The Sabbath .... Bob Moore

The Bible states that God created our world, from the most distant stars whirling in undetected galaxies to the smallest living cells swimming in microscopic solutions. He completed his prodigious work on the sixth day by forming man and woman children created in his image and companions enabled to appreciate his accomplishments. On the seventh day, he rested from his labor and basked in its goodness. The Bible states, "In six days the Lord made the heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day; wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it" (Ex 20:11).

When God delivered Israel from their Egyptian bondage, bringing them into the barren desert of the Arabian wilderness, he sustained them by miraculously supplying heavenly food. Each morning he deposited Manna in the fields that the Hebrews gathered and baked, but he did not supply the angelic food on the seventh day, resting from his labor and commanding the Israelites to do likewise. He decreed, "Six days ye shall gather it; but on the seventh day, which is the Sabbath, there shall be none" (Ex 16:26). Both examples of God's handiwork formed the foundation of one provision of his law that he shortly afterwards gave to his people through Moses. He decreed, "The seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God; in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates" (Ex 20:10). God allowed the Hebrews to work only six days out of a week, requiring them to rest on the seventh and use that day to worship him. He specified, "remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy" (Ex 20:9). 

The laws governing Israel's observance of the Sabbath formed part of the Mosaic law, God's old covenant with the faithful. That covenant, along with its restriction concerning the Sabbath, did not exist prior to Moses. The Bible says, "The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. The Lord made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us" (Deut 5:2-3). The absence of the old covenant before Moses did not mean that people living before the exodus were impious or disobedient. The Bible reveals that righteous people lived in all previous generations, from the time of Adam until the days of Jacob, the father of the Israelites. These people faithfully served God, but were not required to observe the seventh day in the way that God commanded the Hebrews. 

The reason that the old covenant codified in the Mosaic law did not exist prior to Moses is because God added it in response to Israel's disobedience. The Bible states, "It was added because of transgressions" (Gal 3:19). While Moses camped on Mount Sinai, the Hebrews built and worshiped a golden calf, preferring to return to the religion practiced among the Egyptians instead of waiting for the prophet to bring them the word of the Lord. The law that God gave through Moses was in response to the Hebrews' irreverence and designed to lead them from heathen error by codifying the rules of right religion and true goodness. It could not make them righteous, but it could show them how righteous people lived. If properly followed, it would prepare them for the advent of their Messiah. The apostle explained, "The law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ" (Gal 3:24).

When Jesus, God's only begotten Son, the Messiah, appeared in the flesh, he made a new covenant and sealed it with his own blood spilt in death. The new covenant that he executed from the cross fulfilled the old one. Jesus told the Jews, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets, but to fulfill" (Mat 5:17). Once Jesus fulfilled the old covenant, its supremacy ended. God never intended for the old covenant to remain effectual forever, but to only point the way to righteousness until he who is righteous appeared. The apostle explained that law served "till the seed should come to whom the promise was made" (Gal 3:19). That seed is Jesus Christ. The crucifixion replaced the old covenant with the new, making the old covenant along with its sundry provisions dead works. That new covenant is far better than the old covenant given to ancient Israel. The Hebrew Epistle explains, "But now hath he [Jesus] obtained a more excellent ministry [than Moses], by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises" (Heb 8:6). What the old covenant could never do, the new covenant does. It raises the faithful to heavenly places, occasionally in this life and always in the life to come.

Since Jesus fulfilled the old covenant so that its works, becoming dead efforts, could never measure the devotion of the faithful, the first Christians decided that only a small portion of its provisions applied to them. The reason that they made their decision is that some members taught that true Christians must also obey the Mosaic law. These people proposed that all male converts received into the church through baptism needed to be circumcised, too. The matter was debated in conference at which James, the brother of Jesus, decreed that four and only four aspects of the Mosaic law applied to Christians. The Bible records, "My sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: but that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood" (Acts 15:19-20). Of all the sundry rules and regulations framed in the old covenant and forming part and parcel of the Mosaic law, only four provisions were required of Christians. Observance of the Sabbath was not one of them.

Passover, a symbol of the Savior's redemption, began with the pascal meal when an unblemished lamb, typical of our Lord Jesus, was slain and his blood placed on the door post to signal the angel of death to pass by that house. The observance of Passover was a week-long ceremony, with the first day of that week being a holy day, a Sabbath. God said, "And in the first day there shall be a holy convocation, and in the seventh day there shall be a holy convocation to you; no manner of work shall be done in them" (Ex 12:15). The first day of Passover week is a symbol of the resurrection, the beginning of the believer's deliverance from death. Jesus, who is the true Pascal Lamb, fulfilled this symbol when he rose from the dead on the first day of the week. The gospel states, "Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene" (Mark 16:9). Christians remembered the resurrection by meeting for worship on the first day of the week. At that time, they repeated the provisions of the pascal meal by partaking of the bread and wine, emblems of the Savior's suffering. The Bible records, "And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them" (Acts 20:7). During the communion, which the early church called the Eucharist, the saints received contributions for the poor. Justin Martyr, who wrote before 140 AD, described the Eucharist service. At its close, he told about the collection: "And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors the orphans and widows, and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need" (First Apology, Ch 67). The Bible states that this collection for the saints occurred on the first day of the week implying that the Eucharist was observed by them on Sunday. It says, "Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye. Upon the first day of the week let everyone of you lay by him in store, as God prospered him" (1 Cor 16:1-2).

Not every Christian agreed with the apostolic decision that only four provisions from the Mosaic law applied to them. They advocated compliance with other aspects of the old covenant. Paul addressed them: "But now after ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire to be in bondage? Ye observed days, months, and times, and years. I am afraid for you, lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain" (Gal 4:9-11). Those who were returning to provisions of the old covenant and whom the apostle upbraided thought that true obedience and right worship were fulfilled by better observing days and months proscribed in the Mosaic law. These are the same provisions that the Lord in prophecy denounced. He said, "Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting" (Is 1:13). When ancient Israel, the inheritors of the promise, rejected the word of God, their observances became an abomination to God. The Jews rejected the Word of God, even Jesus, and refused the new covenant. At that time, the old covenant, along with its observances of Sabbath days and Jewish festivals determined in weeks by the sun and months by the moon, was rejected by God. Those Christians who preferred returning to the outmoded practices of the old covenant returned to its bondage and missed the person it was designed to point them to.

In more recent times, various individuals have concluded that certain aspects of the Mosaic law still apply to believers. One provision of the old covenant that some advocate is observance of the Sabbath, or seventh day of the week, as the day of worship. They find support for their claims in the Bible, but place different interpretations on on some of its passages, which interpretations are unacceptable to other Christians. Their debate can confuse honest seekers of the truth, who want to obey God. They wonder if some truths are captured in the new interpretations. When such debates confronted the first Christians, they concluded that scriptural based arguments were less effective in disclosing the truth than reliance on the tradition of the church. The custom of the church as established by the apostles became a yard stick by which any other action or teaching could be measured. After all, Jesus built his church (Matt 16:18) and the apostles supervised it. What they established fulfilled God's will and needed no alteration.

Paul advised the Corinthians, "If any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom in the church" (I Cor 1:16). The first practices of the church as directed by the apostles and their successors formed a tradition from which true Christians should not deviate. Paul told the Thessalonians, "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us" (2 Thes 3:6). He also admonished them, "Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle" (2 Thes 2:15). The tradition of the church in the days of the apostles and their successors forms a better view of how the commandments in the scriptures should be applied, especially when considering what is the proper day for Christians to worship. If the first Christians observed Sunday instead of Saturday, it is overwhelming proof that the Bible does not require Christians to observe the Sabbath day. It also ends the scriptural debates that easily confuse honest seekers of righteousness.

Almost two millennia stand between modern Christians and the first converts to Christ. When Sabbatarians first presented their interpretation, the only window to those times available to them was the Bible. Fortunately, recent discoveries have uncovered many early Christian writings. Their translation into English and widespread publication have made them readily accessible to the average person. These ancient documents reveal how the first Christians regarded the Sabbath. Ignatius, who was martyred in Rome in 110 AD, wrote several epistles from his prison cell while awaiting execution. In one he said, "Those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to a possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord's Day."1 The Epistle of Barnabas originally ascribed to the Barnabas mentioned in Acts, but now credited by some scholars to an another living between 120 and 140 agrees with the Ignatian epistle. After quoting the Old Testament passage in which the Lord renounces the Jewish Sabbath observance (Is 1:13), it says, "Ye perceive how He speaks: Your present Sabbaths are not acceptable to Me, but that is which I have made [namely this,] when, giving rest to all things, I shall make a beginning of the eighth day, that is a beginning of another world. Wherefore, also, we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day on which Jesus also rose from the dead."2

Lest anyone misunderstand how the early Christians understood the phrase "eighth day," Justin, who was martyred about 165 AD, wrote, "The command of circumcision, again, bidding [them] always circumcise the children of the eighth day, was a type of the true circumcision, by which we are circumcised from deceit and iniquity through Him who rose from the dead on the first day after the Sabbath, our Lord Jesus Christ. For the first day after the Sabbath, remaining the first of all the days, is called, however, the eighth, according to the number of all the days of the cycle."3 Justin, in his dialogue with a Jew, shows that he regarded Sabbath worship as an activity reserved for the Jews. He wrote, "God enjoined you to keep the Sabbath, and imposed on you other precepts for a sign, as I have already said, on account of your unrighteousness, and that of your fathers."4 Dionysius, Bishop of Corinth sometime shortly after Justin, also testifies that Christians worshiped on Sunday, the Lord's day. He wrote, "Today, being the Lord's day, we keep it as a holy day."5 A generation later, Tertullian denies that Christians observed the Sabbath when he writes, "By us, to whom Sabbaths are strange," adding that in the Lord's day, "you have a festive day every eight days."6 Elsewhere, he shows that Christians observed Sunday for rejoicing and worship. He said, "We devote Sun-day to rejoicing"7

Justin made the clearest statement about Christian worship on Sunday that remains extant. He said, "On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and as we before said [while describing the Eucharist], when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to the his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is distribution to each, and a participation over that which has been given, and to those that are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. . . But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it was the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead."8

All these writers lived and died more than a century before Constantine. Sabbatarians point to his edict that made Sunday an official day of worship in the Roman Empire. They suppose that his edict changed the Christian day for worship from Saturday to Sunday. The testimony of earlier Christian writers clearly shows that the early church did not worship on Saturday, the seventh day and Jewish Sabbath, but on Sunday, the Lord's day and eighth day of each week. Their words confirm the plain statements contained in the scriptures and show that the interpretations of modern Sabbath worshipers misrepresent what really happened.

Bibliography

Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volumes 1-10, Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1985, abbreviated ANF X:Y where x is the volume and Y is the page.

Eusebius, The History of the Church, Translated by G. A. Williamson, Penguin Books, NY, 1989.

1 Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians, Ch 9 as quoted in ANF 1:62.
2 Epistle of Barnabas, Ch 15 as quoted in ANF 1:147.
3 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Ch 41 as quoted in ANF 1:215.
4 Ibid., Ch 21 as quoted in ANF 1:204.
5 Eusebius, The History of the Church, Bk 4.23, P 132.
6 Tertullian, On Idolatry, Ch 14 as quoted in ANF 3:70.
7 Tertullian, Apology, Ch 16 as quoted in ANF 3:31.
8 Justin Martyr, First Apology, Ch 67 as quoted in ANF 1:186.