Is There Such a Thing as a Sabbath for the Church?
Sunday Sabbath. Is Sunday the Christian Sabbath? In response, we need to consider the Jewish Sabbath versus the Christian Lord’s Day. They are different.
First of all, not a single Scripture calls Sunday “the Christian Sabbath.” Nor does any verse tell us the Sabbath has been switched from Saturday to Sunday, and that Christians are to keep the Sabbath. Popes and church councils may have claimed that, and the occasional hymn may mix the two (e.g. “Safely Through Another Week,” by John Newton) but that does not make it so. The two days are utterly distinct and different. Trying to change one into the other, or combine the character of the two, only creates confusion.
1) Saturday, the 7th day of the week was ordained of God to be the “Sabbath” for the nation of Israel (Exod. 20:8-11). (Shabbath is the Hebrew word for rest.) It was given to them in their wilderness journey, with no indication it was celebrated by anyone before that (Exod. 16:23-30).
On the other hand, Sunday, the 1st day of the week, came to be designated as the Lord’s Day in the early church. Christians seem to have chosen the day by consensus, not by God’s command, as a time to assemble. (The only time the Bible uses the expression is in Rev. 1:10, where it may refer to Sunday, or perhaps to the prophetic Day of the Lord–the day of His end-time intervention in world affairs.)
2) The Sabbath followed the example of God resting on the 7th day after creation (Gen. 2:2). It was to be a sign the Israelites were under the Mosaic Covenant (Exod. 31:12-17; Deut. 5:15; Ezek. 20:12-13, 20-21).
Likely Sunday was chosen by Christians because it was the day of Christ’s resurrection (Matt. 28:1-6). Thus it became a reminder of our finished redemption (cf. Ps. 118:22-24). The Sabbath belonged to the old creation and pointed backward (Exod. 31:17). The Lord’s Day symbolizes our new creation in Christ, and points forward to the resurrection of which He is the firstfruits (I Cor. 15:20; II Cor. 5:17).
3) In Jewish observance, the Sabbath extended from 6:00 p.m. Friday to 6:00 p.m. Saturday. (That is why Joseph of Arimathea wanted to get Jesus’ body buried Friday before the Sabbath began, Mk. 15:42-43.)
The Sunday Lord’s Day (i.e. resurrection day) began early in the morning (cf. Mk. 16:1) as other days of the week normally begin.
4) The Sabbath was observed by legal obligation (with the death penalty for violation of it, Exod. 31:14; 35:2-3; cf. Num. 13:32-36). Failing to observe the Sabbath was a key cause of God’s judgment falling on Israel (Ezek. 20:23-24). The Lord said He would cause their Sabbaths to cease (Hos. 2:11)–which they have, as far as being a God-ordained day. They will apparently be reinstated during the future Millennial Kingdom (Isa. 66:23; Ezek. 46:1).
Significantly, the Sabbath law is the only one of the Ten Commandments not repeated in the New Testament epistles, or declared to be binding on the church. The Lord’s Day is observed voluntarily, and we are specifically told not to judge others who believe differently from what we do with regard to how we keep certain days (Rom. 14:4-5; Col. 2:16-17).
5) The Sabbath symbolized the Law principle (works first for six days, then rest enjoyed afterward as a blessing earned).
Sunday symbolizes the Grace principle (rejoicing in free grace on the Lord’s Day, then a week of works to follow expressing our love for the Lord). We are not under law, but under grace (Rom. 6:14; Gal. 3:24-25).
6) Israel was to cease from all work on the Sabbath. It was a day of rest, not a day of worship and religious activity under the Law.
Nowhere is Sunday commanded to be a day of rest for us. In the New Testament, it was a day of activity for the church, a day involving fellowship, worship, and busy ministry, as it usually is for believers today (cf. Acts 20:6-7). The Jew was to remain in his tent on the Sabbath (Exod. 16:29); Christians are to assemble and serve the Lord.
7) Under the Law, the Sabbath rest for Israel was physical, involving the ceremonial keeping of a day of the week in a certain way.
The Christian’s rest under Grace is spiritual, as we stop trying to earn God’s acceptance by works, and trust fully in the work of Christ (Heb. 4:3, 9-10; cf. Eph. 2:8-9). Our rest involves a way of life applicable to every day, as we walk by faith. The Sabbath was a test of Israel’s spiritual condition and their willingness to abide by God’s Law. The Lord’s Day provides a time for the celebration of the Christian’s position in the risen, glorified Christ.
A couple of closing observations. Bodily rest, as a basic principle of health, is valid in any age. Times of rest and recreation need to balance other times of labour. But we are left to decide when those times of rest will take place, according to individual circumstances and the leading of the Lord. Because of heavy responsibilities on the Lord’s Day, busy pastors often try to take Monday off. Office workers who work Monday through Friday may find Saturday best. It is a matter of personal choice, not of divine law.
Much as there may be social benefits to having our society shut down for one day a week, it is not likely to happen. Life has become too complex for that. And there is no Sunday Sabbath. We have no right to enforce a “Lord’s Day Act” on unbelievers. It is dedicated to the “Lord” by those who recognize Him as Lord. Thus it is fitting for Christians to make Sunday a different day, and set some limits on activities, so that there is time for believers to assemble and minister. That can also be a testimony to unbelieving friends and neighbours (as long as it is not flaunted as an expression of spiritual superiority!). But what activities are curtailed, and to what extent, is again a personal matter.