The Third Commandment
“Thou shalt sanctify the holy day.”
(In the Old Testament it was:
“Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” — Exodus 20:8)
The word “Sabbath” in Hebrew means “rest.” The Lord initially instituted the Sabbath Day, the seventh day of the week, as a day of “rest” for His people (Exodus 16:23–30; 20:8-10; 31:13–16; Deuteronomy 5:12-14), as well as a day of commemoration in honor of God’s creation (Exodus 20:11; 31:17). He also ordained in the Old Testament various additional “Sabbaths” — Sabbath days, Sabbath feasts, Sabbath years, and even a Sabbath “jubilee” of seven-times-seven years (Leviticus 25). Only works of mercy (Matthew 12:11-12) and the labor of the priests in the Temple (v. 5) were exempt from the “no labor” requirement of the Sabbath. The Sabbath also became in the process of time a regular and consistent opportunity for His people to gather together in their synagogues for study and meditation in the Word of God and for instruction and worship (cf. for example Luke 4:14ff.).
Concerning the function of commemoration, the Sabbath reminded God’s people, looking back, of His “rest” after creating the world (Genesis 2:2-3); and Israel’s “day of rest” was in commemoration of God’s day of rest (Exodus 20:11). Looking ahead, it was a shadow-picture (Colossians 2:17) of the rest for our souls (and for their souls by faith in the prophecies) that God prepared in Christ —both now in His Kingdom of Grace and in heaven in His Kingdom of Glory in eternal rest (Matthew 11:28-30; Hebrews 4:1-11; Revelation 14:13). But those “days and months and times and years” (Galatians 4:10) which served as a preview or “a shadow of things to come” (Colossians 2:17) were abrogated or abolished by God Himself as being no longer necessary for His people since Christ, “the body,” the “real thing,” in whom we have true rest, had come in fulfillment of His prophecies.
Note that the Seventh Day Adventists, in blatant violation of Colossians 2:16-17, teach that the Sabbath and other ceremonial laws are still binding on Christians today; and they both require and observe them as good works pleasing to God [work-righteousness]. Moreover, the Reformed sects teach that God changed the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday and thus require their people to observe Sunday as binding in the New Testament.
In his Small Catechism or Enchiridion, Luther asks: “What does this mean?” and then answers in accordance with Scripture: “We should fear and love God that we may not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred, and gladly hear and learn it.”
To understand fully the spiritual importance of the Third Commandment, we need to consider our spiritual need and how our gracious God fully provides for our need. Consider the following spiritual facts revealed to us in God’s Holy Word:
■ Though all of us are sinners who deserve His punishment in hell (Romans 6:23), God in His mercy sent His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to suffer and die for the sins of us and all men (John 3:16; Romans 5:6-8).
■ Though all of us were born spiritually blind, dead, and without true fear, love and trust in God (Psalm 51:5; John 3:6a; Ephesians 2:3b), God gave us forgiveness for all our sins, made us alive to Him, and made us His children by creating in our hearts faith in Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice on the cross. God the Holy Spirit gave us this faith and keeps us in this faith through the Gospel in God’s Word and in the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Psalm 51:5; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:5-6; Titus 3:5; Romans 1:16-17, 10:17; Matthew 26:26-28).
■ Since the Spirit of God works only through the Means of Grace (the Gospel in the Word and Sacraments) to strengthen us in the true faith and to keep us in that faith, we will want to use those means regularly and consistently so that our faith grows and does not die (Colossians 3:16; I Peter 2:2; II Peter 3:17-18; Romans 6:3-4; Matthew 26:26-28).
■ God establishes Christian congregations and also the Pastoral Office so that the Word of God continues to be taught and proclaimed and the Sacraments continue to be administered and used (Acts 2:41-47, 14:23, 20:28; Titus 1:5).
■ God commands that Christians gather together for worship, to hear and learn the Word of God in its truth and purity, and to administer and receive the Sacraments (Hebrews 10:25, 2:12; Psalm 111:1; II Timothy 4:1-5; Matthew 28:19-20; Luke 22:19b; Acts 2:42; I Corinthians 11:23-26).
■ God commands this all for our own spiritual good so that we may continue in the true faith and spend eternity with Christ Jesus in heaven. He also promises to bless the regular and consistent use of the Word and Sacraments (John 6:39-40; Isaiah 55:10-11).
The Third Commandment deals with God’s Word: “Thou shalt sanctify the holy day.” What does this mean? We answer with Luther: “We should fear and love God that we may not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” How well have we kept the Third Commandment?
The Third Commandment proclaims that it is a grievous sin to despise preaching and the Word of God. How do we despise preaching and the Word of God? We do this when we do not attend public worship with regularity, that is, when we do not go to church when we have opportunity to do so.
Local Christian congregations, in the exercise of their liberty (Galatians 5:1 and 13), set aside particular times each week for public worship and to afford everyone opportunities to receive the blessings that God offers and bestows upon sinners in the Means of Grace, namely, forgiveness of sins, life and eternal salvation. The Lord exhorts and admonishes us to keep our spiritual priorities straight and to place them ahead of temporal things. The Savior tells us: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these [temporal] things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). The account of the Savior’s visit to the home of Mary and Martha in Bethany clearly shows how we are not to allow temporal matters to distract us from the opportunity to hear God’s Word when it is taught: “Now it came to pass, as they went, that He entered into a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha received Him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving and came to Him and said, ‘Lord, dost Thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me.’ And Jesus answered and said unto her, ‘Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things. But one thing is needful; and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42).
Consider the principle of setting and following spiritual priorities on Sunday morning — the day and time commonly observed by Christian congregations as their primary opportunity for public worship. To allow temporal matters to distract you and to interfere with your regular and consistent attendance is wrong. One particular tendency in our modern age is the common practice of secular work on Sunday. To take a job, to change shifts, or to choose a profession which demands work on Sunday betrays a failure to recognize and set your spiritual priorities correctly. How can people say that they respect the Third Commandment and what the Lord says about putting matters of the soul first, but then make choices which cause them chronically to miss divine services? There was a time when very few jobs required work on Sunday inasmuch as society, in general, respected Sunday as a day free of encumbrances to participate in religious observances. That time is past. Sunday has become just another “day off” from work for rest and recreation. A Christian must not allow the demands of the world to interfere with God’s demands. When applying for a job, make it clear to the prospective employer that Sunday morning work is not an option for you. Do not choose a profession which demands that you absent yourself from the House of God on Sunday mornings. Stand up when an employer schedules you for Sunday work! Beware of any job which interferes with your ability to get up on Sunday morning to go to divine services! Trust that the Lord will keep His promise to provide for your temporal needs if you put your spiritual needs first and foremost (Matthew 6:33). Any temporary economic hardship that God may lay upon you should be viewed as a cross or chastisement which God shall enable you to bear: “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man. But God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able but will, with the temptation, also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (I Corinthians 10:13). God will bless your correct choices! God will provide for all your needs in Christ. Trust Him! Avoid putting yourself in any situation which makes going to church on a regular basis difficult because of your job or any other factor.
For example, a choice which may make attendance more difficult is where to live. If you choose to move away from the immediate area and thus make the trip to church longer, this may make travel problematic, especially in winter time. Attending to matters such as special services, instruction classes, meetings and the like also becomes more difficult. Why would a person make his attendance more difficult? In all the years I have been a pastor, I have yet to see a choice to move farther away from church allow the person to maintain his former frequency of attendance —not a single case— despite promises made to do so! By the way, choosing to go away to a college or university where there is no orthodox congregation of our fellowship within driving distance every Sunday is contrary to the Third Commandment. Basically, any choice a person makes that makes attendance more difficult is wrong-headed and fails to consider what the Lord says about putting first things first!
Remember that we break this commandment not only by not going to church at all but by attending irregularly and even by missing church without a valid reason. We sometimes find that, when we miss church, it is simply because we have stayed up too late the night before or have “overdone it” by indulging our flesh to the point of exhaustion or sickness. Our sad state is therefore self-inflicted and betrays a lack of concern for the Word and worship of God. God says we are to be “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner [i.e. habit] of some is, but exhorting on another” (Hebrews 10:25). We bring shame upon the name we bear when our “Christian” witness lies languishing in bed on Sunday morning. But missing church is not the only way we transgress this commandment in our lives.
When we attend church but do not listen attentively, we dishonor God’s holy Third Commandment. Again this may be due to intemperate behavior the night before, not getting adequate rest, or it may be due to the laziness of the flesh. Have you been a diligent and devout hearer of God’s Word, or are you present in the body but absent in spirit during the sermon? Do you actively desire to hear and retain what is taught? Do you sincerely open your Bible and studiously “search the Scriptures” as they are preached? Or are you easily distracted and bored, finding it hard to keep your eyes open during the sermon? How much do you remember just days, or even hours, afterward? Quiz yourself: What was the text? What was the theme? Oh, how forgetful we are of “the one thing needful!” Have you ever become resentful of the length of the sermon or of a worship service? This is one of the most vile forms of despising God’s Word. At times we find our flesh causing us actually to loathe the Word of God, even as it is being preached! This is how “far short” we fall from the glory of God in our keeping of the Third Commandment (Romans 3:23).
We also break this commandment by not believing and living according to the Word of God preached to us. Have you sought earnestly to hold fast to the Word and devoutly to practice that Word? Has the Word preached made an effect on your heart and life? For example, do you diligently read the Bible in private and in family devotions? Do you cheerfully and regularly bring your offerings for the support of God’s kingdom as He has blessed you? Are you active in the congregation, seeking the unchurched, endeavoring to build up the kingdom of God in your midst? Do you minister to those whom God brings into contact with you, using the Law and Gospel properly and diligently? Do you use the written Word of God and the Sacraments as they should be used, or do you use them negligently or carelessly?
The Third Commandment commands us to hold preaching and the Word of God sacred and gladly to hear, learn and meditate upon it. The Scriptures state concerning the early Christians after Pentecost: “They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in [Gk. the] breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). Do you follow this example? God says: “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16). “This Book of the Law shall not depart out of thy mouth, but thou shalt meditate therein day and night” (Joshua 1:8). “Blessed are they that hear the Word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28). “He that is of God heareth God’s words” (John 8:47). Christ warns us that when we refuse to hear His ministers we are despising both Him and His Father (Luke 10:16). We are to honor and support the preaching and teaching of the Word of God in every way we can (Hebrews 13:17; Galatians 6:6-7). How well have we done what God asks of us in the Third Commandment?
We have broken this commandment in thoughts, words and deeds, failing both to avoid unlawful actions and to perform according to this perfect standard. Our sins, both of commission and omission, condemn us as guilty before God. In order to be justified in the sight of God, we need both a righteous record of obedience to the Law before God and a ransom payment for our sins, our numerous transgressions against God’s Law. Since we cannot do this of or for ourselves (Romans 3:10, 12, 20, 23), we need a Substitute, a Savior, a Redeemer. Where shall we turn? To whom shall we flee for refuge?
We flee to Him who tenderly invites sinners to partake of true Sabbath Rest: “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest … and ye shall find rest unto your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29). The Rest-Giver is our Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who fulfilled not only the Third Commandment but the entire Law of God for us: “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth” (Romans 10:4). He it is who unburdens our conscience paying the penalty of our guilt with His own holy and precious blood. He took our burden upon Himself, in guilt and shame, to appease God’s wrath upon us because of our sins, in our place. “His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree” (I Peter 2:24a). In Christ Jesus we have the total and complete forgiveness of all our sins by virtue of His ransom payment for us. By faith in His perfect satisfaction of divine justice in our place, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1), “forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things as silver and gold from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (I Peter 1:18-19).
The desire for the sweet, saving grace of Christ in the Gospel, the desire created in us by the Holy Ghost through that very Gospel, moves and motivates us to the regular and consistent use of God’s Word. Scripture exhorts us all: “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby, if so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious” (I Peter 2:2-3). As a newborn baby desires the pure milk of his mother to nourish him and cause him to grow physically, so we desire the pure Word of God, particularly the gracious Gospel of Christ, on a regular basis, to feed our souls for spiritual growth. We have “tasted” the sweet grace of Christ, the undeserved saving love of God, which brings us complete remission, full justification and righteousness before Him. This taste never fades for truly penitent sinners!
May God ever grant us this Gospel-created desire as we hold preaching and the Word of God sacred and gladly hear and learn it, for Jesus’ sake!
— E. J. W.