day in the gospel
The gospel shows that the Lord Jesus often healed the ill and distressed on the Sabbath day. What better day to do so? He came into this world as God Incarnate to bring about the redemption that the Sabbath day of the Old Testament looked forward to. He came to inaugurate the final and everlasting Jubilee. He forgave sins and healed God’s people of the miserable consequences of sin. In these Sabbath day episodes, He was bringing into effect the true and definitive meaning of what the Sabbath day was about. He was giving rest. He is the true Prince (Ezekiel 46) of God’s people, who opens the doors to the heavenly temple – the very presence of God – and bring us into Sabbath rest. As Lord’s Day 38 says, we may today live in the joy of that eternal Sabbath rest. When Jesus Christ died, rose again, and ascended to heaven, He brought us into that Sabbath. And so, the Old Testament Sabbath, with all of its regulations, is fulfilled and no longer binding upon us.
The apostle Paul makes it clear that the Sabbath day no longer binds us. In Colossians 2:16-17 he wrote:
Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.
The Judaizers were insisting that the gentile Christians keep the Sabbath day. Paul said that in Christ it is over. There is no continuing legal requirement to keep a Sabbath day for the New Testament church. The Sabbath day was a shadow; the reality is found in Christ. The Sabbath day did not give way to the Lord’s day; rather, it gave way to Christ. Christ is the body; the Sabbath day is part of the shadow He cast back over the Old Testament. Christ is now the Sabbath.
Just like the food laws of the Old Testament, just like the law of circumcision, so the Sabbath day was a shadow of Christ. Just like you don’t need to be circumcised to be part of the people of God, and just like you don’t need to keep the Old Testament food laws or observe the Old Testament feast days, neither do you have to keep the Sabbath day. To insist upon keeping the Sabbath day would be to bring us back to the shadows of the Old Testament.
In Galatians 4:10-11 Paul said that by insisting on observing special days with legalistic rigor, one undoes the work of Christ. Paul also said that the observation of days is a matter of conscience: “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5). There is no longer a holy place or a holy time; rather, all is holy.
The Lord’s day
The Old Testament Sabbath day is gone. However, there is the continuing command to worship. The New Testament calls us to be a worshipping community. The New Testament shows us in several places that the first day of the week came to be the day for Christian worship in celebration of the resurrection of Christ, the better Joshua, who brought us real rest.
By what is the first day of the week to be characterized? By joyful worship proclaiming and rejoicing in the completed work of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord’s day is a new day. It is not the Old Testament Sabbath day in New Testament clothes. It is not a day to be hedged in by all sorts of rules and taboos. It’s about worship.
Observing the Lord’s Day
It’s about worship
How should we celebrate the Lord’s Day? By worshipping God the Father and his son Jesus Christ who brought us into Sabbath rest. Hebrews 10:19-31 teaches us that we must meet together to worship our God. In fact, Hebrews 10 teaches us that to give up meeting together for worship is sinning defiantly and making oneself worthy of excommunication and eternal death. To quit going to church – to hear the Word preached, to use the sacraments, to participate in corporate prayer, and to give Christian offerings for the needy – is the unforgivable sin. To develop careless worship patterns is very, very dangerous.
Numbers 15:30-36 makes the distinction between “unintentional sins” and “sinning defiantly.” The Lord says that anyone who sins defiantly must be cut off from his people. A man caught gathering wood on the Sabbath day is sentenced to death for despising the command to rest and for making light of the Lord’s command.
This episode finds a New Testament counterpart in Hebrews 10. Verse 25 says: “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” This refers to the regular gathering together for worship which we know happened on the Lord’s day – the first day of the week. But now listen as we keep reading.
For if we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Hebrews 10 alludes to deliberate sin against better knowledge. There is no sacrifice available for this sin. It will be worse for the man who quits going to church on the Lord’s day than for the man caught gathering wood on the Sabbath day. It will be worse for him who quits going to church for he has trampled the Son of God under foot; he has treated as unholy the blood of the covenant that had sanctified him; he has insulted the Spirit of grace. Such a member of the church will fall into the condemning hands of the living God, and it will not go well with him.
In the words of Hebrews 6, a brother or sister who abandons the church and no longer worships within the communion of saints – who had once been enlightened, had tasted the heavenly gift, had shared in the Holy Spirit, had tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the coming age – such a brother or sister crucifies the Son of God all over again and subjects the Lord to public disgrace. Such members are like fields that drank deep of the refreshing rain only to produce nothing but thorns and thistles. In the end, God will curse them and burn them.
In the language of Hebrews 4, such a person will not enter God’s rest; rather, he will be cut to pieces by the living and active Word of God. Like the stubborn rebels in the wilderness, they will not enter the rest of the Promised Land but will die in the desert.
The parallels between Hebrews 10 and Numbers 15 are clear. In Numbers 15 the example given as defiant sin worthy of excommunication and death is not resting on the Sabbath day. In Hebrews 10 no longer going to church is declared deliberate sin which results in excommunication and everlasting death.
And so the Lord’s day is about worship. Going to church and worshipping our God. What did the early New Testament church do as it gathered for worship? It devoted itself to the apostolic teaching, celebrated the Lord’s Supper, prayed, and had fellowship (Acts 2:42).We should not get hung up on the dos and don’ts. The Lord’s day is not about refraining from gathering wood or lighting fires; it is about worship.
Early glimpses of Sunday worship
We have early glimpses of Christian worship from several sources. One source is Pliny’s letter to the emperor Trajan. Around 112 A.D., Pliny, the Roman governor of Bithynia (a province in northwest Turkey), wrote to the emperor Trajan in Rome. Pliny needed guidance on the persecution of Christians, and he reported what his investigations had disclosed. Christians “met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honour of Christ as if to a god.” They would also eat ordinary food together.
From Justin Martyr, writing about 150 A.D., we have perhaps the most complete early description of Christian worship. In his First Apology he writes:
But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to his apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.
Justin Martyr describes the worship, and it sounds very familiar. It consisted of: the Word of God (both read and preached), corporate prayer (including the psalms), Communion of the bread and wine, and offering of one’s possessions.
During these early years of the Christian church, the first day of the week was a work day for labourers and slaves. As Pliny tells us, the Christians would meet before dawn to worship. After worship, they would need to go to work. This changed in 321 A.D. when Emperor Constantine decreed that Sunday would be a day of rest, a legal holiday.
Although the civil authority decreed Sunday to be a day of rest, the church kept the focus where it was to be, namely, on the call to worship. The teaching of Christ and Paul prevented the early church from falling into a Jewish Sabbatarianism in the observance of the Sunday. But then in the sixth century, we find Caesarius of Arles teaching that the whole glory of the Jewish Sabbath had been transferred to the Sunday, and that Christians must keep the Sunday holy in the same way as the Jews had been commanded to keep holy the Sabbath day. However, the Council of Orleans, 538, rejected this tendency as Jewish and non-Christian. This indicates that the debate about whether the Lord’s day is the Old Testament Sabbath day in New Testament clothes, or a new day, is a very old debate.
Sunday in Reformed Scotland
Christian History tells us how the first day of the week was observed in Reformation Scotland of 1560. A bell would ring about a half-hour before the first Sunday worship service, and the service began with the second bell. The lay leader would lead the reading of Scripture, some prayers, and singing metrical psalms. This part of the service lasted an hour. The minister then entered the pulpit. After more prayers and singing the sermon was delivered, followed by more prayers, the Creed, and the benediction.
The second service was usually held in the afternoon. It was devoted to teaching from a Calvin or Heidelberg catechism, or a catechism for children. Eventually, “the Catechisms” were required to be held in every church.
Faithful attendance was greatly emphasized for both Sunday services. For example, the Aberdeen town council insisted that all city officials, their families, and their servants attend worship. In 1598, they began to fine those who missed services; husbands were responsible for their wives’ attendance, and masters for their servants’. In Glasgow, a piper was threatened with excommunication if he played between sunrise and sunset on Sunday. At St. Andrews, five men were imprisoned for three hours for missing the sermon. Some churches imposed a fine for leaving a worship service early; other churches posted guards at the doors.
The Lord’s Day Act
For hundreds of years in the Western world, very little commercial activity was conducted on Sundays. Besides essential services, business and trades took the day off. Sunday was considered by most as the day to go to church. Various governments even passed laws forbidding or restricting certain activities.
In the seventeenth century, the British Parliament during the reign of Charles I legislated an Act for punishing abuses committed on the Lord’s day. In Canada, the Lord’s Day Alliance of Canada, founded in 1888, persuaded Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier to introduce a “Lord’s Day Act” in the House of Commons in 1906. It became law in 1907. The Act aimed to restrict Sunday trade, labour, and recreation. Of course, for some the first day of the week was a holiday rather than a holy day.
Until only decades ago, Western society has largely been living with a Constantinian view of the Sunday. However, society has changed drastically. We now live in a culture where business and entertainment stop for nothing, much less for religious observances. The formal shift came about in Canada on April 24, 1985 when the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the Lord’s Day Act in the Big M Drug Mart case on the grounds that it contravened the freedom of religious and conscience provision in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Mr. Justice Dickson concluded that the Lord’s Day Act wrongly imposed Christian morality upon non-believers.
We live in a post-Constantine era. Western society has been living off Constantinian capital for some 1600 years. The age in which the civil governments pass laws and acts that set the Sunday aside as a day of rest are over. The parking lots of Wal-Mart and Canadian Tire are as full on Sunday as on Wednesday. How do we live as Christians in such a society? What about the command to worship, and to diligently attend the church of God on the Lord’s day? Despite the era in which we live, the command to worship on the Lord’s day remains unchanged, even if the changes in society make it more difficult for us diligently to do so.
Synod of Dort, 1618-19
We ought not to think that we are the first Reformed people to struggle with the question of the Sunday. Four hundred years ago our ancestors in Holland had to deal with it. What was one allowed to do on the Sunday? All agreed that Sunday was the day for Christian worship, but besides that, how were they to observe the Sunday? It was a huge question at that time. The General Synod dealt with it and came up with this formula:
- In the fourth commandment of the Law of God, there is a ceremonial (or temporary) aspect and a moral (or permanent) aspect.
- The rest on the seventh day after creation and the strict observance of this day laid specifically upon the Jewish nation was temporary.
- That a specific and stated day is set aside for worship, and along with it as much rest as is necessary for worship and holy meditation, is permanent.
- The Sabbath of the Jews having been set aside, the Lord’s day must be solemnly hallowed by Christians.
- The Lord’s day (Sunday) has always been kept since the time of the Apostles in the early catholic church.
- This day must be so set aside for worship that men rest on it from their regular work, except what is required by charity and present necessities, and from all such recreations that would hinder the worship of God.
This formula gives good guidelines. But how do we work it out practically?
We need to keep in mind what the Lord’s day is about, namely, worship – diligently attending the church of God to hear God’s Word. Everything we do on the Lord’s day, and even Saturday, ought to enhance our worship. What does that mean?
It means not staying out late Saturday evening, ensuring that we get a good night’s rest Saturday night. In fact, I would not mind if, when it came to the Lord’s day, we thought in terms of Saturday evening to Sunday evening. That would tend to keep us in our homes Saturday evening where we could, as families, do some singing and other holy exercises of godliness in preparation for the great event of corporate worship on the morrow. We think of Sunday as beginning at midnight and ending at midnight. I wonder why? In the Bible, a day was comprised of the period between sundowns. Is that not a better view? Here we can learn from the early church. Before and during the early middle ages, as with the Jewish Sabbath, the observance of the Christian Sunday began with sundown on Saturday and lasted till the same time on Sunday. This method of reckoning the Sunday from sunset to sunset continued in some places down to the seventeenth century. Would it not be great to do back to that? Would it not be great if we were all in our homes Saturday evening preparing for Sunday morning?
On the Lord’s day we diligently attend the services and participate fully in the worship. And it’s not just a matter of going to church with the rest of the day being ours to spend in selfish pursuits. The rest of the day, between the services and after, ought to be characterized by what we were doing in church. It’s the Lord’s day, not the Lord’s hours. The Sunday should be of one peace. Since we worship with the communion of saints, it only makes sense that the other activities we are engaged in reflect that. It is good to visit one another. It is good to perform works of mercy: inviting the lonely into our homes, visiting in a hospital or care facility, or singing in an old age home to give just a few examples.
When we are on vacation, the call to diligently attend the church of God follows us. We make plans for our vacations. Let’s factor into those plans the call to attend church to submit ourselves to the faithful proclamation of the gospel.
What about working on Sunday? As much as possible, we need to stay away from Sunday work because of the command to assemble together in corporate worship. Working during the stated times for worship keeps one from worship; working before or after worship does not put one in a positive frame of mind for worship. Worship is not easy to do; it takes effort and focus.
This can be a bit of a mine-field. In our society, it becomes increasingly difficult for everyone to stay away from Sunday work all the time. Dort said: “This day must be so set aside for worship that men rest on it from their regular work, except what is required by charity and present necessities.” Most people will agree with that; however, in one congregation there will be different opinions on what is a work required by charity or by present necessities. What one considers work that needs to be done on Sunday another says is non-essential work. Let me give an example.
A farmer has his crop cut, lying in the field ready to be harvested. He cut it Saturday and plans to harvest it Monday. He wakes up early Sunday morning and the weather forecast is 100% chance of a terrible driving rain, and maybe hail. What does he do? Does he let the rain and hail ruin the crop or does he harvest it? One farmer will say it is irresponsible to let the crop go to ruin, and he will harvest it. Another will let it lie there and plow it under Monday morning. Who is right? I think the whole matter of personal conscience comes into play here. But, as Paul said in Roman 14:5, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.”
What about Sunday recreations? For instance, would it be appropriate to attend a football or baseball game on Sunday? No. That would detract from our Sunday focus, which is worship and communion-of-saints activities. Further, we are being entertained by those who have disobeyed the command to worship. Why would we even want to be there that very day?
What about playing a baseball game after church with a group of young people? Absolutely. That is communion-of-saints stuff that flows out of what we are about on Sundays.
May we go shopping on Sundays, or out for lunch to a restaurant after church? We ought not to do that. First, it’s out of character with what the Lord’s day is about; but also, we are implicating ourselves in the sin of those who disobey the universal call to worship (Psalm 96).
Should there be a Lord’s Day Act?
Was the Laurier government of 1907 correct in proclaiming the Lord’s Day Act? Was the Supreme Court wrong in throwing it out in 1985? I would answer “Yes” to both questions.Article 36 of the Belgic Confession, which summarizes the Bible’s teaching on the responsibilities of the civil government, would lead us to answer affirmatively to both questions. Beginning in about the middle of the first paragraph, we say in our confession:
Their task of restraining and sustaining is not limited to the public order but includes the protection of the church and its ministry in order that the kingdom of Christ may come, the Word of the gospel may be preached everywhere, and God may be honoured and served by everyone, as He requires in his Word.
Even without the famous twenty-two words of Article 36 (see footnote), and recognizing that this sentence first speaks about how the civil government must protect the church from persecution, our confession also points the civil government towards its responsibility to see that the church can do its God-given task. The civil government labouring in the physical sphere can only do things by passing laws. It does not work in the spiritual sphere; it does not have the task of promoting the gospel. Rather, it should – as God’s minister (Romans 13) – enact a law restricting work and recreation on the Lord’s day so that the church can fulfil its task in the world which is to call all people to worship our great God and Saviour.