(November 14, 2016) Dr Jim McClure, esteemed theologian, brings insight to an important commandment …
Because the attempts of some Christians to Judaise Christianity, and in view of the insistence on Sabbath keeping by some, I decided to reflect on the significance of the Sabbath and its observance.
First of all it is acknowledged that ‘keeping the Sabbath holy’ is one of the Ten Commandments. The relevance and endorsement of some of the commandments are obvious, for example, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery.
But what about the one regarding the keeping of the Sabbath day? Is it relevant in the 21st century? Does it apply to Christians (even assuming that it applies to Jews)? Is Sunday the Christian Sabbath? Can it simply be ignored or rendered irrelevant by theological argument?
The following are some of the views held by various Christians today:
1. The Commandments don’t apply to us today therefore the keeping of the Sabbath isn’t relevant
In Romans 10:4 we read, ‘For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.’ From this it has been argued that the 4th commandment regarding the Sabbath is not binding on us today.
Regrettably, many English translations have used the word ‘end’ to translate the Greek word telos instead of what is clearly Paul’s intended meaning of telos in this context. If one argues that Paul was stating that faith in Christ has wholly eradicated God’s law, he has then totally contradicted what he had previously said in Romans 3:31, ‘Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.’
Furthermore, if Paul was stating that the ‘law’ was no longer relevant, and consequently the 4th commandment no longer applies, are the other commandments also irrelevant? One cannot so lightly dismiss those that clearly tell us not to kill, steal or bear false witness.
In 1 Corinthians 7:19 Paul wrote, ‘Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.’ In other words he was saying that whether one is a Jew or a Gentile is irrelevant; what matters is how we live our lives and God’s commands help us in this.
While the historical context to the giving of the Ten Commandments – the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, God’s making of a covenant with them that established a unique relationship with them, and the giving of laws that would give them structure and standards to enable them to settle in a new land in which they would be faced with previously unencountered challenges – they contain basic principles that are applicable to all peoples of all generations. The commandments are, therefore, far from being irrelevant but are instructive for us today and we can learn from every one of them.
2. The early church changed the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday
It has been argued that the main influences that changed the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday were…
(i) the influence of Gnosticism on the church
(ii) anti-Jewish sentiment and, particularly
(iii) the decree of Emperor Constantine in 321 that sought to meld the Christian concept of Sabbath worship with the pagan cult of Mithraism’s practice of sun worship on Sunday (its most sacred day).
Let’s explore these arguments.
First, some of the heretical ideas of gnostic groups, including that of honouring the sun by worshipping on a Sunday, had infiltrated the church. That is true but the early church contended strongly against gnostic ideas and influence. In fact, Paul’s letter to the Colossians was principally written to warn about the danger of Gnosticism!
Secondly, a series of events, particularly in the second century, drove a wedge into the church which alienated Gentile and Jewish Christians. Subsequently, particularly among the gentile Christians, the significance of the Jewish Sabbath diminished. But the practice of worshipping on Sunday was established among Christians from the beginning. During the second and third centuries Christians began to speak of Sunday as the ‘eighth day’, the ‘first day’ and especially as the ‘Lord’s Day.’
Thirdly, Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312 AD did have many consequences for the Roman Empire. But whatever influences led him to decree Sunday as the Christian day of worship, it was not he who made the original decision. He was, in fact, confirming a Christian practice that had begun almost three centuries earlier.
However, we note, as mentioned above, that from the earliest days, Christians met for worship on Sunday. It was on a Sunday that Jesus rose from the dead and Christians gathered to worship on that day each week to celebrate the great event of resurrection. Furthermore, the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was given to the church, took place on a Sunday.
Reference to the Sunday gatherings of Christians is found in Acts 20:7 and 1 Corinthians 16:2. The Didache, a Christian document dated 70 AD, states, ‘But every Lord’s day . . . gather yourselves together and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.’
Also, there is abundant evidence that by the middle of the 2nd century Christians regularly met to worship on Sunday. For example, Justyn Martyr (who was born in 100 AD) wrote, ‘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.’
We cannot assume that influences of gnosticism, anti-Jewish sentiment or Constantine’s decree led to the swapping of one day for another, that is, exchanging a Saturday Sabbath for a Sunday Sabbath. Nor can we assume that the early church nominated Sunday, their day of worship, as a ‘Sabbath.’
3. Instead of teaching strict observation of Sabbath days, the New Testament points in the opposite direction
In his letter to the Christians in Colossae Paul addressed an issue that was troubling the Christians in that city – some people were standing in judgment over other Christians who were not strictly observing various food laws, religious ceremonies and events including the Sabbaths. He wrote, ‘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.’ (Colossians 2:16-17).
Furthermore Paul wrote, ‘So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law’ (Galatians 3:24-25).
It may also be further argued that as there is no mention of Sabbath day observance before Moses, the significance of a Saturday Sabbath is somewhat diminished. By extension it may be argued that the idea of a Sunday Sabbath is inaccurate.
There is a degree of truth in this argument. However it may be taken too far. While on the one hand a strict observance of the Law leads to legalism, a reaction in the opposite direction leads to an ancient heresy called ‘antinomianism.’ This word literally means ‘lawless’ and the heresy stated that Christians are wholly free not to obey the laws of morality.
In support of this argument its proponents argued that Paul spoke about ‘the freedom we have in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 2:4) and also his affirmation that we are saved by grace and not by works, for example in Ephesians 2:8; 2 Timothy 1:9. (In passing, it is noted that today the hyper-faith preachers have fallen into this same error).
The principles of morality and behaviour contained in the Ten Commandments have not been abolished. As James has strongly argued that ‘faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead’ (2:17).
4. Jesus is our Sabbath rest so we do not need to observe any other Sabbath
This view, which claims that the observance of the Sabbath day is not binding on Christians, rests on the theological argument that as , Christ’s redeeming work was completed, those who trust in him no longer need to try to obtain salvation by their own efforts but to simply to enter into his rest.
Hebrews 3:15-4:10 appears to support this. It argues that the Israelites who left their bondage in Egypt failed to enter into the rest of the Promised Land because of their unbelief (Hebrews 3:18-19), so also the promise of entering God’s rest of eternal salvation is dependent on our trust in Jesus Christ. In him we find rest from the futile effort of trying to save ourselves (see Ephesians 2:8-9).
The writer of Hebrews concludes, ‘There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience’ (Hebrews 4:9-11).
These verses, however, have nothing to do with Sabbath observance or lack of it. They are illustrating a theological truth. The writer of Hebrews was making this point: Just as God ‘rested’ or ‘ceased’ (the Hebrew word for this is sabat) on the seventh day when he completed his ‘work’ in creating (Genesis 2:2), when Jesus completed his work of redemption on the cross (John 19:30), he entered into his ‘rest.’
Therefore, the writer makes this appeal, ‘Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience’ (Hebrews 4:11). The ‘rest’ that is referred to is that of salvation that is found only in the finished work of Christ.
So, is a Saturday Sabbath binding on us or not?
As we noted above, the early church met regularly for worship on Sunday to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. But a Sunday Sabbath was never intended as a replacement for a Saturday Sabbath. Because of its covenantal significance for Jews, Saturday Sabbath observance as such did not have the same theological or identity significance for Christians.
Nevertheless its underlying principle is no less significant than those of the other nine commandments. For example, we do not confine to the waste bin as irrelevant the 10th Commandment with its reference to manservant, maidservant, ox and donkey because we do not have any of those things! No, we are guided by the underlying principle of this commandment.
The essential principle of the ‘Sabbath’ is found in the context of the story of creation and in the meaning of the word. Furthermore for the people of Israel the Sabbath took on an additional meaning in the Sinai covenant that God established with them.
(i) The context of the Sabbath in the creation story
Genesis 1 gives the account of the six days of creation and chapter 22 tells us that on the seventh day God ‘rested’. We do not find the word ‘sabbath’ in Genesis; it first appears in Exodus 16:23, ‘”This is what the LORD commanded: ‘Tomorrow is to be a day of rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord.’
However, the word for ‘rest’ (first used in Genesis 2:2) is ‘shabath’ and both words are from the same Hebrew root that has a primary meaning of ‘rest.’ Clearly Almighty God did not need to take a rest, however a fundamental principle was being spelt out – one day’s rest in seven is good for us!
It is interesting to note that the 7-day week was God’s idea. Although various attempts have been made to change the number of days in a week (notably a 10-day week by France from October 1793 to April 1802 and a 5-day week by Russia between 1929 and 1931), the 7-day week seems to be impossible to change! The principle of one day’s rest in seven is sound ethical practice regardless of one’s faith or lack of it.
(ii) The Sabbath in the Sinai Covenant
In the covenant that God made with Israel on Sinai (see Exodus 19-24) was one in which Israel was set apart from other nations as God’s ‘chosen people’ (see Deuteronomy 7:6) and placed on Israel was an obligation to obey God’s law.
In this covenant we see a further emphasis placed on the Sabbath – not only was it to be a day of rest but also a day that was set aside for worship. The commandment states, ‘Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy’ (Exodus 20:8).
The Hebrew word used here for ‘holy’ is ‘kadosh.’ In English we understand ‘holy’ to refer to religious or moral goodness but that is not primarily the meaning of the Hebrew word that has been translated as ‘holy’. ‘Kadosh’ means ‘separated from’ or ‘set aside or a purpose’. It may not always refer to moral goodness or righteousness.
For example, in Genesis 38:21 we read, ‘He asked the men who lived there, “Where is the shrine prostitute who was beside the road at Enaim?” “There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here,” they said.’ The Hebrew word translated here as ‘shrine prostitute’ is ‘kadasha’ which has the same root meaning as ‘kadosh.’
In Deuteronomy 14:2 the people of Israel are described as ‘you are a people holy to the Lord your God.’ That is, they were set apart by him from all other people. And in the New Testament Peter reminds his readers of God’s challenge, ‘… it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy”’ (1 Peter 1:16). As people who have been redeemed by Jesus Christ, we are called to holiness, that is, we are constantly challenged not to be absorbed into the culture, beliefs and standards of the world but to live according to God’s values. Jesus himself prayed for his followers, ‘They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them (literally ‘make them holy’) by the truth; your word is truth’ (John 17:16-17).
So, in the commandment God instructed the Israelites to remember that the Sabbath (the rest day) should be holy (separate from other days). In its outworking the Sabbath day was especially set aside for corporate worship of God in which God’s people affirmed that Almighty God was the Creator, Provider and Deliverer.
(iii) The Sabbath and Christians
What is the relevance of the Sabbath to Christians today? Quite a lot if we understand the principles that lie behind it.
(i) We are not required to observe the Saturday Sabbath as its particular significance was for Jews and was inseparably associated with their covenant relationship with God that was established on Sinai.
Paul mentions the Sabbath only once in his letters, in Colossians 2:13-17 where he states, ‘God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. … And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. 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.’ Sabbath observance, therefore, is neither forbidden nor required.
(ii) Sunday is not and has never been the ‘Christian Sabbath’ – it is nowhere suggested in the scriptures that it should be.
(iii) Historically Sunday has been celebrated as a day of Christian worship in which the people of God come together to praise and worship our great God and King. Yes, we can worship God anywhere – in the garden, in the kitchen, in the living room, in the car – and we can worship him when we are alone.
However, in both the Old and New Testaments it is clear that corporate worship is ordained by God and honouring to him. Such gatherings of God’s people for worship need not be on a Sunday but there are very solid theological, historical and practical reasons for it to be so.
(iv) The ‘Sabbath’ reminds us of the God designed need of, at least, one day’s rest in seven. It further reminds us of the need to join regularly with others in corporate worship. Private worship that is worship that avoids corporate worship finds no support in either the old or New Testaments: ‘… not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching’ (Hebrews 10:25 Message).
The bottom line is that the law given to Moses on Sinai is very instructive but not binding on Christians. When Paul challenged the activity of the Jewish Christians who were teaching Gentile converts to Christianity that they needed also to practise the ‘Law of Moses’, he wrote, ‘Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.”’ (Galatians 3:11). And, ‘You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love’ (Galatians 5:13).
We honour God and obey him when, in love for him and for each other, we practise the essential principles on which the ‘law’ – and the whole of scripture is based.
Dr Jim McClure, author of several books and Bible study series, welcomes questions from Christians seeking enlightenment on biblical perspectives.
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