Web Truth

Is the Sabbath for Today? Should Christians be Sabbatarian?

Part of the Dead Sea Scrolls’ “All Souls Deuteronomy”, 1st Century BC, containing one of the oldest extant mentions of the Sabbath (photo by Shai Halevi)

Is the Sabbath for today?

The question of the Sabbath, and whether or not Christians are expected to observe it, is a huge issue in the minds of many people. The world’s largest Sabbath-keeping group is the 20-million-member 7th Day Adventist Church. Their Saturday Sabbath message is making headway on all continents and they are growing rapidly.

Broadly speaking there are three basic options when it comes to the ‘Saturday Sabbath’:

  1. The Creatorial Sabbath view holds that God instituted a compulsory ‘no-work 7th-day Sabbath’ at the beginning of creation. This Sabbath law applies to all people, in all cultures, throughout all generations and has never been abrogated. Seventh Day Adventists and some other assorted Sabbatarian groups hold this view.
  2. The Sunday Sabbath view states that since the advent of Christ, the sanctified day of the week has been changed by God from Saturday to Sunday. Christians are now obliged to keep the ‘Christian Sabbath’ by refraining from work, travel and shopping on a Sunday. This was the view of the Reformers and is still the view of conservative ‘Reformed Christians’ today (Presbyterians, Reformed Baptists etc.).
  3. The Sabbath-fulfilled-in-Christ view maintains that the weekly Saturday Sabbath was a ceremonial ‘shadow’ of which Christ is the ‘substance’ (Col 2:16-17). At the first coming of Christ the law of Moses was abolished – including its weekly Sabbath – which means that Christians are no longer obliged to keep it in any shape or form. The Sabbath was never restated in the New Testament nor was it changed to Sunday. The physical rest of Israel’s Sabbath is fulfilled in the ‘rest of soul’ that a sinner finds in Christ (Matt 11:28) and the eternal rest yet to be enjoyed in heaven (Heb 4:9-11, Rev 14:13). That is not to say that regular physical rest is not beneficial from a health point of view – but simply that neither Saturday nor Sunday are any longer legally required to be kept as ‘no-work Sabbaths’ by Christians today.

The Sabbath before the Law

It is important to understand that no nation on earth kept the Sabbath as a divinely mandated day of rest before the law was given to Israel at Sinai (1,491BC). Neither Cain nor Abel kept the Sabbath. Nor did Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac or Jacob.

Yes, the patriarchs did have a 7-day week before the law. They were well aware of the 7 day creation event of Genesis Ch 1. Noah sent out the dove at regular weekly intervals (Gen 8:10-12), and Jacob was told by his father-in-law to complete his ‘week’ of marriage festivities with Leah, before marrying Rachel (Gen 29:27). The very moon above their heads gave them weeks and months (Gen 1:14). Every 7.4 days the moon moves a quarter of its orbit around the earth giving us the four monthly ‘lunar phases’ – the full moon, the new moon and two moon quarters. However, despite these observations, for the following 4 reasons it is clear that the ‘no-work Sabbath’ was unknown prior to the law:

  1. The Sabbath is not mentioned in Genesis

The word ‘Sabbath’ (from a root meaning to cease or desist) occurs over 170 times in the Bible – but not once in Genesis, the book of the patriarchs. Not a single mention of the Sabbath for the first 2,300 years of human history.

  1. The Sabbath is not commanded in Genesis

No day of rest, by whatever name, is commanded in Genesis. There are no instructions for or explanations about a weekly day of rest in the Bible’s first book.

  1. No examples of Sabbath-keeping in Genesis

No record is given of Abraham, Isaac or Jacob – nor of any of the other men and women of faith prior to the Exodus – either keeping or breaking the Sabbath. Neither the Hebrews nor the Gentile nations were ever commended for keeping or punished for breaking the Sabbath. When God judged the world with a flood, He did not mention Sabbath-breaking as part of the cause. When Paul lists over 20 historical sins of the heathen nations in Romans Ch 1, Sabbath-breaking is not among them.

  1. The Bible states that the Sabbath was given at the time of Moses

Lest anyone think that a Mosaic origin for the Sabbath can only be argued from silence, here are three Bible verses which clearly state that the Sabbath was instituted at Sinai, rather than in the Garden of Eden:

Deuteronomy 5:15 “And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD Thy God brought thee out…therefore the LORD Thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day.”  Israel’s deliverance from Egypt was one of the reasons why they had to keep the Sabbath. But that reason did not exist until 1,491BC! Yes, the example of the 6+1 week was seen at creation, but the ‘redemption reason’ why Israel had to keep the Sabbath did not exist until they left Egypt.

Nehemiah 9:13-14 “Thou camest down also upon mount Sinai, and spakest with them from heaven…And madest known unto them Thy holy sabbath.” This indicates that Israel did not know about the Sabbath until Sinai.

Ezekiel 20:10-12 “I caused them to go forth out of the land of Egypt, and brought them into the wilderness. And I gave them My statutes, and showed them My judgments…Moreover also I gave them My sabbaths, to be a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the LORD that sanctify them.” Prior to Sinai, Israel did not have the Sabbath. It was ‘given’ to them, and them alone, as a special unique sign at the time of the giving of the whole law at Sinai. So, “the Sabbath was made for man” (Mark 2:27) means ‘for Jewish man’. It was only ever given to Israel.

That the Sabbath was not instituted until Sinai is both an ancient and widely held view. Here are a couple of quotations from the Ante-Nicene fathers to prove its ancient character:

Justin Martyr (c. 160AD): “There was no need of circumcision before Abraham. Nor was there need of the observance of the Sabbaths, or of feasts and sacrifices, before Moses.”

Irenaeus (c. 180AD): “…for Abraham himself – without circumcision and without observance of Sabbaths – ‘believed God and it was imputed to him for righteousness’.”

Even John Bunyan, (author of Pilgrim’s Progress) who personally believed in the ‘Christian Sabbath’, wrote: “…it was not from paradise, nor from the fathers, but from the wilderness, and from Sinai, that men received the seventh day Sabbath to keep it holy.”

As for recent commentators, Lewis Sperry Chafer, in his 8-volume Systematic Theology says: “There is no mention of a Sabbath observance from creation to Moses. It is incredible that this great institution of the Sabbath could have existed during all these centuries and there be no mention of it…Job and his friends refer to creation, the flood, and many details of human obligation to God; but not once do they mention the Sabbath.”

Problem Passages

But what about Genesis 2:2-3 and Exodus 16:23-30? Don’t these two passages prove that the Sabbath was kept prior to Sinai? Let’s look at these verses one at a time.

Genesis 2:2“And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all his work which He had made. v3 And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it He had rested from all His work which God created and made.”

This is a foundational verse for the whole structure of Seventh Day Adventism, so it requires our careful consideration. What needs to be understood is that Moses wrote Gen 2:3 from the vantage point of Sinai, looking back 2,500 years to the creation week. From what we have already learned above, Genesis 2:3 has to be understood as a prolepsis, otherwise it would contradict Deut 5:15, Neh 9:13-14 and Eze 20:10-12. In the words of John Gill (1697-1771): “…this [Gen 2:3] is all said by way of prolepsis or anticipation, as many things in this chapter are, many names of countries and rivers…though they were not called by them…till many ages after…these words may be read in a parenthesis, as containing an account of a fact that was done, not at the beginning of the world…but of what had been done in the times of Moses, who wrote this, after the giving of the law of the Sabbath.”

In other words, Gen 2:3 should be understood to say, “And God, 2,500 years later, blessed the Sabbath Day and sanctified it”.

Former Seventh Day Adventist pastor, and author of  Sabbath in Christ, Dale Ratzlaff, agrees; “There are a number of anachronisms in the writings of Moses and it was written from his perspective in time. Many believe that the blessing and sanctifying of the seventh day for man in the account [Gen 2:3] is also an anachronism.”

Another former SDA leader, D.M. Canright states, “As Moses wrote his books after he came to Sinai, after the Sabbath had been given in the wilderness, he here [Gen 2:3] mentions one reason why God this gave them the seventh day, viz.: because God Himself had set the example at creation; had worked six days and rested the seventh. Such language is common. We say General Grant was born at such a time. We do not mean that he was a general then, but we mention it by anticipation, using a title which he afterwards bore. So in Gen 3:20, ‘Adam called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living’. Here is a future fact stated as though it had already occurred. So in 1 Sam 4:1 the Jews ‘pitched beside Ebenezer’. but the place was not named Ebenezer till years later (1 Sam 7:12). ‘Judas Iscariot, which also was the traitor’ (Luke 6:16). Here a future fact with regard to Judas is mentioned when he is first spoken of, though the act of betrayal did not take place till years later. Just so, when the seventh day is first mentioned, its sanctification is referred to, though it did not occur till afterwards.”

H.M. Riggle, author of The Sabbath and the Lord’s Day concurs; “Twenty-five hundred years later God in the wilderness blessed and sanctified the seventh day as a holy day to the Jewish nation, and assigned as one reason for doing so that ‘in it He had rested’. After God blessed and sanctified the day in the wilderness, Moses wrote the book of Genesis; and in writing the account of the creation he said that God began resting on the seventh day from all His work, and that the same day on which God had rested He now [at Sinai] sanctified and blessed.”

So, the blessing and the hallowing of the Sabbath Day was done at Sinai not at creation, though the Sabbath cycle given at Sinai was based on the 6+1 creation week pattern (Exod 20:11).

But what about Exodus 16:22-30, where the Sabbath is outlined for Israel 4 chapters before the 10 commandments are given at Sinai? Does this not prove that Sabbath observance began in Eden?

Exod 16:23-30“And he said unto them, This is that which the LORD hath said, Tomorrow is the rest of the holy sabbath unto the LORD…And they laid it up till the morning…And Moses said, Eat that today; for today is a sabbath unto the LORD…Six days ye shall gather it; but on the seventh day, which is the sabbath, in it there shall be none…the LORD hath given you the sabbath, therefore he giveth you on the sixth day the bread of two days; abide ye every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.”

Clearly the Sabbath was introduced a few days before Sinai in connection with the giving of the manna. There is no denying that. But this does not prove the Saturday rest-day’s existence since creation. In Exodus 16 the Sabbath was as new to Israel as the manna itself. All will agree Israel most certainly had not kept the Sabbath in Egypt, so God’s words “How long refuse ye to keep my commandments and my laws” (v28) cannot have been a rebuke for hundreds of years of Sabbath neglect. God’s rebuke simply indicates that Israel, in Exodus 16, added this latest, and immediate, neglect of the brand new Sabbath to their long list of historical disobedient acts against God.

The fact that the Sabbath was introduced to Israel, and then codified shortly afterwards into the 10 Commandments, is no different to how God worked with the Passover. The Passover was part of “the law of Moses”. Leviticus 23:5 says, “In the fourteenth day of the first month at even is the LORD’s passover.” Yet Israel were introduced to the Passover several months before the law was given. It’s the same with the Sabbath.

In his commentary on Exodus, from the What the Bible Teaches series, John Grant writes: “There is no indication in Scripture that the Sabbath had been kept over these years since the Fall…but with the giving of the manna it is mentioned, and with the giving of the Law the keeping of it became a commandment. The specific mention of the fact that ‘the people rested on the seventh day’ (v30) confirms this. How significant are the words of Moses on the sixth day of gathering: ‘Tomorrow is the rest of the holy sabbath unto the Lord’. If the seventh day had been a day of rest for generations there would be no reason to state that this seventh day of rest has to be observed, so the first Sabbath kept since the entrance of sin was the first ‘seventh day’ of the manna.”

The Sabbath in the Law

The actual Sabbath commandment reads: “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God, in it thou shalt not do any work.”

The question naturally arises – why did God give this Sabbath law to Israel? Let me suggest six reasons:

  1. As a sign of the Old Covenant

As the Noahic covenant had the sign of the rainbow, and the Abrahamic had the sign of circumcision, so the Sinai covenant had the sign of the Sabbath. Said Jehovah to Israel, “Verily My sabbaths shall ye keep for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations.” Eze 20:12-20 and Deut 5:15 say the same thing.

The idea of a wedding ring works well as an illustration of this. Every time a married man or woman looks at their wedding ring they are reminded of their part in the covenant of marriage – of the day they stood and said “for better for worse, for richer for poorer”. Likewise, every Saturday, Israel was reminded that they were in covenant relationship with God, and that they had a solemn moral duty to keep the Sabbath holy or come under a curse. The fact that the Sabbath was the solemn sign of the covenant explains why it appears in the list of “1o Commandments” that were written on stone, despite being the only ceremonial law among 9 moral ones.

  1. As a rest

God desired His people to set aside time to remember their redemption and to worship and praise Him. Their weekly Sabbath was not a case of “no activity” – more like “a change of activity”. It was an end of work yes, but also a beginning of worship. It was a day for holy convocation. Psalm 92, a Psalm traditionally sung by the Levites on the Sabbath Day reads, “It is a good thing to give thanks unto the LORD, and to sing praises unto Thy name, O Most High: to show forth Thy loving kindness in the morning, and Thy faithfulness every night, upon an instrument of ten strings, and upon the psaltery; upon the harp with a solemn sound.”

  1. As a reminder

In the “second giving of the law”, just before the children of Israel’s entrance into the promised land, the LORD told the people to remember the Sabbath Day and on that day “remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD Thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the LORD Thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day.” Remember the days of non-stop slave labour in Egypt! You are serving a different master now! God was not taking a day away. He was giving them a day of rest – on which to remember redemption!

  1. As a test of loyalty

At the first giving of the manna and the commencement of the weekly Sabbath, God spoke of the fact that he was ‘proving’ Israel (Exod 16:4). The Sabbath instructions continued to be a test throughout Israel’s history. Would they be willing to lose 24 hours out of each week, instead of making money and prospering on the Sabbath? Would they trust God? The Sabbath was a test.

  1. As a separating law

A further purpose for the Sabbath is outlined by the Lord in Exodus 31:13: “You shall observe my Sabbaths…that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you.” Israel’s observance of this weekly day of rest set them apart from the nations. It was part of their separation, akin to their dietary, health and family laws. It enabled them to remain separate and distinct, and is part of the reason why the Jews have outlived many of their ancient contemporaries.

  1. As a shadow

The New Testament supplies the ultimate reason why God gave His Sabbaths to Israel – to foreshadow the coming of Christ, the great rest-giver! Says Paul, “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Col 2:16-17, NKJV).

As the law’s sanctuary and High Priest (the Tabernacle) were a shadow of heaven’s sanctuary and Christ our Great High Priest; as the law’s sacrifices were a shadow of that one great sacrifice for sin that Christ offered on the cross; so the law’s Sabbath was a shadow of the rest of soul and conscience given to those who believe on Christ, and who will yet enjoy eternal rest in heaven. The church has no need of the shadows – we have the substance!

The Sabbath after the Law

The answer to the question “Is the Sabbath for today?” has to be a resounding “No”! Let me now outline three reasons why Christians are not expected to keep the Sabbath today:

  1. There is no Command in the New Testament to do so.

The word Sabbath occurs 60 times in the New Testament, yet not once is it presented as a mandatory day for Christians to keep. Where is the command to keep the Sabbath in the epistles of Paul, John, Peter, James and Jude? Why is it missing from the one place we would have expected it – Acts Ch 15 – where the apostles and elders came together to resolve the question of what Old Testament laws believing Gentiles might be obliged to observe? James summarises the conclusion of that day’s discussions: “My sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God, but that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood” (Acts 15:19-20). Nothing about the Sabbath!

Note also that nowhere in the New Testament does Sunday replace Saturday as a compulsory day of rest. Think for a moment; ere we to believe such a massive change as this could have taken place without any apostolic injunction or Jewish protest? Impossible.

  1. Col 2:17 says the ‘Sabbath shadow’ has given way to the ‘substance’ in Christ

Christ is the Christian’s rest. Says He, “Come unto Me and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). The writer to the Hebrews states, “We who have believed do enter into rest” (Heb 4:3). But not only is there such a thing as ‘salvation rest’ there is also ‘heavenly rest’. When their labours are over, Christians will rest eternally in the glory of heaven (Heb 4:9-11, Rev 14:13).

As far as the Jewish weekly Sabbath is concerned, the Bible could not be clearer: “Let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Col 2:16-17, NKJV). I quote this verse again to make one further observation. After the mention of food and drink, Paul gives a list of ‘Jewish special days’ using a well-known formula:

  1. The ‘festivals’ he mentions are the series of seven yearly ‘feasts of the Lord’ (Leviticus Ch 23).
  2. The ‘new moons’ refers to the sacrificial days at the beginning of each lunar month (Num 10:10).
  3. The ‘Sabbaths’ are the weekly Saturday rest-days Israel was to observe 52 weeks of the year.

In providing this list of Israel’s special days, Paul was clearly reflecting Old Testament usage. Note carefully how the same list appears in each of the following verses:

1 Chron 23:31 “And to offer all burnt sacrifices unto the LORD in the sabbaths [weekly], in the new moons [monthly], and on the set feasts [yearly], by number.”

2 Chron 2:4 “Behold, I build an house to the name of the LORD my God, to dedicate it to him, and to burn before him sweet incense, and for the continual showbread, and for the burnt offerings morning and evening, on the sabbaths [weekly], and on the new moons [monthly], and on the solemn feasts of the LORD our God [yearly].”

2 Chron 8:12-13 “Then Solomon offered burnt offerings unto the LORD on the altar of the LORD, which he had built before the porch, even after a certain rate every day, offering according to the commandment of Moses, on the sabbaths [weekly], and on the new moons [monthly], and on the solemn feasts [yearly].”

2 Chron 31:3 “He appointed also the king’s portion of his substance for the burnt offerings, to wit, for the morning and evening burnt offerings [daily], and the burnt offerings for the sabbaths [weekly], and for the new moons [monthly], and for the set feasts [yearly], as it is written in the law of the LORD.”

Neh 10:33 “For the showbread, and for the continual meat offering, and for the continual burnt offering [daily], of the sabbaths [weekly], of the new moons [monthly], for the set feasts [yearly], and for the holy things, and for the sin offerings to make an atonement for Israel, and for all the work of the house of our God.”

Eze 45:17 “And it shall be the prince’s part to give burnt offerings, and meat offerings, and drink offerings, in the feasts [yearly], and in the new moons [monthly], and in the sabbaths [weekly], in all solemnities of the house of Israel.”

This analysis renders it indisputable that Paul, in Col 2:16, must have been referring to the weekly Saturday sabbath and saying that it is no longer an issue for Christians! Further proof emerges from the fact that all 59 other references to the ‘Sabbath’ in the New Testament also refer to the weekly Saturday Sabbath.

How do the Seventh Day Adventists get round this? One attempt consists in saying that since the word ‘Sabbath’ in Col 2:16 is in the plural – ‘Sabbaths’ – and therefore must refer to Israel’s annual festive rest days, which did not necessarily occur on Saturdays. Surely, they say, if Paul had been referring to the Saturday Sabbath in Col 2:16, he would have used the singular form of the word – ‘the Sabbath’. But this is clutching at straws. The fact is, the Bible frequently refers to the weekly Saturday Sabbath in the plural. For example, Exodus 31:13, which undoubtedly refers to the weekly Sabbath says, “Verily My Sabbaths shall ye keep”. Check out Lev 19:3, Lam 1:7 and Luke 4:16 for further confirmation. Examples could be multiplied.

The New Testament evidence is clear. Sabbath observance is a ceremonial requirement of the Old Covenant which has passed away, along with all the other calendar events of that system. It is no longer required for Christians today. For further confirmation, look at what Paul says in Galatians 4:10 concerning Christians who were tempted to return to Judaism: “You observe days [weekly Sabbaths] and months [monthly new moons] and seasons [annual feasts] and years [Sabbatical years and the year of Jubilee] and I am afraid of you”.

But was not the Sabbath supposed to be “for ever” (Exod 31:17)? Between Jehovah and Israel, in covenant relationship with an earthly sanctuary, yes. But remember, form Israel the Passover was also ‘for ever’ (Exod 12:24), as was the olive oil (Exod 27:21) and the High Priest’s garments (Exod 28:43)! What these ‘for evers’ mean in reality is “while the Mosaic system is operational”, which it no longer is.

Think about it. Godly, gifted and diligent Christians have not been keeping the Saturday Sabbath for centuries! Polycarp, Justin Martyr, John Hus, John Wycliffe, Martin Luther, John Owen, John Bunyan, John Wesley, George Mueller, John Nelson Darby, Charles Spurgeon. The list could be multiplied by the tens of thousands. None of these Christians kept the Saturday Sabbath! If the Saturday Sabbath is a perpetual moral law of God, the neglect of which is a serious moral offence and puts a person under a curse, how do we explain the last 2,000 years of Christian history? Clearly no godly Christian could commit murder, or blasphemy, or adultery or theft for years and years and by any standard call themselves a true Christian. But by working, shopping, mowing the lawn and washing the car on a Saturday, Christians are under a curse, have the mark of the beast and are in danger of judgment? God forbid!

It’s time to face up to the fact that all 613 Mosaic commands in the Sinai code – ceremonial, civil and moral – were abolished at the cross when the veil was rent in two, including the law of the Sabbath (Heb 7:11, 7:18, 8:13 and 10:9). The Old Covenant has gone; Christians are partakers of the New Covenant – and they are no longer under the law! They are neither under it for justification (to be saved) nor for sanctification (after salvation). The Christian is not “justified by grace” and then “sanctified by law”, for the law of Moses can neither save us, nor is it our rule of life. It has been completely and totally put out of existence.

Which raises a problem! If whole law has been abolished, is it OK to steal, to kill and to commit adultery? No! When we come to New Testament, 9 of the 10 commandments are either repeated or given to us in other words:

Decalogue Old Testament New Testament
No other gods Exod 20:3 1 Cor 8:6, Eph 4:6
No idols Exod 20:4-6 1 John 5:21, Rom 1:23, Eph 5:5
No blasphemy Exod 20:7 1 Tim 1:6, Matt 6:9
Keep the Sabbath Exod 20:8-11 None
Honour parents Exod 20:12 Eph 6:2-3, Mark 10:19
No murder Exod 20:13 Rom 13:9, 1 John 3:15
No adultery Exod 20:14 Rom 13:9, Gal 5:19-21, Matt 5:27-28
No stealing Exod 20:15 Rom 13:9, Eph 4:28
No false witness Exod 20:16 Rom 13:9, Mark 10:19
No coveting Exod 20:17 Rom 13:9, Heb 13:5, Mark 7:22

What an exceedingly strange thing! To abolish all 10 of the commandments, only to immediately reinstate 9 of them. No, that’s not what happened. While 9 of the 10 are restated in the New Testament, none of them are reinstated as part of the defunct Mosaic code. All 613 of the Mosaic laws – the 10 on the stone tablets, and the 603 that were written in the book – have been cancelled.

You say, I’m confused! Are the 10 commandments in force or not? Do we have to keep them or don’t we? Here’s what you need to understand. The fact that the temporary national Israeli code of 613 laws has been abolished does not affect the unchanging eternal moral law of God. God’s moral absolutes are eternal. They flow from His holy character. They existed before the law, and they still exist after the law. It has always been wrong to worship an idol, to murder and to steal; and it always will be.

The 10 commandments can be put under two heads. 1. Obligations to God and 2. Obligations to man. The first 4 commandments list obligations to God; the last 6 list obligations to one’s fellow man. 1,500 years later the Lord Jesus summarised these two lists when He said: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Then He said, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt 22:37-40). Do you see what He is saying here? The contents of the entire Old Testament (all the law and the prophets1) can be summarised in two obligations: “love God” and “love your neighbour”. “Love God” summarises the first 4 commandments; “love your neighbour” summarises the last 6. If you love God, you won’t bow down to idols, or take His name in vain. If you love your neighbour, you won’t steal from him, or kill him or lie to him.

The basic unchanging law of God for man is therefore a two-fold obligation to love. To love God, and love one’s neighbour. If a Christian loves His neighbour, if he bears his neighbour’s burdens, he fulfils “the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). What law is this? It is the law of love. The Lord Jesus gave us a new commandment, that we should love one another (John 13:34-35, 15:12-13, 15:17). This is the eternal principle of loving your neighbour, but it’s made ‘new’ because a new reason is added – “Love one another as I have loved you“. And so, “he who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the law” (Rom 13:8, Gal 5:14) because God’s law in its essence is the obligation to love.

However, the Sabbath, for reasons explained above, was never part of God’s unchanging eternal moral law. It was the sign of the old Covenant and one of Israel’s ceremonial obligations – but it is no more necessary today than the new moons or the annual feasts.

  1. In the New Testament, Sunday became the day when believers met together

Not only did the apostles and the early believers not “keep the Sabbath holy” but they clearly put significance on a different day – the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, or what is now called Sunday (the naming of the days of the week after the planets of Hellenistic astrology post-dates the coming of Christ).

This is proved by the following facts:

  • Christ rose from the dead on the first day of the week and appeared to His own (Luke 24:33-34)
  • One week later He appeared to them again on the first day of the week (John 20:26)
  • The Day of Pentecost was on the first day of the week (Lev 23:15-16, Acts 2:1).
  • Paul broke bread with the believers at Troas on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7).
  • The believers in Corinth collected money together on the first day of the week (1 Cor 16:2)
  • John was in the Spirit on “the Lord’s Day”, another name for the first day of the week (Rev 1:10).

The Seventh Day Adventist church claims that the Roman Catholic Church changed the day of worship from Sabbath to Sunday, based on the ‘Sunday law’ enacted by Constantine the Great in 321AD. There are two glaring factual errors in this claim. First, Constantine could not have been a Roman Catholic. The Roman Catholic Church did not exist during his reign as Emperor! Second, the believers in Christ had already been meeting together for worship on Sundays for over 200 years before Constantine passed his civil law on 7th March 321AD, making Sunday the Roman Empire’s day of rest.

A handful of quotation from the Ante-Nicene church fathers will readily prove this fact:

Ignatius (c. 105AD): “…no longer observing the Sabbath but living in accordance with the Lord’s Day.”

Justin Martyr (c. 160AD): “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read…But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead.”

Irenaeus (c. 180AD): “The duty of celebrating the mystery of the resurrection of our Lord may be done only on the day of the Lord.”

Tertullian (c. 197AD): “We devote Sunday to rejoicing for a far different reason than sun worship.”

Clearly, the Lord’s people were meeting together on Sunday, and no longer observing the Sabbath, long before Constantine was born, and centuries before the Roman Catholic Church came into being.

So, the Sabbath type has been fulfilled in the spiritual rest which Christ presently gives to those who believe in Him, and will yet have a further fulfillment in the future eternal rest in heaven. But what of the Lord’s Day now? What is its significance for us?

It is not ‘the Christian Sabbath’ and nowhere does the Bible forbid work on the Lord’s Day. Yet, since it is the day on which Christ rose from the dead, and since it is the day on which the Bible indicates Christians should come together and break bread (Acts 20:7), should we not endeavour to give the day to Him, as much as is in our power? For believers in Islamic countries, there is not the same opportunity as is presently afforded to those of us living in the West. However, from Pentecost until now, Sunday has always been great day of corporate worship and gospel preaching – a day of rejoicing, convocation and collective devotion.

The trend in the West, where ‘church’ is a Sunday morning only experience, and the rest of the day is given over to shopping, sport, entertainment, BBQs and preparing for Monday’s work duties, is a sad reflection of the general decline in dedication to the Lord that Christians of an earlier generation showed on the Lord’s Day, and in the Christian life in general.

May God revive our hearts in devotion to Him, remembering the words of C.H. Mackintosh who said “The seventh day appertained to Israel and to earth. The first day of the week appertains to the Church and to heaven. Further, Israel was commanded to observe the Sabbath day; the Church is privileged to enjoy the first day of the week.”

Michael J. Penfold

Notes:

1. Rom 3:21, John 1:45, Acts 13:15, 24:14, Matt 7:12, 11:13, 22:40, Luke 16:16, 16:29-31, 24:44