There's been a little bit of outrage lately among Christian bloggers about some megachurches that aren't holding meetings of their congregations on Christmas. Not having a meeting on Christmas isn't usually a big deal for some congregations, because they never have Christmas services. Except there's one thing different this year. Christmas is on a Sunday. That means these people are canceling their one main meeting of the week. (That actually isn't true of all these churches, since some of them have their main meeting(s) elsewhen, but it's probably true of most of them.) Jollyblogger takes this on from a Sabbatarian point of view. I'll say up front that I'm not primarily interested in the issues of canceling your main meeting of the week or whether your main meeting should be on Sunday. What struck me in David's post is that he holds on to a view of the Sabbath that I think is extremely difficult to maintain biblically. Leave aside the assumption that if Sunday is the Sabbath then we ought to have our main time of worship on Sunday. I'm interested in whether Christians should observe the Sabbath at all. I think there's a clear biblical case against seeing Sunday or Saturday as a Sabbath for Christians.
The Sabbath command was, as stated, only really for Israel as a nation and an old covenant community. My main reason for thinking this is that Paul seems to remove all reliance on special days or times in Colossians. David's post interestingly includes a response to that argument, one he takes from Peter O'Brien's excellent commentary. I found O'Brien's alternative interpretation of the relevant Colossians verse intriguing and quite plausible absent other considerations. I won't focus on it, because I think there are reasons to think Paul means something stronger than merely not relying on Sabbath observance for salvation. I think Paul really treats it as no longer an obligation in any sense, and I think he sees those who see it as a moral command as in the same category as those who see circumcision as a moral command (which isn't to say that it's the same category as those who think circumcision is required for salvation).
First off, I want to recommend two books on this subject that have seriously affected my thinking, both edited by D.A. Carson. The first is From Sabbath to Lord's Day, which collects a number of scholars' detailed academic work on the history of the subject, the exegesis of the biblical texts, and the theological reflections on how this should shape our view today. Probably half the book is written by Richard Bauckham. Carson, Andrew Lincoln, and Max Turner, are among the four or five other contributors. The second is Worship By the Book, a book primarily about worship, including a biblical theology of worship written by Carson that takes up maybe a little less than half the book. This book is much more geared toward ordinary readers than the more scholarly first book. It doesn't directly touch on this subject, but there's one argument in it that I will be spending the bulk of this post on, so I wanted to mention it at least for the sake of giving credit to Carson for the general argument I'm giving.
It seems as if the new covenant view of the holy involves an expansion from what was treated as holy in the old covenant. There was a physical temple, where God's presence dwelled in a way not true of other places. With Christ, God's presence has expanded to include anywhere two or more believers agree on anything or come together in his name. In the old covenant, God's people consisted of one nation, one family. In the new covenant, that's expanded to all nations.
In the Colossians verse David quotes, Paul seems to be saying something similar about days and hours. It's not that Saturdays are no longer holy. It's that every day is holy, which is why we can treat Sunday as special to begin with. There's no biblical warrant for treating Sunday as the Sabbath, though. The reality is that the Sabbath has itself expanded to every day. Hebrews makes that clear, as does Paul (I believe somewhere in Romans, but I can't remember where offhand). We are in the Sabbath that Christ brings, the fulfillment of the rest promised when Joshua entered the land, a rest that Hebrews tells us had to be more than merely physically possessing the land.
Finally, this expansion of the Sabbath to every day obviously can't mean that people don't work on the new covenant. There's obviously the moral principle of rest that remains, and there's obviously the sense that it's good to take a day and rest, but Jesus' point in many of his responses to the Pharisees was that the Sabbath rule doesn't always apply. The Sabbath was made for humanity, not the reverse. That doesn't mean it can be broken. It means that it doesn't always apply. It didn't apply to his healings. Since God continues to work while he rests in this seventh creation day that we're still in, there is a place for our work in the new rest that we have as we enter the seventh creation day with respect to our own rest in Christ. These are the true spiritual principles behind the fourth commandment.
This doesn't mean I agree with what these congregations are doing. I haven't looked at the details of their cases, and I don't really care to. That's between them and God. Maybe I'd agree with them, and maybe I wouldn't. If I were in a position to make such decisions, I would of course investigate the issues more fully. What I think is extremely hard to support is the claim that Sunday is the Sabbath spoken of in the fourth commandment, and even if you grant that the Sabbath still applies in the way it did for ancient Israel, the Seventh Day Adventists would have it right. The idea of a Lord's Day on Sunday is enough of a departure from that that I just have trouble seeing it as one eternal Sabbath command rather than just something people have come up with to continue something like it but without biblical warrant. But the fact that every day is holy to the Lord, and no day is special in new covenant thinking makes me very reluctant to see Sunday as special in any way at all. The only thing special about Sunday is that the rest of the Sabbath was expanded into Sunday, and the eternal rest was secured on a Sunday -- resurrection day. But that rest applies to every day, including Monday through Friday. Treating Sunday as especially holy seems to me to be like treating a physical location as holy simply because it's in a building that is owned or rented by a Christian congregation that uses it for their main meetings. It's like treating certain foods as clean or unclean after Jesus declared all foods clean. It's like treating circumcision or uncircumcision as better or worse in any religious sense at all. I just can't see how it isn't legalism of at least some significance
I'm not saying this is anything like the Galatian heresy. It's not elevating Sabbath observance as a requirement for salvation the way some in the Galatians churches were elevating circumcision as a requirement for salvation. If what I've been arguing is correct, then the right response of someone who realizes what I've been saying (including me), is to treat Sabbatarians as the 'weaker brother" of I Corinthians 8-10 and Romans 14-15, and that would require a whole new post to explore fully. Suffice it to say that among Sabbatarians I would try to be as mindful as I can of their convictions and seek not to influence them to violate their convictions. I would try to go out of my way to avoid offenses like doing work in their presence on a Sunday, and so on. I wouldn't refrain from engaging in serious theological reflection about their view, which is what this post has aimed to do. Convincing someone that their view is wrong does not amount to helping them violate their convictions. It helps them change their convictions so that they no longer have them to violate, and if those convictions are unnecessary then it can only be good. Even if I'm wrong, then this allows David and others to show me the errors in my reasoning, which I will of course welcome, and I pray this leads to some good discussion, full of grace and truth.