The New Testament Sabbath - Rev. John L. Mackay

Taken from the Clarion (Jan. 9, 1987) Vol. 36, No 1 - No 2

This article is trying to provide information to help answer two related questions: Whatever happened to the Sabbath in the New Testament church? and, Is there such a thing as the New Testament Sabbath? Over the centuries questions such as these have given rise to considerable discussion, because they have been variously answered. My present concern is not, however, to rehearse the details of past controversies, but rather to provide a basis for dealing satisfactorily with what people are thinking and saying now.

Recent months have seen the matter of Lord's Day observance brought to the attention of the general public. Churches whose attitude towards the Lord's Day had been somewhat ambivalent in recent years have been stirred to action on the matter. There has been shown to be a substantial number of people in the country prepared to take a stand by writing to the press or their M.P.s. Both within and out with Christian circles people are probing the matter, and asking questions. Why is it that you take the stand you do? Is it just sentimental attachment to a past tradition? Is Sunday legislation little more than a Listed Building Order to try to ensure the preservation of some edifice of historical significance? On what basis? For what reason? By what authority do you seek to impose a particular sort of Sunday on a whole nation? We need to be able to go beyond sentiment to give a satisfactory answer to that. We need to know the authority which provides the basis for our behaviour. As Christians, that means we must be able to show the Scriptural basis for what we say and do, and this article outlines how that may be done.

Our Lord and the Sabbath

The evidence of the gospels show clearly that Jesus Christ was a defender of the Sabbath. That was not, of course, the view of the Pharisees. They accused him of being a Sabbath violator. It would seem that many people still adopt that opinion. They endorse the Pharisees' assessment of Jesus and consider him to have annulled the Sabbath and to have swept away the requirements that were then current by his healing miracles on the Sabbath and by his teaching.

But when we look more closely at the gospels, we see that what our Lord was sweeping away was not the Sabbath commandment, but the many restrictions on the Sabbath that had been humanly devised and imposed on the Sabbath ordinance. We need to discriminate between the Mosaic Sabbath as ordained at Sinai, and the Judaistic Sabbath that was supported by Jewish teachers, particularly by the school of the Pharisees that was influential in our Lord's day, the followers of Shammai. Later Jewish scholars were to observe about the restrictions current in Jesus' time that "the rules about the sabbath are as mountains hanging by a hair, for Scripture is scanty and the rules many." Our Lord was concerned to rescue the Sabbath from these Jewish rules and to place it in its proper Scriptural place, for He had not come to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfil them.

We must notice that for our Lord that proper Scriptural place was not just to be found in the Mosaic legislation. In Mark 2:27-28 - "The Sabbath was made for man , and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath" we have one of our Lord's most significant statements regarding the Sabbath. Here He goes back beyond the Sabbath as established in the Mosaic Law. He speaks of the Sabbath as made for man in general - not just Israel, or God's people. It is its role for mankind as a whole that is emphasized. In this, our Lord points back beyond Sinai, to Eden. But we shall develop that emphasis later.

At present, we shall observe the major part which controversies about the Sabbath and teaching about the Sabbath had in our Lord's ministry. Undoubtedly that reflected the Palestinian environment of His ministry. But equally the gospel writers, led by the Holy Spirit, felt it important to show to the church of subsequent generations and of other backgrounds what our Lord's attitude to the Sabbath had been. He had not spoken of it as something of no importance, as something destined shortly to pass into oblivion. It was something for which He was passionately concerned, for He as Son of Man was Lord of the Sabbath. He did not rescind the Sabbath, but spoke of it as one of the unchanging ordinances for mankind's good.

The early church

What then happened to the Sabbath after our Lord's death? How did the New Testament church observe it? Now it has to be recognized that we do not have a detailed account of this in Scripture. If we had, the differences of viewpoint that do exist would probably not have arisen. There is evidence, but it is of a scattered, incidental nature - and it has to be assessed correctly. I want first of all to set out my reconstruction of the matter, and then present my reasons for it, and consider objections to it.

We are told by Luke and John how after His resurrection our Lord met with His disciples on the first day of the week in the upper room. John emphasizes the fact "the same day at evening, being the first day of the week" (John 20:19), and also that a week later our Lord again appeared there to the disciples. Equally, it seems certain that the day of Pentecost, when we find the disciples all with one accord in one place, fell on the first day of the week. By the action of our Lord and by the coming of the promised Spirit the first day of the week is being constituted a special day, a day set apart in terms of the new age and of the coming of the blessings of the new covenant. This is not to say that there was an express command given at that time as regards the cessation of the Old Testament Sabbath and the start of the Christian Sabbath on the first day of the week. There is no evidence for such a command. What is recorded are those constitutive divine actions that marked the first day of the week as something distinctive in a Christian context.

When we examine the Jerusalem church, they do not seem to have drawn back immediately from the Old Testament Sabbath. We know how they continued to frequent the temple daily, and respected Mosaic law. Against the background of the controversies that our Lord had with the Pharisees over the Sabbath, it is significant that Acts has no record of any clash with the Jewish authorities as regards Sabbath observance. There would have inevitably been clashes had the Jerusalem church entirely done away with the Old Testament Sabbath.

But we must not think of them as regarding it any longer in the way in which their Jewish contemporaries did. For one thing, they were followers of Jesus: for another, they were filled with the Holy Spirit and living with an intense awareness that they were followers of the Risen One. Whatever respect they had for the Old Testament Sabbath and its observances, there had to be more. They were the children of the new age, followers of the risen Lord whom they worshipped. It is back there in the Jerusalem church that I feel we must place the beginning of the association of the first day of the week with distinctively Christian worship. It was then that the Church found its own particular identity in the first day - and that, remember, is an essentially Jewish mode of thought, contrasting with the preceding Sabbath, but still accepting the weekly cycle of seven days. There was not an immediate transference. It was the beginning of a process, a maturing Christian identity in which the first day of the week played an ever clearer part.

Perhaps the best analogy is in the matter of circumcision and baptism. Both the old way and the new way existed side by side in the Jerusalem church, and this was not a cause for concern providing circumcision was seen as a thing now no longer required by God, but as something merely Jewish. What had been superseded and become obsolete could be left as a national custom, to fade away as it should do. So too with the seventh-day Sabbath. Its time had passed. It was now no longer what God required. The last true Old Testament Sabbath had been when our Lord's body lay in the darkness of the tomb. The seventh-day was not a fitting memorial of the joy of the followers of the risen Jesus. What was left could be observed merely as a national custom, without religious significance and not binding on the conscience. The new had come, and would grow into completely taking the place of the old in the Christian community.

Obviously this would happen more easily in a Gentile context, and especially when the emerging church grew to contain those directly converted from paganism as well as those who had initially been proselytes to Judaism. Thus it is in Troas in Asia Minor that we find the church coming together on the first day of the week to break bread (Acts 20:7). Paul had arrived there on the previous Monday, and had waited for an opportunity to address them all together. Also we find Paul in I Corinthians 16:1, 2 telling us that both in Galatia and in Corinth, the church on the first day of the week was to lay in store in connection with the collection he was making. Elsewhere, he calls this collection "a service" (II Corinthians 9:12), and the word used indicates a religious activity, and the choice of day fits in with the picture of the first day of the week as having a special religious significance for the church. This is further strengthened by the last canonical reference in Revelation 1:10 where John speaks of the Lord's Day and employs a term which the subsequent usage of the word in the second century church shows as pointing to the first day of the week.

The Lord's Day, the first day of the week, was universally accepted as the day of Christian worship throughout the early church. Whatever the background of the congregation, whatever its history, whoever was responsible for founding it - all agree on this. This unambiguously points back to the origin of the Lord's Day in the early Jerusalem church, and taken by those who went from there throughout the world with the message of the gospel. The Lord's Day did not come from Rome in the second century, or Corinth in the early fifties of the first century, as some argue. We have to go back to the resurrection when our Lord himself decisively set apart the first day of the week. The break with the Old Testament Sabbath was not immediate. It worked itself out through the period of apostolic superintendence, being more easily established in the Gentile church. Though the Jerusalem church was aware of the significance of the first day of the week and used it for Christian worship, they continued to respect the Sabbath as observed by the Jews - until the fall of the city in A.D. 70.

This seems to me to be the most satisfactory way of bringing together the evidence that we have.

But was it the Sabbath?

Although we have brought together the evidence regarding the inauguration of the Lord's Day, we have not yet fully answered the question of what happened to the Sabbath in the New Testament church. We have seen that the Old Testament Sabbath, the observance of the last day of the week, was done away, and that the church observed the first day, the Lord's Day. Now the natural inference and I think the correct inference from that - is that the one came in the place of the other. The view that the Lord's Day is the New Testament Sabbath is known as the sabbatarian theory of the Lord's Day. Many dispute it. What is often called the dominical theory of the Lord's Day contends that while we have a day of worship in the Christian church on the first day of the week, this is not a lineal descendant, a successor to the Old Testament Sabbath, which was a day of rest and worship. Rather it is a replacement. There is no basis for talking about a New Testament Sabbath, because the Sabbath is over and done with, having been decisively fulfilled by Christ.

Now there is Scriptural evidence that is adduced to support this argument. Principally it focuses on three passages in the Pauline epistles where Paul is said to be decisively loosing the children of the new age from the inappropriate, if not corrupting, influences of the past.

"But now that you know God - or rather are known by God - how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you" (Galatians 4:9-11).

"One man esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord" (Romans 14:5, 6a).

"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).

Surely, it is argued, if the Sabbath had been of lasting significance in any form in the church, Paul could not have written in this way.

There are, however, a number of factors that such an argument does not do justice to. We may firstly notice that

Paul does not use his apostolic authority to abrogate these observances. He does not forbid them to the Church in Colosse. He merely says, "Do not let anyone judge you" - he makes them optional with Jews as with Gentiles. If the Jews wished to keep the holy days they had been accustomed to under Mosaic enactment, Paul will not force them to stop, provided they are not taken as having anything to do with salvation.

But they are matters of individual preference. He has no time for those who would make them of the essence of salvation, or of a person's standing before God. He tells them they should not let any one judge their standing as Christians by those outmoded practices from the past. They were irrelevant for that purpose.

Judaising opponents

We must not, however, jump too quickly into saying that any observance of a day is thereby done away with. In Colossians 2, what applies to the religious festivals, the New Moon celebrations, and Sabbath days applies also to eating and drinking. If we applied the same sort of argumentation to eating and drinking, we might advance the proposition that if acts of eating and drinking had been of lasting significance in any form in the church, then Paul could not have written in this way. But that would produce the unresolved contradiction of the Lord's Supper as an abiding element of Christian worship. What we have of course to do is to take these passages in context. It is the significance which his Judaising opponents attached to these matters of dietary laws and observances of days as essential to salvation that Paul stoutly condemns. Where, as in Rome, this does not seem to have been a significant factor, Paul's discussion is irenic. It may well be, as some have suggested, that he is speaking about a situation where some in the church (slaves, or wives of unconverted husbands) were unable to keep the day special as they would have done had they been free to do so. Each stands or falls before his own master. Let every one in that situation be fully convinced in his own mind.

Now Paul is distancing Christianity from the Judaistic, Sabbath, entrammelled by Pharisaic regulations. He is also distancing Christian practice from the typical aspect of holy day observance. There was a time when these things were right and proper. Paul as a true follower of Jesus accepted the divine institution of the Mosaic Sabbath, but God had given it as a shadow of things that were to come. We can see that aspect of the situation quite clearly in the case of the sacrifices which were the focus of the annual festivals, the monthly New Moons, and the weekly Sabbaths. The typical (that is, the foreshadowing) provisions of the Mosaic law required a double offering of lamb on the Sabbath, and this like the other animal sacrifices directed the worshippers to the coming Lamb of God whose blood alone could wash away sin. The pious worshipper of old was being directed toward the ultimate sacrifice that was to come. But Paul now argues that the reality, the consummating reality of the finished atoning work of Christ, has already been accomplished, and the shadows have vanished away before it.

But the typical aspect of the Mosaic Sabbath does not exhaust the significance of the Old Testament Sabbath, and to conclude from Paul's argument that the Old Testament Sabbath has no counterpart in New Testament times fails to take account of three arguments. We shall look at these next month.



Taken from the Clarion (Jan. 23, 1987) Vol. 36, No 2,

In the first article we saw that God gave the Mosaic Sabbath as a shadow of things to come. This did not, however, exhaust its significance. To conclude from Paul's references that the Old Testament Sabbath has no counterpart in New Testament times fails to take account of three arguments.

A creation ordinance

It must first of all be emphasized that the Sabbath had existed before there were the ritual enactments connected with the Mosaic law, and so the fulfilling of the typical elements does not lead to the total lapsing of the Sabbath institution, but rather a renewed emphasis on its other elements. Even from Sinai God had enjoined His people to "remember the Sabbath day" - to remember what already existed. It will not do to date its origin a week or so earlier in the incident connected with the giving of the manna in Exodus 16. The references to the Sabbath there are most probably to be understood in terms of the reintroduction of the Sabbath into the life of God's people after it had lapsed in the persecution and prevalent paganism of Egypt. The Sabbath had been known before. Indeed Exodus 20:11 shows that it must be understood in terms of creation.

The origin of the Sabbath dates back to God's original creation mandate that patterned the time-cycle of mankind, the apex of God's creation. Man as the image of God was to live after the time sequence of God's creative activity, observing the day in seven that was set apart. This is the basis of the recurring weekly day that is set apart. "The Sabbath was made for man" so that he could fulfill the total potential he had been endowed with. It is only in harmony with God's creative prescription that mankind can fulfill their true destiny. Without it the wholeness and soundness of the life of the individual, the family and the society are flawed and undermined.

It is because the Sabbath principle is a creation ordinance that we may properly urge its observance on all. This is the way that we should live because it reflects our Creator's prescriptive pattern for the bodily and spiritual integrity of humanity. Those who advocate a dominical understanding of the Lord's Day, particularly those who argue that it is an institution of the church, whether apostolic or subapostolic, are unable to adopt such an argument, for they have severed the vital connection between the Sabbath and the ,Lord's Day. It is not sufficient to urge the cause of Lord's Day observance simply on the grounds of respect for the substantial body of Christian opinion in our country whose custom it is to keep this day special. It must also be stated that the source of authority for requiring such a pattern of observance in our national life is the fact that this is how God has determined it should be from creation.

It is also to be noticed that the Sabbath as a creation ordinance permits us to endorse some of the "secular" arguments of those who urge the value of Sunday as a family day, and of its usefulness as a social institution. Such arguments can never constitute more than a part of the Christian position on the Lord's Day, but they are not to be totally dismissed. Insofar as they reflect the divine shaping of human activity inaugurated at creation they can be adopted and endorsed.

The moral law

Closely linked to the Sabbath as a creation ordinance is the matter of the observance of the Sabbath as part of the moral law. This relates to the fact that because man was created by God as a responsible moral being, there is a certain pattern of behaviour required by God of all mankind. This standard of duty is commonly called the moral law, and does not change because it is a reflection of the unchanging character of God himself.

Now we do not have a detailed account of how Adam in his innocence was informed by God of the requirements of the moral law, nor indeed is there any direct account given in the period before Sinai, though the elements of it were undoubtedly known and formed the basis of many of the patriarchal narratives in Genesis. Moses, however, presents the moral law at the time of the inauguration of the Sinaitic covenant by means of the Ten Commandments or the Decalogue of Exodus 20:1-17. It would confuse our thinking, however, simply to equate the decalogue with the moral law. The decalogue is an edition of the moral law, and as such may reflect the particular conditions prevailing at the time of its publication. This may for instance be seen in the reference in the fifth commandment "so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you."

From the structure of the Sinaitic covenant, however, it is clear that-the decalogue contains the fundamental requirements of the sovereign ruler of Israel. These are the basic stipulations of the God who has redeemed His people and now shows them the essential principles of behaviour that pleases Him. There are other more detailed stipulations that were also given, but these were not placed in the special category of being delivered by the voice of God upon Mount Sinai, and written by Him in two tables of stone. The decalogue is different. From the basic principles incorporated in it, we may come to a clear understanding of what God requires of mankind, since the moral behaviour He approves of does not essentially vary, reflecting as it does His own nature, and the nature of mankind He has created.

It is in this light that the significance of the Fourth Commandment has to be appreciated. One of the basic aspects of moral behaviour focuses on the time sequence of human activity. The fact that the Sabbath commandment is in the decalogue forbids us from treating the Sabbath principle as something merely ceremonial. It does not allow us to take it as outmoded and obsolete with the passing of the Sinaitic covenant. Although the form of expression of the decalogue arises out of the specific cultural environment of those originally addressed, the ten basic principles incorporated in the decalogue arise out of the moral perception of God himself and thus constitute an accurate and binding expression of the moral law.

It is thus the case that moral behaviour requires the consecration of one day to God as part of our continuing expression of worship and indebtedness to our Creator, and that this is the behaviour He requires from all.

Covenant sign

So far we have considered the Sabbath institution in terms of its being obligatory for all. But we must also notice that the Sabbath had a particular relationship with the people of God. It was not just one of the many shadows that were given to the Old Testament church as types of the reality to come in Christ. It was specifically called "a covenant sign."

Exodus 31:13

"Say to the Israelites, 'You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for generations to come, so that you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy.'"

Exodus 31:16, 17a

"The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites for ever ...."

What does it mean when we find the Sabbath talked of as a sign of the covenant?

As we examine Scripture, we find that when God graciously entered into a covenant, a treaty, with His people, He often associated particular signs with His covenants. This is an aspect of divine condescension to make things easy for us to understand, to remember, and to go on trusting in His covenant commitment.

In making the covenant with Noah after the flood, He said, "I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.... Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth" (Genesis 9: 13, 16). When the storm clouds loomed, and Noah and his descendants became afraid that another deluge would engulf the world, they would see the rainbow, and they would know that God's awareness of it guaranteed His covenant promise: "Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth" (Genesis 9:11).

Again, with the Abrahamic covenant, we find the covenant sign of circumcision, "You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant (Authorized Version: 'a token of the covenant') between me and you" (Genesis 17:11). It would be something that would act as a perpetual reminder of God's gracious covenant dealings with Abraham and his seed.

Later, at the Sinaitic covenant we find two signs - the Passover (Exodus 13:9) and the Sabbath.

These are the only four institutions that are called covenant signs in the Old Testament. The significance of this is that because the Sabbath is called a covenant sign, we are led to expect a New Testament parallel. God's history of salvation is not like a modern detective story with misleading clues, red herrings, false trails, dead ends. God has not revealed Himself deceptively in His covenant dealings with His people. All that He has ordained leads on to its consummation. This continuity runs throughout God's way of working in successive covenants. There is continuity even through the radical change of the coming of the new era with Christ. Ultimately that continuity is based on the fact that the successive historical covenants serve to further the one eternal purpose which God has in salvation.

Covenant continuity is seen particularly in covenant signs. The covenant with Noah still applies, and so the rainbow is still a covenant sign. But as we find the covenant sign of circumcision continued and yet changed into baptism (and you can be antipaedobaptist and still accept that), and as we find the Passover continued and yet changed into the Lord's Supper, so too we find the Sabbath continued and yet changed into the Lord's Day. There are institutions of the older covenants that find no parallel in the church now - sacrifices, a sacrificing priesthood, monarchy. This is not because God has dropped them as being in some way unsatisfactory, but rather because they have been consummated, being brought to perfection in Christ, and finding their ultimate reference in Him. However, the covenant signs remain. They are the same and yet different; they are different and yet the same. God in His condescension still speaks to our need through them.

The Sabbath has in part gone the way of the sacrifices of bulls and of goats. The details of the covenant sign in its old form, the typical aspects of the Mosaic legislation, have passed away. But the original creation ordinance remains, as does the moral principle embodied in the Fourth Commandment, and they have been taken up in a new form appropriate to the new age, the new creation, and the new covenant.

As a covenant sign, the Lord's Day provides the children of the new creation with an ever recurring reminder that though the new age has been inaugurated, perfection has not yet been arrived at. The new age in its fullness has not yet come to the church on earth, for it is not yet with its Lord, nor has He yet come the second time. In the time of waiting, the Lord's Day has been given as the opportunity to remember and acknowledge our Creator and our Re-Creator, and by that to strengthen faith as we eagerly await the time when our Lord comes again, and we shall no longer have to deal with the symbol, the covenant sign, but with the reality of the Sabbath rest that awaits the people of God. This is the core of the Christian's hope, and so the separation of the Lord's Day is an integral part of true Christianity and a divinely appointed means of strengthening and blessing Christian profession. The Lord of the Sabbath blesses richly with a foretaste of His eternal blessing those who observe His day.