The Sabbath Feast Day or/and Day of Rest ? - Prof. J. Geertsema

Taken from the Clarion (1984) Vol.33, No 1

The Synod of Cloverdale 1983 dealt with the revision of the Heidelberg Catechism. The Committee which prepared the revision proposed to read Lord's Day 38 (Q.A. 103) in this way: "What does God require in the fourth commandment? First, that the ministry of the gospel and the schools be maintained, and that, especially on the feast day, I diligently attend the church of God . . . ."

The point for which I ask your attention is the expression "especially on the feast day." Our old version reads: "especially on the Sabbath, that is, the day of rest." We find this wording also in both the old and the new versions of the Catechism of our Dutch sister churches.

Part of the mandate of the Committee for the Revision of the Heidelberg Catechism was that it had to take as basis the German and the Latin texts of 1563 and the Dutch text of 1611. The German text on this point reads: sonderlich am Feiertag. One dictionary defines Feiertag as "holiday, festive day." And it says that the German verb feiern means "to celebrate, to honour, to praise" and "to rest from work." Another dictionary says that Feiertag means "feast day, day of rest."

Apparently going back to the German text, the Committee chose and proposed "feast day." However, the Synod of Cloverdale did not accept this and changed the wording of the revision so that it reads: "especially on the day of rest." Thus we have back the old formulation, although without the word "Sabbath."

It is obvious that, with the old wording, our churches confessed and maintained that the fourth commandment, speaking about the Sabbath as a day of rest, is still in force for the New Testament church. We are called to keep the weekly Sabbath not only as a day of worship but also as a day of rest.

For centuries this has been a point of contention: Is the Lord's Day only a day of worship, or is it also a day of rest for the church? We can also formulate the question in this way: Does the fourth commandment only have a ceremonial character, or is it a moral requirement as well? Another manner of stating the problem is: Must we see the origin of the fourth commandment (that the seventh day is a day of rest) in God's covenant with Israel (then it can be called ceremonial, and it can be seen as being in force only during the dispensation of God's covenant with Israel, from Moses until Christ)? Or must we see the origin of this commandment in God's creation work (Gen. 2:1-3), so that we have to do with a creation order that was maintained in the old covenant with Israel, and, although the day changed, is to be maintained also in the new covenant?

Many articles and books have been devoted to this question. Different answers have been given. I do not intend to dive deeply into this old and still present controversy in this editorial. All I want to do is point to the fact that the Synod of Cloverdale expressly maintained as confession that our day of worship is also a day of rest according to the fourth commandment which is still in force for the new covenant dispensation. I am thankful for this decision of the Synod. This decision must have consequences for the practice of our Christian life with regard to the manner in which we keep the Lord's Day as day of rest and worship.

We live in a world that can be characterized as post-Christian. For many the Christian Sunday is no longer a day of rest and worship. Modern technology and economy demand shift work. For economic reasons machines can and must go on producing all seven days of the week. Merchants who open their stores on Sunday see their sales rise with up to twenty percent. The majority of the public is in favour of Sunday shopping. All this shows clearly the secularization of our Canadian society. One can say: When people do not seek to serve God, why should they keep the Lord's Day as a day of rest and worship?

But let us also examine ourselves. Is world-conformity creeping into the church on this point? Do we allow it to creep in? Do we nowadays do on Sunday what even a few years ago did not come up in our minds to do, and what we (strongly) disapproved of as not fitting the Lord's Day as day of rest and worship? On Sunday we were to attend church diligently, twice if at all possible. And one had to have a good, valid reason not to go twice. Further, we would not consider traveling long distances on Sunday for business or vacation, or taking off to the beach on a warm Sunday or in the holidays. We would not think about buying and selling on Sunday or have people do this for us. We were convinced: it is certainly not the will of our God that we travel on Sunday or go to the beach or buy and sell and so on. No, we were convinced that it was God's will for us to keep the first day of the week as the day of rest and worship: holy for the Lord, and for being with the congregation and with the family. And if we nowadays start doing what we would not have done some years ago, are we, then, now convinced that it is God's will that we do those things? Are we convinced that this is obedience of faith? Are we convinced that by doing these things we build up the churches in faithful service to God, and that we work positively for the preservation of the congregations in the way of the LORD? Are we convinced that doing these things promotes the holiness and the commitment of our lives to the LORD? Or do we slowly do things we did not do before on Sunday, without such conviction, because we just like to do them, telling ourselves that there is nothing wrong with it. Is it just a sign of growing worldliness, materialism, selfishness?

In Gen. 2:2 and 3 we read that "on the seventh day God finished His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all His work which He had done in creation."

I shall not give a detailed explanation of these words. But I should like to ask your attention for two important aspects. It is clear that God instituted the seventh day after the six days of creation. We can correctly read that on the seventh day God finished His work which He had done. The institution of the seventh day was then the finishing touch.

In the second place, we read that God blessed and hallowed the seventh day. That God hallowed this day means that this day was holy for the LORD. That God blessed this day means that He connected His blessing to it. It is the blessing of full and abundant life for His creation, in particular for man. The blessing of the day of rest is, of course, a blessing not for God Himself, but for man, and its holiness is a holiness also for man.

After the fall into sin , when God made His covenant with Israel, He maintained this gift of the seventh day as a day of rest, a day of blessing, a day of redemption and salvation for His people Israel. Not keeping the Sabbath day as a holy day for the LORD meant forfeiting and losing the blessing of that day, the blessing of the LORD. This was shown in the Babylonian captivity (Ezek. 20).

In the Gospels we read how the Lord Jesus Christ did not abolish the law, also not the fourth commandment. He maintained and fulfilled it in its proper meaning as the day on which God gave His blessing of redemption and salvation to His people. In particular on the Sabbath day, our Lord Jesus preached and healed, that is, saved and handed out to God's children the blessings of God's kingship. All that Christ went against was the misinterpretation and the misuse of the fourth commandment and of the Sabbath day as taught and practiced by the Jewish leaders.

In the New Testament church the day of rest and worship changed from the seventh to the first day of the week. This first day is called "the Lord's day." It was on the first day of the week that the Lord rose from the dead.

Now there are not only God's great work of creation and that other great work of the redemption of Israel out of Egypt. These works of God were basic in the history of revelation until the coming of Christ. Now there is also God's great work of redemption in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. That was God's new fundamental work. It is on that foundation that the church now bases its life, although maintaining God's work in creation. Christ came in order to redeem God's creation. The church, therefore, held on to the created order: six days of work and one day of rest and worship, but it starts the week with the proclamation of and faith in God's redemption work in Christ. Being placed in the salvation of Christ, the believers let that salvation rule also the other days of the week: saved from sin they seek to serve their God.

One day of rest in a week of hard work, according to the pattern of God's creation order, was a great gift of God to mankind in paradise. It was also a great gift to God's people Israel. It still is a great gift of a caring and gracious Father in heaven through Jesus Christ to the New Testament church. Since the day of rest and worship is God's gift, mankind, and in the first place the church, should receive and accept this gift and use it to God's glory in the proper, God-willed way. Sanctification of the day of rest still results in sanctification of all the days of the week and, thus, of the entire life of those who believe. Desecration of the day of rest results in increasing desacration of the other days of the week and of one's entire life.

Therefore, we are very thankful for the decision of Synod Cloverdale, 1983, which maintained that our day of worship is a day of rest in accordance with the Fourth Commandment.