The Worship Priority
The Fourth Commandment
Chapter 18 – The Day of Worship
One commandment is more controversial in the modern church than any other: the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy. Conservative Evangelicals who march for the right to display the Ten Commandments in public places rarely make serious efforts at Sabbath keeping. It is the lost rule – the commandment no one wants to talk about. It is consequently a distinct mark of Reformed churches: We believe in and practice a New Testament Sabbath on the first day of the week.
What surprises many is the placement of this doctrine in Reformed confessions of faith. Chapter 21 of the Westminster Confession of Faith is entitled, “Of Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day.” In later confessions of the Congregationalists and Baptists based on Westminster, chapter 22 has the same title. Some have viewed this with confusion, wondering why the framers of the Confession combined two important but unrelated issues into one chapter. The truth is that these issues are not unrelated, because the Sabbath was given as a day of worship.
My contention has been that the first four commandments all regulate worship. The fourth commandment (Exodus 20:8-11) regulates worship by establishing a day – a set time – during which worship is to occur.
A Holy Day
Much of the discussion on the Lord’s Day focuses on the restrictions on work which are expressed in the Fourth Commandment. A man is commanded not to “labor” or do “any work” on one day in seven. The application of this command to the New Testament believer has been hotly debated. Our church believes strongly that it does apply. My current purpose is not to re-fight that battle, but to consider the implications of the commandment for worship. Consequently, we must look not at what the day is not to be, but what God actually intends it to be.
First, the day is to be holy. It is like the tabernacle and the priests themselves – set aside or reserved for God. It seems pious to say, “I want every day to be holy to God,” but God knows the unreasonableness of this. The truth is that we must work. Our labor is important, and ought to be done to the glory of God. When we work, however, or when we finish up chores around the house, or get our shopping done, or whatever else it is that we must do as responsible persons, we cannot be focused on God as we are in worship.
This is not sinful. Many Christians have exhausted themselves by trying to meet all these responsibilities while worshiping God. God’s way is better. He has taken one day and said, “This is holy – reserved for Me. On this day you shall not do anything else. You have a break from all your responsibilities so that you can focus entirely on Me.”
This idea is further cemented in our minds by the initial description of “Sabbath” in the commandment: “the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.” It is a day of rest, but not of selfish rest. The day’s purpose is rest towards God. We rest from everything else so that we can turn ourselves to God.
Much attention is paid to the practical nature of the Sabbath. God recognizes that His creatures need regular rest, and He codified that rest in the commandments. The law is practical, but this is not the whole truth of the Fourth Commandment. God has done much more than give us a day off. He has given us a reprieve from other responsibilities so that we may worship Him.
The great benefit of the Sabbath is that it gives us opportunity to throw ourselves whole-heartedly into worship. It is not merely something tacked on to the end of a busy day, but the focal work of Sunday. When we get up on Sunday, we know what we are going to do: Go to church and worship. Consequently, we can dedicate all our energy and ability to that one critical task.
A Whole Day
It is important to recognize that in this commandment God did not require the Israelites to keep Saturday morning from 11:00 to 12:00 as “holy to the Lord.” Rather, they were to keep one day in seven. Nowhere in the Bible do we find that the entire day was spent in worship, but the entire day was reserved to the Lord to make room for worship.
When worship is part of a day of other priorities, it tends to be minimized. Our church has a midweek service on Wednesday night, but all of us sense that this is different from the Sunday worship. Even when we sacrifice to carve out an hour of our evening to sing, pray and listen to preaching, we cannot give the same energy or attention as we can on Sunday morning. The reason is fairly obvious: our minds and bodies are tired from the exertions of the day.
Perhaps you have at some point participated in a Saturday morning prayer meeting. These can be beneficial times, but they, too, lack the focus of Sunday worship. The mind is already racing on the other tasks of the day, and it is not possible to give oneself to God in worship as we do on His Sabbath. This is why He demands a day. When we reserve an entire day for Him, we can worship Him fully.
The church follows the example of the apostles, observing our Sabbath on the first day of the week in celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord. While it is easy for this day to become cluttered with legal restrictions not found in Scripture (after all, the Pharisees managed to make the original Sabbath a burden!), it is nevertheless an important aspect of the worship of the church that we set aside the day, not just a few hours here and there.
This is why Reformed churches must resist the move to eliminate evening services. We find it a help to our Sabbath keeping when we mark out the beginning and end of the day with public worship. The services are like bookends delineating a specific time which belongs to God, during which we are free from our mundane responsibilities and pursuits.
Lately evangelicals have been adopting the practice of “Saturday Mass” from the American Catholic church. The motive for this is identical to that of our Catholic neighbors: we can get church out of the way on Saturday night and have all of Sunday for ourselves. This is not only a selfish mindset; it is destructive to the nature of worship. Such worship cannot command our energy and attention as does worship on the Sabbath. It must fall short of the worship commanded by God.
Once again, then, we see how the commandments regulate our worship. Sinful men have a tendency to innovate when it comes to worship, and their innovations erode the biblical nature of worship. Consequently, God has set necessary limits around our worship, forbidding us to deviate from His prescribed plan. He has not only determined who is to receive worship, and what manner and tone that worship will take, but He has determined also the day of worship. We are consequently blessed, for we enjoy one day each week which is “holy to the Lord.”