Remember the Sabbath Day

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (Exodus 20:8-11).

Controversy has always surrounded the issue of Sabbath observance. There are two main issues that have been the subject of contention: Which day should be observed as the Sabbath day and how should believers under the New Covenant keep the Sabbath holy. This article seeks to look beyond these two issues to what the essence of the Sabbath means for believers in Christ.

From ancient days the Hebrew people maintained a system of counting the days in cycles of seven, and resting on the seventh day, reflecting the biblical account of creation in Genesis. The seven day week has been adopted in most cultures today.

However, the evidence from church history is that the believers in Jesus Christ, from an early stage, began gathering on the first day of the week in contradistinction to the rest of the Jewish community who gathered in the synagogues on the Sabbath, (the seventh day), for worship, and this became the custom of the church. Luke recorded that: On the first day of the week we came together to break bread (Acts 20:7). Paul gave instructions to the believers at Corinth that on the first day of the week they should set aside a collection for the needs of the church: On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made (1 Corinthians 16:2).

The apostle John referred to this unique day of worship on the first day of the week as “the Lord’s Day”. Though some dispute this, history bears testimony to the fact that the largest part of the church of Jesus Christ, from its earliest inception, came to regard the first day of the week as the Lord’s Day, representing a new day on which to gather for worship.

Some have suggested that it was the Pope, as leader of the Roman Catholic Church, who decreed that the first day of the week should be observed as the “Christian Sabbath” hundreds of years after the founding of the church of Jesus Christ. However, there is strong evidence that the first day of the week, was referred to as “the Lord’s Day” long before the apostasy of the Roman Catholic Church. Eusebius, the “father of church history,” A.D. 324 constantly used the term “Lord’s Day” for the first day of the week. In one reference he used the term in contrast to the traditional Jewish Sabbath. In reference to a particular group of Jewish Christians he wrote; “They also observe the Sabbath, and other disciplines of the Jews, just like them; but, on the other hand, they also celebrate the Lord’s Day very much like us in commemoration of his resurrection”. Further evidence that the Jewish Christians also gathered for worship on the first day of the week is found in the Talmud where it is evident that the Rabbis took a stand against the Christian Jews by forbidding traditional Jews from any form of worship on the first day of the week: For R. Tahlipha bar Abdimi said that Shenuel said: “The Nazarene day, according to the words of R. Ishmael, is forbidden for ever.”

The resurrection took place on the first day of the week. The Holy Spirit was poured out on the believers on the day of Pentecost fifty days after Jesus had ascended into heaven, which also fell on the first day of the week. After the first creation, which took place over six days, the LORD rested on the seventh day. Likewise, when Jesus arose from the dead as the firstfruits of the new creation, it represented a new day, sometimes even referred to asthe eighth day which is symbolic of the eternal rest for the redeemed who belong to the new creation (see 1 Corinthians 15:23). Could it be that part of the rationale for gathering on the first day was that the believing remnant of Israel, together with the foreigners who have been grafted into the holy people, have entered a new cycle, a new day as it were, through which we rest from our own works of trying to attain righteousness by the Law, having entered the perfect rest in Christ?

What about the Ten Commandments?

The argument of Sabbatarians is bolstered by the fact that the command to keep the Sabbath day holy is one of the Ten Commandments. While most Christian theologians agree that the new covenant church of Jesus Christ is not bound by the Law of Moses in its entirety, they often insist that the church is still bound by the Ten Commandments. This idea is propounded not only by many Protestants, but specifically by “Seventh Day Adventists”, the assumption being that no one would suggest that the Ten Commandments are no longer binding upon Christians, hence making the debate over the fourth commandment. The ensuing debate has been over whether the “Lord’s Day”, the first day of the week, has replaced the Jewish Sabbath. Controversy also exists over the manner in which it is to be kept holy, which brings us back to similar issues that the Rabbis had addressed by establishing rule upon rule (a hedge around the Law) to keep the people from desecrating the Sabbath.

The fact that the command to keep the Sabbath holy belongs in the Decalogue raises further issues as to whether Christians are still under the Law of Moses, since the Ten Commandments represent the core of the Law of Moses. This has given rise to the notion that the Law is divided into two parts, namely moral law – which still applies – and ceremonial Law – which is obsolete.

However, the Law of Moses states that nothing may be added and nothing may be taken away from it (Dt. 12:32). Thus dissecting the Law into two parts and discarding one part is prohibited by the Law itself. Those who suggest that the Law is divided into two parts generally categorise the sacrifices as ‘ceremonial law’, but it would have been just as serious a transgression for a person to desecrate the Temple or despise the sacrifices as it would have been to desecrate the Sabbath day. Yet the keeping of the Sabbath day is assigned to the moral law while the sacrifices are consigned to ceremonial law.

If the Law of Moses cannot be amended the issue of the Sabbath cannot simply be addressed by making a distinction between ceremonial and moral law and setting aside so-called ceremonial law. There is no indication that Jesus, Paul or the other apostles made any such distinction. The distinction must rather be made between the Old Covenant and New Covenant and the Sabbath question resolved from this perspective. In fact Paul taught that those who insisted on circumcision as the obligatory mark of membership of the covenant people are obligated to observe the whole law (Galatians 5:3), and the apostle James taught that whoever keeps the whole law and stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it (James 2:10). The Law of Moses is, according to its own terms, indivisible. Both the Sabbath and the sacrifices are inseparable parts of that whole law.

Paul did, however, make a distinction between the external written Law of Moses and the Law of Christ which is written upon our hearts (see 2 Corinthians 3:3), something which Christians often confuse. Some have suggested that that they are essentially the same and that the new covenant is simply a renewal of the Sinai covenant. However, the very passage in which the promise of a new covenant is given states plainly that it will not be like the covenant he made when he led them out of Egypt (Jeremiah 31:31). Furthermore, the writer to the Hebrews taught that the Sinai covenant was put in place until the Lord would make the new and better covenant, after which it would become obsolete and disappear and that a change of the priesthood must of necessity bring a change of the law (see Hebrews 7:11-15; 8:13; 9:10).

Thus, the making of the new covenant effected a change of the Law. The law that is written upon the hearts of believers, the “Law of Christ”, is not one and the same as the external law that was written upon tablets of stone or in the Book of the Law given to Moses:

To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law (1 Corinthians 9:20-21).

If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the law was given to the people), why was there still need for another priest to come – one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law . . .The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God (Heb 7:11-19).

Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman . . . But what does the Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” (Gal. 4:21-30).

Laws are made for the benefit of society, to restrain or prohibit anti-social behaviour while enforcing that which is deemed socially beneficial. A lawless community would result in anarchy. Laws are enforced by the threat of punishment. However, there is no law that has the power to change the attitude of those who are rebellious and show contempt towards God. Paul taught that as good, perfect and spiritual the Law of Moses was, it was nevertheless powerless to change the sinful inclination of mankind. The Law condemns every single person as a sinner and lawbreaker, whether by a long or short margin. Moses deliberately set a precedent by giving the instruction that the man who desecrated the Sabbath day was to be put to death. So too, every sinner is deserving of the death sentence for transgressing God’s law. No flesh will be justified by observing the Law. The law was put in place to show us that we are sinful by nature and deserving of the penalty of death for the wages of sin is death. Only Christ is able to change our sinful nature by circumcising our heart.

Freedom in Christ

The only way that we are set free from the Law and from the condemnation of the law is through death and that is how we enter God’s perfect rest in Christ. Those who are baptized into Jesus Christ are baptized into his death and are raised to new life by the power of the Spirit. They have died to the Law and are no longer under the supervision of the Law – including the Ten Commandments! A true Christian does not need the Ten Commandments to govern their behaviour – it is the Spirit who governs their behaviour. IF they have been raised to new life and are led by the Holy Spirit they will no longer be inclined to lie, steal, blaspheme God or hate, let alone murder their fellow human beings. However they cannot pretend to be led by the Holy Spirit if they continue to gratify the sinful nature. In that case we are turning God’s grace into a license for immorality and God cannot be mocked. The freedom in Christ is a freedom that comes through death. We are only free from the Law if we have “died with Christ” and been raised to new life by the power of His Spirit, which will be evident by a crucified life. We cannot circumvent the penalty of sin by avoiding the cross. Those whose faith is genuine and who have died to the Law have also died to sin. Sin is transgression of the Law.

So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God. For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code (Romans 7:4-6).

It is only lawbreakers who need a law and the purpose of the Law is not to make them righteous, but to demonstrate to them that they are indeed sinners who are deserving of condemnation, being held as prisoners on death row under the supervision of a strict external law.

Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it (the old covenant Law of Moses) produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful(Romans 7:13).

Paul taught that the Law is for unbelievers and is designed to convict them and condemn them as sinners who have not yet been reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ.

We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers –  and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me (1 Timothy 1:8-11).

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law (Galatians 5:18).

Clearly no-one argues about whether the Law that is written on our hearts by the Spirit allows us the freedom to commit murder or adultery. The acts of the sinful nature are indeed obvious. However, there is less unanimity when it comes to the question of whether Christians are bound to observe a Sabbath day (regardless of whether it is Saturday, the seventh day, or Sunday, the first day of the week) and what that observance entails. What to some would be considered as desecrating the Sabbath is clearly not obvious to many others. No-one can claim unequivocally that the Spirit leads every believer to observe the Sabbath in the same way.

“Seventh Day Adventists” condemn all other Christians on the grounds that they do not keep the fourth commandment by remembering and keeping the seventh day holy. However, the apostle Paul wrote:

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled 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 (Colossians 2:13-17).

In practical terms we recognise the necessity of work – if a man will not work, he shall not eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10) – and of a day to rest and to gather for worship – Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing (Hebrews 10:25). However, when we make Sabbath observance a stick with which to beat our co-religionists we have forgotten that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:27).

If believers are moved by the Spirit to gather on the first day of the week for corporate worship because their hearts have been changed and they are filled with love for God, should they be judged by an external written law pertaining to the keeping of a Sabbath day? The fact that millions of sincere and devout Christians have gathered for worship on the first day of the week for many centuries, without any conviction of sin from the Holy Spirit, testifies to the fact that the law that is written upon the hearts of believers is not identical to the Law of Moses. Those who insist that Christians ought to observe the seventh day and not the first day as holy, imply that the new covenant law that is written upon the hearts of believers is ineffectual because it seems to be contrary to the Law that was “written in stone”. But no-one will be justified upon legal grounds of observing a Sabbath day. Those who have entered their rest in Christ are set free from external rules and regulations for they are governed by the superior law written upon their heart by the Holy Spirit.

Those who are caught up in the controversy over the Sabbath day and whether or not the Ten Commandments are still binding for Christians demonstrate that they have little confidence in the efficacy of the law of God which is written upon the tablets of human hearts by the Spirit, preferring to be under the supervision of the “hard-and-fast” written Law. Those who feel the need to impose external laws, even the Ten Commandments, unwittingly, undermine the new covenant.

Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law (Galatians 3:25).

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery (i.e. to the letter of the law) (Galatians 5:1).

Without doubt there has also been apostasy and abuse of the freedom in Christ, but the remedy for lawlessness and unfaithfulness is not the Law of Moses for it will always remain powerless to transform sinners into saints. While the Law brings the knowledge of sin it is the Holy Spirit who convicts the world of sin because they do not believe in Christ. The Spirit alone is able to transform human hearts and to write his law upon the hearts of those who believe. We need to contend for the true faith of the new covenant – which is the good news of God’s grace and mercy and his willingness to give the Spirit to those who believe.

Many who have identified lawlessness within the church are attempting to remedy the problem through a renewed zeal for the Law of Moses often couched in terms such as “a return to Jewish roots”. However, they fail to understand that the new covenant is not a return to the Law of Moses, which our forefathers were unable to keep, but a life of obedience to the Law of Christ that is written upon our hearts. Their zeal to apply the Law of Moses indicates a misunderstanding of both the purpose of the Law and of the gospel. It signifies that though they may religiously observe a Sabbath day of rest they have not yet entered God’s rest and rested from their own works. The eagerness to return to the so-called “Jewish roots” presents a danger of returning to the ancient condition of the Jews in which the people remained slaves of sin and under the curses of the Law.

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes (Romans 10:1-3).

Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness (Romans 4:4-5).

Immediately after Jesus called his disciples to enter his rest, the Pharisees raised contention over what was legally permissible or prohibited on the Sabbath day:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light”. At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath” (Matthew 11:28-12:2).

Although we may have the opportunity to rest from our work on every seventh day, we only find perfect, lasting rest from the seemingly unending cycle of weeks (sevens) when we die to our old life and find our rest in Christ. Entering the temporary rest at the end of the weekly cycle on the seventh day (Jewish or old covenant) Sabbath, was only a shadow of the lasting rest which the LORD intended for us to enter when we become a new creation in Christ. We indeed remember the true essence and meaning of the Sabbath and keep it holy, when we rest from our own works, including that of trying to attain righteousness through the works of the Law. There is no greater desecration of the Sabbath than that of despising the Lord of the Sabbath and the One in whom we may find true rest for our souls – the Lord Jesus Christ.

The eighth day is symbolic of the end of the continual, unending cycle of sevens and symbolically represents the resurrection, freedom from the curse of toiling by the sweat of our brow and the celebration of the new creation through Christ our Redeemer. Through faith in Christ we enter God’s new day of eternal rest as we await the new heaven and the new earth, the home of righteousness.

Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith. Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said, “So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.'” And yet his work has been finished since the creation of the world. For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: “And on the seventh day God rested from all his work.” And again in the passage above he says, “They shall never enter my rest.” It still remains that some will enter that rest, and those who formerly had the gospel preached to them did not go in, because of their disobedience. Therefore God again set a certain day, calling it Today, when a long time later he spoke through David, as was said before: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts”. For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. 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 4:1-11).