A letter to a friend...
on Sabbath Law and Sunday Observance
Those today who emphasize Sabbath observance, based on some of the points you mentioned in your note, do so in basically two forms: “Sabbatarians” (Seventh Day Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, etc) insist that Sabbath is Saturday, as in the Old Covenant, and that it is absolutely compulsory in the New Covenant (along with various other portions of the Old Covenant). Other denominations of various stripes (including Reformed, Presbyterian, etc.) hold that Sabbath is to be kept in some way but that it is kept by Christians on Sunday rather than Saturday. If you remember the film, Chariots of Fire, the main character was a man who refused to run his race in the Olympics because they wanted him to run on Sunday – the Sabbath in his view.
Groups who insist on some form of Sabbath observance (either Saturday or Sunday) usually do so based on a distinction between the Moral Law (the Decalogue) and the Ceremonial Law (the book of the covenant, sacrificial system, etc.). They maintain that the ceremonial law was fulfilled in Christ, but that the ten commandments stands, almost as if it were transposed directly into the New Covenant whole. This is no problem for nine of the Ten Commandments because they can all be found in different forms in the teachings of Christ and His apostles. But Sabbath Law is not repeated in this way, which is why controversy has attended its observance. And when Jesus was asked about the great commandment of the Law, He did not quote the Decalogue at all. He quoted Deuteronomy 6:4 and Leviticus 19:17-18 (see Matt. 22:34-40).
Shouldn’t the term “Law” include the Decalogue? The distinction between the Moral Law and the Ceremonial Law is somewhat dubious by New Testament standards. There is simply no passage where this distinction is spelled out in the way the church has come to explain it. For practical purposes it is convenient to show that the Decalogue is a discrete part of the Torah. Fine. But when Paul says that we are saved by grace through faith apart from the works of the Law (Romans 3:21-28) are we to assume that this Rabbi meant us to only apply this to what we have dubbed the “ceremonial law?” Paul does not draw a distinction between the Decalogue and the rest of the Law. He seems to indicate the entire Mosaic message. To tell a person that circumcision is not necessary for salvation in Christ, but then to insist that Sabbath Law is, without seeing Sabbath stated anywhere in the apostolic writings, seems very odd.
I grant that if one views the New Covenant through the lens of the Decalogue, one must certainly find a way to keep the Sabbath command. If the Mosaic Law is the foundation for the New Covenant then it is at least feasible to make a case for legal Sabbath observance. But the question is – did Jesus or the apostles (notably Paul) view the New Covenant as being founded on Moses? Is it right to use the Decalogue as the lens for understanding righteousness in the Lord’s Church (Matt. 16:18)? I am among those who answer ‘no’ to that question. If we are right, than Sabbath observance is permissible, but not mandatory in the church of Christ. Put another way, is the word of an apostle considered right because it agrees with Moses, or because it agrees with Christ? Is Jesus himself considered a valid authority based upon his agreement with Moses or does He have his own divine authority? And if He does not repeat something Moses said, are we to simply supply that command, assuming that if the Lord had thought of it, He would certainly have clarified this and told us to keep the Law of Moses in this regard? And if that is so, where does it stop? The entire book of Hebrews is focused on the fact that Jesus has replaced Moses without in any way repudiating the Law, and that failure to believe this constitutes a serious breach of trust with the Lord Himself. (See Hebrews chapters 3-4)
One of the main concerns among sincere Christians is that we want to “think like Jesus”, have His mind about things. When we see him keep Sabbath, even though he rejected the Pharisaic version of it, we wonder if we should do the same. In addition, as you mentioned, there is the Matthew 5:17-20 passage, which specifically says that the Lord did not abolish, but rather fulfilled the Law (presumably including the Sabbath). Does this mean that the Law still stands as the Spirit’s shaping mechanism for the church as it did for OT Israel? Not necessarily. It is no surprise that as the Messiah, Jesus was raised under and lived in obedience to the entire Mosaic Law. He went to temple, had sacrifices made in his behalf, observed all the holy days and weekly Sabbaths as well as the other traditional deeds of the Torah. In this way he fulfilled the Law – perfectly.
It might be helpful to see the Law as a suit of clothing which none of us was big enough to wear (Acts 15:10; Romans 8:3). We just couldn’t “fill it out” so to speak. The result was that rather than offering real covering, it simply rendered us ridiculous in ill-fitting garb. Like children wearing their parents’ “Sunday best”, it just didn’t work. But picture the Lord, wearing the suit made for him, perfectly fulfilling it, then picking us up in his arms and in effect giving us the benefit of Torah righteousness without our personally wearing the suit. Paul says in Romans 3:21 that there is a righteousness available “apart from the Law,” pointed to by the Law, but independent of it – the righteousness that comes by faith in Christ. We have crawled into his arms as he “wears” the Law. This way of viewing it seems to do justice to all the relevant passages, while reminding us that the Law is not bad, nor is it abolished. It is fulfilled once and for all and true righteousness is fulfilled in us through the Spirit as we obey the Law of Christ, walking by His Spirit (Gal. 5:16-6:2; Romans 8:1-11).
If the folks who insist on a Christianized Sabbath law are correct, then to not keep Sabbath, even in a limited Sunday format, would be a point of serious disobedience to Christ our Lord. This could hardly be condoned by Paul or any other apostle and must surely have been explained to the new believers in the Roman Empire, right? But this is not what we find. Several passages indicate that the Gentile Christians were not told to keep Sabbath as Law and that the Decalogue was not seen as the lens through which to interpret the teachings of Jesus.
Take Romans 14:1-12. Paul, in the context of controversy over diet and worship-days, says clearly that it doesn’t matter which day one worships on. He simply could not have said such a thing if he taught Sabbath observance as some do today. He is adamant that a person may worship on any day, and that some consider “all days alike” as belonging to the Lord. This means that the restrictions on activities so common in the Old Covenant idea of Sabbath must have been lifted in a significant way. He seems to have understood Sabbath as permissible, but not mandatory.
Colossians 2:16-19 is another section like this. Paul insists loudly that Christians are not to allow other religious people to stand as judge over them with regard to dietary or worship-day issues, and he specifically mentions Sabbath. Again, it is inconceivable that if Paul taught even a limited Sabbath observance as mandatory obedience to the Lord he could have made this statement in Colossians 2 without clarifying it.
Acts 15 is a brief record of the first great Church Council. The subject is obviously the question of how Jewish a Gentile Christian had to be. Circumcision was the main issue. As the Old Covenant identifying mark, circumcision was essentially a promise to keep the Torah as the shaping mechanism for holiness. Paul explodes into this scene and Peter and James agree, that the Christians were not to be burdened by the Mosaic Law in this way. The instructions given are all aimed at facilitating fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians, not at creating a new Torah observance for believers. But note that conspicuous by its absence is any reference to Sabbath Law. If Sabbath observance were a point of specific obedience to Christ’s Law (Gal. 6:2) then how could the apostles miss the opportunity to clarify this?
Romans 10:4 seems to point in the same direction. How could Paul have taught his Gentile converts that Sabbath observance is compulsory for righteous behavior and then say that, “Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”? Sabbath observance was in many ways a watershed issue for Torah observance in the Old Covenant (Ex. 16:22-29). How could Paul make such a sweeping statement about Christian righteousness without adding something about Sabbath keeping, if indeed Sabbath observance is to be added to the Law of Christ?
In addition to the above considerations I am as yet unconvinced that Sunday is to be considered the “Christian Sabbath” in the way it has historically been viewed by both Catholic and Reformed groups. It is a very old tradition indeed. But the age of a teaching is not the acid test of its validity – the New Testament text is. And I don’t find any instruction in the NT, which replaces Saturday Sabbath observance in a legalistic way with Sunday observance.
Summary: The best position is that of Romans 14. Sabbath observance (accompanied by whatever limitations a person wishes to submit to) is a matter of personal conscience and not of Christian Law. To teach otherwise opens the door to plain, old-fashioned legalism, a trap the sincere church as fallen into repeatedly through history by viewing the NT through the lens of the OT instead of the other way around.
Food for Thought.
Why is the OT Sabbath Law not binding on New Testament Christians?
(Material here partially adapted from John MacArthur’s Commentary on Colossians)
1. Sabbath was the sign of the Old Covenant to Israel. It was an identity marker for the Jewish faith. (Ex. 31:16-17, Neh. 9:14; Ez. 20:12). In the New Covenant in Christ, the old identity markers are no longer to be mandatory (Rom. 3:28, 10:4; 14:1-6; Hebrews 8).
2. The New Testament contains no command to keep Sabbath. This is a very strange omission for something supposedly so important.
3. The one peek into early Christian worship practices (Acts 20:7) finds the church meeting on Sunday, the first day of the week. Even though early Jewish Christians also went to temple, until the temple was destroyed in 70 AD, there is no instruction to the church about adopting Jewish customs in this regard.
4. Even in the Old Testament time, the Gentiles are never condemned for not keeping Sabbath, though they are condemned for other sins. This is strange if God intended for all people to keep Sabbath.
5. There is no evidence of anybody keeping Sabbath before the Law of Moses. The Sinai covenant was the distinctively Hebrew national constitution and statement of faith.
6. The Jerusalem council in Acts 15 did not impose Sabbath keeping on the Gentile believers.
7. In all of the warnings about sin in the New Testament, we look in vain for any warning about breaking Sabbath. A remarkable omission if Sabbath keeping is vital to spiritual growth and health.
8. Galatians specifically rebukes straying Christian teachers for promoting the idea that a Christian must observe Jewish holy days (including Sabbaths) (Gal. 4:10-11).
9. Colossians 2:16-23 says not to let anybody criticize you for not keeping Sabbath (or any other Jewish ritual for that matter).
10. Chapters 14 & 15 of Romans teach clearly that keeping one day above another is a matter of liberty for the Christian. They are not under law about it.
11. The Early Church Fathers from Ignatius (d. 110 AD) to Augustine (d. 430 AD) taught that the Old Testament Sabbath had been abolished and that the first day of the week (Sunday) was the day for Christians to worship. This disproves the theory that Sunday worship was only instituted in the 4th century.
12. Though Jesus and the disciples did keep Sabbath, it was because they were Jewish and born under the old Covenant (Gal. 4:4). They did not repeat Sabbath law to the early disciples, though all of the other Ten Commandments are repeated in one way or another.
13. When asked what the way to eternal life was, Jesus responded not by quoting the ten commandments or mentioning Sabbath, but by quoting Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18. (Luke 10:25-28; Matt. 22:37-40)