Christians throughout history have nearly always assembled together to worship and remember the Lord in some fashion on the first day of the week, the day on which He rose from the dead and appeared to His disciples (John 20:19). Though this practice is nowhere directly commanded in Scripture, the pattern does seem to be suggested in Acts 20:7, and probably 1 Cor. 16:2 and Rev. 1:10. (Most commentators take “the Lord’s Day” in Rev. 1:10 as a reference to the first day of the week, an interpretation with which I am inclined to agree, based mainly on the extra-Biblical evidence.)
This practice is symbolically foreshadowed to a certain extent in the Old Testament observance of keeping the Sabbath as a day of physical rest. As we remember the Lord in the breaking of bread, we also remember that the work of salvation has been accomplished, and we can now find our spiritual rest in Him alone. This is the primary symbolism of the Sabbath. When God “rested” after creation, it was not a rest of tiredness or a cessation of all “work” (see John 5:17), but it was rather a rest of satisfied enjoyment in the work of creation that He had accomplished, as expressed in His own evaluation that it was “very good” (Gen. 1:31). Hebrews 4 makes the point that this looked forward to another rest, another satisfied enjoyment in a finished work, which remains for some to enter (vv. 1, 6). This rest is the rest of salvation which we enter by believing in the Lord Jesus Christ (v. 3), finding our joy and satisfaction in His finished work on the cross. It is interesting that the command to keep the Sabbath was not only based on the symbolism of the creation week, but also on God’s mighty work of deliverance of His people from the bondage of Egypt (Deut. 5:15). This is another indication that the Sabbath looked forward to the rest we find in Christ when we put our faith in Him and are delivered from the bondage of our sins, which is what the physical deliverance of Israel from Egypt symbolizes.
Therefore, when we assemble together on the first day of the week to remember the Lord and what He has accomplished for us, it is clear that what we are remembering is in fact what the Sabbath pointed forward to. However, this does not mean that the Lord’s Day is to be equated with the Sabbath. I believe it is a serious mistake to view our Christian practice of remembering the Lord on the first day of the week as though we were observing the Sabbath. The Sabbath and the Lord’s Day are fundamentally different things, and they should not be confused. Following are some reasons why I believe this:
1) The Sabbath observance is specifically said to have been given as a covenant and sign between God and the nation of Israel, not mankind in general (Ex. 31:13, 16-17; Ezek. 20:12). Other signs between God and the nation of Israel, such as circumcision, were clearly not intended to be continued in the church (see Gal. 2:3), and there is no obvious reason to believe the Sabbath is any different.
2) Although the New Testament reiterates all nine of the other Ten Commandments, it never reiterates the command to keep the Sabbath. This is surely not an accidental omission, but rather there is a reason for it, and the most likely reason is that God does not require or expect New Testament believers to keep the Sabbath.
3) There is nowhere in the Bible any suggestion that the command to keep the Sabbath could be fulfilled by observing some other day of the week besides the seventh as a day of rest. The principle is not just one day in seven; it is the seventh day. The significance of this is seen in the creation pattern. Whatever the days of creation may be, it is clear that God rested after His six days of work, not before them or somewhere in the middle. Also, the seventh day was not marked off at the end by the familiar pattern, “and there was evening and there was morning, the nth day,” like all the other days were. This suggests that the idea is not that God rests every seventh day, but rather that His rest was a concluding event, not one which simply led up to another creation day. In other words, it was a rest of satisfied enjoyment in a work which had been once and for all accomplished and would never have to be repeated. The symbolism of the Sabbath rest would thus be somewhat marred if it were changed to the first day of the week instead of the last, as if after having entered that rest, the week’s work was still to be done. This would spoil the picture of the eternally secure salvation rest that the Sabbath symbolized. Thus, if a Christian wanted to keep the Sabbath, he would have to do it on the seventh day of the week, not the first day of the week. So it is important to realize that the Sabbath has not been changed to the first day of the week, and it is therefore not logical to equate the Christian practice of assembling together to remember the Lord on the first day of the week with the keeping of the Sabbath. The New Testament Christians clearly did not view the term Sabbath as having been changed to now refer to the first day of the week, for although they assembled in this fashion on the first day, they continued to refer to the seventh as “the Sabbath” (Acts 13:14, 27, 42, 44; 15:21; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4).
4) Although the Christians in the New Testament assembled together on the first day of the week, there is no evidence that they necessarily refrained from physical or secular work on this day. To the contrary, they probably met customarily on the evening of the first day of the week (Acts 20:7), and the most likely explanation for this is that many of them probably had to work during the day. (The custom of the time probably only gave them the seventh day of the week off from work, not the first day, and with many of them being slaves, they were in no position to argue or get this custom changed.)
5) In the New Testament, the question of whether or not to observe one day above another is left to the individual’s conscience (Rom. 14:5-6). This means we should not disdain or refuse to have fellowship with those who feel they ought to keep the Sabbath literally as a “holy day” today, in accordance with the Old Testament command (Ex. 20:8). However, it also means that keeping the Sabbath is not a moral obligation that God expects of us today, because Scripture does not leave moral obligations to the individual’s conscience or advocate tolerance on such issues. So the fact that this is left to conscience shows that God does not specifically request us to keep it. Nor does He request us to observe the Lord’s Day in that manner (i.e., as holier than other days, unfit for common activities), even though we do assemble together on that day to remember Him, and are thus very thankful for it.
6) Col. 2:16-17 clearly indicates that Christians are not obligated to keep the Sabbath: “Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day–things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.” The clear and direct wording of this passage ought to settle the issue once and for all, even if it did not go on to explain why. But thankfully it does. Notice firstly that the observance of the Sabbath is grouped in this passage with other ceremonial observations of the Old Testament law (namely dietary restrictions and festivals) that are not applicable to Christians. The passage then goes on to explain that the reason such things are no longer applicable today is that these things looked forward to Christ. Now that Christ has come, we have the substance of what these things were merely picturing. Hebrews 4 explains this in more detail with specific reference to the Sabbath, as explained earlier in this paper. The physical rest of the Old Testament Sabbath law was merely foreshadowing the spiritual rest we have in Christ. Now that Christ has come in fulfillment of what the Sabbath law foreshadowed, it would be counter to God’s purposes for us to continue to observe the same symbol as if God requested that of us or was somehow pleased by it (see Gal. 4:9-10).
In spite of the above evidence to the contrary, many Christians continue to view the Lord’s Day as a new form of the Old Testament Sabbath and insist that God expects us to keep it as a special day of rest, as in the Old Testament. (Some even go as far as to call it the “Christian Sabbath.”) W. E. Vine says in his Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, “for the first three centuries of the Christian era the first day of the week was never confounded with the Sabbath; the confusion of the Jewish and Christian institutions was due to a declension from apostolic teaching.” Following are perhaps the three most common reasons for this confusion, along with my refutation of those reasons:
1) Because the Ten Commandments includes the command to keep the Sabbath, it is thought to be a universal moral issue and therefore something which we are still expected to observe today.
In spite of the fact that many popular and Godly teachers (especially those of certain anti-Dispensational persuasions such as Reformed Theology) continually refer to the Ten Commandments as “the moral law of God,” the Bible itself never makes this equation. It is true that nine of the Ten Commandments are clearly moral in nature, but that is no reason to presume that the command to keep the Sabbath must similarly be moral in nature. By its very essence, the Sabbath is evidently ceremonial rather than moral in nature, because principles that are of a truly moral nature are universal in scope and thus would not vary from one day of the week to the next. And in fact, as has already been pointed out, this is the only one of the Ten Commandments which is not repeated in the New Testament, so it seems likely that this commandment is indeed of a fundamentally different character than the others. (And again, this is further confirmed by the fact that Col. 2:16 groups the Sabbath with other observations that were clearly ceremonial rather than moral in nature.) Biblically, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that the Ten Commandments could not have included a ceremonial law along with the moral laws. The Ten Commandments did not have an independent function from the rest of the Old Testament law. Rather, they functioned as a sort of summary of the entire thing, ceremonial commands included. They were a part which stood for the whole, somewhat similar to how the U.S. Constitution can be thought of as standing for the whole federal law. Thus, they were referred to as “the tablets of the Covenant” (Deut. 9:9), a reference to the entire Old (Mosaic) Covenant, which is another name for the Old Testament law (Ex. 19:5; 24:7). So quite possibly God included in the Ten Commandments the command about the Sabbath in order to emphasize the point that the ceremonial parts of the Old Covenant were important, too. But this does not mean they are directly applicable to Christians living in a different dispensation, since we are not under that Old Covenant. Christ has Lordship over the Sabbath (Matt. 12:8, Luke 6:5), and with His new priesthood there has also been a change of law (see Heb. 7:12).
2) Because the Sabbath is spoken of in relation to creation in Genesis 2, before the Old Testament law was given, it is thought to be a “creation ordinance” and therefore assumed something that God expects all people of all times to observe.
It is true that Genesis 2 speaks of God’s rest on the seventh day, although it does not command its observance as the Sabbath. It may be that the Sabbath was observed as a day of rest right from the beginning, or the practice may have been instituted in Exodus 16, when the Israelites were instructed not to collect manna on the seventh day. Either way, the Sabbath was observed at least in some fashion before the giving of the Old Testament law. But this does not mean that God still desires us to keep the literal Sabbath today. There were other ceremonial practices besides the Sabbath observance which were evidently kept before the giving of the Old Testament law. For example, sacrifices were offered (Gen. 4:3-4), a distinction was made between clean and unclean animals (Gen. 7:2), and circumcision was given (Gen. 17:10). But these practices looked forward to Christ and are clearly no longer required in the Christian dispensation (see Acts 10:13-15). The Sabbath is similarly fulfilled in Christ (Col. 2:16-17, Heb. 4:9-10). Therefore, the fact that the Sabbath was practiced before the Old Testament law was given is no reason to believe God expects us to observe it today.
3) It is thought that the “Sabbath days” spoken of in Col. 2:16 are in reference to other days besides the seventh day of the week, and therefore assumed that this passage gives no license to the Christian in not observing the weekly Sabbath.
This interpretation of Col. 2:16 is highly dubious. It is true that there were other Sabbath days besides the weekly Sabbath. For example, the yearly Day of Atonement was to be celebrated as a Sabbath (Lev. 16:31). However, the word Sabbath when not otherwise qualified in context normally refers to the weekly Sabbath. In this passage, the progression from festivals (yearly) to new moons (monthly) to Sabbaths clearly suggests that the weekly Sabbath is in view. This listing of yearly and monthly and weekly events is a common Scriptural pattern for summarizing all the Jewish holy days (1 Chron. 23:31; 2 Chron. 2:4; 8:13; 31:3; Neh. 10:33; Ezek. 45:17; Hos. 2:11). It goes back to the enumeration of the regular offerings in Num. 28 and 29, starting with the daily morning and evening sacrifices and then going in order from the weekly Sabbath offerings to the monthly offerings to the various yearly festival offerings. So it makes little sense to view the word Sabbaths in Col. 2:16 as referring to anything other than the normal, weekly Sabbath. Furthermore, as already mentioned, Col. 2:17 goes on to explain why things like the Sabbath observance are no longer applicable today, namely because they were a shadow and picture of the substance to come in Christ. This dovetails perfectly with Hebrews 4, which explains the rest we have in Christ and how this was foreshadowed in the days of the creation week (v. 4). Thus the weekly Sabbath is indeed a perfect example of something which was merely a shadow and a picture, and no longer required today now that the substance has come.
In conclusion, although I have no desire to look down on those who treat the Lord’s Day as a day of rest analogous to the Old Testament Sabbath, I do not find that teaching in Scripture. In particular, I strongly caution against any view that actually equates the Lord’s Day with the Sabbath, or worse, that insists on other Christians observing the Lord’s Day as the Sabbath. The distinction between the Sabbath of the Mosaic dispensation and the Lord’s Day of the Christian dispensation is a precious one that ought to be maintained. It is the difference between forward-looking symbol and backward-looking commemoration. Whereas the Sabbath was a beautiful picture of our spiritual rest to be procured by Christ, the Lord’s Day does not picture this rest, but rather celebrates it in a very different way, as something we have already entered into. Thus, although we do remember this rest in a special way on the Lord’s Day as we assemble together to worship Him, we do not actually enter or engage in this rest in a special way on this day, because we are just as much in this rest on every other day of the week as we are on the Lord’s Day. This is in clear contrast to the Old Testament Sabbath, where the instructed rest was indeed entered into in a special way on one particular day of the week, because that particular day’s rest was what was ordained as a picture or type of our salvation rest.
It should be emphasized in closing that this distinction does not mean that the Lord’s Day celebration is unimportant or should be treated as optional. It is a tremendous privilege to commemorate the Lord and the rest He secured, and it is altogether appropriate for us to regard the first day of the week as a very precious time to assemble together to do exactly that, in the way He instructed and with the symbols He ordained, by partaking of the Lord’s Supper. It is a sad and far-too-common shame when we let work or recreation or other activities interfere with this priority except when absolutely necessary. But this does not mean that God is displeased if we also engage in various less important secular activities on this day as time permits. (Though we should keep in mind that even our secular activities should always be done with His honor and glory constantly in view, regardless of which day they are done on–see 1 Cor. 10:31 and Col. 3:17.) The idea that the Lord’s Day is equivalent to the Sabbath and therefore unfit for such activities is Biblically unwarranted and leads to confusion. May the Lord guide us through His Word in coming to a fuller understanding of this issue.
This page copyright © 2007 Edward A. Morris. Created March 9, 2007. Last updated April 7, 2007.
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