Paul’s Teaching About The Sabbath
A. Marshall – 16 April 2001
Those who make an issue about the day of the week on which we should worship remind me of the Samaritan woman in John 4:19-24 who made an issue of the place they were to worship. Jesus replied that the place did not matter, that what was important was we worship God in “spirit and truth”. Let us reflect on that as we look at another worship issue people argue over, the issue of when we worship.
The Adventist church often misleadingly presents Sunday worship as something which originated centuries after the time of Christ, during the reign of Emperor Constantine. However Constantine only formalised a pattern of worship that was already in use of most of the empire. In this short essay I will clearly show that, at least in the churches founded by Paul, believers began to gather on Sunday, rather than the Jewish sabbath. Furthermore, I will show that the call of Jesus to worship in “spirit and truth” led the early church to consider every day a day of worship!
Paul’s clearest teaching on the sabbath is in Colossians 2:13-19. He is arguing that Christ has fulfilled the law on our behalf, having “cancelled the written code”. Christ is our rest. That is why we no longer need the special rest days of the old covenant, whether a “religious festival, a New Moon celebration, or a sabbath day”. These are a “shadow of the things to come”, of the eternal rest we have in Christ. There is a “sabbath rest for the people of God”. For christians that day is today, tomorrow and all eternity (Hebrews 4:1-11).
Adventists argue that in Colossians 2:16, sabbath doesn’t mean sabbath. To sustain their position they must deny the natural reading of the text, and interpret it as a “sabbath year”. Now there is a “sabbath year” mentioned in Leviticus 25:1-7. There is also, every fifty years, a Year of Jubilee. You will have to judge for yourself whether the Adventist interpretation has any credibility. At the very least, the interpretation is a “stretch”.
I think it is clear that what Paul teaches here is true of all sabbaths, whether sabbath days or sabbath years. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul addresses the same issue. The Galatians, just like the Colossians, have been preyed upon by Pharisees within the church (Galatians 4:17, cf. Acts 15:5), and are in danger of back-sliding back into Judaism.
Paul pleads with them:
“How is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.” (Galatians 2:9-11)
You see sabbath day or sabbath year is beside the point. There are no longer any special rituals or ceremonies for drawing near to God. We do not please him by observing special days, or seasons of any fixed duration.
He was condemned by the Pharisees for gathering food on the Sabbath, which technically speaking, was work and a violation of the fourth commandment. His response is to rebuke the Pharisees for being small-minded, for allowing scruples over technical details to cause themselves to miss the heart of God’s law.
“At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.
He answered ... I desire mercy, not sacrifice ...”
It is worth noting that while there are several incidents like this where the Pharisees are condemned for regulating what cannot be done on the Sabbath, there is nowhere in the gospels where Jesus makes keeping the Sabbath an issue!
Jesus did not call his disciples to follow him one day a week, he called them to follow him every day. And so they did, both while he was with them, and after his ascension. We read of the early church that:
“Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46)
What would the Adventists have to say in such a situation? Would they have told the believers to get about their business and not meet together until Saturday?
“Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him.”
“One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.”
Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way. As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died. Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
The same spirit of judgment in external matters that was used against Jesus, is still evident here in the church at Rome. The issues concern the keeping of the Sabbath and other special days, and about the eating of meat. Isn’t it interesting that these are exactly the issues the Adventists are known for emphasising! Against the authority of Paul, they hold “one day more sacred than another”, and they judge those who do not agree with them. And while they do not judge others for eating meat, they encourage vegetarianism, and use health reasons to discourage the consumption of those meats the Jews regarded as unclean.
Paul says he is “fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself”, and it is clear that likewise, he does nor believe one day is “more sacred than another”. He does not however insist that readers whose “faith is weak” (or immature) agree with him. Whatever they do should be “to the Lord”. For it is not externals the Lord is concerned about, but the heart.
We all need to support ourselves and our families, as Paul notes when he teaches “if a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Yet “man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deuteronomy 8:3, Matthew 4:4). The principle of the fourth commandment is a division between work and rest, so that we have time for God and for family.
The seven day pattern is a good one, but I don’t think the commandment (Deuteronomy 5:12-15) is about when weeks start or finish. It is about how we partition our time, and in that regard is quite similar to the law on tithing (Deuteronomy 14:22-29). Both are acts of faith in God by giving him a portion of our resources. The old covenant prescribed a seventh of our time and a tenth of our money be given to God. Under the new covenant, Christians are not bound by these formulas, but should be guided by them as minimums. The devotion of the early church in giving both time and money shows a faith and generosity of spirit that goes way beyond what the old covenant required (Acts 2:42-47).
Now if the sabbath is just a shadow of the rest we have in Christ each day and forever, if Jesus called his followers, the early church and us, to worship God everywhere and every day “in spirit and in truth”, if Paul regarded “every day alike”, and if the heart of the commandment itself is that we give back to God a seventh or more of the time he has given us on this Earth, then on what basis do most christians regard Sunday as their day of worship? Sunday is in fact no more special than Saturday, and there is nothing inappropriate in a church gathering on Saturday.
However in the churches Paul founded, a pattern of Sunday worship began to emerge.
Sunday was the day of Christ’s resurrection, which was one of Paul’s strongest themes. Whether the practice started earlier with the other apostles is unclear, but it appears to be Paul’s practice in the churches he founded in Greece and Turkey.
“Now about the collection for God’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem” (1 Corinthians 16:1-3)
Paul’s intention seems to be that the believers should pool their offerings when they gather together on Sundays. Only then would there be no need for collection when he came. So Sunday worship seems to be the practice at this time in the churches Paul has founded in Greece and Turkey.
The above text is evidence of Sunday worship, though the most compelling reference concerns the believers at Troas:
“But we sailed from Philippi after the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and five days later joined the others at Troas, where we stayed seven days. On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight.” (Acts 20:6-7)
I urge you to consider this passage carefully and honestly. The believers came together on the first day of the week, that is Sunday, to break bread and listen to the preaching of the word. The believers here at this time were not breaking bread each day, but were apparently observing the one in seven day principle of the fourth commandment by gathering on Sunday. It is not possible to argue that this was just to fit in with Paul’s movements. Paul preached on Sunday, and left the next day. He had stayed a total of seven days, so he arrived the previous Monday or Tuesday. He was therefore in Troas on Saturday, but did not preach to the assembly of believers until Sunday! There are no more important activities for gathered believers that the breaking of bread and the ministry of the word. There is no doubt that this is church, on a Sunday, sanctioned by apostolic authority!
There is one more reference in the New Testament on which I must comment. Around 90AD, the apostle John received a vision:
“If, therefore, those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord’s Day, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death ...”
(Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume I - The Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians
Chapter IX - Let Us Live with Christ)
Ignatious, with Polycarp, was a disciple of St. John. Ignatious died in 107AD, just 14 years after the death of John. If anyone should know that “the Lord’s Day” means Sunday, he should!
Well, Have I persuaded you? Sunday worship is not the invention of Constantine, but goes right back to the New Testament church. Its observance fitted perfectly with the heart of the fourth commandment, and it was also a celebration of Christ’s resurrection. The early christians gave much time to God, more than most of us. They joyfully gathered together on Sunday, the first day of the week, but did not observe either Saturday or Sunday in a legalistic manner.
I trust that this essay will help clarify this issue for you. By all means, investigate the scriptures and other quotations for yourself.
May God bless satisfy your desire for understanding, and may his Spirit “guide you (and me) into all truth” (John 16:13).
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