Sabbath sanctity in a secular society - Rev. C. Bouwman

The following is taken with permission, from Clarion Vol. 35, No. 12 (1989)

There is in the world around us an increasing disregard for the Lord's Day. Instead of it being a day devoted specifically to the Lord's service, more and more Canadians find the Sunday a fitting opportunity to catch up on yard maintenance, to spend at a recreation resort with the family, etc. This disregard for the Lord's Day was given legal expression in the recent decision of the British Columbia provincial court when the judge ruled that the Holiday Shopping Regulation Act was unconstitutional. Consequently, stores in the province may be open at will on Sunday. The government of British Columbia, by an Order in Council, sided with this disregard when it permitted all drinking facilities in the province to be open on Sunday for the duration of Expo. What was once historically a holy day has become, in practice and in law, a day as any other.

As Christians in this world it grieves us to see the law of God set aside. For we understand this to mean that the God of the law is disregarded.

This disregard for God must encourage every child of God to rise up in defense of the Lord's honour. So we do whatever lies within our power to encourage Canadians to reckon with God's law, to return also to a proper appreciation of the Sunday.

Yet in order for us to do that effectively, we shall ourselves need to have a proper understanding of the origin and meaning of the Sunday, as well as some grasp of what manner of conduct is fitting on this day. More yet, we shall have to show some consistency between what we believe about the Sunday and how we behave on that day. If there is not that consistency, we will have lost the battle before we have so much as opened our mouth.

Sabbath in the Old Testament

a. Meaning

Attentive Bible readers have long been aware of the fact that the fourth commandment is different in Deut. 5 than it is in Ex. 20. When God gave command to Israel at Mt. Sinai to keep the Sabbath holy, God gave as ground for His command His own actions in creating the world.

Says God: "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy . . . for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth . . . , and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it" (Ex. 20:8-11). In Deut. 5, Moses repeats the same command but mentions a different motive: "You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day" (Deut. 5:15).

These two different motives for keeping the Sabbath are not to be understood as contradictory; these two are rather supplementary. When we read in Ex. 20 that God wishes men to follow His precedent at creation (work six days and rest on the seventh), then God basically instructs man about the purpose of his existence. Man received life not simply for himself and his own enjoyment, rather, God created man for Himself; man exists for God. Because that is the reason for man's existence God determined that man should have one day free from the concerns of daily life so that on that day he might have the opportunity to focus all attention on the Creator. The Sabbath as God gave it is essentially God centered.

This God-in-the-center motive for the Sabbath is evident also from Deut. 5. In that text, Moses reminds Israel that God has delivered them from the land of Egypt, and on that basis he urges obedience to the Sabbath command. But God did not give Israel this deliverance from Egypt so that this people might be free for themselves. Israel was delivered in order that they might be a people for God. For that reason, now that they were freed from the bondage of slavery, God gave the Sabbath command; they should have one day in seven away from daily concerns so that they might have the opportunity to focus all their attention on this Redeemer. This day should be His day. God centered.

This redemption from Egypt implied more than physical freedom from physical slavery. For when Israel oame to Mt. Sinai God made a covenant with this people;

God claimed them as His special nation. Their slavery to Pharoah had been symbolic of their bondage to Satan; their redemption from Pharoah a picture of the redemption granted in Jesus Christ. So this covenant at Mt. Sinai points out the fact that Israel has now become God's special people; the relation that God had with Adam in Paradise is essentially restored in Israel. That is also the reason why God instructed Israel to build a tabernacle for Himself in their midst (Ex. 2530). This people was His; He wished to dwell among them.

Rich as the tabernacle was, however, Israel could not always remain around the tabernacle, could not always see this symbol of God's presence in their midst. Once they had entered the promised land, each would scatter to his inheritance. Yet in His care for His special people, God wished Israel to have a sign of that covenant regardless of where they were in the land. For that reason God set aside for Israel the Sabbath day; "this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you" (Ex. 31:13). That one day in seven was to be a continual reminder to Israel of that bond which God had made with them; they were His people, He had sanctified them. As such, the Sabbath was weekly evidence of the redemption He granted them. Consequently, Israel was to treasure very highly this sign of the Sabbath. That is also the reason why God placed heavy sanctions on anyone who failed to keep that day holy to God; "every one who profanes it shall be put to death" (v. 14). For whoever would profane that day would indicate that he did not appreciate sufficiently the salvation which God had obtained for him, did not appreciate that life revolves totally around God. Conversely, that is also the reason why God repeats, many years later, His promise to bless Israel if they would again reckon with the Sabbath as God's special day (Is. 58:13ff).

These few Biblical data give us sufficient evidence to conclude that the Sabbath functions very much in the covenant relation between God and His people. Men were created for God - the Sabbath is the symbol; men were redeemed for God - again, the Sabbath is the symbol.

b. Conduct

But if God gave the Sabbath as a symbol of that covenant relation between Himself and His people - the day draws attention to God - how would God have His people keep the Sabbath? How is this day to be different from the other six in the week?

The fourth commandment gives the answer: "six days you shall labour, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work." In itself, that sounds sufficiently clear; the Sabbath was to be distinct in that no work was to be done. Yet if Israel was not to work on the Sabbath, what was Israel to do? Was it a day in which they were free to loaf as they pleased, provided they stayed away from anything connected with their daily work?

That was not really God's intention. This day was not just to be different from the other six in that no work was to be done; it was to be a day "holy to the LORD" (Ex. 31:15). This day, in other words, was to be set apart from the other six in order that it might be devoted in a special way to God. The Sabbath was not to be Israel's day; it was to be God's day. For Israel was God's people.

The concerns of every day life are sufficiently weighty to dominate one's mind around the clock. That reality implies that attention for the Cause of Israel's existence and redemption would be easily overshadowed by these daily concerns. In His mercy God gives one day in seven so that on that day His people might distantiate themselves from their daily concerns; they are to distantiate themselves from these pressures in order that they might have uninterrupted opportunity to devote themselves thoroughly to that covenant God who came to dwell in their midst.

That is also the reason why one finds the Sabbath and the sanctuary mentioned in one breath. "You shall keep My Sabbaths and reverence My sanctuary: I am the LORD" (Lev. 19:30; 26:2). In fact, there is even the command that on the Sabbath Israel had to make a point of meeting together: "Six days shall work be done; but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation: you shall do no work; it is a Sabbath to the LORD in all your dwellings" (Lev. 23:3). By God's decree, Israel's conduct on the Sabbath was to be determined by the fact that they lived for the God who was pleased to dwell among them. The Sabbath was not for themselves and their own enjoyment in the first place. They were not free from work so that they might refresh themselves in a way that they saw fit. No, God gave His people a day free from work so that they might spend that day with God, and so be refreshed. At the sanctuary of the LORD Israel should receive new strength to live the new week for God.

To say it in New Testament terms: on the Sabbath, Israel was instructed to go to Church. The Sabbath was not their day; it was the Lord's day.

Sunday in the New Testament

a. Meaning

Despite the fact that the Sabbath shifts from the last day of the week to the first in the New Testament, we do not read anywhere of an essential change in the meaning of the Sabbath. The fact that the Sabbath is moved to Sunday as a result of Christ's resurrection simply serves to point out that the New Testament Sunday is to revolve totally around the redemption that has been obtained for us by Jesus Christ. As such, we are to conclude that the Sunday today has the same basic meaning as did the Sabbath of the old covenant; it is a sign throughout our generations that the Lord sanctifies us, that we were created and redeemed in order to live for God.

b. Conduct

The fact that there is no essential change in the meaning of the Sabbath means also that the way in which the Sunday is to be kept is determined by the Lord today just as much as it was in the time of Moses. Today, too, the Sunday is not our day; it is the Lord's day. That in turn means that we are obliged to use that day, free from daily work, in order to devote our full attention to the Cause of our existence and salvation.

It is true that the Lord no longer dwells in a tabernacle made with hands. He dwells now in His children (cf. Eph. 2:22). So we do not have to go to a special place in order to meet God; we can pray wherever we wish. Nor do we find in the New Testament a text commanding us in so many words that on Sunday we are to be in church. Yet that lack of a command ought not to surprise us. It is here the same as with infant baptism; what is evident from the Old Testament need not be repeated in later revelation. God treats His New Testament church as mature. If the Sunday is categorically God's day - and the testimony of Scripture is uniform on that - then it follows that this day is to be spent there where His people can meet God, where they receive His blessing, hear His Word. And that is in church. On that day there is still to be a "holy convocation."

What was dear to the Psalmist of the Old Testament remains dear to the child of God in the New: "I was glad when they said to me, 'Let us go to the house of the LORD!' " (Ps. 122). And: "A day in Thy courts is better than a thousand elsewhere" (Ps. 84). This desire remains dear to the Christian of today because a Christian knows himself to exist and be redeemed for God's sake. His life is for God. In that framework, failing to do one's utmost to attend church twice each Sunday suggests a misappreciation of why we have received the Sunday.

It is true that the Sunday as we know it includes more than sitting in church. Yet we are to remember that God has set aside the entire day as holy to the Lord. The whole day is given to us so that we might have opportunity to focus attention fully on our Creator-Redeemer. That makes it quite wrong for us to treat part of the day as Sunday (the hours that we go to church), and treat the rest of the day as we would treat a holiday. It is not true that after church the Sunday becomes a Saturday. That is why that habit to change after church from Sunday attire into the weekly jeans is to be deplored. That detracts from the special character of the day. Nor is absorbing oneself in a hockey game in front of the TV, or mingling with the secular crowds on the beach, fitting conduct for the hours after church is out. Such activity, too, detracts from the character of the day because it does not encourage us to focus our attention on the God who saved us. It is that specific character of this day as the Lord's day that determines what we may do with our Sundays.


The secular society around us no longer understands the unique character of the Sunday. As such, that reflects disregard for the God of the Sunday. It falls upon those who fear God to rise to the defense of the sanctity of the Sabbath as the Lord's day . But if we intend to encourage society again to see the Sunday as God's day, then our actions with respect to the Sunday shall have to be consistent with what the Word of God stipulates about that day. The world watches. We contribute to increased Sabbath desecration the minute we forget that Sunday is not for us but for God.

And God commands this: "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy to the Lord.

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