Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Sabbath: Celebrating Christ in the New Covenant

I originally published this study on my first blog called Just Thinking... on 4 September 2006.

decalogueIn the church today there are multiple views on the issue of the Sabbath. How should the Sabbath be kept, if at all?

Some argue that the Sabbath should be kept in the same way as it was kept in the Old Testament while others argue that it should be kept in the same way, yet that it moved to the first day of the week from the seventh. These call the first day of the week the Lord's Day. There are also others that believe that we should treat each day alike and that there is no day that is more holy than another.

In this article we will attempt to define the relationship of the New Covenant believer to the Sabbath.

We will not concern ourselves with commenting on seventh-day sabbatarians since any comments in this article on sabbatarianism, of whichever form, should be able to be levelled at seventh-day sabbatarians.

The Sabbath Instituted

The Sabbath was instituted at Mt Sinai in the Ten Commandments. God instituted the Sabbath for the Israelites to keep in Ex 20:8-11,

"Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.  (9)  Six days you shall labor and do all your work,  (10)  but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you.  (11)  For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy."

Many sabbatarians (whether 7th or 1st day sabbatarians) believe that the word “remember” in verse 8 has the meaning of remembering and not forgetting what has already been an on-going institution. However, this meaning of “remember” is really not found from the text, merely from assumption. In my opinion, “remember” has the force of informing the Israelites that this is one commandment, that should above all, not be forgotten. From that day forward the Israelites were to celebrate the Sabbath and not forget it, since it has great significance. Why?

First, verse 11 refers us back to creation, in that God "rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy." Why does this command refer back to God's rest on the 7th day in the creation account? In giving the 4th commandment God wanted to use Himself as the example to follow. As God rested on the 7th day and sanctified it, so He wanted the Israelites to sanctify it and rest on it. God set the 7th day apart and in the same way He wanted the Israelites to set the 7th day apart for Him.

Second, the 7th day rest for God signified completion.

"(1)  Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts.  (2)  By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.  (3)  Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made." (Gen 2:1-3)

It was on completion of creation that God rested on the 7th day, and then He "blessed the seventh day and sanctified it." If there was no completion of creation, God would not have rested and therefore no day would have been sanctified. The fact is that "God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good." (Gen 1:31) Upon the satisfactory completion of creation, God rested on the 7th day with a rest that signified satisfaction. The rest of the Israelites was to be a rest of satisfaction too. Use six days to do your work and use the 7th day to realise that God has given you the ability to produce something special or bring completion to your own work.

Was there something special about the 7th day per se? No! Yet, as the 7th day followed the 6th day of creation on which God created the pinnacle of His creation, Jesus could say, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath." (Mk 2:27)

Covenant Sign

(12)  The LORD spoke to Moses, saying,  (13)  'But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel, saying, "You shall surely observe My sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you.  (14)  "Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people.  (15)  "For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall surely be put to death.  (16)  "So the sons of Israel shall observe the sabbath, to celebrate the sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant."  (17)  'It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor, and was refreshed.'  (18)  When He had finished speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God.” (Exodus 31:12-18)

The sign of the marriage covenant between a man and a woman in the west is the wedding ring. If one of the partners of the marriage removes that ring from the finger and throws it back at the other partner, it shows utter contempt for the marriage covenant and as such breaks the covenant and denies the marriage relationship.

In the same way, if an Israelite in the Old Testament did not keep the Sabbath (the sign of the Old Covenant) then God deemed it as breaking the covenant. It is for this reason that there was such a harsh punishment for any Israelite that did not remember to keep the Sabbath. The punishment was death! (Num 15:32-36) God's view of the Sabbath breaker was that such a person did not just break a commandment, but annulled the covenant relationship with God.

Now, at the death of Christ, the Old Covenant had been done away with in Christ and as a consequence the sign of that covenant also ended. As a result there is no need to keep the sign of a covenant that had been abrogated. A new covenant demands a new sign (1 Cor 11:25-26).

The Lord's Day

sabbathlordSabbatarians of the 1st day variety claim that the Lord's Day—Sunday, the 1st day of the week—has  replaced the 7th day Sabbath and as a result all Christians must keep the Lord's day. The rules and regulations are similar to that of the 7th day Sabbath. Most of the Puritans held to this view.

First day sabbatarians see the Lord's Day Sabbath in all the verses that speak of the early Christians getting together on the 1st day of the week.

"(1)  Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I directed the churches of Galatia, so do you also.  (2)  On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come." (1 Cor 16:1-2)

If this passage tells us that the early Christians met on the 1st day of the week (which they did), then that is all it does! This passage does not tell us whether they met as a matter of expediency or duty.

Two other verses are used by 1st day sabbatarians to teach their idea of the Lord's Day as a Christian Sabbath. Ac 20:7, "On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight." and Rev 1:10, "I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like the sound of a trumpet..." The same is true of these verses as of 1 Cor 16:1-2. They in no way instruct us that we should keep the Lord's Day. They are simply telling us that on the 1st day of the week they gathered together. Maybe we should also preach until midnight and make sure that we are in the Spirit on the Lord's day!

Concerning Ac 20:7 and Rev 1:10 Tom Wells writes, "First, again along with 1 Corinthians 16:1-2, these verses say nothing about a Sabbath and nothing about one day being more sacred than another. Second, so far as Bible evidence is concerned, we have no way of knowing whether they both refer to the same day, because the Bible does not tell on what day of the week the 'Lord's Day' fell. Third, we know that if the church is to meet it must settle on a day. Any day, then, in the absence of a command from the Lord or his agents, may have been specified for convenience and for no other reason."1

None of these 1st day passages teaches us of any instructions given by either Jesus or His apostles that we need to treat the 1st day the same as the Old Covenant Sabbath. They simply inform us about what some of the Christians of the time did.

When it comes to the phrase “the Lord's Day” many have claimed that the very expression points to a sacred day of duty. However, we need to remember that this phrase is used only once in the New Testament and also that absolutely no command has been given concerning the Lord's Day.

Nevertheless, some Lord's Day scholars have observed that the Greek word for “Lord's” appears in only one other place in the New Testament. Based on this they believe that it would be sufficient evidence concerning the Lord's Day. In the passage of 1 Cor 11:20, Paul is rebuking the Corinthians concerning their aberrational celebration of the Lord's Supper, "Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord's Supper."

Those that believe in the Lord's Day Sabbath believe, first, that Jesus declared His Lordship over this meal by using the phrase the Lord's Supper. Second, having instituted this meal He applied His Lordship over this meal by making it a sacred duty and obligation for all Christians. Lastly, based on the evidence above, when John uses the phrase the Lord's Day he means that Christ Himself made this day a sacred obligation for Christians to follow.

In answer to this, first, simply because the adjective "Lord's" is used in both passages, we can learn nothing beyond the fact that in some or other way the day is related to Christ. Second, there is no absolute merit for Lordship over the meal by calling it the Lord's Supper. It rather seems clear that the point of calling the meal the “Lord's Supper”, is meant to commemorate the Lord in His death, remembering what Christ did for the church in His death! Lastly, what we know concerning the Lord's Supper we know from a direct command from the Lord Jesus. There is no such direct command from the Lord or any of the other New Testament writers regarding the Lord’s Day!

If we now "turn to Revelation 1:10 to discuss the parallel phrase, 'the Lord's Day,' we see immediately that a commemorative understanding would be fitting as well. That is, it is called the Lord's Day to remember something else that Jesus did, his resurrection. We need no further explanation than this. Is this conclusive? No, but it does two things. Number one: it shows that there is no compelling reason to take it any other way. If there is one alternative, there might be many others. Number two: it makes a case for a different parallel understanding that is contextually arrived at, whether right or wrong."2
Relevant New Testament passages

Colossians 2:16-17

(16)  Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day--  (17)  things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.

We need to understand that the heresy Paul was dealing with at Colosse was a mixture of gnosticism and certain Jewish elements.

Paul covers 3 different types of holy days in these verses: yearly festivals, monthly new moons and the weekly Sabbaths. When writing Col 2:16-17, it is very likely that Paul had Is 1:13-14 in mind:

"(13)  Bring your worthless offerings no longer, Incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies-- I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly.  (14)  I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, They have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them."

The same 3 types of holy days are present in the Isaiah passage.

Paul certainly had the weekly Sabbath in mind. Some claim that he meant yearly sabbaths. However, it would be meaningless to say it twice here, since these yearly sabbaths were already mentioned as part of the annual festivals.

All these types of laws were simply a shadow of what was to come, Christ! Why follow a shadow when the reality has come? Since Christ is the substance, it would be natural not to follow the shadow any longer!

No one, therefore, "is to act as your judge in regard to… a Sabbath day."

Galatians 4:8-11

(8)  However at that time, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those which by nature are no gods.  (9)  But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again?  (10)  You observe days and months and seasons and years.  (11)  I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain.

In Paul's mind, all that was necessary for salvation was Jesus, and all that was necessary for growth in maturity—sanctification—was Jesus. "[T]he Judaizers had pursued the adroit3 course of presenting to [the Galatians] only part of the requirements of the Mosaic law, those parts which might be least repulsive to them as Gentiles."4

Paul saw the Galatians' doubt concerning going on to the Mosaic system as wanting to enslave themselves. He calls this system "the weak and worthless elemental things." He tells them what the weak and elemental things are. It is the observing of days, months, seasons and years. When Paul refers to "days" he refers to sabbath days and other feasts that fell on specific dates. On the other hand "months" refers to observances that were attached to the recurring monthly cycle. "Seasons" refers to seasonal events which would include the passover and the feast of tabernacles. Finally, the year of Jubilee is referred to by "years." Naturally, if you could get people to accept the least repulsive elements of your religious system like Sabbath days, Passover and others, then you can start preparing them for the next level, such as circumcision.

These poor Galatians listened to these Judaizers and started wondering whether they needed to add the Mosaic Law or some part of it to the work and teaching of Jesus Christ, in order finally to be saved. Up until this point it seems that they had not yet accepted circumcision (5:2); however, it seems they already may have adopted these religious days!

As can be seen, Paul covers the complete gamut of religious types of days when he cites "days and months and seasons and years." The mention of "days" could hardly exclude the weekly Sabbath. Paul is very comprehensive in his list, making sure that he does not miss anything!

The inclusion of these 4 categories of religious festival days by Paul surely was meant when he wrote,

“(8)  But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!  (9)  As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!” (Gal 1:8-9)

Romans 14:1-6

(1)  Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.  (2)  One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only.  (3)  The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him.  (4)  Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.  (5)  One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.  (6)  He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God.

Romans 14 starts off in verse 1 with an injunction to accept those who are weak in faith. Who are those that are weak in faith? The apostle Paul reveals to us who the weak in faith are. "One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only." (v2) The ones who believe that we are not to eat certain foods are the ones Paul calls weak! However, we are not to regard the weak ones with contempt. On the other hand, those that are weak should also not judge those that regard all foods equally and who eat all foods. In this, Paul addresses those who do not eat certain foods for religious reasons—the weak—and poses a question: "Who are you to judge the servant of another?" (v4)

Whenever we have certain convictions, we tend to want everybody else to have the same convictions we have. In this way we want them to become subservient to us. However, Christians are servants to God alone, and He is their Master. In these grey-area convictions, we have no right to judge the servants of God. "To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand." (v4) The Lord is the Master of the weak—those who do not eat—and He is the Master of the strong—those who do eat! We will all stand or fall by the strength of our Master. He will make us stand!

Paul sets off in verse 5 dealing with our treatment of days. Is Paul attempting to resolve a dispute among keepers and non-keepers of days? When read in the larger context of Romans 14, it becomes clear that Paul was not trying to make one view stand above another view, but rather that the two different groups should exercise mutual respect.

Some feel that the Sabbath is not one of the days in consideration here but rather refers to the elaborate Jewish calendar of holy days. They feel that if the Sabbath were in view here, then it would have been more natural to say: "One person regards the Sabbath above the other days." If the dispute in Romans were about the Sabbath alone, then certainly this phrase would have been a more natural phrase for Paul to have used. However, Paul did not have to use the Sabbath as his example since it was not just the Sabbath that was in dispute. The keeping of days, any day, was in view here. Whether it was the Sabbath or any other day, some Roman Christians regarded certain days above other days.

Hebrews 4:1-11

(1)  Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it.  (2)  For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard.  (3)  For we who have believed enter that rest, just as He has said, "AS I SWORE IN MY WRATH, THEY SHALL NOT ENTER MY REST," although His works were finished from the foundation of the world.  (4)  For He has said somewhere concerning the seventh day: "AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY FROM ALL HIS WORKS";  (5)  and again in this passage, "THEY SHALL NOT ENTER MY REST."  (6)  Therefore, since it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly had good news preached to them failed to enter because of disobedience,  (7)  He again fixes a certain day, "Today," saying through David after so long a time just as has been said before, "TODAY IF YOU HEAR HIS VOICE, DO NOT HARDEN YOUR HEARTS."  (8)  For if Joshua had given them rest, He would not have spoken of another day after that.  (9)  So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.  (10)  For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His.  (11)  Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience.

The context for this passage really is Heb 3:7-4:13. However, we will look at the verses provided in this study.

The "inspired writer explicitly connects the rest which we enjoy by faith in Christ (4:2, 6), with God's creation rest (vv. 3-4), with the rest of the land under Joshua (v. 5), and with the rest of the Sabbath ( sabbatismos, v. 9)."5

Sabbatarians say that for "the first time in his discussion of rest the apostle mentions a Sabbath Day. There remains then 'a keeping of the Sabbath', or 'a Sabbath observance' for the people of God. It is unfortunate that the King James translated this word of verse 9 'rest'. Twelve times the word 'rest' is used from 3:11 to 4:11. Always the author's word for 'rest' is a totally different one from the word used in verse 9. The NIV has no textual reason to translate it 'Sabbath rest'  for the word 'rest', used 12 times, is not repeated in verse 9. This word refers obviously to a Sabbath-keeping or Sabbath observance or a Sabbath Day to be kept by the people of God. There is a New Covenant Sabbath Day!"6

If one sees a Sabbath Day observance for the New Covenant in this passage, it is only because one wants to see it there. The whole passage, within its context, has nothing to do with the keeping of any specific day, but rather has to do with entering into the rest of God!

When this passage starts off in 3:7 through 3:19, the “rest” spoken of clearly is related to the entering of the promised land! God's rest for the Israelites was for them to enter Canaan based on the promises of God. However, because of their disobedience in unbelief, God swore in His wrath, "they shall not enter My rest." (3:11) Having written about the disobedient Israelites not entering the promised land—God's rest—the writer of Hebrews starts 4:1 with "therefore." Clearly, what comes next is based on the writer's arguments in 3:7-19!

The reason why the Israelites did not enter Canaan—God's rest—was because the word they heard "was not united by faith in those who heard." (v 2) Then comes the crunch-line in verse 3: "[f]or we who have believed enter that rest" The New Testament rest in Christ for those that believe is the anti-type of the rest that was promised for the Israelites in Canaan!

However, the Christian's rest in Christ is not the anti-type of only one typical rest portrayed in the Old Testament! Just as the writer again shows that through disobedience in unbelief, God swore in His wrath, "they shall not enter My rest" (4:3), he now turns to another type of the Christian's rest in Christ's completed work. That of the Sabbath! He concludes verse 3 by saying that God's works were finished from the foundation of the world. He then quotes from Gen 2:2 when he writes: "For He has said somewhere concerning the seventh day: ‘AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY FROM ALL HIS WORKS’;" (4:4) So, the writer moves from one type of rest (that in Canaan), to another type of rest (that of the Sabbath).

We learn through this that God planned from the beginning that His people should rest in Him. In order to show them in symbols, He first gave them the Sabbath which was God's rest for them and then He gave them entry into the land of Canaan which was also God's rest for them.

Finally, in verse 8 the writer makes it quite clear. If Joshua had given the Israelites rest, which they already had in one form, in the type of the Sabbath, why then would God speak of another day of rest after that? They already had the Sabbath, then they found rest in Canaan, why then did God speak of a further rest?

The writer concludes that there therefore remains a Sabbath for the people of God! (v 9) This Sabbath is then defined for us, so that we do not have to scratch our craniums unnecessarily. He writes that "for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his." (v 10) This was the coup d'├ętat against those who wanted to keep Moses as above Christ and through that to force Christians to follow Mosaic regulations. Christ has conclusively been shown as far superior to Moses up until now. Now he shows that just as those who have believed in Christ have entered the anti-typical rest of Canaan, so those who have believed in Christ have entered the anti-typical rest of the Sabbath.

The phrase at the end of verse 10, "as God did from his" is intended by the writer to show that the rest found in Christ is the same as demonstrated by God on the seventh day of creation! The point of the passage is that the rest typified by God for the Israelites in His resting on the seventh day, which led to the institution of the Sabbath, now has finally been completely fulfilled in Christ. Our rest in Christ, therefore, is equivalent to God's intention for His own seventh day rest!


The conclusion to all this is quite simple. There is no need for Christians today to regard any day as more sacred than another. In fact, all days may be regarded as the same! They all belong to God, and our rest is in Christ, not the following of "days," "new moons," "festivals" and "years!"

"It is here the Sabbath finds its true significance, and only by resting in faith in him do we truly observe what the day symbolized. Like circumcision (Col. 2:11), the feast of tabernacles (John 7:37), the Jubilee Sabbath (Luke 4:16-21), the cities of refuge (Heb. 6:18), the Passover (1 Cor. 5:7), the day of atonement (Heb. 10:1-14), and all the ancient Mosaic institutions, the Sabbath has reached its fulfilment in Christ (Col. 2:17; Heb. 4), and it is by trusting in him that we preserve its significance today."7


[1] Wells, Tom and Zaspel, Fred, New Covenant Theology, New Covenant Media, Frederick, MD, 2002, p252.
[2] Ibid., p255.
[3] Very skilful and quick in the way you think and move.
[4] Wuest, Kenneth S., Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek New Testament for the English Reader, Volume One, Galatians in the Greek New Testament, Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 1973, p122.
[5] Wells & Zaspel, p232.
[6] Chantry, Walter, Call the Sabbath a Delight, The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, UK, Reprinted 2000, p93.
[7] Wells & Zaspel, p235.

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