I grew up in a Sabbatarian church, which observed the Sabbath on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a practice that I’ll keep on doing for the rest of my life. It’s good to set aside a day for rest and worship, and, for some reason, Saturday works for me. Saturday is the end of the week. At the end of the week, I am tired and want to rest. And I don’t think Sabbatarians are alone in this, for the slogan TGIF (“Thank God It’s Friday”) is a common expression.
But there are times when I doubt the “biblical basis” for Sabbatarianism. My reasons are not original, but here they are:
1. Sabbatarians do not obey all of the Sabbath rules. Exodus 35:3 says, “You shall kindle no fire in all your dwellings on the sabbath day” (NRSV). Sabbatarians kindle a fire on the Sabbath when they turn on the lights and drive their cars to church. Sure, there are a few Christian Sabbatarians who keep their lights off on Friday nights, but they’re the minority. Do Sabbatarians truly keep the Sabbath, when they do not observe the Torah’s rules on how to keep it?
2. The Sabbath is a shadow of Christ. Colossians 2:16-17 states: “Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”
One Sabbatarian argument I’ve heard is that this passage treats the Sabbath as still binding for Christians. After all, it says that these things are a shadow of things to come, not that they were a shadow of what Christ already did. This must mean the Sabbath is still binding as an institution, right?
Not necessarily, for Hebrews 10:1 states, “Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach.” Like Colossians 2:16, Hebrews 10:1 says that the law has (present tense) a shadow of good things to come. Yet, it’s argument is that Christ has already fulfilled the sacrificial system. And, because Christ did that, Christians don’t need to offer animal sacrifices (Hebrews 7:12).
In a lot of debates over Sabbatarianism, things are presented as a polarity: Either you keep the seventh-day Sabbath, or you believe that Christ has abolished the entire Mosaic law. And if you want to divide the law into ceremonial, civil, and moral categories, then you look like you’re imposing extra-biblical ideas onto the Bible.
But is there another way of looking at it? I think it’s obvious that parts of the Old Testament law are still binding on Christians. Ephesians 6:2 says, “‘Honor your father and mother’–this is the first commandment with a promise[.]” James 2:11-12 has: “For the one who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘You shall not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.”
Contra the Church of Christ, the New Testament is not establishing a “new law” that replaces the rules of the Old Testament. Rather, in these cases, the New Testament is quoting some of the ten commandments as if they’re authoritative. It’s referring to the Old Testament, not replacing it with a “new law.”
But there are laws that Christians don’t have to observe. One of these is animal sacrifices, which were a shadow of what Christ did, as we saw earlier when we looked at Hebrews. Could it be that Christians don’t have to observe the parts of the law that were a shadow of Christ? In Hebrews, that includes the animal sacrifices and the levitical priesthood. In Colossians 2:16, the list encompasses dietary laws, festivals, new moons, and Sabbaths.
It’s not that the law has been “done away.” Rather, it’s been changed with the death and resurrection of Christ. As we read in Hebrews 7:12, “For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.” The Old Testament law has been changed, not abolished. Some parts of the law have remained, particularly those that pertain to morality. And other parts have been fulfilled, which arguably means that Christians don’t have to do them, at least not in a literal sense.
3. The New Testament contains quite a few references to “the first day of the week.” Acts 20:7 goes so far as to present Christians gathering together on that day. Now, I know what Sabbatarians will argue: “Those passages don’t command Christians to keep Sunday.” And, technically-speaking, they don’t. But have you ever wondered why the New Testament even mentions “the first day of the week”? It doesn’t do that for the other days! I can’t think of any passage that talks about “the second day of the week.” For some reason, the New Testament wants to draw our attention to Sunday. Could it be that the early Christians sought to commemorate the empty tomb, which was first discovered on that day (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1)?
A lot of times, both sides present the debate in terms of absolutes. “There is no New Testament command to keep Sunday,” the Sabbatarians argue. “Christ has abolished the law, so you’re being legalistic when you observe the Sabbath,” many Sunday-keepers contend.
But why do we have to frame the debate in those terms? Sure, the New Testament doesn’t command Christians to observe Sunday, but there were first century Christians who met on that day. That doesn’t mean that we have to do so, if we don’t want to. The early Christians shared their wealth in a communistic sort of way (Acts 2:44; 4:32). I don’t want to do that. It’s all a matter of personal preference. Why do we have to see the issue in terms of commands?
And Paul had no problem with Jews observing the Old Testament law. He himself kept the Jewish day of Pentecost (Acts 20:16). He purified himself in the temple to show Jewish-Christians that he was not anti-law (Acts 21:20-24). Come to think of it, he wasn’t even against Gentiles going to the synagogue every Sabbath (Acts 13:42-44). Again, it’s a matter of personal preference. But Paul did have problems when legalistic observance of these institutions overshadowed Christ (Galatians 4:9-10).
I may write on this more tomorrow, or later this week. See you then!