From the very beginning there has been debate in the church. In fact, most of the New Testament is comprised of letters written to churches who were dealing with various issues, problems, and divisions. The various denominations we see today is simply group after group of Christians who identify themselves based on what separates them from other believers rather than finding their identity in Who we have in common: our Lord Jesus Christ.
Debate and conflict are healthy, and I’d say even necessary elements of living in community. When handled in the Spirit of Christ these serve to edify, enrich, and promote unity. The problem is that we more often handle conflicts, differences, and debates in our pride or in fear rather than in the Spirit of Christ. One of the great topics of such divisive debate is the observation of the Sabbath.
Let me begin by saying that those who observe the Sabbath (which is Saturday on our calendar) are right to do so. It is the seventh day of the week that bears that remarkable designation in scripture, and Sunday is actually the first day of the week. In almost all the cases I’ve known, however, those who observe the Sabbath day don’t do so biblically. The command from God is that “for six days you shall work.” Most of us look forward to the weekend which affords us five days to work and two off. Furthermore, the definition of work is largely ignored. This includes carrying a load, walking/travelling to a neighbor’s house (or even off your own property), and a host of other restrictions. Granted, many of those Sabbath restrictions are man-made traditions, but if we’re going to stand on the Old Testament law in regard to observing the Sabbath, then we need to take it all and not pick and choose which parts we want to enforce.
The aspect of the Sabbath debate that is most troubling, however, is the accusations that spew from each camp in defense of their view of proper worship. The Sunday worship camp accuses the Saturday camp of being legalistic, and the Saturday worship camp fires flaming arrows of accusation at the Sunday worship camp calling them unbiblical, and in some cases, an antichrist. This division and disunity is from the devil, not God. Let’s explore.
As we read from the Old Testament through the New, we see God working through a progressive revelation. In the beginning, “God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it God rested from all his work which God had created and made” (Genesis 2:3). At its inception, there is no explicit command in regard to the day. We are simply told that it was blessed and sanctified–set apart–as God ceased his creative work on the seventh day. From this we can only conclude that we should regard the seventh day as a day to rest and praise God for all he has made. There is no prescription here, only description. Before the Law was given, the Sabbath had no command, no burden, and no religious implication. It was given as a blessing to mankind.
When the law came, the regulation regarding the Sabbath was simple: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath for the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the seventh day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:8-11). To summarize this, the regulation was that no one was to do any work, but to rest in the Lord. Notice: there is absolutely no regulation in regard to worship. In fact, the command suggests that worship (resting in, delighting in, praising, meditating on God) is the only appropriate action for the Sabbath. For us to accuse one another on the basis of Sabbath regarding what day we worship is ludicrous–a device of the enemy. Nowhere in scripture is there any regulation which tells us not to worship!
As God’s revelation continues, we find that there is more to Sabbath than a mere regulation. What began in Genesis as a celebration of God and his creative activity continued to include a celebration of God and his deliverance from captivity in Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:15). In addition to the food laws and circumcision, sabbath observation was one of the identifying traits of the people of God. Where other nations worked, toiled, and labored vigorously to get ahead, the people of God rested one day, forsaking the work of their own hands and trusting in the faithfulness, power, and provision of God who is over and above all things, and they prospered greatly.
Coming to the New Testament, we begin to see the true meaning of the Sabbath explained beautifully in Hebrews 3:1-4:11. The true meaning of Sabbath is found in the rest given us in Christ who has delivered us, not by our work, but by his death and resurrection. Jesus, crucified on the sixth day, rested from his work on the Sabbath and rose from the dead on the first day of the week. The arrival of the Holy Spirit’s ministry on the day of Pentecost was also a first day occurrence. As the first generation church surrendered to Christ, we see that much of their worship and activity runs throughout the week. “Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart” (Acts 2:46). We see that Paul gathered believers together to “break bread” on the first day (Acts 20:7) and instructed the Corinthian church to take a collection of offerings for the Jerusalem church on the first day of the week (1 Corinthians 16:2). In declaring all foods clean, rejecting circumcision of the flesh, and identifying sabbath rest in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the early church renounced its confidence in the ceremonies and trappings of Judaism and identified itself solely with Jesus Christ.
So how should we treat the Sabbath as believers in Christ? Well, we should NOT regard it as a legal obligation demanding blind obedience to empty religious ordinance. Neither should we dismiss it as irrelevant and obsolete. Certainly, however, we should never take up the Sabbath discussion as a weapon against our brothers. This same question was addressed by the first generation church at the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:6-21). The conclusion they came to was that the Law of Moses is preached in synagogues all over the world every sabbath day, yet is was the work of God in the Gospel of Christ that brought salvation to the Gentiles. What would be required of those saved from among the Gentiles would be: 1) abstain from things contaminated by idols, 2) abstain from fornication, 3) abstain from [meat that is] strangled, and 4) abstain from blood. None of the “three big rules” of Judaism were even mentioned (food laws, circumcision, and sabbath observation). In fact, circumcision, which began the debate in the first place, was rejected as a necessary observation. The early church recognized what is clearly stated for us in Colossians 2:16-17, “Therefore, no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon, or a Sabbath day–things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.”
Let us therefore stop using legal obligations, now fulfilled in Christ, to level at our brothers and sisters in order to declare them guilty when the blood of Jesus Christ our Lord has made them clean for all time. Such behavior is not fitting of children of God and citizens of his kingdom. We each live unto God according to our convictions as the Spirit leads us in accordance with the word of God. Where there is no explicit command or precedent, we cannot create one to suit our experience or understanding. “Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind … Therefore, let us not judge one another anymore, but rather, determine this–not to put an obstacle or stumbling block in a brother’s way” (Romans 14:4-13).