The Sabbath: Much Ado About Nothing
When should Christians worship corporately, Saturdays or Sundays? Should Christians observe the Sabbath and go to church on Saturdays? Are most Christians wrong for worshiping on Sundays instead of Saturdays?
There has been an age-old debate in the Body of Christ, about the day believers should come together in corporate worship. Some say that it ought to be on Saturday, the seventh day of the week (the Sabbath). Others believe we should worship on the first day of the week (Sunday) to commemorate the day that Jesus resurrected from the dead.
This age-old debate is so fierce that church denominations have been established as a result. And expectedly, there’s certainly no shortage of articles or opinions on this subject either.
As a Bible student, I’ve always been fascinated by this age-old debate, and have always wanted to know for myself what the Bible teaches on this subject. But I never got around to putting in the time required to study this out. Not until recently, when I came across a compelling, well-researched article (transcribed sermon) by a Seventh Day Adventist preacher, Pastor Lonnie Melashenko.
In the sermon/article titled “Millions Fooled by a Myth. Don’t Let it Happen to You,” Pastor Melashenko gave reasons why Christians ought to worship on Saturdays, and not Sundays. Using scriptures he explained how God rested on the seventh day (after creating the earth) and sanctified it; how God reminded us in the Ten Commandment not to forget the Sabbath, but to keep it holy; and how Orthodox Jews, Jesus and the early Christians, worshipped on the Sabbath. Also, he historically traced how the Catholic Church changed the Christian day of worship from Saturday to Sunday.
Reading the above-mentioned article motivated me to put in the time to research this subject for myself. Needless to say, as well-researched and historically accurate as Pastor Melashenko’s sermon/article was, I couldn’t help but disagree with him on this topic. Simply because I believe that he did not explore the subject extensively, especially from a spiritual viewpoint, but rather from a superficial viewpoint; even though he referenced several scripture verses.
Exploring the topic spiritually requires probing a little deeper to understand what the Sabbath represented. For instance, “Was the Sabbath instituted for Christians or just the Old Testament Jews?” “Did God institute the Sabbath as the day of worship or just the day of rest?” “Is the Sabbath symbolic of our spiritual rest in Christ Jesus, like most Old Testament practices, which often symbolized a New Testament promise?”
Exploring this topic spiritually rather than just superficially or historically gives balance to the topic and also helps us in our full understanding of the Sabbath. It helps us in determining if we should make any fuss about observing the Sabbath or worshiping on the Sabbath in this dispensation.
So, to explore this topic and help us understand the topic spiritually, let’s look at some aspects of the topic not covered by Pastor Melashenko’s sermon/article. Let’s ask and answer some questions:
What is the Sabbath?
What is the origin of the Sabbath?
Why the Sabbath?
Is the Sabbath symbolic (like most Old Testament practices)?
Did Jesus fulfill the Sabbath?
If so, why then did Jesus and the early disciples worship on the Sabbath?
Is the Sabbath for Christians or just for the Jews?
If the Sabbath is for Christians, why aren’t the other Old Testament practices and commandments like animal sacrifices, feasts, circumcision, etc. not?”
What is the Sabbath?
Simply, the Hebrew word Shabbath (from the root word Shabath) means “to cease,” “to desist,” “rest.” The Greek equivalent, Sabbaton, refers to the seventh day of the week or day of weekly repose.
God’s instructions about the Sabbath -- a day of rest
Regarding the Sabbath, God gave specific instructions on how to observe it. Particularly, the Sabbath was meant to be a day of rest from all kinds of physical exertion; not a day of worship. For instance, the Israelites observed the Sabbath even before they had a place of worship i.e., the tabernacle. They observed it in the wilderness long before God told Moses to build a tabernacle. They observed it as a day of rest!
Then Moses said, “Eat that today, for today is a Sabbath to the LORD; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will be none…See! For the LORD has given you the Sabbath; therefore He gives you on the sixth day bread for two days. Let every man remain in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.”
So the people rested on the seventh day. Exodus 16:25-26, 29-30
Notice that the Israelites kept the Sabbath here in Exodus 16, but God did not tell Moses to build the tabernacle until Exodus 25.
Therefore, if the Sabbath is about worship or the day of worship, where did the Israelites worship before the tabernacle?
You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. Exodus 31:14
Now, I will be interested to know how the Sabbatarians keep the Sabbath today; since no one is supposed to do any work. Do they keep it as strictly as the Lord commanded above in Exodus 31:14? If so, do they stone people to death who violate the Sabbath? I’m yet to hear of anyone being stoned for violating the Sabbath.
Origin of the Sabbath
According to the Bible, the idea of the Sabbath was first mentioned in Genesis 2:1-3, after God created the earth and rested on the seventh day. But the actual mention of the word was in Exodus 16:23, just before the Israelites left Egypt; and also in the wilderness, after they left Egypt, when God gave Moses the 10 commandments (Exodus 20:8-11), etc.
Why the Sabbath?
Why did God institute the Sabbath? Naturally, to establish a day of rest for mankind, not worship!
Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. Deuteronomy 5:13-14
However, there’s a spiritual meaning behind the Sabbath. The earthly Sabbath was symbolic of a heavenly Sabbath, i.e. God’s rest – which is the Sabbath for all believers. Jesus Christ is the spiritual rest for a believer – as the Lord of the Sabbath, He is lord over the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8)! The writer of Hebrews writes about this rest in Hebrews 4:9-11 saying, There remains therefore a rest for the people of God.
For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His. Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience.
Jesus puts it this way in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I’ll give you rest.” Jesus couldn’t have been talking about physical rest from daily toil necessarily; since man has to work. But about spiritual rest; more so an eternal rest.
Why Did Jesus and the Early Disciples Worship on the Sabbath?
Perhaps you say, “If the Sabbath is not for us today, why did Jesus and the early disciples worship on the Sabbath?” They ‘observed’ the Sabbath, if you will, firstly because they lived under Old Testament laws at the time, which required Sabbath observance. Remember, the New Testament (in the real sense) has not been in effect yet. A testament (a will) is not enforced until the death of the testator (the writer of the will).
Therefore, the New Testament did not go into effect until after the death of the Testator – Jesus Christ. So, the New Testament, technically, begins in the book of Acts.
Secondly and more importantly, could it be that Jesus and the early disciples “worshipped” on the Sabbath because it provided them an opportunity to preach the gospel to large gatherings of Jews in the synagogues? Jesus and the early disciples could have gone to the synagogues on the Sabbath, not in observance of the Sabbath necessarily, but to seek and save the Lost through teaching. Since the Jews went to the synagogue as part of their observance of the Sabbath, the synagogue on a Sabbath became the ideal place to preach the gospel to a larger crowd.
And when the Sabbath had come, He began to teach in the synagogue. And many hearing Him were astonished, saying, “Where did this Man get these things? And what wisdom is this which is given to Him, that such mighty works are performed by His hands! Mark 6:2
Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures… Acts 17:2
If you noticed, the passages that mentioned that Jesus went into the synagogue on the Sabbath didn’t say that He worshiped on the Sabbath or that He went to worship. Rather, the passages said that He taught on the Sabbath! Same thing with the disciples! They went to the synagogue on the Sabbath to teach not to worship!
If I went to a mosque every Friday to teach (if they’d let me) it doesn’t mean that I’m worshiping in a mosque or that I’m now a Muslim. Just because Jesus went to the synagogue to teach on the Sabbath doesn’t mean that He kept the Sabbath. I mean, one can make a case that Jesus and the apostles taught on other days of the week beside the Sabbath. That doesn’t mean that they worshiped on those days or observed those days as the Sabbath. So, to say that just because they taught on the Sabbath meant that they observed the Sabbath would be reaching for something that’s not there.
And He was teaching daily in the temple. But the chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people sought to destroy Him, and were unable to do anything; for all the people were very attentive to hear Him. Now it happened on one of those days, as He taught the people in the temple and preached the gospel, that the chief priests and the scribes, together with the elders, confronted Him… Luke 19:47- 20:1
The disciples on their part observed the Sabbath, especially in the early part of Christianity, because they were just making the transition from Judaism to Christianity. Therefore, there were still a lot of grey areas regarding their customs, practices and mode of worship.
This is evidenced in Acts 15, when some zealot Jewish Christians were trying to make Gentile Christians observe the Law of Moses, and pushing circumcision as a requirement for salvation. The Early Church came together quickly in Jerusalem to determine whether the Gentile Christians should observe the Law of Moses, particularly circumcision. They came to a resolution and sent a letter to the Gentile Christians saying:
For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Acts 15:28-29
That is not to mention the fact that the religious leaders of Jesus’ days, like the Sabbatarians today, didn’t keep the Sabbath as God instituted it. God’s commandment was that no man was supposed to go outside of his gates on the Sabbath. But the religious leaders had modified it by saying that people could travel less than a mile; which is what is referred to in the Bible as a “Sabbath day’s journey” (Acts 1:12).
It’s because of such modifications that Jesus scolded a Pharisee who accused Him of healing on the Sabbath.
The Lord then answered him and said, “Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it? So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound—think of it—for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?” Luke 13:15-16
With that being the case, I’d be interested to know how many of today’s Sabbatarians go to church within their own compound, or even drive or walk less than a mile to church. Or does that part of the Sabbath law (about not leaving one’s gate) not apply today?
Is the Sabbath for Jews or Christians?
One would not be wrong to believe that the Sabbath is for the Jews. God clearly stated in Exodus 31:12-13, 17 “And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak also to the children of Israel, saying: ‘Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you.”
It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.’”
Why is the Sabbath just for the Jews and not Christians?
Perhaps, you wonder why the Sabbath should be for the Jews alone when God Himself had Sabbath after the creation of the heavens and the earth. Well, it’s because the Sabbath, like most other Old Testament practices or ordinances, was a shadow (a type) of a New Testament promise.
To prove that the Sabbath doesn’t apply to us or carry over into the dispensation of Grace, Apostle Paul wrote the Colossians (a primarily Gentile church) to disprove a heresy spread by the Judaizers (a party of Jewish Christians who tried to make Gentile converts observe Jewish practices, such as circumcision, sacrifices, feasts, etc.) saying, “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.” Colossians 2:16-17
So, does God care when we worship or where we worship? I think not. I believe He only cares that we worship Him in Spirit and truth (John 4:24); i.e., worship Him from the heart.
Therefore, it’s not when we worship that matters, but who we worship when we worship. For instance, most Jews who observe the Sabbath today don’t have Jesus as their object of worship. Neither do some Sabbatarian Christians. As long as Jesus is the object of one’s worship, one can worship whenever. And if that’s a Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday or Wednesday, so be it!
If anyone wants to stress Sabbath observance, since the Sabbath is about rest and not worship, then he or she ought to stress complete rest on Saturdays, not worship on Saturdays.
My prayer is that those of us, who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ, would find true rest in the Lord of the Sabbath! Amen.
P.S. By no means do I claim to write as an “authority” on this subject. So, don’t take this as the gospel! Rather, if anything, I hope this article motivates you to research this topic for yourself, as Pastor Melashenko’s article motivated me.
By the way, I’d suggest that you read his article too if you could, to get both sides of the argument.