Robert L. Reymond, "Lord's Day Observance:  Man's Proper Response to the Fourth Commandment."

Dr. Robert L. Reymond served as professor of Systematic Theology at Covenant Theological Seminary (St. Louis, MO) and Knox Theological Seminary (Fort Lauderdale, FL).  He has written many works, including A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, Paul - Missionary Theologian, The Reformation’s Conflict with Rome.

          Reymond, Robert L.  “Lord’s Day Observance: Man’s Proper Response to the Fourth Commandment.” Presbuterion:  Covenant Seminary Review 13:1 (Spring 1987), 7-23.  Used by permission.        

The observation that there is little respect for or observance of the Christian Lord’s Day anymore will hardly come as a revelation to anyone.  The Western world in general and the United States of America in particular, both having become increasingly secularistic, materialistic, and hedonistic in their orientation, have become increasingly hostile to the so-called “blue laws” on the books of civil government.  Efforts abound to bring about the repeal of these laws which mandate societal observance of the sanctity of the first day of the week.

Such pervasive contemporary disdain for the Lord’s Day observance is not surprising when one considers the fact that only relatively few Christians themselves show any real concern for the sanctity of the day.  Evidence would suggest that many Christians feel no obligation even to attend established Sunday worship services.  And Sunday shopping and Sunday attendance at athletic events, theaters, and other entertainment attractions have become common practices for Christians as well as for non-Christians. 

This desacralizing of the day even among Christians is traceable, at least in part, to the widely-held opinion that the Fourth Commandment is not, and has never been, normative for the church, much less the world.  If Christians are to regard any day differently from the other six (and even this is denied in some quarters), it is urged that they are to observe the “Lord’s Day,” not the Sabbath, and that they are to do so because of such New Testament verses as Hebrews 10:25 and Revelation 1:10 and not because of the normativeness of the Fourth Commandment for man today. 

Such teaching, however earnest and well-intentioned, in my opinion is dangerous in the extreme, for not only is proper Lord’s Day observance undercut by such teaching, but also, by implication, the normativeness of God’s entire moral law for Christ’s church and society is rendered suspect inasmuch as the Fourth Commandment is a tenth part of God’s “royal law,” itself a unitary whole (cf. Gal. 3:10; 5:3; Jam 2:8-11, especially vss 10-11, for the scriptural enunciation of the principle just stated of the law’s unitary wholeness).  Accordingly, to the degree that the normativeness of any single part of God’s moral law is denied, just to the same degree the current trend toward the grounding of morality in humanistic rather than divine law is strengthened. 

To counteract this harmful societal drift toward secularity I intend in this article to argue for the normativeness of the Fourth Commandment’s principal teaching of one day in seven as a Sabbath for all men.  I will also urge, its principal normativeness established, that man’s proper response today to the Fourth Commandment should be first-day Lord’s Day observance.  I will begin by considering “the Lord’s Day” expression itself.

The Meaning of “the Lord’s Day”

The expression, “the Lord’s Day,” occurs only in Revelation 1:10 as the English translation of the Greek hē kuriakē hēmera.  When one recalls that five or six decades had elapsed since the resurrection of Christ had occurred with no prior special designation for the day on which Christians gathered for worship having been given in the New Testament literature other than simply “the first day” (cf. Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2), such a sudden occurrence of this singular expression to designate the Christian day of worship is all the more striking and intriguing.  What is the explanation for this particular expression appearing in New Testament literature at this time?

With the increasing ascription of super-human honors to the Roman emperors during this perior, the cult of emperor worship had gradually emerged.[1]  And in Asia Minor and Egypt the first day of the month, designated hē sebastē hēmera (‘the Emperor’s day”), had been set apart as a holiday.[2]  It is a distinct possibility that the Apostle John, under divine inspiration, in order to distinguish the Christian day of worship from “the Emperor’s day” in opposition to the emperor cult, was led to describe the Christian day of worship as “the Lord’s [that is, Christ’s] Day.”  But while such a historical exigency may explain the need for some such designation from a Christian perspective, it still remains to ask more pointedly the question, What prompted the choice of the precise terminology of the phrase itself?  There is no need to speculate here since Scripture itself suggests the direction in which one should look for the answer.  I would submit that these words, “the Lord’s Day,” reflect that language of Isaiah 58:13 where the Sabbath is referred to as “my [that is, Yahweh’s or the Lord’s (LXX, kuriou)] holy day,” an Old Testament designation remarkably close to the Johannine “Lord’s Day.”  Both the Old Testament Sabbath and the Christian day of worship then are “the Lord’s [holy] Day.”  By this striking description of the Christian worship day as “the Lord’s Day,”[3] the Apostle John not only highlighted the fact of Christ’s ontological and resurrectional Lordship over the day but also by implication related the Christian day of worship to the Old Testament Sabbath principle of one day in seven to be set apart (that is, kept “holy”) unto the Lord.  More will be said about this later.

The Special Character of the First Day of the Week as “the Lord’s Day”

That the Lord’s Day, as the Christian day of worship, was also the first day of the week there can be no doubt.  As the day on which Jesus rose from the dead and on which he first appeared to His disciples (Matt 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1, 13, 26; John 20:1, 19), the first day of the week became the day on which the early church regularly assembled under the sanction of the Apostles as spokesmen of Christ (John 20:26; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2).  This is not to deny that the early church also assembled itself locally on other days of the week as well, as noted in Acts 2:46.  But Acts 2:46 should not be interpreted, as do some scholars like Easton, so as to conclude that first-day worship was never specifically sanctioned by the Lord or His apostles but arose rather as a matter of expediency and practicality because “waning of the first enthusiasm, necessity for pursuing ordinary avocations, and increasing numbers of converts… made general daily gatherings impracticable.”[4]  The fact that the first disciples gathered together on the second “first day” after Jesus’ resurrection (John 20:26) suggests that after Jesus’ resurrection and His several appearances on His resurrection day, the disciples immediately regarded that day of the week as a special day, its observance becoming then for them a sanctioned practice and an assumed obligation.  Easton, furthermore, ignores the apostolic sanction placed upon the first day of the week as the Christian day for corporate worship in 1 Corinthians 16:2 (“on the first day of the week”) when he writes: “Worship is here not explicitly mentioned (the Greek of ‘by him’ is the usual phrase for ‘at home’).[5]  To the contrary, the words par’ heautō (“by himself”), according to Charles Hodge, “do not mean to lay by at home, but to lay by himself.  The direction is nothing more definite than, let him place by himself, i.e., let him take to himself [that is, set apart] what he means to give.”[6]  It is also needful to point out that if every man had “treasured up” his money “at home,” as Easton contends is the intent of Paul’s instruction, the end which Paul desired to accomplish by his instruction would not have been attained since a collection would still have been required when he arrived in Corinth—the very thing he wished to avoid (vs 2).  The only conclusion one may fairly draw from the entire context is the assumption on Paul’s part that the Corinthian Christians, as were Christians elsewhere (cf. vs 1: “as I ordered the churches of Galatia”), were assembling themselves together on the Lord’s Day already, and that such an assembling most advantageously provided the facility for doing what he here enjoins concerning the collection.  For any Christian to have set aside his gift, but “at home,” would have been in direct disobedience to the apostle’s purpose that “there be no collection when I come.”  The obvious should not be overlooked here: the phrase “on the first day of the week,” while not, true enough, the main point of the apostolic imperative, is still as much a required condition of the entire imperative as is the phrase “by himself,” which simply means that the absence of this condition would entail that the demands of the Pauline imperative would not have been fully met.  So even though special regard for the first day of the week by the church may be assumed by Paul to have been already in place, a certain categorical sanction is indirectly placed by him on that practice, thereby underscoring its obligatory character.  Only by hazardous exegesis can one avoid the conclusion that the apostle here mandates by implication first-day worship observance by the Christian community as a memorial to the Lord’s resurrection on that day.  

Some scholars reject this conclusion, insisting that “the observance of a given day as a matter of Divine obligation is denounced by St. Paul as a forsaking of Christ (Gal. 4:10), and [that] Sabbath keeping is condemned explicitly in Colossians 2:16.”[7]  Such a statement, however, simply displays a failure to distinguish on the one hand between Paul’s condemnation of the “observing of days” as a requirement of soteric legalism and on the other hand his sanction of the “observing of days” in 1 Corinthians 16:2 as a requirement of proper Christian worship; that is to say, what Paul condemns in Galatians 4:10 and Colossians 2:16 is an “observing of days” in order to be saved, not the “observing of days” in order to testify to the world and to other Christians concerning the resurrection of Christ and the Christian’s own de facto position in the “community of Easter faith.”

But what about Romans 14:5?  Does not Paul, when he wrote: “One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike.  Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind,” teach that the Christian man “might do as he pleased respecting the Lord’s day.”[8]  If those scholars are correct who so interpret Paul here, and if no day accordingly is to be regarded by the Christian as having any special significance above any other day, then John’s statement in Revelation 1:10, singling out as it does one day of the week as “the Lord’ Day” is misleading at best, in conflict with Paul at worst, and casts John in the role of the “weak” brother spoken of in the Romans 14 context.  The correct understanding of Paul must be sought in another direction.  Doubtless, Paul has in mind only the ceremonial holy days of the Levitical institution which some Jewish Christians were observing out of religious scrupulosity.  John Murray quite rightly argues:

            Paul was not insistent upon the discontinuance of ritual observances of the Levitical ordinances as long as the observance was one of religious custom and not compromising the gospel (cf. Acts 18:18, 21; 21:20-27) …. Many Jews would not yet have understood all the implications of the gospel and had still a scrupulous regard for their Mosaic ordinances.  Of such scruples we know Paul to have been thoroughly tolerant, and they fit the precise terms of the text in question [Rom. 14:5].  There is no need to posit anything that goes beyond these observances…the abiding sanctity of each recurring seventh day as the memorial…of Christ’s exaltation in his resurrection is not to be regarded as in any way impaired by Romans 14:5.[9]

Finally, when it is urged that “the fact that…Christian worship was held on Sunday did not sanctify Sunday any more than (say) a regular Wednesday service among us sanctifies Wednesday,”[10] it is sufficient in response simply to point out that those who observe first-day worship do not believe that it is Christian worship per se that sanctifies the day.  Rather, it is the sanction of Christ and His apostles, evident in both their word and example (John 20:1, 19, 26; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2; Rev 1:10 et al.), which they placed on the first day that sanctified it; and the first Christians, “devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42) and example (Phil 3:17; 4:9), submitted themselves to the apostles in this matter just as they felt obliged to do in other matters enjoined by the apostles. 

The Relationship Between the Lord’s Day and the Old Testament Sabbath Institution

Among Christian scholars there is disagreement over the relationship between the Christian first-day worship observance and the Old Testament seventh-day Sabbath observance.  Some sharply distinguish between them, either urging no relationship whatsoever or insisting that the Sabbath was only a shadow of things to come and that it passed away in the light of the new covenant’s better promises.[11] On the other hand, there are those who insist that the Lord’s Day is the Christian Sabbath, which by divine arrangement took upon itself all of the essential and permanent features of the Old Testament Sabbath institution.[12]  What are we to conclude?  Two areas of consideration will provide the answer.

Man’s Universal and Perpetual Obligation To Observe the Sabbath Principle

To assess this issue properly, the first undeniable fact that needs to be squarely faced at the outset is that Old Testament Sabbath observance was not first instituted by God simply as part of Israelite legislation which was only to be observed when and where the national legislation was in force.  Rather, there are five incontrovertible reasons for insisting that, when instituted, Sabbath observance was intended to be universally and perpetually binding upon all men.  Consider them in turn:

(1) A day of Sabbath was instituted at the very beginning of the world, being at that time “blessed and sanctified [set apart]” by God for man, as the climax of the creation week (Gen. 2:3).  Its institution had nothing to do with the conditions that were introduced later into the human situation by man’s fall and consequent need for redemption (though later it does pick up redemptive significance; cf. Ex 20:3 and Deut 5:15). As Murray states:

          …it is like the institutions of labour (Gen. 2:15), of marriage (Gen. 2:24, 25), and of fruitfulness (Gen. 1:28).  The Sabbath institution was given to man as man, for the good of man as man, and extended to man the assurance and promise that his labour would issue in a Sabbath rest similar to the rest of God himself.[13]

And, it must also be said, it appears in this context as being as continually binding upon man as are these other institutions.

(2) Between the institution of the Sabbath in Genesis 2:1-3 and its formal inclusion within the Decalogue in Exodus 20:8-10, biblical evidence exists that would suggest that the seven-day cycle as a basic division of time was known and observed (Gen. 4:3,[14] 8:10, 12; 19:27, 28; Ex 16:5, 22-30, especially vs 26).  From Exodus 16 the evidence, I would urge, is indisputable that there was a Sabbath requirement before the Mosaic law was given. 

(3) The first word of the Fourth Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” implies that the Sabbath day was not a new institution being then and there established for the first time by the Decalogue, but rather that it was already a part of biblical legislation requiring man’s continued attentive observance.

(4) Another fact that has only rarely received the consideration which it deserves is that the Sabbath commandment, appearing as it does within the summary statement of God’s moral law for His redeemed people, which moral law purports to be both unitary in nature and of binding force by the fact that it is specifically these ten commandments which are written by the finger of God upon tables of stone which very material in turn suggests permanency, enjoys a position within the Decalogue alongside of nine other laws which no Christian would suggest are abrogated as the universal and perpetual standard of righteousness by which all men are to measure their lives.  There simply is no basis for the insistence of some scholars that the Sabbath commandment was an aspect of the ceremonial law of ancient Israel and that it is therefore not applicable to the church today. 

(5) Finally, our Lord taught the universal and perpetual relevance of the Sabbath when He declared: “The Sabbath was established for man, and not man for the Sabbath.  Therefore [hōste] the Son of Man is Lord also of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28).  Our Lord’s statement contains an unquestionable allusion to the original institution of the Sabbath in Genesis 2.  It is noteworthy that our Lord does not say that the Sabbath was established for Israel; rather, he says that it was instituted for man (anthrōpos), its relevance being then as extensive as the extremities of the world of mankind. Moreover, as He, as the Son of Man, is Lord of the Sabbath, the obligation of Sabbath observance by man, for man’s good, is as wide and as continuous as is the sphere of His Lordship, which is just to say that it is both universal and perpetual (cf. John 17:2; Matt 28:18).

Sabbath obligation appears in the Decalogue, in light of these incontrovertible data, not as a de novo requirement peculiar to and incumbent only upon the tiny nation of Israel within the family of nations and even there only for the period of time designated by Old Testament scholars as the period of Mosaism.  Rather, it appears in the Decalogue quite naturally as fulfilling the dual role of a reaffirmation of an institution previously established and at an earlier time known (but doubtless forsaken) by men on a universal scale and of a reminder to God’s redeemed people particularly (cf. Ex 20:2) vis à vis the “rest” of God as the divine sign to men (Ex 20:8-11; cf. Gen 2:1-3), of the future rest awaiting them which they will enter at the termination of their labors (Heb 3:7-4:11 [note that this future rest is correlated with God’s rest of creation in Heb 4:3-6, 9-11, and is expressly said to be a “Sabbath-resting” or “Sabbath-keeping” (sabbatismos) in 4:9]; Rev. 14:13).

It should be apparent from these five points then that the principle of Sabbath obligation in the Decalogue (one day in seven to be the Lord’s in a special sense) is as binding upon men in general as are the first or the second or the fifth or the seventh or the tenth commandments. 

Sabbath Change from the Seventh to the First Day of the Week

What about the fact, however, that the Christian church celebrates its day of rest on the first rather than the last day of the week as the Fourth Commandment seems to require?  In the absence of a specific commandment in so many words, “You shall change the day of Sabbath from the last to the first day of the week,” there is an understandable reticence in some quarters to accept the position that such a shift did in fact occur regarding a divine institution as significant as the Old Testament seventh-day Sabbath.  But there are three other factors, on the order of interpretive observations, that, once understood, should remove the hesitancy and that will at the same time be exegetically fair to the demands of Scripture.

First, it must always be remembered that some regulations laid down in Scripture, “are evidently intended to be understood with the qualification ceteris paribus, ‘other things being equal.’”[15]  The Old Testament Sabbath regulation with respect to work restriction is a case in point.  Concerning Sabbath observance, God expressly required in the Fourth Commandment that on the Sabbath “you shall not do any work” (Ex 20:10).  But in keeping with His principle that the Sabbath was instituted for man’s benefit, our Lord Jesus, who is the Lord and Institutor of the Sabbath, made it equally clear by His own example and express statement that the Sabbath regulation was not against labor on the Sabbath so absolutely that it precluded works of necessity (Matt 12:3-4), works of worship (Matt 12:5), and works of mercy (Matt 12:11-13; cf. Luke 13:10-16; 14:1-6).[16]  These New Testament passages illustrate my point that there are divine regulations which are to be understood as binding, “other things being equal,” but that there may well be the need, in the fact of sufficient reason and competent authority, for qualifying the regulation, even changing the regulation in some details.  I will urge in a moment that sufficient reason and competent authority mandated the alteration in detail of the specific day of the week on which the Sabbath is to be observed.

Second, it must be recognized that some if not most biblical regulations had to await the full progressive revelatory unfolding of God’s mind on the matter in order for the student of Scripture fully to comprehend their abiding features.  Again, the Old Testament Sabbath regulation, with reference to its memorial significance, is a case in point.  Concerning what it was, specifically, that lay behind the reason for God’s command regarding its observance and what it was to memorialize for its observers, we find that in Exodus 20:11 the reason for Sabbath observance is laid in God’s original rest after creation which, as has been said, promised by example that a rest also awaits the child of God when his labors are completed.  But in Deuteronomy 5:15 the reason for its observance, while not in disagreement with or abrogating the earlier one (cf. the preface to the Decalogue in Exodus 20:2 where it is clearly stated that the entire Decalogue which followed is addressed to a redeemed people), highlights the redemptive note implicit in Exodus 20:1-17 by drawing Israel’s attention to her deliverance from Egypt’s bondage.  The day was now to symbolize and foreshadow a future rest for men grounded not in their but in God’s work of redemptionThis redemptive work of God is placed still further in the foreground as the reason for Sabbath observance in Psalm 118:22-24, “The day which the Lord has made [appointed],” in which the redeemed are to rejoice and to be glad, is prophetically related directly to the day on which “the Stone which the builders rejected” would become “the chief cornerstone,” that is, to the day on which Jesus would rise from the dead (Acts 4:10-11; cf. also Ps 2:7 and Acts 13:32-33).  Here Old Testament prophetic material related the celebration of God’s redemptive work directly to Jesus’ resurrection day, urging the redeemed to rejoice on that day.  In doing so, it prophetically anticipated by hundreds of years the shift in Sabbath observance from the seventh to the first day of the week.

Finally, it is a significant though often overlooked fact that the Fourth Commandment does not specifically say, “Remember the seventh day.”  I readily acknowledge that in the Old Testament context the seventh day was the designated day of Sabbath because it reflected the order of the Lord’s activity during the creation week, which in turn foreshadows the rest which awaits the child of God after his labors.  But given a different contextual reference, the commandment could just as readily urge another day to be observed as the Sabbath without the alteration of a single syllable in the commandment itself.  It is this “different contextual reference” for the Fourth Commandment, which the resurrection of Christ gives to the commandment, which, as we shall now see, required the “detail” change in days from the seventh to the first day of the week.

To come directly to the issue of the shift of days for Sabbath observance, in keeping with the three foregoing observations, it must be asserted (to paraphrase Charles Hodge) that there were only two essential elements in the Old Testament Sabbath regulation: (1) that it should be a day in which one rests from his own labors, and (2) that it should be devoted to the worship of God and the service of religion (what these mean will be explained later).  All else was circumstantial and variable.  Even the day of the week was variable and might be changed, if changed (1) for sufficient reason, and (2) by competent authority.  Indeed, where these two factors would be present, the change would be obligatory.[17]  Were these two factors present in the first century, thereby legitimatizing the changing of the day of Sabbath observance from the seventh to the first day of the week?  A sufficient reason was patently present—the momentous occasion of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead on the first day of the week!  Competent authority was also patently present—the example and words of Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath, and His apostles (John 20:1, 19, 26; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2; Heb 10:25; Rev 1:10).  The inevitable conclusion which the Christian church reached was that the change of days was not only appropriate but had both Christ’s and apostolic sanction.  For the church to continue to observe the seventh-day Sabbath (1) would have by implication either asserted that the Exodus was the more important redemptive event whereas it was only a foreshadowing of the redemptive work of Jesus or denied the fact of the resurrection of Christ altogether, and (2) would have meant the rejection of the authority of Christ and His apostles (not to mention the Old Testament prophetic scriptures as well) over the church.  Which is just to say that for the church to continue to observe the seventh-day Sabbath would have been to ignore the progressive nature of revelation which was here governing the situation.  Vos elucidates:

          Inasmuch as the Old Covenant was still looking forward to the performance of the Messianic work, naturally the days of labor to it come first, the day of rest falls at the end of the week.  We, under the New Covenant, look back upon the accomplished work of Christ.  We, therefore, first celebrate the rest in principle procured by Christ, although the Sabbath also still remains a sign looking forward to the final eschatological rest.  The O.T. people of God had to typify in their life the future developments of redemption.  Consequently the precedence of labor and the consequence of rest had to find expression in their calendar.  The N.T. Church has no such typical function to perform, for the types have been fulfilled.  But it has a great historic event to commemorate, the performance of the work by Christ and the entrance of Him and His people through Him upon the state of never-ending rest.  We do not sufficiently realize the profound sense the early Church had of the epoch-making significance of the appearance, and especially of the resurrection of the Messiah.  The latter was to them nothing less than the bringing in of a new, the second, creation.  And they felt that this ought to find expression in the placing of the Sabbath with reference to the other days of the week.  Believers knew themselves in a measure partakers of the Sabbath-fulfillment.  If the one creation required one sequence, then the other required another.[18]

We must conclude then from the facts of (1) man’s universal and perpetual obligation respecting Sabbath observance, and (2) the divinely instituted and authorized change of the day of Sabbath from the seventh to the first day of the week, that it is incontrovertibly certain that the Lord’s Day, being the first day of the week, and the Sabbath observance mandated by the Fourth Commandment are for the Christian church to be regarded as essentially one and the same institution, the differences between them arising from the fact that the church after Jesus’ resurrection entered into the age of fulfillment as over against the Old Testament age of anticipation (Col 4:17).  This representation of the matter must be affirmed by the church, for only when this is fully understood can the proper observance of the Lord’s Day be reestablished.

Three Objections

As might be expected, certain objections have been raised against the notion of a univeral and perpetual first-day Sabbath obligation binding upon all men, Christian and non-Christian alike.  It is often noted that “no observance of a particular ‘day of rest’ is contained among the ‘necessary things’ of Acts 15:28, 29, nor is any such precept found among all the varied moral directions given in the whole epistolary literature.”[19]  With respect to the first objection it is enough to say that the same could be said about other precepts the perpetual observance of which no Christian questions, such as the precept concerning respect for parents, truth, and the property rights of others.  As for the second, it would be enough simply to remind the reader of what has already been said with respect to 1 Corinthians 16:2.  But it may also be noted that no such perpetuating precept is actually needed in the epistolary literature.  Once the Decalogue was given, it would take a direct declaration to repeal it.  No such repeal has ever been issued.  Even the change of the day is not a repeal but an adaptation to the New Testament situation.  One should assume, therefore, that it is still in force.  (When Paul writes, for example: “I had not known lust, except the law had said, You shall not covet,” he illustrates the fact that the Decalogue is still binding New Testament legislation.)  Finally, it is frequently said that the Sabbath obligation is out of keeping with the spirit of the gospel age which requires the consecration of every day to the Lord.  This objection, to begin, is based upon the false notion that the gospel age requires greater consecration to God on the part of His people than did the Mosaic administration.  But the religion of Mosaism was no less a religion of the heart than that of the present age, requiring of men then as now that they love God will all their being and their neighbor as themselves all the time (cf. too the heart devotion exemplified in and called for by the Psalms).  But in neither age is the biblical religion exclusively a religion of the heart, for in both may be found ordinances and institutions: divinely-appointed services, stated ministries, and external helps (for example, Bible and sacraments).  It certainly is not necessarily a denigration of the evangelical spirit of the gospel age then to insist that men are obligated to observe every recurring first day as a day set apart for the exercise of corporate and private worship.  Furthermore, to assert that “every day is the Lord’s Day” may seem pious, but “we must not forget,” as Murray writes,

         that there are different ways of serving God.  We do not serve Him by doing the same thing all the time.  If we do that we are either insane or notoriously perverse.  There is a great variety in human vocation….One of the ways by which this variety is enjoined is to set apart every recurring seventh day.  That is the divine institution.  The recurring seventh day is different and it is so by divine appointment.  To obliterate this difference may appear pious.  But it is piosity, not piety.  It is not piety to be wiser than God; it is impiety of the darkest hue.

Finally, it must be said again that John, writing by the Spirit of God the Book of Revelation, did not say that every day was “the Lord’s Day.”  Rather, he implied that only one day was (cf. “the Lord’s Day”), and he designated it as such (Rev. 1:10). 

Proper Observance of the Lord’s Day

The apostolic church recognized as one of its obligations to God the assembling of itself together for corporate worship (cf. Heb. 10:25), and this on the first day or Lord’s Day (1 Cor. 16:2; Acts 20:7; Rev. 1:10).
  The service customarily included the singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, the offering of prayers, the exercise of spiritual gifts, the reading of Scripture, the preaching of the Word, the taking of offerings for diaconal needs, and the observance of the sacraments (often, too, the agapē feast) (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 11:20-22; 14:26; 16:2; Col 3:16; cf. also Justin Martyr, First Apology, chs 45, 47).  Apparently, much of the day, when circumstances permitted, was given over to this corporate expression of worship.  In addition to works of worship, as has already been noted in another connection, works of necessity and works of mercy were also perfectly permissible and regularly practiced (Matt 12:3-4, 11-13; Acts 20:9-11).  But underlying the specific expression of observance, and governing them all, was the recognition of the special character of the day as a day “set apart” by and for the Lord.  This sanctity resides in the command to keep the day holy, that is, to recognize its “set apart” character and to adapt one’s attitudes and actions to it (Ex 20:8); and it comes to expression in (1) the recognition of the distinction of the day from the other six, and (2) the concentrated adoration of the Triune God on that day. 

In this connection, it is important, where the Sabbath is said to be “a Sabbath of rest to the Lord” (Ex 35:2), to note the meaning of the word “rest” and the words “to the Lord” following it.  “Rest” cannot mean mere cessation of labor, much less recovery from fatigue.  Neither idea is applicable to God’s “rest” in Genesis 2:2-3.  The former idea is denied by our Lord in John 5:17 where He affirms that “the Father is working [even] until now”; the latter is inappropriate to the very idea of God.  “Rest” means then involvement in new, in the sense of different, activity.  It means the cessation of the labor of the six days and the taking up of different labors appropriate to the Lord’s Day.  What these labors are is defined by the accompanying phrase “to the Lord.”  They certainly include both corporate and private worship and the contemplation of the glory of God as well as the other kinds of works already noted. 

The Effects of Sabbath Neglect and Sabbath Observance

     The Negative Effects of Sabbath Neglect

As might well be expected, if men and nations neglect to remember the Lord’s Day to keep it holy, dire consequences follow.  The prophets speak with unmistakable clarity about the ruinous consequences that come jurisprudentially and providentially to the people who high-handedly disregard God’s Sabbath.

“But if you do not obey me to keep the Sabbath day holy by not carrying any load as you come through the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle an unquenchable fire in the gates of Jerusalem that will consume her fortresses.” (Jer 17:27)

* * * * * *

Yet the people of Israel rebelled against me in the desert.  They did not follow my decrees but rejected my laws—although the man who obeys them will live by them—and they utterly desecrated my Sabbaths.  So I said I would pour out my wrath on them and destroy them in the desert.” (Ezek 20:13)

 * * * * * *

In those days I saw men in Judah treading winepresses on the Sabbath and bringing in grain and loading it on donkeys, together with wine, grapes, figs and all other kinds of loads.  And they were bringing all this into Jerusalem on the Sabbath.  Therefore I warned them against selling food on that day.  Men from Tyre who lived in Jerusalem were bringing in fish and all kind of merchandise and selling them in Jerusalem on the Sabbath to the people of Judah.  I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them, ‘What is this wicked thing you are doing—desecrating the Sabbath day?  Didn’t your forefathers do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity upon us and upon this city?  Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath.’  When evening shadows fell on the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I ordered the doors to be shut and not opened until the Sabbath was over.  I stationed some of my own men at the gates so that no load could be brought in on the Sabbath day.  Once or twice the merchants and sellers of all kinds of goods spent the night outside Jerusalem.  But I warned them and said, ‘Why do you spend the night by the wall?  If you do this again, I will lay hands on you.’  From that time on they no longer came on the Sabbath.  Then I commanded the Levites to purify themselves and go and guard the gates in order to keep the Sabbath day holy.  Remember me for this also, O my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love.” (Neh 13:15-22; cf. 2 Chr 36:20-21)

One may apply the divine response to Sabbath-breaking to individuals, to families, or to nations; wherever the Lord’s Day is presumptuously ignored or defiantly desecrated and people absent themselves from corporate worship of the living and true God, there true religious knowledge wanes and, without that, idolatry, immorality, and disrespect for law are spawned (Rom 1:18-32).  In short, the result of Sabbath neglect on a wide scale is inevitably national and international paganism and moral perversity (cf. the outcome of the French “experiment” in 1793). 

It must be said, of course, that the punitive regulations governing the profanation of the Sabbath which were operative under the Old Testament theocracy (cf. Ex 31:14-15; 35:2; Num 15:32-36) are no longer within the province of the church’s disciplinary measures under the New Testament economy (cf. Westminster Confession of Faith XIX, iv).  But just because this is true, the conclusion should not be drawn that the Sabbath principle itself is no longer binding any more than it would be right to conclude, because adulterers and adulteresses are no longer to be put to death (Ex 21:1; Lev 20:10; Matt 5:27-32), that the seventh commandment has been abrogated.  The penalty for neglecting His Sabbaths God can and does exact in other ways against His church and men in general, not the least being the erosion of morality and respect for civil law which God allows to take place in both the home and in the body politic.  Such moral declension takes its toll in the rise of crime on a national scale, the ensuing increase in danger to life and property, and the ever-increasing imposition of taxes upon the citizenry to fund the necessary law-enforcement agencies to protect the citizenry from the ever-enlarging criminal element that preys on society.  Then the ever-increasing curtailment of the rights and liberties of all follows as legislation has to be enacted to deal with the rising civil disobedience.  Ultimately, of course, God will hold the Sabbath-breaker accountable in the day of judgment.

       The Positive Effects of Sabbath Observance

The Scriptures promise specific blessing to those men and nations who observe and honor the Lord’s Day.  To demonstrate this, one can do no better than to quote the words of Scripture itself:

        “Blessed is the man who does this, the man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath without desecrating it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.  Let no foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.’  And let not the eunuch complain, ‘I am only a dry tree.’  For this is what the Lord says:  ‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons or daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.  And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love the name of the Lord, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer.  Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.’  The Sovereign Lord declares—he who gathers the exiles of Israel: ‘I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.’” (Isa 56:2-8; emphasis supplied.)

This passage, among other things, underscores the far reaches of the blessing which Sabbath observance brings: to “foreigners” to Israel, indeed, to “all who keep the Sabbath…,” God promises “joy in my house of prayer.”  Clearly Sabbath observance was to be taken seriously by men of other nations as well as by Israel, and blessings were promised to those who honored His Sabbath.

* * * * * *

          “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 honorable, and if you honor 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.  The mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isa 58:13-14)

* * * * * *

          “‘But if you are careful to obey me,’ declares the Lord, ‘and bring no load through the gates of this city on the Sabbath, but keep the Sabbath day holy by not doing any work on it, then kings who sit on David’s throne will come through the gates of this city with their officials.  They and their officials will come riding in chariots and on horses, accompanied by the men of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, and this city will be inherited forever.’” (Jer 17:24-25)

In lofty language full of promise and blessing, the prophets regale their readers with the divine blessing guaranteed the people who honor the Lord’s Sabbath, the external religious institution perhaps above all others that sustains the people of God as a worshipping community.  Of course, I certainly do not intend to suggest that men and nations can be made Christian merely by Sabbath-keeping, but observance of the Lord’s Day by the people of God (and by the nations) is certainly one of God’s methods “for keeping the resurrection of Christ, on which salvation depends, in perpetual remembrance” (Hodge) in the earth, and this in turn does fall out to the salvation of men and, by an inevitable extension, to the moral improvement of people and nations.  Charles Hodge well says: “If men wish the knowledge of [Jesus’ resurrection] to die out, let them neglect to keep holy the first day of the week; if they desire that event to be everywhere known and remembered, let them consecrate that day to the worship of the risen Saviour.”[21]  I would submit, as an application of Hodge’s insight, that in the single fact that Christians generally have not maintained the sanctity of the Lord’s Day we may well have pin-pointed the major cause of the world’s failure to take seriously the church’s proclamation of Christ’s resurrection and its implications!  The non-Christian just does not perceive in the Christian church today any earnest recognition of the biblical significance of its own first-day worship!

The Psalmist declares: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Ps 33:12; cf. Ps 144:15).  There is no warrant to restrict this blessing solely to Israel (cf. vss 8, 12, 13-15, 18-19).  Wherever God and His holy precepts are honored by a nation, God has pledged to bless that nation.  And honoring His precepts certainly includes the passing and the maintaining of civil legislation to protect the sanctity of the Lord’s Day and the right of the people of God to worship Him on that day.  It also means that a church faithful to her Lord will expect office bearers in her midst to affirm the binding character of the Lord’s Day, to honor the Lord on this day, and to encourage by gentle instruction and example the people of God under their care to do the same. 


Special Note

The 1982 symposium entitled From Sabbath to Lord’s Day (edited by D.A. Carson; Zondervan) contends that the Lord’s Day is not the Christian Sabbath.  A key argument in the volume is the exposition of Hebrews 3:7-4:13 (cf. pp. 197-220; 343-412).  But Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., offers a Reformed biblical-theological response in his “A Sabbath Rest Still Awaits the People of God,” Pressing Toward the Mark: Essays Commemorating Fifty Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (edited by Charles G. Dennison and Richard C. Gamble; Philadelphia: The Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1986), pp. 33-51.

Gaffin exegetically demonstrates that the church’s rest about which the writer speaks in this context is not present, as the Carson volume urges, but is entirely future—as an eschatological Sabbath-rest (cf. 4:9).  He trenchantly argues (1) that the (weekly) Sabbath is an eschatological sign or pointer to eschatological rest.  (“To deny this is to suppose that the writer…not only apparently coined the term ‘Sabbath-resting’ for eschatological rest himself but also connected that rest with Gen 2:2-3 (which elsewhere in Scripture is only used for instituting the weekly Sabbath), yet that he did so without any thought of the weekly ordinance – a rather likely supposition” – p. 47) and (2) that the weekly Sabbath continues in force under the new covenant until the consummation (“To deny this is to suppose that for the writer the weekly sign has ceased, even though the reality to which it points is still future—again, an unlikely supposition.  What rationale could explain such a severing, by cessation, of sign and unfulfilled reality?” – p. 47).  Gaffin concludes that the writer of Hebrews does not support the view that because of the “spiritual rest” already brought by Christ weekly Sabbath-keeping is no longer necessary or appropriate.  I would urge the reader to read the entire article by Gaffin.  It addresses a “crucial and substantial” link in the central argument of the Carson symposium. 

[1] Domitian (A.D. 81-96), for example, the latter part of whose reign corresponded with the writing of the Book of Revelation, attempted to compel his subjects to worship him.

[2] Cf. G. Adolf Deissmann, Bible Studies (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1901), pp. 218-219; R.H. Charles, The Revelation of St. John (ICC) (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1920), I, 23.  Cf. also Acts 25:21-26 where ho Sebastos (“His Majesty the Emperor”) is employed with Kaisar (“Caesar”) and with ho kurios (“the Lord”), both doubtless referring to Nero.

[3] Scholars have not been unanimous in this opinion that “the Lord’s Day” denoted the Christian day of worship, other suggestions as to its referent including (1) the Old Testament seventh-day Sabbath, (2) Christ’s birth day, (3) Christ’s crucifixion day, (4) the anniversary day of Christ’s crucifixion, (5) the anniversary day of Christ’s resurrection, and (6) the “day of the Lord” (cf. 2 Pet 3:10).  But if John had intended the Old Testament Sabbath, it is strange that he did not employ the customary term, “Sabbath.”  Also, neither the day of Christ’s birth nor His crucifixion day held special honor, so far as is known, for the apostolic church.  Indeed, the former day is not even known and the latter is still debated.  Moreover,  no early church father employs “the Lord’s Day” to designate what today is referred to as Easter Sunday.  Finally, the eschatological day of judgment is always referred to as “the day of the Lord” (hē hēmera tou kuriou) in the Septuagint, never “the Lord’s Day” (hē kuriakē hēmera).  It is quite safe to conclude, then, that the phrase, whatever it may mean, did not denote any of these.  On the other hand, there are good reasons at hand to support the present contention that it was, in fact, an early Christian designation of the church’s day of worship.  Beside (1) the reason already adduced (that is, the title as a protest against its counterpart in the cult of emperor worship), (2) since in the previous verse (vs 9), John tells his reader where he was when the vision recorded in the Revelation came to him, it is highly probable that he intended to tell him when it came by a designation recognizable to Christians everywhere (this reason would effectively eliminate “the day of the Lord”).  Furthermore, (3) from church history, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch (martyred c. A.D. 116), in his Letter to the Magnesians, IX, i, wrote of “… no longer keeping the Sabbath [that is, the seventh day] but living according to the Lord’s Day [kuriakēn], on which also our life has sprung up again by him.”  It is therefore extremely difficult, if not impossible, to escape the strong presumption (which the majority of scholars acknowledge to be present in these facts) that “the Lord’s Day” is a term denoting the Christian day of worship.  I will therefore proceed on the well-founded assumption that “the Lord’s Day” refers to the Christian day of worship. 

[4] B.S. Easton, “Lord’s Day,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia III, 919. 

[5] Ibid.

[6] Charles Hodge, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, in loc.; cf. also J. Oliver Buswell, Jr., A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, I, 370, who translates: “by himself without compulsion.”

[7] Easton, ibid.

[8] Ibid.; cf. also C.C. Ryrie, “Sunday,” Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, p. 506.

[9] J. Murray, “Romans 14:5 and the Weekly Sabbath,” Appendix D in The Epistle to the Romans, II, 259. 

[10] Easton, ibid.

[11] James M. Boice, The Gospel of John, 2, 34-37; Ryrie, ibid., p. 330; Easton, ibid., p. 1920; D.A. Carson, ed., From Sabbath to Lord’s Day. Cf. special note on p. 23.

[12] Westminster Confession of Faith, XXI, vii; Larger Catechism, Q. 116; Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, III, 321-348; G. Vos, Biblical Theology, pp. 158-159; J. Murray, “The Sabbath Institution,” and “The Pattern of the Lord’s Day,” pamphlets published by The Lord’s Day Observance Society.

[13] Murray, “The Sabbath Institution,” p. 4; cf. Mark 2:27-28; Heb. 3:7-4:11.

[14] “In the course of time” (NASB) is literally “at the end of days” (cf. margin), which suggests an established cycle of days, which is likely the seven-day cycle established in Genesis 1-2 in light of the fact that at this “end” (seventh day?) of days Cain and Abel ceased from their labors and brought offerings to the Lord, a distinctly religious activity. 

[15] J. Oliver Buswell, Jr., ibid., I, 368.

[16] The “work” of the Sabbath violator described in Numbers 15:32-36, I would argue, could have been a “work of necessity” and therefore appropriate if the man involved had possessed a proper heart attitude toward the Sabbath regulation; but the placing of the incident in the ancient account immediately after the stated penalty for sins committed in “high-handed” defiance of God’s Word (vss 30-31) suggests that the incident is to be construed as an example of “sinning with a high-hand”: the man, in other words, had deliberately conducted himself in conscious and spiteful disregard for God’s Sabbath commandment. 

[17] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, III, 329-330.

[18] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology, p. 158, emphasis added.  I demur from the one turn of phrase in the quotation, “And they felt that this ought to find expression…,” as though to suggest that the church decided to change the day on its own authority.  Clearly, the change of days was mandated by Christ and His apostles, and did not arise out of convenience or as a human convention.

[19] Easton, ibid., p. 1920; cf. C. Ryrie, ibid., p. 506.

[20] Murray, “The Sabbath Institution,” p. 7.

[21] Charles Hodge, ibid., III, 330.