Sabbath

I grew up in the “Bible Belt” state of Texas and at that time there were several Sunday rules called Blue Laws. These laws are based upon the belief that Sunday is the Christian Sabbath and therefore the sale or purchase of certain products on that day is illegal. For example, you could buy nails, but not a hammer. The hammer was used to do work, while the nails were useless without it. You could buy cough medicine with more alcohol than whiskey but could not buy beer or wine. Shoppers would often get to the cashier with their intended purchase in hand only to be told that many of their items could not be purchased on Sunday.

Growing up under Blue Laws, I simply accepted them as part of life, and felt it was part of our Christian heritage. When I finally surrendered my life to the Lord, I took a great deal of the Sabbath teaching I had received as a child into my Christian life and accepted it uncritically. Hadn’t God told us to “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy”? As a result there were certain things I would not do on Sunday. Of course this was a convenient excuse not to mow the lawn or clean out the garage.

Over the years, I have heard a great deal of teaching on this subject from different sides. I even worked for a Seventh-day Adventist family at one point. The company observed Sabbath rules literally: if you were in the factory between Friday evening and Saturday evening you were fired—no exceptions. The best thing about this: we would never be asked to work late on a Friday! It was an interesting place to work because early as a Christian I had read several tracts defending Saturday Sabbath observance and this gave me an opportunity to discuss with several Sabbatarians an issue that has divided the church for much of the last two centuries.

Does it matter how we view or practice the Sabbath? Actually, it matters very much; so much that the Lord gave an example of His own practice (Gen 2:2) and a command His people to observe it (Ex 20:8). Besides this, God removed Judah from their homeland during the, in part, because of their desecration of the Sabbath (Jer. 17:27). In the New Testament, Jesus declared (Matt 5:19NIV): “Anyone breaking one of the least of these commandments and teaching others to do the same will be called least in the Kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the Kingdom of heaven.” Respect for scripture requires that we determine what the sabbath is, and how it is properly obeyed.

One of several conclusions are possible: (a) Saturday is to be observed, (b) Sunday is to be observed as the Christian Sabbath, or (c) the Sabbath has a deeper meaning which is fulfilled in other than Old Testament literalism. Each of these positions has their own strengths and weaknesses, so I will give time to each and finish with my view.

Let’s begin with the most commonly held interpretation (among fundamentalists, and evangelicals)—Sunday as the Christian Sabbath. I must admit, if one were to base their opinion upon the number of people who hold a position, this one would win hands down (at least in the United States). We can find references to this position in the writings of some of the most influential Christian authors of the last few centuries. For example, John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress, said: “the first day of the week is our true Christian Sabbath”1.

However, number of adherents is not the test of truth, neither is human authority. The test of truth for the believer is scripture (Acts 17:11; Gal 1:8f; 2 Tim 16f). Does scripture support the concept of Sunday being the Christian Sabbath? Absolutely not! There are no references in the Bible referring to Sunday, the first day of the week, as the Sabbath. All through the New Testament, when the word Sabbath is used it always refers to the Jewish observance of sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. There is reference to a day of rest for the believer (Heb. 4: 1-7) but there is no reason in the context to apply this to a literal day of the week, much less Sunday. In both the Old and New Testaments the Sabbath is always Saturday. No extra-scriptural references to Sunday as a Sabbath appear until the late third century2. This idea grew out of a misunderstanding of the law, and its fulfillment3. I will explain more on this later—for now, suffice it to say that Sunday is not now, nor has it ever been the Sabbath.

So, if Saturday is the Sabbath and scripture commands us to remember the Sabbath. Does this mean we must change our meeting times to Saturday and have Sabbath schools, instead of Sunday Schools? Does this mean that I can’t do certain work on Saturday and must, by divine law, set aside one day in seven in order to please God? What if I violate this? Is He going to kick me out of the kingdom as he kicked Judah out of the Promised Land?

I could simply quote the evidence from the New Testament and the church fathers to prove the early church met on the Lord’s Day—Sunday. However, this study is not about the proper day for the Church meeting. This study is about the Sabbath and its observance. Of course this will help us understand why the church met on Sunday even though it was not the Sabbath.

Saturday has always been the Old Testament Sabbath, but we must remember what the Old Testament has always been. The Old Testament is an account of God dealing with mankind through His chosen people to bring forth a deliverer (Gen 3:15; 12:7 [as interpreted by Gal 3:16]; Gal 2:16). The law was never meant to save (Gal 3:16; 21f), but was to teach us how sinful we are (Rom 7:7), and lead us to true salvation—Jesus Christ (Gal 3:24)!

Early in the New Testament the law takes on a new meaning and application in Christ. For example, Jesus took the law, as given in the scriptures, and re-applied it in Matt 5: 17-48:

Verses:

Results:

21 to 24

Murder includes anger.

27 to 32

Adultery includes lust.

33 to 37

Breaking of oaths includes any dishonesty.

43 to 48

Love your neighbors includes enemies.

 

The people in Jesus’ day assumed that if they did not commit any of the forbidden actions they were acceptable to God. Jesus showed that our sinful actions grow out of our sinful heart, and declared the sinful nature of the heart to be the biggest barrier to acceptance by God. This is why anger was sinful because it was the root behind murder, and lust was the root behind adultery. Jesus went on to teach that it was not what went into a man (what he eats or whether he washed his hands) that made him unclean but what came out of his heart (Matt 15:1-20).

If man were not defiled and sinful God would not have needed to establish the law. The law made it possible for me to see the truth about myself. To illustrate this, I am writing on a computer, and I have a file containing this document. The file is there, but unless I open it with an editor of some sort (MSWord for example) I can not read it. The editor shows what is in the file; God’s law shows what is in me. To understand the law we must look at what about our nature is behind the commandment. We are told not to murder because we are murderous. We are told not to commit adultery because we are adulterous. We are told not to covet because we are covetous.

The law pointed to Jesus Christ, who would interpret it for us, as it was meant to be. However, he did not just stop at interpretation of the law, he also fulfilled it. Just look at a small selection of passages, which tell us of Christ’s relationship to the law:

  • Matthew 5:17NIV, “Jesus said: ‘Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.’”

  • Colossians 3:14NIV “having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.”

  • Romans 10:4NIV “Christ is the end of the law, so that there might be righteousness for everyone who believes.”

 

The last verse is very revealing. The opening phrase: “Christ is the end of the law” is key to understanding and properly applying the rest of the passage. The Greek word for ‘end’ (telos) means end, conclusion, and consummation4. Jesus brought the law to its final and complete conclusion. So Christ is the final concluding end of the law5, meaning the entire law (not just the ritual law) is finished, and gone. Are there any other scriptures supporting this end of the law? Hebrews 7:18fNIV says: “The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.” Many will claim the context here is ritual and say the moral law is still in place. There are at least three difficulties with this interpretation. One, is its unfounded claim; two, its impossibility of discernment; three, its questionable origin.

The claim is unfounded because the passage in question is speaking of our salvation, and the institution of a new priesthood along with it. Since Christ was not of the tribe who served as Levitical priests the law establishing that priesthood had to be changed (Heb 7:12). As for the impossibility of discernment, please look through the Old Testament, especially Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy and tell me where the ritual law ends and the moral law begins. It is impossible, because the ritual law was wrapped up completely in the morality God demanded, and vice-versa6. A violation of the moral code made one ritually unclean and a violation of ritual requirements was immoral—the two are intertwined beyond separation. To say the ritual law was replaced, or fulfilled by Christ, but the moral law is still in force is to destroy the plain teaching of the New Testament. This has often been done, but the reason brings me to my third complaint listed above—the questionable origin. This teaching comes out of a fear that if one were to claim the moral law has passed away then we can each do whatever we feel like. Many believe this teaching would allow licentiousness in the church and flagrant immorality—I believe exactly the opposite.

To begin with, teaching things contrary to scripture are never good for the church, no matter what our motives are. So if scripture teaches that the law has passed away, teaching anything else is an affront to God, and of no help to the church. It is possible, the teaching of legalism has added to the moral degeneration of the church we see today. When churches see sin, and pile on legalism, judgment, and guilt they forget that Jesus has forgiven and is working to perfect. Rather than pointing people to the only source of true holiness legalists push people to pretend. Think for a moment. If a man were to physically obey all the moral commandments of the law (Impossible! I know!) and yet reject Christ he would be rejected by Christ in the judgment. Another man accepting Christ, spending his whole life fighting with sin, trusting Christ to make him holy and acceptable, in the end he would be accepted. You see, one looks good but goes to hell. The other looks bad but goes to heaven.

Legalism is man’s attempt to take the place of the Holy Spirit. Christ wants to make us holy and righteous and does so through the Holy Spirit by writing his covenant on our hearts (Jer. 31:33). This means the Holy Spirit comes to live within us and live out holiness through us. It is He who gives us a desire to obey by crucifying our sinful nature, and creates within us a Christ-like nature (Rom 6:1-7; 8:1-11). Teaching that the law is still binding will not make people holy. It merely gives more to feel guilty about, as it constantly reminds of weakness. If we teach others about Christ, they can accept his salvation; the Holy Spirit will come to live in them empowering them to live according to God’s righteousness.

What about the Ten Commandments? They are good, and just laws, but they are still laws. They are no more binding on us than the law to avoid pork, or the law forbidding blended fabrics. Does this mean that I can go out and commit adultery, murder or theft? Absolutely not! You see we are commanded to love God with all that we are (Mt 22:37), love our neighbor as ourselves (Mt 22:39), and love our fellow believer as Christ did (John 13:34). If I love my neighbor, I will not kill him, fool with his wife, or steal his things. If I love my wife, I will be faithful. If I love those around me I can not steal from them. So you see, even though we see the law has passed away we obey the spirit behind the law, because the author of it lives within us.

Now, if we are still doing the things out of love which the law expects, what about the Sabbath. It’s one of the requirements, so does this mean that if we truly love God, we will observe Saturday, or perhaps Sunday as a holy day? No it does not. You see, with the Holy Spirit in us we live the true meaning behind the law. The New Testament expression of the command against killing is active love for my neighbor—including my enemies. But why did he put in the commandment to observe the Sabbath? What is the purpose of the Sabbath? This law, just like all the rest is designed to point to Christ. Col 2: 16fNIV says: “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat, or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” So the Sabbath was given as a shadow of something that finds its reality in Christ, but what could that be?

Heb 4: 9ffNIV: “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.”

 

Anyone who enters God’s rest has rested from his or her own work? Our Sabbath rest is entrance into “the rest of God.” How do we enter into “the rest of God”? Go ahead quote along with me: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not of yourself it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” When we accept Jesus Christ we stop working for our salvation; we enter God’s rest. We properly observe the Sabbath when we stop working for our salvation while accepting God’s provision. Ancient Israel accepted God’s provision to feed them one day in seven and one year in seven; we accept God’s provision to save us for eternity. We keep the Sabbath without observing any day of the week as holier than any other. We do this everyday by refusing to work for our salvation—in other words by rejecting legalism.

In your Christian life I hope that you will strictly observe God’s Sabbath. Stop trying to live a holy life in your own power, through legalism and rules. Seek to know Christ, being filled and perfected by him. Rest in him and in the assurance of his salvation knowing “that he who has begun a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil 1:6NIV)

Notes:

  1. John Bunyan, “The Seventh Day Sabbath,” The Complete Works of John Bunyan (Marshallton: N.F.C.E., 1968), vol. 3, p.195.

  2. H. L. Ellison, “Sunday,” The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), pp. 939f.

  3. Ian Breward, “Sabbatarianism,” Ibid., pp. 869f

  4. Verlyn D. Verbrugge, The NIV Theological Dictionary of New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000) p. 1237.

  5. Ibid., p. 1238.

  6. Steve Lehrer, “Commonly Asked Questions About New Covenant Theology.” The Journal of New Covenant Theology 1, no. 1 (2003), 14.

  7. Ephesians 2:8fNIV (Emphasis Added)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>