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Increasingly, few Christians reserve one day each week for both worship and rest from all forms of work. Should we be disturbed by this? Seventh-day Adventists and Seventh-day Baptists answer “yes,” and claim that the Sabbath day must be Saturday.

Certain kinds of Presbyterians and Reformed Christians, along with others influenced by the legacy of the Puritans, equally adamantly answer “yes,” but they insist that Sunday is the Christian Sabbath. Still others argue for the principle of resting one day in seven but don’t worry about which day of the week it is, since preachers, for example, can scarcely rest on the day they lead worship services. Are any of these three perspectives right? Not really.
Jesus declared, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17; NIV here and throughout). It’s an unusual contrast. Normally, if someone says he is not abolishing something, he goes on to say he is preserving it intact. But that’s not how the word fulfill is used in the Bible. In Matthew alone, its most common meaning is “to bring about that which was predicted” or “to give the complete meaning of something that was once only partially disclosed” (for example, 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 3:15; 4:14). Christians of all kinds recognize that they do not have to bring animals to church to be killed and offered as sacrifices for their sins, even though that practice was central to the entire old covenant system of worship. Christ is our once-for-all sacrifice for sin, so the way that we obey the many sacrificial laws in Leviticus today is by trusting in Jesus for forgiveness of sins. The New Testament introduces many other changes in the Old Testament law as well—all foods are now ritually clean, so it is okay to eat pork or shrimp (Mark 7:19). We need not go to one fixed location for temple rituals because we worship anywhere we can gather “in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Christian men need not be circumcised, even though that was one of the most fundamental of all Jewish commands, preceding even the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai (Gen. 17). Instead, today God accepts all people equally on the basis of “faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6). The list of similar changes is a long one.
But what about the Ten Commandments? Surely they are somehow special and specially timeless in ways the rest of the old covenant law is not. Despite a long history of Christian thinking along these lines, nothing in the Bible ever says this. All of Scripture is viewed as a unity (James 2:8–11). Jews believed all their laws were immutable. That’s what made it so hard for many of them to accept Jesus as heaven-sent; He was challenging their eternal laws. It didn’t matter that He left many of them apparently intact; His teaching that the new age of human history He was inaugurating would alter even some of them left many people incensed. Only God could change God’s law. But if Christ were God, then He had this right. If He were not, His teaching was blasphemy. Christians, however, believe Jesus is God. So even if a law appears in the Ten Commandments, we may not assume that it carries over to the new covenant age unchanged. We must look to see how Jesus and the apostles treated it before we can understand whether it is still binding.
What, then, does the New Testament teach about the Sabbath law, one commandment out of the famous ten (Ex. 20:10)? Jesus doesn’t answer this question as explicitly as we would like; had He done so, we wouldn’t be debating it today. But in all His encounters with the religious leaders of His people, He rebukes how they restrict Him from doing good on Saturdays, especially when it comes to healing people. Curiously, though, He never heals anyone whose life is in imminent danger. One woman had been crippled for eighteen years (Luke 13:10–11). One man had been an invalid for thirty-eight (John 5:5, 9).
We can imagine the Pharisees pleading with Christ: surely He could wait one more day to heal these people so He wouldn’t desecrate God’s Sabbath. One time Jesus’ disciples picked some heads of grain in a field on the Sabbath, presumably to eat them, but nothing implies they were on the verge of starvation (Mark 2:23). Yet Jesus’ defense of their behavior sets a sweeping precedent for change: “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:26).
By healing a man with a shriveled hand on the Sabbath, Jesus teaches that it is lawful on the Sabbath to do good (Mark 3:4). Any behavior that helps someone, that beautifies the world, that furthers God’s will, that promotes honest labor, or that provides recreation or pleasure for God’s people is considered “good” in the Bible and is therefore lawful on the Sabbath. This is the attitude that gave the first generation of Christians the freedom to transfer worship from the Jewish Sabbath or seventh day to Sunday, the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2). This is what led to the naming of Sunday as the “Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10).
But Christians scarcely transferred everything about the Jewish Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday. Gentile believers, who comprised the majority of the church from the middle of the first century onwards had no weekly days in their communities on which to rest. Greeks and Romans had several holidays each month according to the various religious festival calendars they followed. But unless one of these holidays fell on a Sunday, Gentile Christians had to work a full day on the first day of the week and squeeze in worship and fellowship with other believers either on Sunday morning before dawn or Saturday or Sunday night after dusk. Not until Constantine became the first Christian emperor in the early fourth century were Sundays legalized as holy days (and thus holidays) in the Roman Empire.
Many of the second- and third-century Christian writers even spoke of keeping the Sabbath as “Judaizing”—reverting back to the legalism that Christ had come to end. Theirs was probably an overreaction, unless the people keeping the Sabbath, either on Saturday or Sunday, were trying to require others to follow them. After all, Paul in Romans 14:5–6 had written, “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.” This mandate comes in the context of the rest of chapter 14, where Paul addresses issues that were dividing the Christians in Rome. At the heart of the debate were the Sabbaths and other feast days, along with the dietary laws, about which Paul says, in a nutshell, stop judging each other (v. 13).
Colossians 2:16 is even plainer: “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.” Here we see the common Jewish triad of holy days—annual festivals like Passover, Tabernacles, or the Day of the Atonement; monthly feast days; and weekly Sabbaths. Christians are free to celebrate these or not, and other believers must not judge them for their choices. Christ’s incarnation is the reality that the holy days foreshadowed. Jesus’ followers come to Him and He gives them rest 24–7, as we would say today, for His yoke is easy and His burden light (Matt. 11:28–30). Our whole lives are a Sabbath rest, foreshadowing our eternal rest (Heb. 4:9–11).
Am I then saying that worship and rest are optional for Christians? By no means. We need both and we need both frequently. What I am saying is that the New Testament insists that we dare not legislate or require one specific day in seven for either. Each person’s body is different, as are their work requirements, opportunities for gathering with fellow believers, and overall spiritual needs. In a workaholic world, which so often fractures families and churches, let us get the rest we need and worship with God’s people often. And let churches create more services on Saturday nights or even weeknights for those who can’t or won’t come on Sundays. Indeed, let’s get far more creative in how to reach the unchurched and the unsaved altogether. But let us not pretend that the panacea for our ills in the church or society is returning to some supposedly idyllic Sabbath that was largely the invention of the Puritans in the first place.

The Lutheran Sabbath

The Rest of the Story

Keep Reading Four Views of the Sabbath

From the June 2011 Issue
Jun 2011 Issue