The Sabbath & The New Testament

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The Sabbath & The New Testament

We noted in our last segment that the Sabbatical law was not given until 2400 years after the Creation of the world. The only mention of a day of rest is the example set by God in Gen. 2:1-3 in which God rested from His work of creation on the Seventh Day. The Law of the Sabbath is first introduced by Moses in 1400 BC and it is given specifically to Israel as an everlasting sign of the covenant God had made with her. This law had specific directives and punishment associated with it that are not found outside of the Mosaic Law.

The question we want to address in this segment is what does the New Testament have to say about the Sabbatical Law and its relevance to Church Age Saint? Let us note the follow facts that indicate that the Sabbatical Law was not intended for this present age.

1) The Sabbath is used in a very restrictive sense in the New Testament. The Sabbath is mentioned in the Old Testament 111 times and the Seventh Day is used an additional 52 times for a total of 163 times. The New Testament on the other hand speaks of the Sabbath 57 times and the Seventh Day only 2 times for a total of 59 times or 1/3 the amount of the Old Testament. However, upon further examination we discover that the Sabbath is restricted even further in the way it is used in the New Testament. Please note the following

Of the 59 times it is used, 49 of those times are found in the Gospels. Of these 49 times only 15 of these references are spoken by Jesus. In other words 34 references of the Sabbath are references to the Old Testament Jewish practice of keeping the Sabbath Law. Out of the 15 times that our Lord speaks of the Sabbath, 10 times He is addressing the meaning of the Old Testament law as given to the Jews. The remaining uses of the Sabbath by Jesus can be divided up as follows.

a. 3 of the references (Matt., Mark, Luke) speak of the same statement where He describes Himself as Lord of the Sabbath. He rightfully is Lord of the Sabbath since as God He had entered into the covenant with Israel that involved the giving of a Sabbatical Law. He therefore had authority over how the Law was to be observed. Likewise as Israel’s King, He has authority over the future observation of the law in His Coming Kingdom. 

b. 1 reference is made to the future period know as the great Tribulation when the Antichrist moves against those Jews living in the Promise Land (Matt. 24:15-21). It speaks only of the fact that the Jewish population living during that time will be practicing the Sabbatical Law.

c. 1 reference (Mk. 2:27) Jesus indicates that God’s original design for the Sabbatical Law was to serve or benefit man and was never intended to enslave him with a set of burdensome restrictions. Since Jesus was addressing here the misuse of the Sabbatical Law by the Pharisees (Mk. 2:23-27) His observation should be viewed in light the Sabbatical Law as given to the Jews through Moses. 

It must then be concluded that all of our Lord’s comments on the keeping of the Sabbath have to do with the Sabbatical Law of the Old Testament. Not a one of His comments in any way makes reference to Sabbath’s role in the Church Age to come. In fact all His comments with the exception of Matt 24:20, which deals with the future, are given before any mention is made of the future existence of a Church. We must understand that Jesus lived and ministered during the Old Testament period and many of His comments are directed toward Old Testament law which He came to fulfill perfectly (Matt. 5:17-18). His practice of Sabbath keeping therefore was not to set an example for the Church to follow but rather His requirement to fulfill all the OT law in order to be a perfect sacrifice (Gal. 4:4-5).

This leaves us with 10 remaining references to the Sabbath in the New Testament to be considered. The next 8 of these references are found in the book of Acts. The Sabbath is referred to as follows.

a. Acts 1:12 – it speaks of the distance one could travel under the Old Testament Sabbatical Law

b. Acts 13:14 – Paul enters a synagogue, not a church on the Sabbath that he might preach the gospel to its Jewish membership

c. Acts 13:27: 15:21 – Paul refers to the Jews reading the Law and Prophets in their synagogues every Sabbath

d. Acts 13:42, 44 – Paul is asked to speak to the Gentile unbelievers of the city of Antioch about the gospel and the whole city shows up causing the Jews to become jealous

e. Acts 16:13 – Paul on the Sabbath goes out to the riverside in Philippi in order to preach the gospel to some women who met there weakly for prayer

f. Acts 18:4 – Paul preaches the gospel in the synagogue every Sabbath to win both Jews and Gentiles who attended the synagogue

In other words, none of the references to the Sabbath in Acts has anything to do with the meeting of the Church to worship. They all have to do with the work of evangelizing people on the Sabbath since that was the day the Jews and proselytes worshipped and thus the best time to share the gospel. Therefore these 8 references in Acts give no direction to the Church about keeping the Sabbath Law or what day to worship on.

So now we find that out of 59 references in the NT of the Sabbath so far none have any direct reference to the Church and its practice. What about the last two references? They are found in a book written to Jewish believers. In Hebrews 4:1-10, we have mentioned the 7th day of rest as it was originally given in Genesis 2:1-3. Nothing in this passage indicates that the OT Law of the Sabbath was a command given to the Church nor does it indicate the Church practiced it. In fact in light of the context the writer is not speaking of keeping the Sabbath but rather entering into the rest of the Lord which takes place at salvation.

To conclude, out of 59 references to the Sabbath in the NT, not one of them gives any indication that the Church kept the Sabbath Law or was commanded to do so. With this absence of any relationship of the Sabbath with the NT Church Worship, one must draw the conclusion that that the law of keeping the Sabbath was never intended for the Church or its members. 

2) The early Church did worship on the First Day. It should be noted here this does not mean that the whole of the Church worshipped on the First Day at first. It is most likely that the Jewish believers being accustomed to worshipping on the Sabbath continued to do so for some time. However we find early in the Church the practice of worshipping on Sunday begins and becomes the norm for all the Churches by the close of the first Century.

a. Acts 20:7 – The disciples in Troas “came together” to break bread. The verb here is a perfect participle which indicates that this was the routine practice of these Christians to worship on the first day.

b. 1 Cor. 16:2 – Paul calls upon the Corinthian Church to bring in their offerings on the first day of each week. This would imply that this was the day that the Church commonly met for services thus being the logical date to collect offerings.

Those who believe that the practice was not started in the Church until the decree of the Pope in 321 AD have not consider the historical evidence that backs up these two references. Shaff, a well respect Church Historian brings this out in his History of the Church:

“The earliest description of the Christian worship is given us by a heathen, the younger Pliny, A.D. 109, in his well-known letter to Trajan, which embodies the result of his judicial investigations in Bithynia. According to this, the Christians assembled on an appointed day (Sunday) at sunrise, sang responsively a song to Christ as to God, and then pledged themselves by an oath (sacramentum) not to do any evil work, to commit no theft, robbery, nor adultery, not to break their word, nor sacrifice property intrusted to them. Afterwards (at evening) they assembled again, to eat ordinary and innocent food (the agape). This account of a Roman official then bears witness to the primitive observance of Sunday, the separation of the love-feast from the morning worship (with the communion), and the worship of Christ as God in song.

Justin Martyr, at the close of his larger Apology, describes the public worship more particularly, as it was conducted about the year 140. After giving a full account of baptism and the holy Supper, to which we shall refer again, he continues: "On Sunday 80 a meeting of all, who live in the cities and villages, is held, and a section from the Memoirs of the Apostles (the Gospels) and the writings of the Prophets (the Old Testament) is read, as long as the time permits. When the reader has finished, the president, in a discourse, gives all exhortation to the imitation of these noble things. After this we all rise in common prayer. At the close of the prayer, as we have before described, bread and wine with water are brought. The president offers prayer and thanks for them, according to the power given him, and the congregation responds the Amen. Then the consecrated elements are distributed to each one, and partaken, and are carried by the deacons to the houses of the absent. The wealthy and the willing then give contributions according to their free will, and this collection is deposited with the president, who therewith supplies orphans and widows, poor and needy, prisoners and strangers, and takes care of all who are in want. We assemble in common on Sunday because this is the first day, on which God created the world and the light, and because Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples."

Here, reading of the Scriptures, preaching (and that as an episcopal function), prayer, and communion, plainly appear as the regular parts of the Sunday worship; all descending, no doubt, from the apostolic age. Song is not expressly mentioned here, but elsewhere. The communion is not yet clearly separated from the other parts of worship. But this was done towards the end of the second century. The same parts of worship are mentioned in different places by Tertullian. The eighth book of the Apostolical Constitutions contains already an elaborate service with sundry liturgical prayers. (from Schaff's History of the Church, PC Study Bible formatted electronic database Copyright © 1999, 2003, 2005, 2006 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.)

Likewise we have the testimony of Soter who was Bishop of Rome for 168-176 AD.

“He is said to have been a native of Campania, and to have written against the Montanists his work eliciting a reply from Tertullian. A letter to the Corinthians, now lost, but used for reading in the Sunday worship of the Church, is also attributed to him. Decretals said to have been issued by him are not genuine. Some authorities report that he died a martyr's death.(from McClintock and Strong Encyclopedia, Electronic Database. Copyright © 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.)

The question may be legitimately raised at this point, why if God wanted Church Age Saints to worship on Sunday did He not give a commandment to do so? Or, why are there not more references in the NT Epistles of them doing so? These questions lead us to an important observation. It would appear that Christians in the early Church worshipped on both the Sabbath and on Sunday and this was not a problem with God. If worship on either day was an issue of sin then surely God would have given the Apostles some direction in this matter to be given in written form to the Church. However there is no mention of God’s displeasure in worship on either Saturday or on Sunday.

We must therefore draw the conclusion that when it came to the Church Age, God restored His original plan for the day of rest as given in Genesis 2:1-3. God evidently is not as concerned about the particular day the believer worships and rests as He is that one day is set aside for this purpose. In other words, God wants man to follow the pattern He establish rather than worship a particular day. Out of every 7 day period, God wants man to work 6 days and set the other day as a day of rest and worship. If the believer sets aside Saturday as the day of rest that is fine with God. If he sets aside Sunday that is fine as well. The important thing is that the believer keeps one day separate from the other 6 in order to worship and rest.

If this conclusion is valid, then there should be some evidence in the NT Epistles that support this concept. The following passages do just that.

Rom 14:5-6, “One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it.” NKJV

Gal 4:9-11, “But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain.” NKJV – note here Paul speaks of the keeping of Sabbaths and the Feasts of the Old Testament as “weak and beggarly elements” of the past and no longer valid practice for Christians.

Col 2:16-18, “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.” NKJV – Paul indicates here the things practiced in the Old Testament were used to prepare the OT Saint for the coming of Christ. However, now that Christ has come they are no longer of any value to the Church Age Saint.

Therefore we must conclude that God does not call upon the Church to practice the Sabbatical Law of the OT as given by Moses to Israel. The restrictions imposed by that law and its punishment of death have passed away with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Therefore it is important that we set aside a day each week to take a break from our labors to rest and worship our God. In our busy world I believe we too often abandon this principle by making Sunday as busy a day as the rest of the week. In doing so we not only dishonor God’s desire, but we also harm ourselves by not giving our bodies, minds, and souls a much needed rest.