The Sabbath, the Covenant, and the House of God, Ken Hanko. Self-published, 2022. Softcover, 45 pages.
It was Sunday August 3, 1924 in Jamestown, Michigan. Pastor Henry Wierenga hadn’t even been the minister of the Jamestown Christian Reformed Church for four years. Back in those days, every Christian Reformed Church had a morning and an evening service. In the second service, it was the custom to listen to a sermon based on the Heidelberg Catechism. On that Sunday Wierenga was at Lord’s Day 38.
In his sermon, he said the Sabbath commandment wasn’t applicable in the New Testament era. Wierenga maintained that Sunday had no special status in the New Testament and it wasn’t to be seen as a replacement of the Jewish Sabbath from the Old Testament. Christ had fulfilled the Sabbath, which was entirely ceremonial. The Fourth Commandment has no moral requirement for Christians today. Therefore, he said, Christians are under no obligation to regard the day as special. They might still choose to worship on this day, but every day was equally holy. If one desired, one could certainly work on Sunday or do anything that one might do any other day of the week.
Wierenga’s consistory didn’t like what they were hearing. The elders completely disagreed with their minister. The matter was brought to a classis. Eventually he was suspended and deposed.
Here we are nearly 100 years later and observance of the Lord’s Day is under even greater pressure from all sides. After governments capitulated to the pressure to allow full and free Sunday commerce, many Christians conveniently discovered that there are only nine commandments that apply to us today. To keep the fourth commandment today isn’t only counter-cultural vis-à-vis the world, but often with those who profess to be Christians too.
With all this pressure, more than ever we need sound biblical studies like this one by Ken Hanko. The author served as an elder in the now-defunct American Reformed Church in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. Prior to that he had also served as a pastor with the Protestant Reformed Churches in America. He is an experienced teacher, a knowledgeable Bible scholar, and an eminently clear writer.
Hanko’s short treatise punches well above its weight. It’s an example of what’s called biblical theology. Biblical theology takes a theme and explores how it unfolds in Scripture. Hanko’s theme is obviously the Sabbath and he explores how it was revealed, how it relates to covenant theology, and to the tabernacle. In addition, he explains how the Sabbath functioned as a sign of the covenant. The book concludes with a chapter on “The Blessings of Sabbath Observance,” focussing on two passages from Isaiah.
I commend Hanko’s approach for its success in not falling to one extreme or the other. On the one hand, there are legalistic approaches to the Fourth Commandment which disconnect it from God’s redemptive work. But on the other hand, there are the lax and indifferent approaches which don’t take it seriously as God’s will. Hanko emphasizes that the main purpose of the Sabbath is worship. God prohibits work, but that rest isn’t the main purpose. But he also stresses that we have to avoid another error: deciding that as little worship as possible is best. He writes, “We emphasize physical rest and downplay spiritual rest. So, we diligently attend church for an hour or two and do not work, but then we use the rest of the day for our own pleasure” (p.44).
This isn’t an academic book and the writing should be accessible to everybody. It’ll especially be helpful for pastors, elders, and Bible teachers. However, even though it doesn’t come with study questions, I think it could also be profitably used by Bible study groups. If you need something to study over the course of about 4 weeks, I highly recommend Ken Hanko’s The Sabbath, the Covenant and the House of God.
Originally published in Clarion 72.13 (October 13, 2023)