Is the Sabbath Still Required for Christians?
- Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Some argue against what is defended here by appealing to the creation order. As noted above, the Sabbath for Israel is patterned after God's creation of the world in seven days. What is instructive, however, is that the New Testament never appeals to Creation to defend the Sabbath. Jesus appealed to the creation order to support his view that marriage is between one man and one woman for life (Mark 10:2-12). Paul grounded his opposition to women teaching or exercising authority over men in the creation order (1 Tim. 2:12-13), and homosexuality is prohibited because it is contrary to nature (Rom. 1:26-27), in essence, to God's intention when he created men and women. Similarly, those who ban believers from eating certain foods and from marriage are wrong because both food and marriage are rooted in God's good creation (1 Tim. 4:3-5). We see nothing similar with the Sabbath. Never does the New Testament ground it in the created order. Instead, we have very clear verses that say it is a "shadow" and that it does not matter whether believers observe it. So, how do we explain the appeal to creation with reference to the Sabbath? It is probably best to see creation as an analogy instead of as a ground. The Sabbath was the sign of the Mosaic covenant, and since the covenant has passed away, so has the covenant sign.
Now it does not follow from this that the Sabbath has no significance for believers. It is a shadow, as Paul said, of the substance that is now ours in Christ. The Sabbath's role as a shadow is best explicated by Hebrews, even if Hebrews does not use the word for "shadow" in terms of the Sabbath. The author of Hebrews sees the Sabbath as foreshadowing the eschatological rest of the people of God (Heb. 4:1-10). A "Sabbath rest" still awaits God's people (v. 9), and it will be fulfilled on the final day when believers rest from earthly labors. The Sabbath, then, points to the final rest of the people of God. But since there is an already-but-not-yet character to what Hebrews says about rest, should believers continue to practice the Sabbath as long as they are in the not-yet?2 I would answer in the negative, for the evidence we have in the New Testament points in the contrary direction. We remember that the Sabbath is placed together with food laws and new moons and Passover in Colossians 2:16, but there is no reason to think that we should observe food laws, Passover, and new moons before the consummation. Paul's argument is that believers now belong to the age to come and the requirements of the old covenant are no longer binding.
Does the Lord's Day, that is, Christians worshiping on the first day of the week, constitute a fulfillment of the Sabbath? The references to the Lord's Day in the New Testament are sparse. In Troas believers gathered "on the first day of the week . . . to break bread" and they heard a long message from Paul (Acts 20:7). Paul commands the Corinthians to set aside money for the poor "on the first day of every week" (1 Cor. 16:2). John heard a loud voice speaking to him "on the Lord's day" (Rev. 1:10). These scattered hints suggest that the early Christians at some point began to worship on the first day of the week. The practice probably has its roots in the resurrection of Jesus, for he appeared to his disciples "the first day of the week" (John 20:19). All the Synoptics emphasize that Jesus rose on the first day of the week, i.e., Sunday: "very early on the first day of the week" (Mark 16:2; cf. Matt. 28:1; Luke 24:1). The fact that each of the Gospels stresses that Jesus was raised on the first day of the week is striking. But we have no indication that the Lord's Day functions as a fulfillment of the Sabbath. It is likely that gathering together on the Lord's Day stems from the earliest church, for we see no debate on the issue in church history, which is quite unlikely if the practice originated in Gentile churches outside Israel. By way of contrast, we think of the intense debate in the first few centuries on the date of Easter. No such debate exists regarding the Lord's Day.
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