The Doctrine of the Christian Sabbath
- The Origins of the Sabbath:
A common error with respect to the sabbath is the belief that it originated with the laws of Moses and therefore expired with passing of the Sinaitic Covenant and the Mosaic economy. This is a common error of many dispensationalists. Some have appealed to Paul’s statement to the Colossians that the sabbath has been annulled.
Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Colossians 2:16
However, Paul is referring to the many ceremonial sabbaths of the Jewish ecclesiastical calendar. He is not referring to the abiding institution of a weekly sabbath based on the creation order of six days labor and a seventh day of rest. He lumps these sabbaths together with all the other ceremonial requirements of the Mosaic economy, such as the dietary laws and the other peculiar holydays of the ceremonial law. Elsewhere, as we shall see, Paul clearly upholds the abiding institution of the weekly sabbath, the weekly sabbath that is commanded in the Ten Commandments as part of the moral law.
There is clear Biblical evidence that the sabbath both preceded the Mosaic economy and superceded it. The following texts demonstrate this.
And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD. Genesis 4:3
He phrase process of time can also be translated and literally means end of days. This has frequently been understood to refer to the last day of the week, the Old Testament Sabbath. This is the very first mention in the scriptures of worship being directed to God. And it seems that this worship was a regular occurrence on the last day of the week. Having been driven from the Garden of Eden and the communion with God that Adam and Eve enjoyed there, it seems that man could still approach God and have a measure of communion with God, but only through a blood sacrifice, typifying their faith in the coming Messiah, promised in Gen 3:15. It is widely believed that they may have brought their sacrifices to the entrance of the Garden guarded by the Cherubims with flaming swords (Genesis 3:24) and there they offered their sacrifices to God. Sacrifices are always brought to where God is. This is intimated by the language of the text which says they brought their sacrifices “unto the Lord”. Later the Israelites would bring their sacrifices to God at the tabernacle/temple where God dwelled with his people, the visible sign of his presence being the Shekinah glory. We bring our offerings to the Lord by going to his house and there giving our tithes and offerings. The sacrifices always are brought to where God has a special presence. So it seems that from the beginning the worshippers of God went to where he had a special presence on a special day, the weekly sabbath. This seems confirmed by the practice of Noah.
And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark; Genesis 8:10
And he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove; which returned not again unto him any more. Genesis 8:12
In these texts it is clear that Noah was operating on a seven day cycle, that we now term a week. Once a week he sent out a dove to determine if it was safe to leave the ark and return to living on the land. These events may have been accompanied by special appeals to God, prayers, and worship. They may well have taken place on the weekly sabbath when Noah would have approached God and pleaded for his blessing and deliverance from the waters. And finally this is also intimated from the context of the sabbath commandment as given to Moses.
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it. Exodus 20:8-11 If the Lord wanted man to follow his example of working for six days and then resting on a seventh, if God wanted man to rest from the toils of this life in a holy rest dedicated to his worship every seventh day, it seems very strange that this command would first have originated about 2500 years after the creation. All the other commandments, the prohibitions of murder, stealing, and adultery, the requirements to worship the true God and worship him according to his commandments and not according to our inventions (as in using idolatrous images.) etc. are all understood to have been in force from the beginning of the creation. No one believes that Adam was free to break these commands and Cain was certainly judged of God for breaking the sixth commandment and slaying his brother Abel. So it seems somewhat inconsistent to believe that the fourth commandment alone was not in force and God’s creation pattern of six days labor and one day of rest was not instituted until two and a half millennia after the creation. And this is reinforced by the restatement of this commandment in the second giving of the law by Moses. Keep the sabbath day to sanctify it, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee. Six days thou shalt labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou. And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the LORD thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day. Deuteronomy 5:12-15
In this commandment the sabbath requirement is restated, but the grounds for its observance has changed. The keeping of a sabbath day is no longer referenced to a commemoration of God’s creation rest on the seventh day of the creation week. Rather it is now referenced to a different historical event. It is now referenced to a different rest. For many years at the end of their sojourn in Egypt the Children of Israel were enslaved. They were subjected to unending labor by a tyrannical and oppressive Pharaoh. This slavery ended on the day of the exodus when they left Egypt. This day, the day of their exodus from Egypt was the first day of their rest from slavery. It is to commemorate this rest that Moses now tells the Israelites that they must keep a sabbath day. Secular historians and commentators agree that the Children of Israel left Egypt on Saturday, the seventh day Sabbath. That is they left Egypt on the Sabbath that had been in effect since the beginning of time. And since they clearly observed their weekly Sabbath on Saturday, the seventh day of the week, it confirms the other historical evidence that they left Egypt on a Saturday. Now from all this we can conclude a number of things. First this confirms that there must have been a patriarchal sabbath based on commemoration of God’s creation rest because if such a Sabbath rest had been instituted by God at Sinai after the exodus, it would be very strange if within a generation it was annulled and replaced by a Sabbath commemorating their rest from Egyptian slavery.
Secondly: This demonstrates that the Sabbath is a continuing institution based on the perpetual requirement of a pattern of a holy rest of one day in seven, but that the basis of this rest can be changed from time to time.
Thirdly: This opens for us the possibility of the basis of the sabbath changing again in God’s purposes at a future time (that is future to Moses). This includes the possibility of the sabbath changing to a different day of the week if it is to commemorate a rest that historically was initiated on a different day of the week. And what we see in the scriptures is that is exactly what did happen. Essentially we have the sabbath institution continuing from Adam through the end of the age, but going through three different phases. During the first phase of the sabbath it was observed to commemorate the fact that God created for six days and rested from his work on the seventh day. This created a perpetual obligation of a pattern of laboring for six days and then resting on a seventh. The sabbath fell on Saturday the seventh day of the week because it was on that day that God rested. During the second phase of the sabbath the pattern of working for six days and resting on the seventh continued, but it was now based on a commemoration of their rest from Egyptian slavery, and again it fell on a Saturday because on that day the Children of Israel left Egypt in the exodus. The final phase of the sabbath again continued the pattern of working for six days and then resting on a seventh. However it now commemorates our resting in the finished work of Christ. Salvation is not by works. Christ has done it all. He has cried out, “It is finished”. There is no more work to be done for accomplishing our salvation. (Note: It is interesting that the cult of Seventh Day Adventists that rejects the Christian Sabbath is essentially a religion of salvation by works especially as taught by their prophet, Ellen White.) As Paul stated in the epistle to the Hebrews… And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; From henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool. For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified. Hebrews 10:11-14 On the Christian Sabbath Christians rest by faith in the finished work of Christ. We commemorate the resurrection from the dead of the Lord Jesus Christ that sealed the Father’s acceptance of the atonement and completed the work of redemption. Christ rested from his work of redeeming his people and we join in that rest and rest by faith in his finished work. We have been delivered from all the ceremonies and rituals of the old dispensation and can rest from the unceasing labors of the Old Testament saints who under the Sinaitic Covenant had an unending burden of rituals to keep themselves ceremonially clean. We continue the same pattern of laboring six days and resting on a seventh but it is no longer on the seventh day of the week. Rather we rest on the first day of the week, the day that Christ arose from the dead. Hallelujah!!!
It is important to note that the institution of the sabbath has never changed. Continually we have had the pattern of working for six days and resting on the seventh. And here we have to carefully examine the sabbath commandments as given in both renditions of the law, the ten commandments. In both the Exodus and the Deuteronomy passages nothing is said about what day of the week the sabbath is to be observed on. It simply says that we are to labor for six days and rest on the seventh. It does not say we are to rest on “the seventh day of the week” but only that we are to rest on “the seventh day” after laboring for six. This is a point that many, including advocates of a Saturday sabbath are prone to overlook in their zeal. We have to determine from the context what day is required. For the first two phases of the sabbath this was clearly the seventh day of the week, or Saturday Sabbaths, as the rests that were being commemorated were initially observed on that particular day of the week. However, the command as given in the Decalogue does not require that! For the final phase of the sabbath as we shall see it is to be observed on the first day of the week, on Sunday, The Lord’s Day, the Christian Sabbath. This can be established by a series of arguments.
- The Example of our Lord Jesus Christ:
- The Example of the Holy Spirit:
- The Example of the Apostles:
- The Lord’s Day:
- The Christian Sabbath:
Christ himself always observed the Jewish sabbath before the resurrection. However, starting with the first resurrection Sunday, Christ was clearly following a pattern of observing a Sunday, or first day of the week sabbath. There are a total of thirteen post-resurrection appearances by our Lord. Of these there are only seven that we are clearly told what day of the week that they occurred on. And all of these seven took place on the first day of the week, the Christian Sabbath. On four of these occasions Christ met with all the Apostles gathered together (excepting Thomas once and of course Judas). These were gathering of the disciples, probably for prayer and worship, and at least two of these were on the first day of the week. The third one was on a mountain in Galilee and the fourth one was at the ascension. We do not know on what day of the week the third one was but the fourth one was not likely on a Sunday. We are told by Luke in Acts that Christ showed himself to his disciples for forty days. Forty days after the first resurrection appearance on the first resurrection Sunday to the last appearance at the ascension would not be on another Sunday. However it is clear that the disciples did gather on Sundays and that Christ frequently honored that practice by his presence. Again it is important to note that the only days that are specifically identified are all Sundays and only one of these appearances can be ruled out as being on a Sunday, and that is based on a calculation based on an interpretation of Luke’s remark about 40 days of post-resurrection appearances. The final appearance of the risen Christ was to the Apostle John in exile on the island of Patmos. This visit too, as we shall see was on the Lord’s Day, the Christian sabbath. This creates a strong presumption that Christ was setting a precedent of meeting with his disciples on the Christian Sabbath, the first day of the week. John’s description of such an appearance is instructive. Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. John 20:19 It clearly shows the disciples meeting on the first day of the week and Christ honoring that practice and blessing them.
The disciples were commanded to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit to come and empower the church to carry out the great commission. This occurred on the day of Pentecost. Now Pentecost has to be on the first day of the week. According to Moses (Leviticus 23:15-21) it is held the day after the seventh sabbath after the sabbath of the wave offering. The day after a Jewish sabbath is of course Sunday, the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day. The disciples were all gathered together at the time. This again indicates that they gathered as a church, as a congregation, on the Lord’s Day. The Holy Spirit fell on them on the Lord’s Day. The Holy Spirit empowered the church on the Lord’s Day. The gospel was preached on that Lord’s Day and on that Lord’s Day three thousand persons were baptized. It is hard to conceive a stronger testimony in favor of the Lord’s Day being the Christian Sabbath. The church gathers, receives a powerful and dramatic visitation of the Spirit, proclaims the gospel, and administers the sacraments. The testimony of the Holy Spirit seems clearly to be in favor of the Lord’s Day as the day that the Lord’s people meet for worship and blessing.
The Apostles clearly set an example of using the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week as the Christian sabbath. We have already seen that from the beginning of the post-resurrection period they met on the first day of the week, with both Christ and the Holy Spirit honoring that practice and blessing them on those days. Paul’s example and instructions are also very clear on this point. And we sailed away from Philippi after the days of unleavened bread, and came unto them to Troas in five days; where we abode seven days. And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight. Acts 20:6-7
We see that he spent seven days in Troas, but it is on the first day of the week that the disciples gather as a church and break bread (i.e. observe the Lord’s Supper). And it is on that day when they are congregated as a church that Paul preaches to them. It is true that Paul frequently went to the synagogue on Saturday the Jewish Sabbath and preached there. However, that has to be regarded as an exercise in evangelism. Those who accepted Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah, that is the Christians, always meet on the first day of the week. There is not a single testimony in the scriptures that the Christians ever met as a church on any other day than the first day of the week, the Christian sabbath. And Paul so instructs all the churches under his care.
Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours: 1 Corinthians 1:2
He addresses this letter not only to the Corinthians, but to “all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ”. And in this letter he clearly commands that all the Christians are to gather on the first day of the week and bring their tithes to the church.
Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye. Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come. 1 Corinthians 16:1-2
From Peter and the Apostles in Jerusalem, to Paul the great Apostle to the Gentiles, the practice of meeting as a Christian Church on the first day of the week is clearly established.
We call the Christian Sabbath the Lord’s Day. Where does that term come from? It comes from the final post-resurrection appearance of Christ to the Apostle John. I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ. I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet. Revelation 1:9-10 And what is the Lord’s Day? What does the term mean? And what day of the week does it fall on? There seems to be a prophecy of this day in the Old Testament in the Book of Psalms.
The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner. This is the LORD’S doing; it is marvellous in our eyes. This is the day which the LORD hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it. Psalm 118:22-24
The Lord’s Day is the day that the LORD hath made. The Apostle Peter, responding to the opposition of the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead quotes this passage. Being grieved that they taught the people, and preached through Jesus the resurrection from the dead…Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole. This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner. Acts 4:2,10-11
Peter reaffirms the resurrection of Christ and relates it to the passage that speaks of the day which the LORD hath made. From this it would appear that the Lord’s Day, the day which the LORD hath made, is the day that Christ arose from the dead. And that day we know was the first day of the week. This is confirmed by the context of the passage in Revelation where John speaks of the Lord’s Day. John does not identify the Lord’s Day but assumes that it is a term well known and understood by his readers. John is in the Spirit, suggesting that he was engaged in worship and spiritual exercises that we frequently connect with the sabbath. In the context of his reference to the Lord’s Day he twice refers to the risen Christ. And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood. Revelation 1:5 I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death. Revelation 1:18
The connection of the Lord’s Day with the resurrected Christ seems to be emphasized by John in this passage. This strengthens the argument that the Lord’s Day is the day that the Lord arose from the dead and triumphed over sin and death and hell. In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul calls the New Testament sacrament that replaced the Passover the Lord’s Supper. All this seems to point to the truth that the Lord’s Day is the day that one’s observes the Lord’s Supper, the day that Christ arose from the dead. And we know from other passages that the Christians met on the first day of the week for worship and to break bread (i.e. observe the Lord’s Supper). All this leaves us with the conviction that the Lord’s Day is the first day of the week. All the clues point that way and it is hard to think of any alternate definition of the Lord’s Day that would have been clear to John’s readers.
There is a very interesting verse that starts the accounts of our Lord’s resurrection. It occurs in Matthews gospel with similar statements by Mark and Luke. In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre. Matthew 28:1
In the Greek this reads somewhat differently than in most English translations. The word sabbath occurs twice and is in the plural both times. The word day is in italics because it does exist in the Greek text and was added by the translators to attempt to clarify their translation of this passage. And the second time the word sabbaths is employed they translate it as week. Although there is precedent in the Greek language for translating sabbaths in the plural as a week (i.e. from sabbath to sabbath equals one week) there is a far more definite Greek word that is generally used to refer to a week. Literally this passage reads: At the end of the sabbaths, as it began to dawn towards the first of the sabbaths, came …
As many commentators have pointed out and as some modern translations have even translated this, this can be understood to mean: At the end of the Jewish sabbaths, as it began to dawn towards of the first of the Christian sabbaths…
This, as it is almost needless to note, is powerful textual support for the notion that there is a distinct Christian sabbath separate from a Jewish sabbath that has passed away. The text literally implies that the Jewish sabbaths have ended and another kind of sabbath has commenced. And from the context of all three occurrences of this expression we know that first Christian sabbath was on the first day of the week, the day that Christ arose from the dead!!!
Much more can obviously be said on this subject. Whole books, not just tracts, articles, and booklets are devoted to this subject. The purpose of this article was not to provide an exhaustive defence of the Christian Sabbath, but simply to show that there is substantial scriptural support for that institution, and to demonstrate the bankruptcy of many of the foolish arguments that are set forth in defence of perpetuating the Jewish Sabbath. As I trust that those limited purposes have been fulfilled by the above statements I will conclude this paper by exhorting the reader to study this further at his or her leisure. And mostly I exhort the readers to diligently observe the Lord’s Day, to commemorate his resurrection, and to rest in his finished work by faith, trusting in him for that salvation he has accomplished by his life, death, and resurrection from the dead. Amen!