Thoughts of a Pastor-Historian

Is the Lord’s Day the Christian Sabbath? (Part 1)

In today’s and tomorrow’s posts I will argue that the requirements associated with the Sabbath are not binding upon believers who worship on the Lord’s Day. I will support this thesis by arguing that the Lord’s Day is not the Christian continuation of the Sabbath which was given to Israel. In order to accomplish this, I will survey the pertinent Scriptures in the Old and New Testament today. Also, in tomorrow’s post a brief survey of the various positions held on this issue throughout the history of the church will be outlined. First, today let us begin where all theological discussions should, in the Scriptures.
The Sabbath/Lord’s Day Issue in Scripture

As D.A. Carson has noted, this issue “demands close study of numerous passages in both Testaments of the canon.” Unfortunately, the scope of this post will only permit a cursory glance at a few of the passages in question. However, the passages esteemed to be the most crucial in regards to the Sabbath/Lord’s Day controversy will be treated as extensively and seriously as the space available and the author’s ability may permit. We will attempt to trace this issue the way in which it has been received, in the order of the canon.

In the Old Testament
The two most important passages in the Old Testament in relationship to the Sabbath are Genesis 2:2-3 and Exodus 20:8-11. The first because it is often used to prove that Sabbath observance is part of the moral law of God as a “creation ordinance.” The second because it places the command to keep the Sabbath in the Ten Commandments along with nine other commandments deemed by most to be God’s moral law.

Genesis 2:2-3. This passage states that God rested after His six days of work in creation. Many suggest that the description of the Sabbath in these verses should be taken as a “creation ordinance.” This term is used when a “function, basic value and goal of a specific institution remain in principle the same throughout human history.” However, Genesis 2:3 only states that God Himself ceased from His work and blessed this day. There is not a positive command for Adam and Eve even though other commands are given to them (See Genesis 2:16-17). There is not even an implied command here. We only see that the goal of God’s creative activity is not man, but rather “that all creative activities of God flow into a universal rest period” which the writers of the New Testament understood to be fulfilled in the spiritual rest found in Christ (See Hebrews 3 and 4). Thus, Genesis 2 does not teach that the observance of the Sabbath is a “creation ordinance”. However, the Sabbath given to the people of Israel “was based on the creation account and became a sign of God’s redemptive goal for mankind.”

Exodus 20:8-11. Because of its inclusion with the other nine commandments which together comprise the “Ten Commandments,” many argue that Sabbath observance is part of the eternal moral law of God which compels obedience by all men everywhere. One who held this view was A.W. Pink who wrote, “It should thus be quite evident that this law for the regulation of man’s time was not a temporary one, designed for any particular dispensation, but is continuous and perpetual in the purpose of God.” Others view the Ten Commandments as a distinct covenant made only with Israel at Sinai (See Exodus 34:27-28). While nine of the “Ten Commandments” are repeated in the New Testament and are therefore binding upon believers, the command to observe the Sabbath is not repeated. The question is then asked, “Why was the Sabbath included with the other commandments if it was not a part of the ‘moral law’ of God? The answer to this question is given by John Reisinger. He wrote, “Because the Tablets of Stone were a distinct covenant, they were accompanied with a specific ‘covenant sign’ . . . . The Sabbath was the sign of the covenant and therefore it had to be part of the covenant of which it was the sign.” Harold H. P. Dressler, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Northwest Baptist Theological College in Vacouver, B.C. agrees, “As a sign of the covenant the Sabbath can only be meant for Israel, with whom the covenant was made. It has a “perpetual” function, i.e., for the duration of the covenant, and derives its importance and significance from the covenant itself.” Thus, the command to observe the Sabbath was binding only upon those who were under the covenant which was made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai and is not morally binding upon all people everywhere.

In summary, neither Genesis 2:3-4 nor Exodus 20:8-11 provide sufficient evidence that observance of the Sabbath is morally binding on New Testament believers. Instead, both of these texts can be interpreted both adequately and, in my opinion, correctly as not having any intended commandment of Sabbath observance to mankind universally. There is no command at all in Genesis 2:2-3, only a description of what God has done. The context of Exodus 20:8-11, which is a distinct covenant document made with the people of Israel, implies that the commandment stated there was binding only to those who lived under that particular covenant. This understanding of the Sabbath in the Old Testament has been expressed clearly and concisely in the words of John F. MacArthur, Jr. who said:

We believe the Old Testament regulations governing Sabbath observances are ceremonial, not moral, aspects of the law. As such, they are no longer in force, but have passed away along with the sacrificial system, the Levitical priesthood, and all other aspects of Moses’ law that prefigured Christ.

In the New Testament
There are three main areas of importance in regard to the Sabbath/Lord’s Day Issue in the New Testament. First, Jesus’ attitude toward the Sabbath is of the utmost importance in constructing a theology of the Sabbath. Second, the writings of Paul comprise approximately half of the New Testament. His instruction concerning the Sabbath is crucial since the Epistles give instruction to the New Testament Church. Finally, the attitude of the Apostles and the Early Church toward the Lord’s Day is important in determining if it is now the day of worship for believers. Today, I will look at the first two of these areas. In tomorrow’s post, I will include the view of the Apostles and the early church with a brief survey of the various views on this topic throughout the history of the church.

Jesus and the Sabbath. It seems clear from the gospels that Jesus kept the Sabbath. However, as D. A. Carson has observed, “One dare not conclude on this basis that Sabbath observance is still mandatory. The same argument would require that we continue to sacrifice in the temple.” Jesus performed multiple miracles on the Sabbath and the statement from the lips of Jesus, “The Son of Man is Lord [even] of the Sabbath” is found in all three synoptic gospels. While it is true, as Walter Chantry has observed, that Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees on these occasions was primarily over their “fundamental misunderstanding of the Sabbath law,” Jesus also corrected improper temple worship (See Luke 19:46). Yet, no one believes that Christians are now obligated to sacrifice and worship at the Jerusalem Temple. In summary, as New Testament scholar Douglas J. Moo has noted concerning Jesus, “While he does not clearly teach the abrogation of the Sabbath command, he redirects attention from the law to himself, the Lord of the Sabbath, and thereby sets in place the principle on which the latter church would justify its departure from Sabbath observance.”

Paul and the Sabbath. One key text in the Pauline corpus regarding the Sabbath will be explored in this section. It is Colossians 2:16-17 which reads as follows. “Therefore let no one 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” (NASB). In this passage, Paul clearly sees the Sabbath as no longer morally binding upon believers. As D. R. de Lacey comments, “An individual may keep the Sabbath or not.” Paul “refuses to dogmatise one way or the other.” Another Pauline passage conveying this same sentiment is found in Romans 14:5 which states, “One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind” (NASB). From these texts it is obvious that Paul doesn’t see the observance of the Sabbath as a morally binding precept for believers.

In tomorrow’s post, I will provide a brief survey of opinions about the Lord’s Day throughout church history. Stay tuned . . .