3 Reasons Sunday Is Not the Sabbath

From Philippe de Champaigne's Moses with the Ten Commandments

Reposted from The Cripplegate.

Here are three reasons why I teach that Christians are not under the Sabbath law of the Old Testament, and that it is unwise to call Sunday “the Christian Sabbath.”

I am a dispensationalist

The Sabbath restrictions are found in the Old Testament and are part of the law given to Israel as they entered the Promised Land. The fourth commandment makes clear that the Sabbath law applies to anyone in Israel, regardless of their own personal convictions about the legitimacy of the Covenant. In other words, in OT Israel, just because a person didn’t believe in Yahweh, didn’t mean that they could break the Sabbath. It was a basic component of Israelite Law given to the members of the Old Covenant for their time in the Promised Land.

I have never been convinced that the Old Testament law can rightly be divided up into three categories—civil, ceremonial, and moral. I see benefits of that tri-fold scheme in that it is helpful to provoke the student to understand diverse reasons behind the giving of the law. But at the same time, those in the OT didn’t seem to operate with trifurcated law. For them, all law was moral, because it all revealed the moral character of their God. With that said, I’m not persuaded that some laws are transferred to the church age, while others are not. This muzzles the impact of the paradigm-shattering revelation that the Law was fulfilled in Christ. Thus the approach of “all OT laws are valid for the church unless specifically set aside” is just not a helpful approach to law, living, or the OT.

Finally, even if I did adopt a tripartite system to decide what laws to obey, I don’t think the Sabbath would survive “strict scrutiny,” as they say in American jurisprudence. One could just as reasonably argue that Sabbath keeping is part of the civil or ceremonial laws as they could that it is part of the moral law. After all, it is not confined to the fourth commandment. Additional restrictions are found throughout the law; the Sabbath and manna (16:23-29), the Sabbath and fire (Exodus 35:3), the Sabbath and sales (Nehemiah 13:15-22), and the Sabbath and the East Gate (Ezekiel 46:1-3), to name just a few examples.

Thus it is best to see OT law as given to Israel, designed to keep Israel’s purity and guard their identity—both morally and culturally. The Law functioned as a whole to keep watch over God’s people until the Savior would come at the right time in history. The law is helpful for Christians, but only if we use it lawfully (1 Tim 1:8), and in this instance placing Christians under the Sabbath restrictions would be an unlawful use of the law.

I have a calendar (and a Bible!)

The Sabbath in the OT law was Saturday, the seventh day of the week. This matches the created order, the fourth commandment, and the practice of OT Israel. There is no indication in the OT it was ever moved to Sunday.

That is obvious, and I’ve never met anyone who has argued otherwise. But the point is this: there is also zero NT evidence that the Sabbath was moved to Sunday. Every reference in the NT to Sabbath law or practice has the Sabbath on Saturday. This is true in the gospels, in Acts, in Colossians 2:16, and even by implication in Hebrews 4:9 (more on that in the next point). And yes, that is the sum total of Sabbath references in the NT. There is never an indication that the Apostles, elders, or deacons in the NT ever thought of Sunday as the Sabbath. There is no indication they ever transferred the concept of a day of rest to Sunday.

Sunday, for them, was The Lord’s Day (Rev 1:10). It became the day for worship, as over time the Christians were kicked out of the Sabbath-keeping synagogues. The earliest churches met on the first day of the week—Sunday—because that was the day the Lord rose from the grave (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:2, Luke 24:1, John 20:1, Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:2). In the descriptions of the church meeting Sunday, there is never a hint that the concept of Sabbath was moved to that day.

On the contrary, Colossians 2:16 refers to the Sabbath as a “shadow of the things to come.” So “let no one pass judgement on you” in questions of the Sabbath–hardly language that would make sense if Sunday was the Sabbath.

Moreover, the Jewish practice of Sabbath (both today, as well as in Jesus’ lifetime) is the the opposite of “let no one pass judgement.” Everything was regulated. Everything was judged. Everything was done with the goal of passing other’s judgement (Luke 14:3, 23:56, John 5:9-10, 16, 18, 7:22-23, 9:14-16, 19:31). This was not a system the early church transferred to Sunday. The idea that the Sabbath restrictions and all their controversies were transferred to Sunday, but without a single comment in the NT about it, is simply too far-fetched.

I have a greater rest—fulfilled in Christ

There is one main NT passage about a Christian’s relationship to the Sabbath—Hebrews 4:9-11:

So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.

Here the concept of Sabbath is used to point to the accomplishment of Christ. The promise of rest is future, the work of God that achieves it is past, and all that remains is for people to enter it in the present. But Paul points out that it is fundamentally different than the OT rest. There, the Sabbath rest was entered prophetically, and but one day a week, and even that was not the true Sabbath rest. Some, like Joshua, indeed did enter the real and ultimate Sabbath rest, even in the Old Covenant. It was not a rest they entered by means of law keeping, nor a rest they experienced only once a week. Instead, it was a rest they entered by means of faith in the future work of the savior. We too can enter that same rest, only we don’t look forward, as they did, but backward to the cross of Christ.

This is the concept sacrificed by describing Sunday as the Christian Sabbath. If Sunday becomes the NT version of the OT Sabbath, then it implies that believers today are still looking forward to a receiving a future rest.

Better to say that there is a Sabbath rest for the people of God, and it is not connected to a day of the week but rather to a Spirit in the heart. It is entered by ceasing to labor for salvation, ceasing to hold-up law keeping as ground for covenant identity, and instead resting in the finished work of Christ on the cross.

The same Christ who rose on Sunday.

Jesse Johnson bio


Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master’s Seminary Washington DC location.

93 reads
1057 reads

There are 4 Comments

Ed Vasicek's picture

Well argued. I think that many here at SI of the covenant bent agree more with the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith:

As it is the law of nature, that in general a proportion of time, by God's appointment, be set apart for the worship of God, so by his Word, in a positive moral, and perpetual commandment, binding all men, in all ages, he hath particularly appointed one day in seven for a sabbath to be kept holy unto him, which from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ was the last day of the week, and from the resurrection of Christ was changed into the first day of the week, which is called the Lord's day: and is to be continued to the end of the world as the Christian Sabbath, the observation of the last day of the week being abolished.

I too am a dispensationalist of sorts, so I find the above article compelling and convincing and the Baptist Confession wrong.  Yet I know many believe that the Sabbath was changed to Sunday.  Interested on your (brief) thoughts.

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Ron Bean's picture

In our hectic world where we can both work and play ourselves into exhaustion, I think a day of rest is a good thing. BTW, a Sunday schedule that includes an early morning men's prayer meeting, Sunday School, Choir warm-up, AM worship, afternoon nursing home service, choir practice, evening service, and a post service food oriented fellowship may not qualify as restful.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Andrew K's picture

This is the concept sacrificed by describing Sunday as the Christian Sabbath. If Sunday becomes the NT version of the OT Sabbath, then it implies that believers today are still looking forward to a receiving a future rest.

Better to say that there is a Sabbath rest for the people of God, and it is not connected to a day of the week but rather to a Spirit in the heart. It is entered by ceasing to labor for salvation, ceasing to hold-up law keeping as ground for covenant identity, and instead resting in the finished work of Christ on the cross.

I don't really consider myself knowledgeable enough in this area to put forth a strong defense of Sunday as the Christian Sabbath.

However, as an interesting counterpoint to the author here, I have read Covenant Theologians who make the argument that the above is precisely why the Christian Sabbath was changed to a Sunday: i.e. the Sabbath was placed at the end of the week for the Jews because it was something that they had to work their way toward. The rest was the promised reward for their labors. With Christians, however, this rest has been won already by Christ and is given to us by grace. Therefore, we begin the week with that rest and work our way from it. 

I'm not prepared to defend this position, just providing it as a different perspective. The best of CT thought also seems to portray the Sabbath rest as a time of joy and fellowship rather than a binding law with a list of restrictions. I think the continental Reformers typically got this better than the English.

pvawter's picture

I noticed that the author didn't mention the fact that the Sabbath was rooted in the 7th day of rest from creation in Genesis 2. His contention that the Sabbath was instituted in the law neglects to deal with the fact that even there in Exodus 20 the creation account is cited as justification for the principle of rest. I agree that Sunday is not the "Christian Sabbath," but I don't think the OT record can be so easily set aside. There seems to be some principle of the beneficial properties of a work-rest balance that runs through the whole of scripture, not simply one dispensation or another.

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.