The Seventh Day: Christians and the Sabbath
By Chuck Missler
“And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.” – Genesis 2:3
“Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” – Exodus 20:8
Many Christians still remain uncomfortable over the issue of the Sabbath day. Observing Sunday as a memorial of the resurrection of our Lord is our traditional day of worship, and yet many are disturbed over this issue.
(Anyone who thinks this is a simple issue to resolve hasn’t studied it very carefully!)
A number of key questions still remain unresolved for some:
– Did God institute the Sabbath just for Israel?
– Is a Christian supposed to keep the Ten Commandments?
– Does a Christian have to keep the Sabbath?
– When did Sunday replace Saturday as “the holy day”?
First, how many of each animal did Noah take into the ark? Often overlooked is the fact that Noah was to take seven of the “clean” and only two of the “unclean.” But how did Noah know which were “clean” and which were “unclean?” These are ecclesiastical definitions.
It seems that many concepts which were later codified in the Law under Moses had previously been ordained in Eden.
(Notice, too, that Noah was not circumcised and still was able to observe these “Levitical” distinctions. Abraham, too, was declared righteous prior to his circumcision in Genesis 15:6; circumcision was established in Genesis 17:10ff. Note also that the priestly instructions linked these concepts with the Sabbath.)
The Origin of the Sabbath
Jesus emphasized that:
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” – Mark 2:27
His words point back before the Ten Commandments, to the original purpose and will of God. The Sabbath came into being when man came into being. It was set apart and blessed-as a divine example-for the use and benefit of man, at the Creation (Genesis 2:1-3).
The first mention of the “Sabbath” (from the Hebrew verb shabbat , meaning “to rest from labor”; the day of rest) is in Exodus 16:23, regarding the gathering of manna:
“And he said unto them, This is that which the LORD hath said, Tomorrow is the rest of the holy Sabbath unto the LORD: bake that which ye will bake today, and seethe that ye will seethe; and that which remaineth over lay up for you to be kept until the morning.” – Exodus 16:23
Notice that this is four chapters before the Law was given at Mt. Sinai. They were to gather twice as much on the sixth day in anticipation of a day they were apparently already observing.
It is clear that the Sabbath had been instituted long before the giving of the Law at Sinai: it was ordained in Eden.
And, of course, the Sabbath was included in the Ten Commandments: Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
That the Sabbath had been ordained prior to Sinai is even accounted for in the very wording of Exodus 20:8: “Remember…”
The Sabbath was part of the covenant which God made with Israel at Sinai.
Applicable to All People?
This ordination of the Seventh Day acknowledges the moral duty of man to worship his Creator. It also recognizes the basic need of man for a weekly day of rest.
The physical necessities of man require a Sabbath of rest. He is so constituted that his bodily welfare needs at least one day in seven for rest from ordinary labor.
The failure to set aside the seventh day may account for the toll of stress in our modern society. (It has been reported that an 8% increase/decrease in traffic accidents surround the changes to/from “daylight savings time.”)
God even established Himself as the ultimate example. How can we ignore this day? If you love God, you need to spend time with Him. (In contrast to our hectic pace as double-income families, etc.)
In Mosaic Legislation
Under the Mosaic law, strict regulations were laid down regarding its observance. These were peculiar to that dispensation.
In the subsequent history of the Jews, frequent references are made to the sanctity of the Sabbath. The kindling of a fire on the Sabbath was forbidden. The penalty for profaning the Sabbath by doing any work on it was death. And yet, the priests still carried on their duties about the Tabernacle. The Temple was full of activities. The rite of circumcision was performed on the Sabbath if it was the eighth day after the child’s birth.
In later times they perverted the Sabbath by their traditions. Isaiah condemned the hypocrisy of the worshipers in his day. He defined true Sabbath-keeping as turning from one’s own ways and own pleasures and taking delight in the Lord.
Other prophets also raised their protests against the abuse of the Sabbath. They regarded the destruction of Jerusalem and the captivity of the Jews as due-at least in part-to their desecration of the Sabbath. Their 70-year exile in Babylon was directly linked to the Sabbath instructions. God clearly takes His instructions for the Sabbath, and Sabbatical years, seriously.
You can’t legislate devotion. Even today, in Israel’s secular state, a visitor is confronted with Sabbath elevators (stopping at every floor during the Sabbath); and other travel inconveniences quite removed from the real intent of the Sabbath observance.
The New Testament Period
As time passed, the true meaning of the Sabbath had been obscured by the multitude of restrictions laid upon its observance; it had become largely external and formal. And, of course, as the rules surrounding the observance of the Sabbath multiplied, so did the fanciful and far-fetched rituals to circumvent them.
It was Jesus’ custom to attend the synagogue on the Sabbath. It was inevitable that Jesus would come into conflict with the Jewish leadership over the Sabbath.
In His teaching He upheld the authority and validity of the Mosaic Law. His emphasis, however, was not on the external observance of the law, but on a spontaneous performance of the will of God which underlaid the law.
In regards to the Sabbath, He clarified the true meaning by showing the original purpose for its institution:
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” – Mark 2:27
Jesus asserted His lordship over the Sabbath. He defended His disciples for plucking grain on the Sabbath by alluding to the time when David and his men ate the bread of the Presence. In so doing, Jesus placed the Sabbath commandment in the same class as the ceremonial law. Human need had precedence over the ceremonial requirements.
He also reminded His critics that the priests in the Temple profaned the Sabbath and were held guiltless. He referred to the circumcision of a male on the Sabbath Day.
Jesus expressed anger over those at Capernaum who showed more concern for the punctilious observance of the Sabbath than for a human being who was deprived of the use of a hand. Likewise, he was angered by the ruler of the synagogue who became indignant when Jesus healed a woman who had a spirit of infirmity for 18 years.
There were seven healings on the Sabbath. (However, there were also healings on other non-Sabbath days.) In all of these instances, Jesus showed that He placed human need above mere external ceremonial observance of the Sabbath. He never did or said anything to suggest that He intended to take away from man the privileges afforded by such a day of rest.
The Early Christians
The early Christians were loyal Jews; they worshiped daily in the Temple at Jerusalem; they attended services in the synagogue; they revered the law of Moses.
The dispute over the requirements of a Gentile Christian were resolved at the Council at Jerusalem.
The Dangers of Legalism
Paul emphasized that the law was a yoke of bondage from which the Christian had been set free. Paul made no distinction between moral and ceremonial law. It was all part of that old covenant which was done away in Christ. It was “nailed to the cross.” This is the central teaching of the New Testament.
There are no grounds for imposing the Sabbath on the Christian, who is free from the burden of the law’s demands. The Spirit of Christ enables him to fulfill God’s will apart from the external observances of the law.
The Sabbath is mentioned along with the festivals and new moons, all of which are declared to be “only a shadow of what is to come.” To “observe days, and months, and seasons, and years” is deemed to be slaves to “the weak and beggarly elemental spirits.” The ritual observance of days is a characteristic of “the man who is weak in faith.”
The writer of Hebrews emphasizes that the Sabbath is also a type of “God’s rest” which is an inheritance of all the people of God. We are urged, in a larger sense, to “strive to enter that rest.”
The Sunday “Sabbath”
The first day of the week is now widely observed as the Sabbath. But where has God expressly authorized this change?
After His resurrection, which took place on the first day of the week, Jesus appeared to His disciples on four occasions which were on a Sunday. This becomes a major part of the basis of the veneration of Sunday as the “Lord’s Day,” ostensibly replacing the traditional Sabbath.
Pentecost, the birth of the church, was also, by definition, on a Sunday. They did meet on a Sunday night, but that would actually be Monday in Jewish reckoning.
While these are suggestive, they are far from a conclusive teaching. (The oft-quoted1 Corinthians 16:1, 2 is also unclear: “…that there be no gatherings when I come.”?)
The Hebrew Sabbath, has, of course, continued to be observed by non-Christian Jews to the present time. During the first century some Jewish Christians also continued the practice of observing the seventh day of the week, as well as the assembly for worship on the first day of the week, but their influence on Christianity, discernible for several centuries, dwindled rapidly. It has been suggested that with the rise of anti-Semitism in the early centuries, Sunday worship was a convenient means of excluding the Jewish believers.
Caveats About the “Early Church”
The writings of a number of the early church fathers in the 2nd and 3rd centuries support the tradition of Sunday worship. However, the views of the early church after the book of Acts is, in some views, an unreliable basis to establish doctrine.
When Jesus sent His Seven Letters to Seven Churches (Revelation Chapters 2 and 3), each was surprised by their report card. Those that thought they were doing well weren’t. Those that thought they were not doing well, were.
Even by the late 90s the church was already substantially deviant from the Lord’s desires.
Also, eschatological errors (i.e., Amillennialism, et al.) were rampant, as well as errors due to the Gnostic influences, etc. Furthermore, the rising anti-Semitism in the early church, along with the allegorical hermeneutics promoted by Origen and later by Augustine, makes their views regarding the Sabbath rather suspect.
These anti-Semitical tendencies subsequently rose to include the emergence of “blood libel” and other abuses that were reflected in the Crusades and other medieval horrors. Most of us as Gentiles have little appreciation for the abuses suffered by the Jews-under the banner of “Christ”-unless we have undertaken a careful study of the bloody history of the church.
The “Christian Sabbath” Views
There are, of course, many diverse views regarding Sunday as the “Christian” Sabbath, and there are those who strongly adhere to the traditional Saturday as the Sabbath. Many of us may have encountered the legalistic zeal of the Seventh-Day Adventists over this “Seventh Day” issue; however, it is not the Seventh Day which emerges as the critical theological issue – it is the role of the law, and our liberty in Christ, that is really the fundamental issue.
The Epistles to the Galatians, Colossians, and Romans far overshadow any particular cultural customs and ritual observances, and clearly emphasize our freedom from all external rules as the key to the entire New Testament Gospel. That, indeed, is the “Good News.”
“Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:” – Colossians 2:16
It is interesting that Paul emphasizes that it is the “weaker” ones in faith that burden themselves with such things (Cf. Romans 14:1-6).
From the standpoint of Bible prophecy, however, there are some provocative enigmas which also emerge from the Seventh Day issue. The Sabbath is an intrinsic part of the creation, specifically for man. It isn’t intrinsically limited to the Mosaic Covenant. Sabbaths will continue as a basis for worship in the Millennium:
“For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, saith the LORD, so shall your seed and your name remain. And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the LORD.” – Isaiah 66:22,23
The Sabbath will also be honored in Ezekiel’s Temple: the gate to inner court will be closed six days and only opened on the Sabbath and on the day of the new moon.
Since the Sabbath apparently survives the church period, this seems to cloud the view that Sunday replaced the Sabbath.
The veneration of the first day as a memorial of the Resurrection is certainly appropriate, although its historical role as a replacement day of worship is arguable. Its formal institution appears to have been an expedient exploited by Emperor Constantine and following.
The Sabbath is intended as a time of devotion, not a subjection to burdensome rules. It is for the benefit of man, to be taken advantage of. As a demonstration of God’s love, and a partaking of His blessing, the seventh day apparently has not been permanently set aside.
Our God is Jewish. “Salvation is of the Jews.” All of our benefits are derivative from the Abrahamic covenant. We are grafted in the true olive tree, from the root of Abrahamic covenant (Romans 11).
We should not forget that we serve the King of the Jews. We are members of a church founded by Jewish leaders; our highest authority is a Jewish Bible. While we have been freed from the law, we still can enjoy the benefits of Creation.
In our culture, we enjoy two free days each week, in any case. The first-day worship is thus available to us as an opportunity. The seventh-day Sabbath is also still available to us as an opportunity, yet not under the law:
“One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” – Romans 14:5
So the question is, Can we enjoy the benefits of the Sabbath without “coming under the law?” [We adopt other Jewish practices to our benefit without incurring the burdens of the law: circumcision (for hygienic reasons), some of the dietary practices, etc.]
It is clear to me that Adam, Cain, Enoch, Noah, et al., all had instruction on the seventh day of rest. It was the pattern in Exodus 16 before the manna was given and was memorialized in the Decalogue. In addition, it was observed by Christ ceremonially.
The error we can easily fall into, however, is legalism and its deprivations of the fundamental blessings of our redemption. (Study Paul’s definitive teaching in Romans.)
Our Personal Resolution
Nan and I, personally, have resolved-in the absence of travel or other logistic or scheduling constraints-to “remember the Sabbath Day” by adopting the following procedure:
1. From Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, we “set aside” the time for study, meditation, and as a departure from our normal routines.
2. We have resolved to do whatever we do deliberately and together.
3. There are no other “rules.”
We don’t make it a “burden”: we simply attempt to avail ourselves of His intended blessing. We attempt – in an informal but deliberate way – to study and reflect on His Word and find ways to praise Him.
(Our schedule usually has us traveling or speaking on weekends. If we were ever to organize our own local fellowship, we would prefer to meet Friday evenings, and leave the weekend free for family time.)