Christians and the Sabbath

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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.

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9 Comments

Good work, Jeremy. The idea of the "when" being superceded as well as the "where" is much simpler to explain.

The sticking point over the observance of the Sabbath has always been that it is one of the 10 commandments. Lots of people struggle with the idea that just 1 of the 10 should be abbrogated. But as you rightly point out, a strict observance of this command would mean keeping the Sabbath as a Saturday.

I tend to agree with your analysis, although I would say that many of the blessings and benefits available through observing one day in seven for rest and worship are still available to be enjoyed by those who follow a similar practise today.

I would say things a little different than Mark did. Instead of saying that 1 of the 10 were abbrogated, I would say that all 10 were abbrogated. But under the New Covenant 9 of the 10 were "re-issued" in some form or fashion. The Sabbath observance not being one of them. It's a question of clarifying which covenant has authority over a believer.

Those who hold the "Covenant" view would say that the moral piece of the Old Covenant still has authority over us. And since the 10-Cs are included as part of the moral law the Sabbath must be observed as well.

Those who do not hold to the Covenant view should realize that the 10-Cs are part of the Old Covenant and have no authority(in the strict sense) over believers today.

Makes me wonder why all these Dispies who live around here have "Keep the 10 Commandments" bumper stickers on their cars.

There's no scriptural distinction between moral law, ceremonial law, and any other sort of law. There's the Torah of God, which was his revelation to a particular people for a particular stage in redemptive history, which reveals much about other aspects of God's revelation across redemptive history, particularly about the character of God and about general principles of morality. The Ten Commandments are clearly a particular set of commands to a particular people.

The first commandment, for instance, is clearly directed to those who were called out of wlavery in Egypt. "Honor your father and mother" is attached to living in the land. The coveting command has a particularized list of the sorts of things they might covet, including your neighbor's ox. The sabbath command in its Deuteronomy retelling includes a reference to remembering slavery and celebrating rest in the land. These are clearly directed to Israel and only Israel. It may be that each one is grounded in a general moral principle, but what might that moral principle be in the case of the Sabbath command? It seems to me that it could just as easily be the principle that one shouldn't overwork oneself and should set aside time for relaxation as some general moral principle not to work on Saturday (or Sunday).

Parableman,
You might find this recent sermon by John Piper interesting:

Is There a "Lord's" Day ?
( http://www.desiringgod.org/library/sermons/05/100205.html )

Here is the an unoriginal thought that I had while I was in the Law School Library on campus.


In the law library there were signs to wit, "No drinking or eating.", "Please be quiet.", "No smoking." etc. and some other signs specific to the Law library itself.


Now if I went to County Public library, I would probably see the same signs there (e.g. No smoking). In addition, I would probably see some rules that applied in this library that did not apply in the Law library, and vice versa.

Now as for the rules found in both libraries, could we say that the folks in the county library went to the Law library and copied them? Was the "No smoking" rule transfered from one library to another, and hence the rule's being found in both places? At the risk of overkill, did this "No smoking" rule originate in one library or was it caused by one library?

No - although they are both found there. Just so, there are a number of commandments found in both the old testament and the new testament niether of which is the cause of the other. Principles against adultery can be found in both the old and new covenant. However this does not mean that this it was transferred from the old into the new. It does not mean that one caused the other.

Also there are rules found in the new covenant that are not there in the old.

I dont have all the answers... just some thoughts.

I will add this though... as one who once used to observe a Friday sunset to Saturday sunset Jewish style sabbath ... and was set free by New Covenant Theology( http://www.wcg.org/lit/AboutUs/history.htm ) I dont find arguements for a Sunday sabbath to be convincing (along with Covenant Theology). Perhaps there is something I dont know... but...

Over and out from Scottsdale, AZ,
Raj

Raj,

Good example about law and libraries. One I've heard before and liked talks about British law and U.S. law. Now, it's true that the same kinds of laws can be found in both systems. And it may even be true that some U.S. laws were borrowed from the British law system. But when you murder someone, which law has authority over you? It's the U.S. law of course. Since you are a U.S. citizen the laws of the U.S. holds sway over you. The similarity of the law between the two systems should not be confused for which one holds the authority.

So the New Covenant, even though it is similar in content to the Old, is not the same as the Old. And the New Covenant is the one which has authority over us.

Well, the point needs to be that the Sabbath is a valuable faith practice, not a dogma or an arbitrary obligation/burden. Which day doesn't matter. Doing a little work to feed your belly, or to heal, doesn't matter. Accepting the gift of rest, renewal, and joy in God matters. The issue with the churches seems to me more a matter of whether their leaders are truly serving by dropping Sunday service. I think obviously not.

I've been looking at the various comments raised against the Sabbath. I have done a diligent study on the Sabbath and cannot see an abrogation, a transfer of solemnity, or anything else of that sort.

I'd like to ask you (everyone reading this comment) some questions.

1. Who were the Israelites? what was their GOD ordained mission?
2. What is the New Covenant anyway? What was the Old Covenant? What was wrong with the Old Covenant? Was it the commandments of GOD that were incorrect? Or was it something else?
3. What is the mission for Christians today? Is it any different than the Israelites mission?
4. Why do some demand that the Ten Commandments be restated in the New Testament in order to be accepted? Since GOD wrote the Ten Commandments, why do some try to shape and mold GOD's words to fit their theology? Did GOD write something and then change HIS mind? Does that sound logical?

I hope that I gave everyone something extremely serious to think about. I take EVERY letter in the Holy Book seriously! I can only pray that everyone who reads this will pray before even attempting to answer any questions I have asked. I have asked these questions to others and have received dubious responses.

GOD bless,
sherm

I've already given my argument. If you want to respond to it, do so. Simply asserting that you don't see it doesn't tell me what's wrong with my argument. You need to tell me what's wrong with my argument before telling me that it's not a convincing argument. Their mission was to honor their end of the covenant, which was to obey God's commands in the Torah. They didn't keep the covenant, and God declared through the prophets that it was forfeit but that God would keep his end of the covenant by saving a remnant and initiating a new covenant that would not be ethnically based. The New Testament declares all sorts of ways the new covenant is better. See Hebrews. That's the main point of much of the book. It's better because you don't have to keep doing sacrifices. The one sacrifice is once for all. It's better because the high priest is himself perfect. It's better because the temple of the new covenant is expanded to include not just a physical location but wherever any worshiper worships in spirit and truth (John 4). It's because because all sin, and thus no one can be justified by the Torah (Romans 3, Galatians 2-3). It's better because the law of the new covenant is written on the hearts of believers through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Jeremiah 31, Romans 8). It's better because the Torah was just a guardian until faith came (Galatians 3).

I'm not going to give a biblical theology of Torah and its relation to the new covenant. Those questions have filled whole books, but it seems to be what you're asking for. I suggest the work of Frank Thielman.

The Israelites were a particular people descended from Abraham who were called by God to experience redemption and firstborn sonship. No one said anything was wrong with the old covenant. The new covenant is better, but the old covenant was right for the time it was instituted, given the broader sweep of the entirety of God's plan, which included the new covenant from the beginning as the highlight of how God would deal with the people he would call forth as his own.

The mission of Christians today overlaps with the mission of Israel, but the gospel provides a much greater emphasis on representing God to the world. The old covenant included some aspects of representation, but much of it was symbolic. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit makes it literally true. The gospel message is for all in a way that wasn't quite so deliberate or urgent in the time when Israel was merely a light in a world that didn't have a covenant with God and didn't have an open call to turn to a Messiah for everyone.

I don't know why some people say what they say, but I'll tell you why particular old covenant commands don't apply in the new covenant unless there are general moral principles behind them or specific new covenant commands. It's because the entirety of the Torah was directed to a particular people, and that particular people is not the same people as the particular people who are the church. The church is not identical with the old covenant community, and it's not entirely distinct. Both dispensationalists and covenant theology are wrong on that score. Dispensationalists act as if the church is a footnote in God's plan rather than the culmination of it, treating Israel as a distinct entity with a continued future in the terms of the new covenant. Covenant theology treats the church as identical with Israel, even though the new covenant terms in scripture make it clear that there's no necessary continuity. Many in the old covenant were not in the new covenant once it was instituted. They were rejected. Many not in the old covenant were grafted into the remnant of the old covenant that became the new covenant community. Strict identity and strict distinctness both do injustice to the biblical descriptions of the two covenants.

That means it's a new covenant, and old covenant commands simply aren't part of it except as a background that reveals the character of God and the nature of God's relation with humanity. That's no small role, but it doesn't mean we should take any command in the old covenant just simply to apply in the new covenant without doing careful work to figure out what role it played in the old covenant and whether anything in the new covenant plays a similar role.

If you want to know why the new covenant writers shaped God's commands to fit the new covenant, ask why God inspired them to do so. My arguments have been drawn from the scriptures. As I said, if they aren't good arguments then challenge the arguments themselves. You haven't addressed my particular points in the post at all.

As for God changing his mind, I guess you need to do some more work. You need to explain to me what you mean by that. If it's changing his mind for God to have a plan to deal with a particular people at a particular time in a certain way and then to deal with a different set of people in a different time in a different manner, then yes. God did change his mind. If you mean that God tried something, then discovered that it was bad or didn't work, so he tried something else, then no. God doesn't change his mind in that manner. (His thoughts would need to be ordered temporally for that to happen, and I don't think God's thoughts are ordered temporally. I can't see how an atemporal being could be like that.) The Bible speaks of God in both ways. In fact, it says that God does not change his mind in the first sense, and it says that God does change his mind in the second sense. There's even one passage in I Samuel where both claims are made pretty much in the same context.

I take everything in scripture as seriously as anyone else does. The question I have for you is whether taking it seriously requires ripping it from its context and applying it in a situation it wasn't intended for as a command. Paul told Timothy to bring him his cloak. If I took everything in scripture seriously the way you think I must, then I have a moral obligation to go back in time and bring Paul his cloak, which is of course ridiculous. That means that some commands simply don't apply outside the context they were intended.

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