Monday, October 18, 2010

Christians and the Sabbath

There is a very interesting article I wanted to point you to on a very interesting topic: the Sabbath observation and Christians. It appears on the webpage of the Gospel Coalition and has already inspired over 200 comments which is a lot even for a widely read blog like TGC. People get very agitated over this topic, especially those who argue that Christians are required to observe the Sabbath on Sunday. The post, Is the Sabbath Still Required for Christians? , shows up on Justin Taylor’s space but is actually an excerpt from Tom Schreiner’s book 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law. I found it quite fascinating because this is something that I have been bouncing around in my head for some time now.

Shockingly, I have an opinion on this topic. Please pick your jaw up from the floor before continuing. I think there is solid evidence that Christians routinely gathered as the church on the first day of the week (i.e. Sunday) but I don’t buy into the notion that Sunday is the “Christian Sabbath” or that Christians are bound by Sabbath observation at all. Jesus is the Christian Sabbath, He is where we find our rest! Outside of a couple of passing references to the church gathering on the first day of the week we notice an utter lack of evidence to indicate that the early Christian church under the direct leadership of the apostles observed any sort of Sabbath-esque observations that would in any way correlate to the cultural observance of Sunday as a special day. The Sabbath was a big deal in the Old Testament and not following it was a capital offense. If it had a similar meaning to the New Covenant church (made up in large part of gentiles who were never Jewish in the first place), it would certainly bear some sort of mention for the church.

I think Schreiner strikes the proper tone with this:

Now it does not follow from this that the Sabbath has no significance for believers. It is a shadow, as Paul said, of the substance that is now ours in Christ. The Sabbath’s role as a shadow is best explicated by Hebrews, even if Hebrews does not use the word for “shadow” in terms of the Sabbath. The author of Hebrews sees the Sabbath as foreshadowing the eschatological rest of the people of God (Heb. 4:1–10). A “Sabbath rest” still awaits God’s people (v. 9), and it will be fulfilled on the final day when believers rest from earthly labors. The Sabbath, then, points to the final rest of the people of God. But since there is an already-but-not-yet character to what Hebrews says about rest, should believers continue to practice the Sabbath as long as they are in the not-yet? I would answer in the negative, for the evidence we have in the New Testament points in the contrary direction. We remember that the Sabbath is placed together with food laws and new moons and Passover in Colossians 2:16, but there is no reason to think that we should observe food laws, Passover, and new moons before the consummation. Paul’s argument is that believers now belong to the age to come and the requirements of the old covenant are no longer binding.

I look at this in sort of the same way as the Passover. Should Christians celebrate the Passover with a special Passover observation? I don’t see any reason to do so. The Passover, both the actual event in Egypt and the subsequent observation of it by the Jews, was a shadow of the cross where Jesus became the Passover lamb for His people with a once-for-all sacrifice. We break bread and share the cup with one another now as a remembrance of what He did and a declaration of our future hope. I don’t celebrate the Passover because I was not saved out of the land of Egypt, I observe the Lord’s Supper because I was redeemed by the broken body and shed blood of Christ on the cross. The Passover and the Sabbath and all of the other observations that set the Jews apart from all of the other people are vitally important for Christians to understand but only because they give us a fuller picture of the person and work of Christ. To my eyes a Jewish family observing the Passover is a sad picture because the Lamb of God who was slain has already come and fulfilled all righteousness. We should absolutely be intimately familiar with the Old Testament but we must be so in light of the New Covenant in Christ, viewing the Old in light of the New.

The pseudo-Sabbath observation of Christians strikes me as being similar to the myriad of ways we try to apply Old Covenant/Old Testament symbolism to the New Testament church. We seek to duplicate the Levitcal priesthood with a clerical class. Many Christians refer to church buildings as “the House of the Lord”. There is lots of talk about tithing. Christians are not Israelites in the sense of the Old Covenant nation-state of Israel. We can eat pork and we are not required to circumcise our sons. While there absolutely is continuity between the Old and the New, there is also a radical discontinuity that seems to be lost when Christians read the Old Testament as if the cross never happened.

The crux of it is this: we are called to a much higher standard than the Sabbath observation. We are not to live as the world during the week and then set aside one day (Sunday) as holy. We are to live every day as redeemed aliens in a lost world. I guess if you want to treat Sunday as special, that is your business but if it starts to become “I am more pious than you because I treat Sunday as some sort of Sabbath day” malarkey or you start to see that as a mark of faithfulness, it becomes problematic.

Anyone care to make the case that the Sabbath day observation is still binding on Christians?


Chad said...

I guess I'm a little confused by this post. I've read through it a couple of times. Where do you address Ex. 20:8? "Remember the Sabbath..." You mention that the Sabbath was "a big deal" in the OT. Are you simply questioning the day on which we observe the Sabbath, or are you saying that observing any sort of Sabbath at all is optional? It would seem to me that if we toss out one of the ten commandments then we're entering dangerous territory. I don't think Sabbath observance makes me any more pious that anyone else, but at a time when many Christians look exactly like non believers in every way, something that sets my family apart as being "different" is a good thing.

Alan Knox said...


Good post. Believe it or not, there is only one reference in the Old Testament to any church meeting on the first day of the week: Acts 20:7.

There is also evidence that Jews met as the synagogue almost every day of the week (not just on Saturday), much like people use community centers today.


Alan Knox said...

Oops... That should have read: "Believe it or not, there is only reference in the New Testament..."



Arthur Sido said...


The presence of the Sabbath in the Ten Commandments is a strong argument in favor of Sabbath keeping. I just wonder why the New Testament writers don't mention Sabbath keeping at all. I think that Exodus 20:8 is not necessarily fulfilled by observance of a single day under the New Covenant. As believers we have something better than a single day where we rest from our labors, we have an eternal Sabbath with Christ.

I would say that you are right that we should look different from the world but frankly setting aside Sunday for church doesn't set believers apart. Living lives of sacrifice and service daily does.

Arthur Sido said...


Schreiner mentioned 1 Corinthians 16:2 as a "first day" meeting but I am not sure that Paul is referencing a church meeting in that passage.