How are we to understand the sabbath?
There is plenty of discussion and debate on the matter of how the Christian should understand the sabbath. Is it a requirement for New Testament believers, and if so, is it to be on Saturday, or Sunday, or when? Millions of words have already been penned on this rather contentious issue. It is not my intent here to in any way try to resolve the issue – at least to everyone’s satisfaction.
Instead I will make a few general points, mention some biblical passages, and use a recent social media debate as a springboard for thinking through these issues in a bit more detail. Let me begin with the online discussion I was involved in not too long ago. It might be of some use to others in this regard.
It started when I posted something on the Australian freedom fighter Graham Hood. I had mentioned that he was a Seventh-day Adventist. Various folks chimed in as to how orthodox or cultic this group might be. I later recorded my initial views in an article: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/02/17/lets-just-love-jesus/
So this is in fact the second full article I have penned on what resulted from my original social media post. Plenty of debate did ensue there. Obviously another big discussion that erupted had to do with what we are to make of the sabbath. Are groups like the SDA right to insist that a Saturday sabbath is a binding obligation for all Christians?
That discussion which I will now share here is useful for a few reasons. One, it shows that Christians can differ on biblical/ theological matters yet still engage in amicable discussions. Two, it helps to point out some of the matters of contention that exist on this issue.
I trust that the two others who joined me in that debate will not mind if I share what they had to say. One person who seemed to be inclined to a Saturday sabbath we will call ‘A’. The other fellow who leaned toward a Sunday sabbath we will call ‘B’. And I will be called ‘Me’! Here then is what we said:
B: I have followed Graham Hood for a few months now and have no doubt by the way he presents that he has a genuine love for Jesus in the orthodox sense. He has not pushed any SDA specific doctrines beyond saying that it is his practice to keep the Sabbath (Saturday). He displays his Christian beliefs very openly and I commend him for that.
There are other groups who hold to Sabbath worship. Such groups as the Seventh day Baptists of which I know next to zero.
I would suggest our Prime Minister who presents himself as a Christian but many of his actions are at variance with that, as such, in my view, there is more reason to focus negatively on him.
If the Sabbath is cause for criticism or division then there are many other matters we could focus on to the detriment of the reputation of the true followers of Jesus. Things such as views on creation, mode of baptism, and the like.
A: Just out of interest, what is wrong with meeting on the sabbath? Why do some religions meet on Sunday?
B: Nothing wrong at all. The problem is if meeting on a particular day (any day) of the week becomes a legal obligation.
A: Yes certainly, the new testament church met daily, but there is a commandment to rest on/keep the sabbath is there not?
Me: And that still happens – the early church followed resurrection Sunday.
B: I don’t know of a command in the New Testament to keep the Sabbath. Before Moses and the exodus from Egypt there was no such command. The reference I cite is the verse I have quoted below where a straight reading shows me that it is not important which day you observe as a day of rest but it is wise to have one. SDAs have a different view of this verse but in my view it is missing the point. Christian ministers do it all the time because Sunday is a busy day for them.
Romans 14:5 & 6 “One person considers one day to be above another day. Someone else considers every day to be the same. Each one must be fully convinced in his own mind. Whoever observes the day, observes it for the honor of the Lord.”
A: So the God of the old testament changed in the new testament??
B: I sense you may be coming from a particular agenda. There are some laws and principals which are universal from the time of Adam until now. There are others, particularly ceremonial, which were specifically given to the nation of Israel. Sometimes it is hard to make a clear distinction.
When you read the Old Testament there is a mixture of God’s judgement and his mercy. The New Testament is the same, particularly when you read the teachings of Jesus where his call is to total allegiance and obedience to God otherwise the prospect is judgement. It is the same God in both testaments although the New focuses more on Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old.
Hope that helps.
Me: A, this is a short response to a much larger discussion. Of course God has not changed, but some things from the OT to the NT most certainly have changed. Anyone who is not getting circumcised today, offering sacrifices in the temple today, not stoning adulterers today knows that. There is clearly continuity as well as discontinuity between the Testaments as any thinking Christian understands. But there is disagreement as to just what carries over and what does not.
As to the NT view on the Sabbath, three key scriptures must be considered. Jesus of course said the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath. That is key. And two strong texts by Paul really offer the last word on this debate: Romans 14:1-23 and Colossians 2:16-23. Both speak of how believers may differ on how they regard certain days and sabbaths, but the key point Paul makes is that we should NOT judge one another on these matters. So if you wanna have a Saturday day off to worship the Lord, fine. Or if you prefer Sunday, fine again. The most important thing here is NOT to judge and condemn other Christians and bind them under a new legalism – the very thing Paul so strongly warns against in books like Galatians.
A: totally agree Bill, just a bit confused as to why one of the ten commandments is just so often, easily overlooked? If God has a preference shouldn’t we out of love try to please Him?
Me: If there is less emphasis on the 4th Commandment today by many Christians it is for the simple reason (as B mentioned above) that the NT itself seems to give it less emphasis. We are simply trying to be biblical here. As I say, it is a huge debate, but those of us not ferociously pushing a Saturday or a Sunday (or any other day) are doing so not because we are heathen scum, but because we are trying to read and interpret carefully what the NT is saying on these matters!
A: Less emphasis is an interesting way of putting a general complete ignoring of the issue, I get where you’re coming from and aware that this post wasn’t about this issue but it is an issue that I’m trying to deal with at the moment, along with a church that is prepared to stop people fellowshiping together. At what point do we need to be accountable for our decisions within a religious organisation?
Me: Allowing Christian freedom on this matter is not a “complete ignoring” of it. I am not aware of a single Christian who does not normally set aside, one way or another, a day a week to worship the Lord. So I am not aware of it being ignored in that sense.
BUT, in the second part of your comment you seem to bring up an altogether DIFFERENT issue, namely churches not meeting because of Rona fears and state dictates. If that is what you are now referring to, I completely agree with you and have said so dozens of times now: we SHOULD be meeting, and we should not let secular left states shut down our churches. We have cowards in the pulpits in this regard. So if that is your main beef, I am entirely with you. But as I say, that is quite a different matter than which day of the week we should meet on.
And that is where this thread came to an end. As I say, this short debate may help others to see some of the issues involved, and to discover that it is part of a much larger set of discussions, eg.: how Christians are to understand the OT law; if we are under the OT law today; if so, which parts; etc. These are huge discussions that have been debated for many centuries now.
Concerning the issue of when, where and why Christianity went with Sunday worship, there is much that can be said. Several verses on this can be mentioned. One is Acts 20:7: “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.”
Another is 1 Corinthians 16:2: “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.” So we see that somewhat early on in the life of the church, Sunday had become a special day for believers.
But the discussion is still quite deep and nuanced and will not be resolved here. The point that I made, and that B made, seems to me to be crucial in all this: Paul made it crystal clear that whatever days you consider to be important, we must not judge others on this.
It is a matter of individual conscience. When we try to turn this into a new legalism and judge others who dare to differ, we risk the wrath of Paul (and God) who said that those trying to impose a new bondage on us are not only foolish, but under curse for their works-based righteousness (see Galatians 3:1-14).
In the discussion above B already quoted some key verses from Romans 14. Another key verse from that chapter that we must obey is Rom. 14:10: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.”
And here are some key verses from the Col. 2 passage: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col. 2:16-17).
That for me is the really important heart of the matter. These are areas in which believers can be free to differ. When we judge and condemn others over this we are in fact sinning. When we turn beliefs about this into a matter of theological orthodoxy versus heresy we have lost the plot. And when we seek to enslave others in a new legalistic bondage, we are denying the Christian gospel of God’s saving grace.
Should one day a week be set aside to honour and worship the Lord? Yes. Must it be only one particular day? No. Christians can and do disagree on such matters. We can either still love and accept one another with these different understandings, or we can hate on each other and accuse one another of being heretics. That response is up to you.
For further reading
Entire libraries exist on these and related matters. Here I simply want to recommend just 3 books and 4 articles that can be quite helpful on these issues. They are:
Carson, D. A., ed., From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical and Theological Investigation. Zondervan, 1982.
Donato, Christopher John, ed., Perspectives on the Sabbath: Four Views. B&H, 2011.
Gonzalez, Justo, A Brief History of Sunday: From the New Testament to the New Creation. Eerdmans, 2017.