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Daily Life
Sabbath and Sunday (1)
F. G. Oosterhoff - to be published in a future issue of Una Sancta

The relationship between the Christian Sunday and the Old Testament Sabbath is a matter of much discussion and controversy in the Reformed churches in Holland. It has served at three general synods (Leusden, Zuidhorn, and Amersfoort) and played a major role in the decision of some 1250 members to secede from the federation. It has also, however, stimulated in-depth study on the nature of the Christian Sunday. In what follows I will give some of the highlights of this study, and in the process try to explain the decision the synods have made.

First something about the background. The issue came to the fore in the 1990s. A minister somewhere in the Netherlands had said in a sermon on Lord's Day 38 that the Sunday as day of rest should be observed, but not necessarily because it was grounded in a divine command. His exact words: "Show how much you value that day. As far as I am concerned, not on the ground of an absolute, divine command. But because it is good when, following the example of Israel's Sabbath, we rest together on a day of the week."

Synod Leusden
Objections were raised to this sermon and in the end the issue served at Synod Leusden, 1999. This synod concluded that the opinion "that the Sunday as day of rest is not founded in a divine command is not to be condemned." Among the grounds for this decision was the observation that the Reformed Churches have always allowed room for different answers to the question whether Scripture clearly speaks of an absolute divine command to keep the Sunday as a day of rest. Leusden did not say, as some critics claimed, that the Sunday was simply a human institution and that believers were free no longer to consider it a day of rest. It in fact rejected such a conclusion, observing that Lord's Day 38 clearly speaks of a command namely that especially on the Sunday we diligently attend the worship services. This implies a cessation of labour. The issue in question was, however, whether there had traditionally been room in the Christian church for those who defend the Sunday as day of rest on other grounds than an immediate connection between Sabbath and Sunday, and who are not certain that the Sunday as day of rest is based on a direct divine command. Leusden answered that question in the affirmative.

According to Leusden, then, two opinions have always been allowed in the Reformed Churches and neither of these is to be rejected. One is that the Sunday is directly based on the fourth commandment, the other "that the Christian church in her faithful response to the guiding of God's Spirit gives to the Sunday the special value of day of rest according to the example of Israel's Sabbath." In connection with the second opinion, namely that the Sunday as day of rest is grounded in a responsible choice of the Christian church, reference was made to J. Douma, De Tien Geboden: handreiking voor het christelijk leven (Kampen, 1992), especially p. 56. In the discussion attention was paid to the problem that believers face today because of the steady erosion of the weekly day of rest. Synod decided not to issue a declaration on this matter because it had not reached its table in the church-orderly way. During the discussion it was pointed out that it is indeed important to defend the Christian Sunday, but that this should not be done with improper arguments. What cannot with certainty be shown to be a scriptural command must not be proclaimed as such. Nor is it right to limit the freedom that has traditionally been granted for different explanations of scriptural teachings regarding the day of rest simply because there is a need for clear rules (Acta, GS Leusden, Art. 25).

Synod Zuidhorn
The decision of Leusden did not end the unrest, and the issue served again at the next synod, Zuidhorn 2002-3. Many of the letters and appeals that Zuidhorn received conveyed the conviction that (a) there have never been two views on the Sunday, and the opinion of the minister in question was a new and illegitimate one; and (b) the Bible makes clear that the Old Testament command to cease all work one day of the week applies also to the New Testament church. In fact, the Christian Sunday, in the view of many, is the Sabbath, although it has been replaced to the first day of the week. The decision of Leusden therefore went against Scripture.

A committee serving synod Zuidhorn examined the data from Scripture and church history relating to Sabbath and Sunday and judged, like Leusden, that these data do not lead to a uniform conclusion but can be used to support either opinion. Zuidhorn therefore rejected the demands for revision and urged the churches not to bind consciences beyond the accepted doctrine. It realized, however, the disadvantages of the fact that there are two different opinions, one of which is under attack, and expressed the need for further deliberation and explanation. Zuidhorn therefore appointed deputies who were to provide guidelines on the issue in question. The result was a 98-page report containing, among other things, (1) a study of biblical data on the fourth commandment, the Sabbath, and the origin of the Christian Sunday; (2) a practical-ethical part, dealing with the ethics of labour, rest, and Sunday against the background of the fourth commandment and in the light of Christ's resurrection; and (3) a church-historical part, describing the attitude of the early church with respect to the Sunday, the dominant view during the Middle Ages, the opinion of the Reformers, and so on.

This report, which provides the most extensive description of the grounds on which both Leusden and Zuidhorn based their decision, appeared in the fall of 2004 and was submitted to Synod Amersfoort, 2005 [1]. In this article and the next I will make use of it.

Old Testament and Sabbath
The report shows that the controversy on the nature of the Sunday has occurred time and again in the history of the Christian church. A central question has always been whether the day of rest is a creation ordinance, that is, whether at the time of creation already God instituted the Sabbath for mankind, so that it must be observed by all people at all times. This opinion is found in the Westminster Confession. Deputies state that the view is certainly to be accepted. Indeed, Zuidhorn itself has stressed the legitimacy of the opinion that the fourth commandment, and Scripture as a whole, teach a prohibition of physical labour on the Christian Sunday (Acta GS Zuidhorn, art. 60).

But like Leusden and Zuidhorn, deputies question whether the evidence is conclusive and whether the view can be made binding. With respect to the opinion that Sabbath rest is a creation ordinance, they point out that we do not read of the seventh day as a day of rest for mankind until the exodus. In the history of the patriarchs the Sabbath is not mentioned, nor do we read in Genesis about a rhythm of six days plus one. Israel lived in Egypt for 400 years in a culture that adhered to a rhythm of ten days. The word Sabbath appears for the first time in Exodus 16:23, when Israel received the manna. Subsequently, at Horeb, Israel was given the fourth commandment. It is at this point that the Lord shows the connection between His own rest on the seventh day and Israel's Sabbath. The blessing He pronounced at the time of creation comes now to both man and animal in that for one day they may rest from their labours. The Sabbath becomes a sign of the covenant between God and his people (Ex. 31:13-16). For that reason the punishment for breaking the Old Testament Sabbath was very heavy, whereas there were great promises for both Israelites and aliens who kept the Sabbath.

The Sabbath was God's gift to Israel. Deputies conclude that a study of the Old Testament does not prove without a doubt that it was a creation ordinance and therefore universally valid. They again stress, however, the legitimacy of such a conclusion.

The New Testament
The New Testament, according to the deputies, also does not give a clear answer to the questions that have arisen. We learn here that Christ, according to his custom, visits the synagogue on the Sabbath day and teaches there. He calls all who are weary and burdened to come to him to rest (Mt. 11:28). Not the Sabbath is the focus of God's people, but Christ. He takes pity on those who are exhausted by trying to find rest in their own piety and good works. When He calls Himself the Lord of the Sabbath He does not abolish the Sabbath, but He does show that He has the authority to give it a new meaning. The Sabbath becomes the day on which He does His works of mercy and healing, thereby showing that it is He who truly fulfills the Sabbath. Nowhere in the New Testament do we read that Christ enforced the Old Testament Sabbath commandment, nor do we read that He instituted a New Testament day of rest.

The same goes for the apostles. In Acts 2 we read that the church came together not one day but every day of the week. Nothing is said here about the Sabbath or the first day of the week as a special day of meeting and/or rest. We also do not read in any of the epistles about the first day as day of rest, nor do the epistles draw a connection between the Sabbath and the first day. Like Christ, Paul goes on the Sabbath to the synagogues to preach the gospel, and the other early Christians, who were mainly Jewish, seem to have continued observing the Sabbath. The only time we read in Acts about the first day of the week is in ch. 20, which mentions the meeting of the congregation at Troas. But at this time Paul does not replace the Jewish Sabbath with the first day as the new day of rest, nor does he do so elsewhere. Rather, he shows that not the first day of the week, but Christ is the fulfilment of the Old Testament Sabbath. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to conclude from the meeting at Troas, and also from Paul's request to set aside contributions on the first day (1 Cor 16:2), that this was becoming the day when the congregation came together. In addition, there are the references to the first day in Christ's appearances after His resurrection.

Deputies point out that the New Testament, which mentions all the other commandments, does not make any mention of the fourth. This is not to say, however, that it ignores it. In his teaching Paul follows Christ in intensifying the Sabbath command, showing its spiritual meaning as the Lord did in the Sermon on the Mount also with other commandments. In Hebrews 3 and 4 we again read about the deeper, spiritual meaning of the fourth commandment. The Sabbath rest, which is an entering into the rest of God, is with us here on earth already in principle, but not in perfection. Christ is the way to that rest. Therefore Hebrews stresses the need diligently to attend the worship services (Heb. 10:25). This coming together for the reading and proclamation of God's Word of salvation is the beginning of entering God's eternal rest. The first day or the Sunday is still not mentioned here, however. In Revelation 1:10 John describes an appearance of Christ on "the Lord's Day." This is the only time that this expression is used in the New Testament. It is towards the end of the first century that the term "the Lord's day" comes into more general use for the first day of the week.

Deputies draw the following conclusions from their New Testament studies: (1) it cannot be compellingly deduced from biblical teaching that there is a direct divine command for the New Testament church to keep the Sunday as day of rest; (2) it seems reasonable to conclude that the early church has gradually chosen the first day of the week the day of Christ's resurrection as special day of worship. The apostles may have instructed the church here, but we cannot prove this from Scripture. We may believe that the Holy Spirit has, in according with His promise (John 16:13), led the church in its choice of the Sunday as the Day of the Lord; (3) there are no indications that a cessation of physical labour was required on the day of worship in the early church.

The Law in the New Testament
If the New Testament Sunday is not a Christian Sabbath, then what does the fourth commandment teach us? To answer that question, deputies refer to the well-known distinction between "ceremonial" and "moral" aspects of Old Testament law and worship. The first term refers to what was a foreshadowing of Christ's sacrifice, the second to what belongs to the life style of believers for all times and places. Lately objections have been raised against this terminology, and, following Dr. J. Douma, the report prefers to speak of respectively the provisional and the permanent in the fourth commandment. In addition, deputies mention the new elements that have come in Christ.

The report lists under the label provisional the following: (1) the seventh day, and the fact that it lasted not from midnight to midnight, but from evening till evening; (2) the absolute character of the command to rest, with the death penalty for transgression; (3) the different context, evident in the fact that Israel lived in its own country, which was a theocracy, whereas the New Testament Church lives "in exile" indeed, many believers (for example those in Muslim countries) cannot observe the Sunday as day of rest; and (4) the name "Sabbath" with all its Old Testament connotations. Paul uses the term "Sabbath" for the Old Testament day of rest and states that Christians are not to be bound to it (Col. 2:16f.).

Among the new and permanent elements in the fourth commandment the deputies mention: (1) remembering the day of Christ's resurrection and meeting together as believers on that day; (2) setting that day apart and in that sense hallowing it; (3) resting from our own works and enjoying God's grace in creation and preservation as well as in redemption and sanctification; (4) keeping the day of the Lord as far as possible free from labour; (5) maintaining the rhythm of one day plus six; and (6) experiencing and celebrating with all God's people, slave and free, the new freedom from both slavery and sin in a life as God intended it for us.

The biblical data as presented by the report uphold the opinion of Leusden and Zuidhorn that Scripture does not compellingly show a direct connection between Sabbath and Sunday, although, as deputies point out, it is certainly legitimate to draw that connection. The New Testament, more clearly yet than the Old, teaches the spiritual meaning of the fourth commandment, rather than stressing external observance. We will come back to that point in the next instalment. We will then also see how the Christian church over the centuries has interpreted the biblical teachings on the day of the Lord.

1. The rapport has been published in book form under the title Zondag, Heerlijke Dag. Part of it has been translated into English and can be found on the Dutch churches' website (gkv.nl) under "Engelse artikelen." On the same website a number of commentaries and summaries can be found. They include an article by K. Wezeman, chairman of Deputies for Relations with Foreign Churches, titled "Not beyond what is written," and nine brief articles, titled "Sabbat en zondag," by P.L. Voorberg on behalf of the deputies appointed by Zuidhorn. I have consulted these documents. I have further made use of the summary of the report by K. De Vries, one of the deputies, in De Reformatie, January 8 and 15, 2005. See also the document "Sunday The Lord's Glorious Day," which appears in this issue and summarizes many of the Synods' arguments and teachings

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