Studies in the Sabbath No. 3


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We have begun our study in the Bible’s teaching about the Lord’s Day with a defense of its perpetual obligation. There are many Christians, including Christians of a Reformed type, including in fact ministers in our own denomination, who do not believe that Christians are under any obligation to keep the Lord’s Day holy. They take the view either that the 4th commandment has been abrogated in the new epoch introduced by Christ and his apostles, or has been transfigured into a requirement that we find our rest in life by faith in Jesus Christ. In other words, you keep the Lord’s Day by trusting in Christ for your righteousness with God. You keep the 4th commandment simply by being a Christian. We have spent the last two Sunday evenings making the contrary argument: viz. that the obligation to keep the Sabbath holy belongs to Christians today as surely as it did to Israelites in the ancient epoch. We said that this obligation is perpetual and can be seen to be perpetual for two great reasons. First, the day of rest is, in fact, a creation ordinance, having been ordained for the life of mankind in Eden before the fall. It is as perpetual as the other creation ordinances, structures or patterns for human life as God created it: work, marriage, and family. It can no more be abrogated than they can. If work is an obligation of human life, the entire Bible reminds us that a certain kind of rest is as well and has been from the very beginning. Second, the obligation to keep one day per week holy to God as a day of rest is part of the moral law, that law that binds all men in all times. This is the law that is summarized in the Ten Commandments where, of course, we find this obligation to keep the Sabbath day holy. Commandments do not “fall out” of the moral law; the Sabbath commandment any more than the commandment to honor our parents or the commandments that forbid lying, stealing, adultery and murder. We are to be workers and resters as human beings. That rest belongs to our relationship with the God who made us – the fourth commandment – as surely as does the reverence we show to his name – the third commandment – or the exclusive devotion we give to him as the one true and living God – the first commandment. The 4th commandment, after all, is the inevitable requirement of the moral law that we honor God with our time.

Last time we looked at the texts in the New Testament that are taken by some to teach that Christians no longer have a Lord’s Day to keep holy – remember, as we said, Lord’s Day is just another term the Bible uses for the Sabbath, in both OT and NT – viz. Romans 14:1-6; Colossians 2:16-19; and Hebrews 4:1-11. We looked at each of them and found that none could be fairly taken to mean that the 4th commandment was cancelled or radically reconfigured in the New Testament. These texts either concerned the controversy – the very controversy that looms so large in the New Testament – provoked by Jewish Christians wanting to hang on to the peculiarly Jewish features of their piety – such as the Saturday Lord’s Day – and demanding that Gentile Christians embrace them as well or they simply reconfirmed an Old Testament understanding of the Sabbath day as still very much in force in the new epoch. In Hebrews 4, for example, the Sabbath is viewed as an anticipation of heaven, a function it must have for us today as surely as it did for the saints of the ancient epoch.

Now, bear with me. We will get next time to the question of how the Lord’s Day is to be kept holy. Much of the mischief has been caused, in my view, by a misunderstanding of Sabbath ethics. People have got rid of the Sabbath – and have thought that Jesus must have freed us from it – because they have thought keeping the Sabbath such a burdensome thing. And they have thought it burdensome because they imagined that a proper keeping of the Sabbath day must be something like what the Pharisees thought it was, obedience to a host of dulling regulations! But that is a gigantic and horrible mistake. The Bible has a very positive and very un-Pharisaic view of Sabbath-keeping. When we take its teaching to heart, we will find it still more difficult to imagine that the Lord would have taken this day from us and left us without a holiday every week. We heard Jesus say last time that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. We will get to this next time. Suffice it to say at this point that once we get it clear in our minds that there is still a Lord’s Day and it is to be kept holy, we will be in a position to listen carefully to what the Bible says about how the day is to be kept holy.

But there is one further complication in the Bible’s doctrine of the Lord’s Day that we must consider before we take up the Bible’s ethics of the Lord’s Day. And that is that the fourth of the Ten Commandments says that we are to keep the seventh day holy – the seventh day of the week, that is, Saturday – and the Lord’s Day of the new epoch is observed on Sunday.

Now, to be sure, the New Testament never says in so many words that the Lord’s Day has been moved from Saturday to Sunday. Sometimes people make a great deal of that fact. But is it really important? There are a number of things, as a matter of fact, that we rightly take to be the practice of apostolic Christianity that are never, in so many words, taught to be so. 1) There is nowhere a command to replace circumcision with baptism. We hear that Christians were baptized and we gather from things that the apostles wrote that baptism has the same theological and religious significance as circumcision, but we are never told in so many words that baptism has replaced circumcision. We are told that Gentile Christians do not have to be circumcised but we are not told that they don’t have to be because they were baptized. In fact, when the question of whether Gentiles must be circumcised is directly addressed by the Jerusalem synod in Acts 15, it is remarkable that the answer to that question is deduced from the OT Scriptures. There is no apostolic deliverance as we might have expected. They figured it out from biblical prophecy and the fact of the Holy Spirit’s blessing the Gentile mission. Theirs is an entirely reasonable conclusion but it is striking that we are never taught per se in the New Testament that baptism replaced circumcision or, for that matter, that it is to be given to females as well as to males. We are shown this, but the point is never made explicitly. 2) In the same way, there is no command in the New Testament to baptize children. The doctrine of baptism taught and the way of salvation shown to us in the New Testament is very clearly a continuation of that revealed in the covenant that God made with Abraham and Israel, that covenant which included the Lord’s promise to be their God and the God of their children; households continue to be the object of God’s saving grace; children continue to be nurtured as members of the church; baptism is said to have the same signification as circumcision and covenant infants had been circumcised for two thousand years; there is no commandment to change the ancient practice, that is, not to give to covenant children the rite of initiation into the church, but, fact is, there is no command to baptize the infant children of Christian parents. It is, we believe, the inescapable conclusion to which the biblical data drive us, but it is never said in so many words. 3) Or, once more, there is no command to carry over the duties and ministries of the Old Testament priesthood into the new form of New Testament ministry. We see it being done but the transition is never spelled out in so many words. It represented a great change, after all, moving from a hereditary ministry to a popularly chosen one. But even so great a change is more assumed in the New Testament than described, still less commanded. 4) Let me give you one more example. In the fifth commandment, we are told that those children who honor their parents will enjoy a long life in the land the Lord their God is giving them. It is a reference, of course, to Canaan, the Promised Land, to which Israel was heading when the Ten Commandments were given to her at Sinai. In Ephesians 6:1-3 that same commandment is cited as being still in force with its promise. But the promise is now not a long life in the Promised Land but “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” The specifically ancient-epoch form of the commandment has been replaced with a form suitable to a largely Gentile church. The commandment is the same but its circumstantial features have been altered to fit the new context. Still, nothing is said about this, no explanation is offered; we simply see it being done. So the change from Saturday to Sunday is very much like other consequential changes in form from ancient epoch to new epoch: indications clear enough in the New Testament but no explicit explanation.

In view of all this, the fact that there is no explicit command to begin celebrating the Sabbath on Sunday rather than on Saturday does not necessarily mean very much. In fact, it may be said that the New Testament’s way of describing and enforcing this change from Saturday to Sunday – radical as it was – is actually quite typical. Lots of fundamental changes are taught in the same non-direct and more subtle way. The subtlety does not make the transition less important; in fact, it requires us to ponder its nature and meaning. We are shown it rather than taught it; we are given indications of the reasons for it but these are not spelled out. We must work them out.

So, how are we shown the change from a Saturday to a Sunday Lord’s Day?

  1. Well, the story begins at Easter. It is remarkable, in fact, that all four Gospels begin their account of the resurrection with the time reference “the first day of the week.” We certainly would have expected that they would have said rather that Jesus rose from the dead “on the third day.” Over and over again the Lord predicted that he would rise from the dead on the third day, but instead, we are told that he rose on the first day of the week. There is no particular reason provided for this in the narrative itself, though it becomes very significant as time passes. The resurrection of our Lord occurred on the first day of the week and the Bible reminds us of this over and over again.
  2. The Lord then gives emphatic and immediate attention to this first day of the week by his own action. He first meets with his disciples during and again on the evening of that first day of the week. The next time he meets with them, so far as we know, it was again on the first day of the week. These initial gatherings of the new form of the Christian church took place on Sunday. Then the Spirit fell upon the church as it was gathered on the first day of the week. That point is not made explicitly, but 50 days after Passover gives us a Sunday, a point that would not have been missed by those Christians present. In the ancient epoch, God’s people kept the Saturday Sabbath after the example of God. He rested on the seventh day after working the first six. Well, so it is in the new epoch. Christians keep the Lord’s Day after Christ’s example. He made the first day of the week the day of Christian assembly, the day of the Word of God and the Spirit of God by his own example. He met with them on Sunday! Sunday was the day on which he rested from his work of redemption and it became the new Lord’s Day.
  3. The evidence, such as it is, found in the remainder of the New Testament confirms this evidence and its significance. We read in Acts 20:7 that Paul met with the church in Troas on the first day of the week – the same phrase we met with in the Gospel narratives of the Lord’s resurrection – for a service of preaching and communion. Indeed, he not only met with the church on Sunday, but he waited a week in order to do so. In 1 Corinthians 16:2 we learn by the by that in Corinth also the first day of the week was the specifically Christian day of the week. All of this is all the more significant in view of the fact that the Saturday Sabbath was fixed deep in Jewish bones, one of the most precious and fundamental parts of Jewish piety. For Jewish men – and all the apostles were Jewish men – to preside over a church in which Sunday became the day for worship is the surest indication both that a change had been made and that the reason for it was monumentally important. In fact, the change from Saturday to Sunday, in the historical context of first century Judaism, is one of the most powerful proofs there is of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It would have to be something that momentous to convince Jews to alter their ancient day of rest and worship.
  4. All of this is then confirmed in Rev. 1:10 where we read John introduce his vision by saying, “On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit…” Now, it is true that the term is not there defined. It doesn’t say, “On the Lord’s Day, that is, the first day of the week…” However, when you seek to discover what day is meant, there is but one answer: the first day of the week. This is what early Christianity universally understood by “the Lord’s Day.” You know that it is widely thought that Revelation was the last book of the New Testament to be written. That cannot be said to be a proven fact, but there are strong arguments in support of that conclusion. Irenaeus in the second century, for example, says that it was written quite recently, during the reign of the emperor Domitian (that is, in the last decade of the first century, from A.D. 90 to 95). Irenaeus was familiar with Asia Minor, was a personal friend of Polycarp, one of the sub-apostolic fathers from Asia Minor, Polycarp, for example, and his testimony carries great weight. But if Revelation were written then, in say A.D. 95, it was written only a few years before the first Christian writings to follow the New Testament itself. In those writings, “Lord’s Day” is very clearly identified with Sunday. The Christian Sunday is obviously what early Christians understood the term to mean. [Remember, “Lord’s Day,” in the Old Testament is simply another term for, a synonym of “Sabbath.” The Sabbath is called “the Lord’s holy day” in Isaiah 58 where the Lord himself also refers to it as “my holy day”; it is called a Sabbath to the Lord in Exodus 20; in Leviticus 23 we have reference made to the Lord’s Sabbaths. But that means that the Sabbath day is now being observed on Sunday, according to the early church’s understanding of the term as used in Rev. 1:10. They all knew the Lord’s Day to refer to the Christian celebration on Sunday.] Let me give you the evidence.In the early second century bishop Ignatius’ letter to the Magnesians (a church some fifteen miles from Ephesus), he warns the church against judaizing errors. “For if we still go on observing Judaism, we admit we never received grace. The divine prophets themselves lived Christ Jesus’ way. That is why they were persecuted. Then, he goes on: “Those…who lived by ancient practices arrived at a new hope. They ceased to keep the Sabbath and lived by the Lord’s Day, on which our life as well as theirs shone forth…” [9:1] By the way, that contrast between Sabbath – meaning the Jewish 7th day of the week – and the Lord’s Day – meaning the Christian Sunday – almost certainly explains why the term Sabbath is not used in the New Testament for the Sunday Lord’s Day. It is not, that is, if we do not count Hebrews 4. Sabbath meant in common usage the Saturday Sabbath. “Lord’s Day” was used precisely so as not to confuse the two days. In The Epistle of Barnabas, after discussing the 4th commandment, the author goes on to say, “we keep the eighth day for rejoicing, in the which also Jesus rose from the dead, and having been manifested ascended into the heavens.” [15] The eighth day is, of course, the first day of the week. In Justin’s Apology we read: “…on the day called Sunday there is a meeting in one place of those who live in cities or the country…” and there follows an account of the Christian Sunday service. Justin then goes on to say, “We all hold this common gathering on Sunday, since it is the first day, on which God transforming darkness and matter made the universe, and Jesus Christ our Saviour rose from the dead on the same day.” So, in the Didache, the early Christian manual for disciples, when we read “On every Lord’s Day – his special day – come together and break bread and give thanks…” we may safely assume that the Lord’s Day referred to there is also Sunday.

Now, you are aware that there are folk who dispute the significance of all of this material as demonstrating that the Christian church worshipped on Sunday in the apostolic period and that they called Sunday “the Lord’s Day.” Seventh Day Adventists are chief among these, though there are some others: Seventh Day Baptists exist in very small numbers as do some Messianic Jewish congregations who argue that the day was never changed and that the Christian church made a gigantic mistake by moving from Saturday to Sunday. Some Messianic Jews do not make that argument, but some do. I would bore you if I were to examine their arguments. I have read them and they strike me as ingenious efforts to avoid the obvious. Perhaps it is too simple an argument merely to point out that the burden of proof rests very heavily on those who claim that the apostles continued to observe only the Saturday Sabbath and that somehow, quite soon thereafter, it got switched to Sunday and no one either noticed or commented on the dramatic departure from apostolic practice. But in light of the evidence it is fair to say that supporters of a continuing Saturday Sabbath need much better evidence than they have so far produced. Plenty of Christians have read their arguments; few have found them persuasive. A less charitable judgment of these arguments is that they amount to explaining away evidence, not collecting it. After all, the fact is, we do have evidence of the Christian Sunday – frequently and early – and we have evidence of the continuation of the Saturday Sabbath in Jewish Christian quarters. But, so far as the evidence goes, no one ever disputed that Sunday was now at least one of the Christian days of worship and the primary day for the Gentile church. Many argued that Sunday was the only day of rest, but all accepted that it was one of two. Jewish Christians in significant numbers argued that Saturday should also be retained, but we have no evidence that anyone rejected Sunday. How could that be unless it was apostolic practice to use Sunday and the Sunday Lord’s Day was rooted in something so profound that it convinced everyone of the inevitable logic of the shift, something as profound as the resurrection of the Lord Jesus on the first day of the week.

Put it this way. The defenders of the perpetual obligation of Saturday have precisely the same sort of problem as do those who deny that infant baptism was the practice of the apostles and of apostolic Christianity. We know it was the practice of the church very early and it is certainly fair to ask how that could have been when the apostles did not approve the practice. And if the church very quickly departed from the apostles’ teaching, why don’t we find evidence of a controversy on that point? The evidence, such as it is all points in one way. The church worshipped on Sunday even as some continued to worship also on Saturday. But everyone worshipped on Sunday.

So, if the apostolic church made the transition to a Sunday Sabbath day, why did she do so? Well we can say several things.

  1. God’s two great works are the works of creation and redemption. The first Sabbath celebrated the first – having been introduced in Eden before the fall – and the second Sabbath celebrated the second, Christ’s resurrection on the first day of the week representing the completion of Christ’s redeeming work. It is the explicit and repeated tie in the New Testament between Christ’s resurrection on the first day of the week and the Lord’s Day that confirms this understanding.It is interesting, by the way, that in the second giving of the Ten Commandments, the version we read in Deut. 5, the reason for keeping the Sabbath holy is not God’s working six days in creation and resting the seventh, but his having redeemed his people from bondage in Egypt. Already in the Ten Commandments we have provision made for a weekly Sabbath day that is a celebration of redemption, not creation.
  2. If Creation is a great, great thing, redemption is even greater. Creation required of the triune God wisdom and great power. But redemption required the suffering and death of God the Son. If the Saturday Sabbath was a fit memorial to that first great work, it is certainly not difficult to understand that a Sunday Sabbath would be a fit memorial for the still greater, nobler work.

I accept that the change to Sunday must have been a surprise to those devout folk so long used to a Saturday Sabbath. On the other hand, I imagine that witnesses of Christ’s resurrection would have instinctively and immediately understood the reason for the change. The greatest thing that had ever happened or would ever happen in human history had just occurred. If the Lord wanted to memorialize that in the weekly pattern of his church’s life, well, that makes perfect sense. But, whatever the reason, and whatever the struggle for later Jewish Christians to accept the change, there can be no doubt that such a change did take place in apostolic Christianity.

As in other aspects of worship the transition was made over some time. Jewish Christians, even apostles, continuedto worship in the temple in Jerusalem until it was destroyed, even as they met for worship with their Christian congregations. In the same way, the Saturday Sabbath didn’t fall away immediately, but the fact that it was going to be replaced by Sunday was obvious and it was precisely this fact that created such a controversy about the Saturday Sabbath. The Jewish Christians were offended by the fact that Gentiles were streaming into the church and no longer observing circumcision or their ancient Saturday Sabbath day. In these two momentous ways the church was ceasing to be distinctively Jewish as it had been for 2000 years. That was a hard thing to swallow. But the fact that they struggled to swallow it, is some of the most convincing evidence of all that apostolic Christianity had introduced a Sunday Lord’s Day, which is, biblical phraseology being what it is, the same thing as saying that apostolic Christianity introduced a Sunday Sabbath.