A Laymen’s Commentary on the Large Catechism: Third Commandment


How lovely is your dwelling place,
    O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, yes, faints
    for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and flesh sing for joy
    to the living God.

Even the sparrow finds a home,
    and the swallow a nest for herself,
    where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
    my King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house,
    ever singing your praise! Selah

Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
    in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the Valley of Baca
    they make it a place of springs;
    the early rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength;
    each one appears before God in Zion.

O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer;
    give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah
Behold our shield, O God;
    look on the face of your anointed!

10 For a day in your courts is better
    than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
    than dwell in the tents of wickedness.
11 For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
    the Lord bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does he withhold
    from those who walk uprightly.
12 O Lord of hosts,
    blessed is the one who trusts in you!

(Psalm 84)


The Third Commandment.

Thou shalt sanctify the holy-day.

What does this mean?–Answer.

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.

(Small Catechism)


These are the holy Ten Commands
Which our Lord God placed in our hands
Through Moses, His own servant true,
When he to Mount Sinai drew.

Thou shalt the day which God hath blest
Keep holy, that thy house may rest;
Keep hand and heart from labor free,
That God may thus work in thee.

God hath giv’n us all these commands
That thou thy sin, O child of man,
Might know, and also well perceive
How unto God man should live.

Help us, Lord Jesus Christ, for we
A Mediator have in Thee.
With works we’d perish from the path;
They merit but endless wrath.
Kyrieleis! (TLH 287/LSB 581)


The Third Commandment.

78] Thou shalt sanctify the holy day. [Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.]

79] The word holy day (Feiertag) is rendered from the Hebrew word sabbath which properly signifies to rest, that is, to abstain from labor. Hence we are accustomed to say, Feierabend machen [that is, to cease working], or heiligen Abend geben [sanctify the Sabbath]. 80] Now, in the Old Testament, God separated the seventh day, and appointed it for rest, and commanded that it should be regarded as holy above all others. As regards this external observance, this commandment was given to the Jews alone, that they should abstain from toilsome work, and rest, so that both man and beast might recuperate, and not be weakened by unremitting labor. Although they afterwards restricted this too closely, and grossly abused it, so that they traduced and could not endure in Christ those works which they themselves were accustomed to do on that day, as we read in the Gospel; just as though the commandment were fulfilled by doing no external, [manual] work whatever, which, however, was not the meaning, but, as we shall hear, that they sanctify the holy day or day of rest.

82] This commandment, therefore, according to its gross sense, does not concern us Christians; for it is altogether an external matter, like other ordinances of the Old Testament, which were attached to particular customs, persons, times, and places, and now have been made free through Christ.

Sabbath in Hebrew literally means to rest.  God established the Sabbath day in the Mosaic Laws to commemorate the day that He rested from His work of creation, that being the 7th day of the week (Genesis 2:1-3, Exodus 20:8-11).  Thus man was to rest on the 7th day of the week, Saturday, as well.

Over time the Pharisees developed countless additional laws to the Levitical code to protect the Sabbath and make sure no one violated it.  Sabbath-breaking was a high crime, punishable by death in the Mosaic Law (Exodus 31:14).  However, so many laws had crept up that even things that were ridiculous were considered Sabbath-breaking.  It is into this environment that Jesus comes and proclaims Himself the Lord of the Sabbath, which He is a He created and instituted the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-14).

Christ ultimately fulfills the Sabbath in His rest in the tomb.  Thus now Christ is our Sabbath rest, but in name and reality. No specific day of rest is required any longer as we rest in Christ (Colossians 2:16-23).  For more on Christ’s fulfilling of the Old Testament see the book of Hebrews.

83] But to grasp a Christian meaning for the simple as to what God requires in this commandment, note that we keep holy days not for the sake of intelligent and learned Christians (for they have no need of it [holy days]), but first of all for bodily causes and necessities, which nature teaches and requires; for the common people, man-servants and maid-servants, who have been attending to their work and trade the whole week, that for a day they may retire in order to rest and be refreshed.

84] Secondly, and most especially, that on such day of rest (since we can get no other opportunity) freedom and time be taken to attend divine service, so that we come together to hear and treat of God’s Word, and then to praise God, to sing and pray.

The Sabbath is now observed for two reasons.  First for bodily rest for those who have labored during the week, which is for all people.  Second, to give special attention to God’s Word and the Divine Service (Colossians 3:1-17).

This worship of God is as Philip Melancthon puts it in the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope: “the exercises of faith struggling with unbelief and despair concerning the promise of the Gospel” (44).  As such when we come together to worship the Gospel must always be preached.  Always.

85] However, this, I say, is not so restricted to any time, as with the Jews, that it must be just on this or that day; for in itself no one day is better than another; but this should indeed be done daily; however, since the masses cannot give such attendance, there must be at least one day in the week set apart. But since from of old Sunday [the Lord’s Day] has been appointed for this purpose, we also should continue the same, in order that everything be done in harmonious order, and no one create disorder by unnecessary innovation.

86] Therefore this is the simple meaning of the commandment: since holidays are observed anyhow, such observance should be devoted to hearing God’s Word, so that the special function of this day should be the ministry of the Word for the young and the mass of poor people; yet that the resting be not so strictly interpreted as to forbid any other incidental work that cannot be avoided.

87] Accordingly, when asked, What is meant by the commandment: Thou shalt sanctify the holy day? answer: To sanctify the holy day is the same as to keep it holy. But what is meant by keeping it holy? Nothing else than to be occupied in holy words, works, and life. For the day needs no sanctification for itself; for in itself it has been created holy [from the beginning of the creation it was sanctified by its Creator]. But God desires it to be holy to you. Therefore it becomes holy or unholy on your account, according as you are occupied on the same with things that are holy or unholy.

No specific date is required any longer.  This is contrary to the Seventh Day Adventists and the Sabbatarians.  That said for the sake of good order and for those weak in the faith we set specific times and places to worship (Romans 14:1-12, 1 Corinthians 14:26-40).  Since the beginning of the New Testament Church the Lord’s Day, Sunday, has been the day of worship (Revelation 1:10).  This is for multiple reasons:

  1. Christ is resurrected on Sunday.
  2. 8th Day – 1st Day of the new world begun at the Resurrection of Christ.  Christ is the Light of the world and thus we worship on the day that Light was created anew in Christ’s resurrection.  The 8th Day is also symbolic of Baptism.
  3. Custom since apostolic times.

People need holidays as we have very busy lives and we need a chance to take a break and rejoice in the Word of God (Nehemiah 1:1-8).  Sunday then has been the day that we met as a church to celebrate the Divine Service and receive the gifts the Lord has for us.

Now that we understand that there is no specific day any longer but rather that every day is a day of worship in Christ we have the question of “What is holiness?”  Holiness means to be set apart.  It is proximity to God and His Word.  Thus to sanctify the holy day means to set it apart for attention to God’s Word and Sacraments.  God doesn’t need the holy day but you do, and this is why the Lord has His Church set aside a day to be holy.

88] How, then, does such sanctification take place? Not in this manner, that [with folded hands] we sit behind the stove and do no rough [external] work, or deck ourselves with a wreath and put on our best clothes, but (as has been said) that we occupy ourselves with God’s Word, and exercise ourselves therein.

89] And, indeed we Christians ought always to keep such a holy day, and be occupied with nothing but holy things, i.e., daily be engaged upon God’s Word, and carry it in our hearts and upon our lips. But (as has been said) since we do not at all times have leisure, we must devote several hours a week for the sake of the young, or at least a day for the sake of the entire multitude, to being concerned about this alone, and especially urge the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer, and thus direct our whole life and being according to God’s Word. 90] At whatever time, then, this is being observed and practised, there a true holy day is being kept; otherwise it shall not be called a Christians’ holy day. For, indeed, non-Christians can also cease from work and be idle, just as the entire swarm of our ecclesiastics, who stand daily in the churches, singing, and ringing bells but keeping no holy day holy, because they neither preach nor practise God’s Word, but teach and live contrary to it.

91] For the Word of God is the sanctuary above all sanctuaries, yea, the only one which we Christians know and have. For though we had the bones of all the saints or all holy and consecrated garments upon a heap, still that would help us nothing; for all that is a dead thing which can sanctify nobody. But God’s Word is the treasure which sanctifies everything, and by which even all the saints themselves were sanctified. At whatever hour, then, God’s Word is taught, preached, heard, read or meditated upon, there the person, day, and work are sanctified thereby, not because of the external work, but because of the Word, which makes saints of us all. 92] Therefore I constantly say that all our life and work must be ordered according to God’s Word, if it is to be God-pleasing or holy. Where this is done, this commandment is in force and being fulfilled.

93] On the contrary, any observance or work that is practised without God’s Word is unholy before God, no matter how brilliantly it may shine, even though it be covered with relics, such as the fictitious spiritual orders, which know nothing of God’s Word and seek holiness in their own works.

94] Note, therefore, that the force and power of this commandment lies not in the resting, but in the sanctifying, so that to this day belongs a special holy exercise. For other works and occupations are not properly called holy exercises, unless the man himself be first holy. But here a work is to be done by which man is himself made holy, which is done (as we have heard) alone through God’s Word. For this, then, fixed places, times, persons, and the entire external order of worship have been created and appointed, so that it may be publicly in operation.

95] Since, therefore, so much depends upon God’s Word that without it no holy day can be sanctified, we must know that God insists upon a strict observance of this commandment, and will punish all who despise His Word and are not willing to hear and learn it, especially at the time appointed for the purpose.

What makes the Sabbath holy?  God’s Word does (Psalm 119:9-16).  Simply being at church and going through the motions is not enough.  Rather faith is required.  Without faith, worship is not holy.  What makes the day holy is God’s Word.  God’s Word is the holy thing.  There is no other source of holiness aside from God Himself.  The Holy Spirit is the one who delivers this sanctification to us (1 Timothy 4:1-5, 1 Corinthians 6:1-11).

We are sanctified by Word and Sacrament.  All our works are sanctified for Christ’s sake.  Thus all works done by the Christian in faith are good works.  Works done outside of faith are evil works, no matter how good they appear.

The rest we take is not the important part, else any vacation would be fulfilling the 3rd Commandment, but the sanctification is.  If the person is sanctified then the occupation/vocation, all that they do, is sanctified.

Specific liturgies, hymns, times, traditions, prayers, etc. have all been set up for the sake of good order.   We should not discard them but rather use what the Church has always used.  We do this in order to not cause confusion and to catechize.

In summary, then no day is holy without God’s Word.  With God’s Word, all days are holy, for in the Word we have Christ who is our Sabbath rest.  We must hear God’s Word and learn it, especially at appointed times set aside for that purpose.

96] Therefore not only those sin against this commandment who grossly misuse and desecrate the holy day, as those who on account of their greed or frivolity neglect to hear God’s Word or lie in taverns and are dead drunk like swine; but also that other crowd, who listen to God’s Word as to any other trifle, and only from custom come to preaching, and go away again, and at the end of the year know as little of it as at the beginning. 97] For hitherto the opinion prevailed that you had properly hallowed Sunday when you had heard a mass or the Gospel read; but no one cared for God’s Word, as also no one taught it. Now, while we have God’s Word, we nevertheless do not correct the abuse; we suffer ourselves to be preached to and admonished, but we listen without seriousness and care.

98] Know, therefore, that you must be concerned not only about hearing, but also about learning and retaining it in memory, and do not think that it is optional with you or of no great importance, but that it is God’s commandment, who will require of you how you have heard, learned, and honored His Word.

Other activities should not trump hearing God’s Word.  Make time to do it.  Sports or other activities are not a valid excuse.  Don’t be Chreasters, who only show up on Feast Days.  Don’t go to church because it is custom or tradition.

Study the Word.  Be diligent in it.  Be serious about it.  Church is not there to entertain you.  Rather it is there to deliver to you the forgiveness of sins and God’s Word, which is a serious affair.  Treat it that way.  One should read, mark and inwardly digest God’s Word, after all, we will have to give an account to God for what we have done.  The thing He wants us to learn and cherish above all else is His Word.

99] Likewise those fastidious spirits are to be reproved who, when they have heard a sermon or two, find it tedious and dull, thinking that they know all that well enough, and need no more instruction. For just that is the sin which has been hitherto reckoned among mortal sins, and is called ajkhdia, i.e., torpor or satiety, a malignant, dangerous plague with which the devil bewitches and deceives the hearts of many, that he may surprise us and secretly withdraw God’s Word from us.

100] For let me tell you this, even though you know it perfectly and be already master in all things, still you are daily in the dominion of the devil, who ceases neither day nor night to steal unawares upon you, to kindle in your heart unbelief and wicked thoughts against the foregoing and all the commandments. Therefore you must always have God’s Word in your heart, upon your lips, and in your ears. But where the heart is idle, and the Word does not sound, he breaks in and has done the damage before we are aware. 101] On the other hand, such is the efficacy of the Word, whenever it is seriously contemplated, heard, and used, that it is bound never to be without fruit, but always awakens new understanding, pleasure, and devoutness, and produces a pure heart and pure thoughts. For these words are not inoperative or dead, but creative, living words. 102] And even though no other interest or necessity impel us, yet this ought to urge every one thereunto, because thereby the devil is put to Right and driven away, and, besides, this commandment is fulfilled, and [this exercise in the Word] is more pleasing to God than any work of hypocrisy, however brilliant.

Don’t think you know it all, or have this in the bag.  No matter how long you have been a Christian you always need to attend to the Word.  Hubris is the devil’s trick to make you lazy and weaken your faith (Matthew 13:1-23).  Don’t be conceited.  The devil constantly looks for opportunities to steal away your faith. We must always be on guard, after all we are at war with the devil and his minions (Matthew 13:24-30, Colossians 1:3-14).

However, we need not fear. God’s Word is efficacious (Isaiah 55, Mark 4:10-20, Philippians 4:2-9, Hebrews 3:7-4:13, James 4:1-12).  After all one little Word can fell Satan and all his hosts.

Hearing the Word is most pleasing to God.  Given all of this, we should treat study, prayer, and Church with the highest honor, respect, and seriousness.

Lord Jesus Christ, with us abide,
For round us falls the eventide;
Nor let Thy Word, that heavenly light,
For us be ever veiled in night.

In these last days of sore distress
Grant us, dear Lord, true steadfastness
That pure we keep, till life is spent,
Thy holy Word and Sacrament.

Lord Jesus, help, Thy Church uphold,
For we are sluggish, thoughtless, cold.
Oh, prosper well Thy Word of grace
And spread its truth in every place!

Oh, keep us in Thy Word, we pray;
The guile and rage of Satan stay!
Oh, may Thy mercy never cease!
Give concord, patience, courage, peace.

O God, how sin’s dread works abound!
Throughout the earth no rest is found,
And falsehood’s spirit wide has spread,
And error boldly rears its head.

The haughty spirits, Lord, restrain
Who o’er Thy Church with might would reign
And always set forth something new,
Devised to change Thy doctrine true.

And since the cause and glory, Lord,
Are Thine, not ours, to us afford
Thy help and strength and constancy.
With all our heart we trust in Thee.

A trusty weapon is Thy Word,
Thy Church’s buckler, shield and sword.
Oh, let us in its power confide
That we may seek no other guide!

Oh, grant that in Thy holy Word
We here may live and die, dear Lord;
And when our journey endeth here,
Receive us into glory there. (LSB 585)

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