Sabbath and the Lord's Day
by Mitch Cervinka

The fourth commandment states that God's people are to keep the seventh day of every week holy—that they are to cease from their normal work on that day—as a memorial of the seventh day of creation, when the Lord Himself rested from His own six days of creative activity...

Exodus 20:8-11 – 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 of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your 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 sabbath day and made it holy.
This is one of the Ten Commandments written on stone tablets by the Lord Himself, and given to Moses on Mount Sinai.  Yet there is much controversy surrounding the commandment.  There is no question that the Jews of the Old Testament were expected to observe this commandment, but is this a commandment for the present-day church as well?

Many of the ceremonies of the Law pointed to the cross of our Lord Jesus, and, having been fulfilled in it, are no longer to be observed today.  Animal sacrifices, ritual washings, dietary regulations, the temple and the Levitical priesthood have all been fulfilled and superseded by our Lord when He was crucified and rose from the dead.  Was the Sabbath also fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Christ, or is it an enduring ordinance that is still binding upon the church?

Or, has there been a change in the way that the Sabbath is to be observed?  The Jews were to observe the Sabbath on Saturday—the seventh day of the week.  Has God changed the terms of the commandment?  Does He expect His church to observe the Sabbath on Sunday—the first day of the week—as a memorial of our Lord's resurrection?  —Or, has He perhaps replaced the Sabbath with the "Lord's Day"—a day on which to meet for worship and not necessarily a day of rest?

Christians have wrestled with these questions for centuries, and the controversy remains alive in our own day.  The following positions are taken by various individuals and groups...

In addition, there are some who believe that the rule for Jewish Christians differs from that for other Christians.

A Day of Rest.
The two "Sabbath" views usually regard the day as a day of rest as well as of worship, where the saints of God are to cease from their secular pursuits for the duration of the entire day.  The "Lord's Day" view is typically less restrictive, viewing the day as the proper day for the church's weekly worship service, but not necessarily having any expectations for how the remainder of the day is to be observed.  In either case, the observance of the day is often left to the conscience of each individual Christian, although there are also churches that will take disciplinary action for violations of the Sabbath.

The Old Testament teaching on the Sabbath was that no work was to be done that day. Manna could not be gathered on the Sabbath (Exodus 16:26). It was unlawful to light a fire (Exodus 35:3) or gather firewood on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36). A "Sabbath's day journey" was the distance one could travel on the Sabbath by walking at a leisurely pace, and still remain close enough to home to return in the same manner (Acts 1:12). To transgress the Sabbath commandment was punishable by death (Exodus 31:14; 35:2).

People have various ideas of what constitutes "rest". There are some who think that it is good to take a nap on the Sabbath. Others reason that the day should be devoted exclusively to the worship of God, and that idleness (e.g. taking a nap) would violate the Sabbath. Sabbatarians are generally agreed that it is permissible to perform deeds of mercy and necessity on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8-12; Luke 6:7-9; 13:15; John 7:22-23; etc.).

A "Creation Ordinance"?
Sabbatarians often maintain that the Sabbath was a "creation ordinance", instituted on the seventh day of Creation, when God "blessed the seventh day and sanctified it" (Genesis 2:3), and that it was therefore binding upon all men, and not upon the Jews only. By tracing the Sabbath back to Genesis, Sabbatarians reason that the Sabbath could not have been a Mosaic institution that was superseded by Christ, and that it must, therefore, still be in force today.

There is a fallacy to such reasoning.  One of the creation ordinances given to Adam was that he was not permitted to eat meat.  This restriction remained in force until after the flood, when God permitted Noah to eat the meat of animals, but forbade him to eat blood...

Genesis 2:16-17 - The LORD God commanded the man, saying, "From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die."

Genesis 9:3-4 - Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant.  Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.

It does not follow, therefore, that a creation ordinance is necessarily a lasting ordinance.  The restriction against eating meat was instituted in Eden, but was rescinded when the flood waters subsided.  In a similar way, animal sacrifices were instituted soon after the fall of man, yet they were abolished at the cross of Christ, when the true Lamb of God was sacrificed for us.  Even if it could be shown that the Sabbath was a creation ordinance, we cannot therefore conclude that it is an eternal, inviolable law that is still in force today.

The first clear command to observe the Sabbath is found in Exodus 16:23, when God fed the Israelites with manna in the wilderness.  This occurred after they had passed through the Red Sea, but before they received the Ten Commandments at Sinai. Here also is the first record of specific instructions on how the Sabbath was to be observed.  The language of verse 29 indicates that God had just recently given the Sabbath commandment to the Jews...

Exodus 16:29 – See, the LORD has given you the sabbath; therefore He gives you bread for two days on the sixth day. Remain every man in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.
This is also the sense of Deuteronomy 5:15, where God says that He gave the Sabbath to Israel because, by great miracles, He redeemed them from their slavery in Egypt.  The weekly day of rest from labor was to remind them how He had freed them from their unceasing labors as slaves to Pharoah...
Deuteronomy 5:15 – You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day.
Hence, Exodus says that the Sabbath was a distinctive covenantal sign between God and the people of Israel...
Exodus 31:16-17 – The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He abstained from work and rested.
How could the Sabbath be a distinctive "sign" between Himself and the Israelites if it was incumbent upon all men to keep the Sabbath?  Is it not clear that the Sabbath was to be a sign of the covenant God had made with His covenant people, Israel?  To say that the Sabbath was also given to the Gentiles to observe is to deny the distinctive covenantal relationship that Israel enjoyed as the people of God.

When reading Genesis 2:3, we must be cognizant of two time frames:

  1. The historical setting described by the narrator
  2. The time frame in which the narrator himself lived
We need to understand that Moses wrote Genesis 2:3 in order to explain to the Israelites the significance of the Sabbath ordinance that God had recently given to them.  The imagery pictured in the Sabbath points all the way back to the creation week.  However, the "blessing" and "sanctifying" of the Sabbath occurred in Moses' own lifetime—in Exodus 16—when God instituted the Sabbath for the people of Israel.

The "Creation Ordinance" position may seem plausible if we confine our investigation to Genesis 2:3 alone.  However the theory cannot bear the weight of all the scriptural evidence.  When we consider the other passages examined above, we see abundant evidence that the Sabbath was first instituted in the wilderness, celebrating God's deliverance of Israel from her bondage in Egypt, and that it was intended as a distinctive covenantal sign between Himself and His covenant people.  In the light of this additional evidence, Genesis 2:3 must be understood as Moses' inspired explanation to the people of Israel, describing to them the significance of the Sabbath ordinance that God had just recently instituted for them to observe.

Is there any other scriptural evidence of a pre-Mosiac Sabbath?  The only suggestion of a Sabbath is when Noah sent out a dove on three separate occasions—the second time being seven days after the first, and the third time being seven days after the second...

Genesis 8:9-12 - but the dove found no resting place for the sole of her foot, so she returned to him into the ark, for the water was on the surface of all the earth. Then he put out his hand and took her, and brought her into the ark to himself.  So he waited yet another seven days; and again he sent out the dove from the ark. The dove came to him toward evening, and behold, in her beak was a freshly picked olive leaf. So Noah knew that the water was abated from the earth. Then he waited yet another seven days, and sent out the dove; but she did not return to him again.
What is not said in the passage, however, is whether these days happened to be the seventh day of the week, or whether Noah rested on these days, or whether these particular days had any other spiritual or religious significance, or why he chose to wait seven days, rather than some other period of time.  Granted, if God had instituted a Sabbath prior to Noah, then that consideration might provide an interpretive grid for answering these questions.  However, other explanations are possible as well, and it is certainly not a compelling argument to say, because Noah observed a seven-day sequence, that he must therefore have observed a weekly Sabbath.  Perhaps antediluvian man recognized a 7-day week because the moon changed phase (new, first quarter, full, last quarter) every seven days.  Perhaps early man knew of the creation week apart from a sabbath observance.  Perhaps God simply told Noah when He wanted him to send out a dove.  Any of these explanations is consistent with what we read in Genesis 8:9-12, without implying that a Sabbath observance was known at that time.

Nowhere does Genesis record anyone actually observing a Sabbath day—although it does frequently record other things not explicitly commanded, such as the offering of animal sacrifices. Nowhere does Genesis stipulate how the Sabbath was to be observed. Nowhere does Genesis exhort or encourage anyone to observe a Sabbath day.  And, while Genesis records many of the sins of men—such as the sins which occasioned the flood (6:11-13) and the judgment of Babel (11:6) and the sins committed by Cain (4:8), Lamech (4:23-24), the men of Sodom (19:5-9), Jacob and Rebekah (27:6-35), Judah (38:15-18) and Joseph's brothers (37:18)—never is Sabbath-breaking mentioned among them.  The same may be said of the first 15 chapters of Exodus.

However, after the explicit Sabbath command was given in Exodus 16:23, we find frequent, repeated references to the Sabbath, including explicit commands explaining how the Sabbath day was to be observed (Exodus 20:11-16; 31:13-17; 34:21; 35:2-3; Leviticus 23:3; 24:8; Deuteronomy 5:12-15).  In fact, as soon as the Sabbath is introduced in Exodus, we find instances of people violating the Sabbath commandment (Exodus 16:27; Numbers 15:32).  But none of these things—neither commands, nor instructions nor recorded violations of the Sabbath—can be found in Scripture prior to Exodus 16.

If the Sabbath was truly a "creation ordinance", then it must have been binding upon all men—Jews and Gentiles alike.  Yet, while Scripture often recites the many sins of the Gentile nations, it never charges the Gentiles with violating or profaning God's Sabbaths.  Why not?  —The most natural and compelling answer is that God never commanded the Gentiles to observe a Sabbath day.  If He did give them a Sabbath commandment, where, aside from Genesis 2:3, is there any evidence of it?  The "Creation Ordinance" view hangs by the slender thread of a questionable interpretation of a single verse of scripture, buttressed by a great deal of speculative reasoning.

The "Creation Ordinance" controversy distills to this question: Do we establish doctrine from clear, direct statements of Scripture, or from speculative inferences drawn from obscure texts?

For a further critique of the "Creation Ordinance" theory, see John Gill's arguments against the Sabbath as a 'Creation Ordinance'.

Arguments common to the "Sunday Sabbath" and "Lord's Day" positions.
The arguments given for observing Sunday as the Sabbath day are basically the same as those given for regarding Sunday to be "the Lord's Day", and they are based upon the same considerations...

In response, it should be noted...

Saturday Sabbath?
What about a Saturday Sabbath? This is the only kind of weekly Sabbath ever commanded or practiced in Scripture. However, there is no evidence in the epistles that Saturday was a special day for Christians. When the apostles and elders convened the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 to consider whether the Gentile Christians should be commanded to be circumcised and to keep the Law of Moses, they concluded that the Gentiles were under no special obligation to the Mosaic Law, except to abstain from blood, from meat offered to idols, and from fornication. Surely, the Sabbath, which was clearly commanded in the Mosaic Law, should have been explicitly mentioned by the council if Gentile Christians were under obligation to keep it. But not a word was mentioned about the Sabbath.

Nine of the ten commandments are explicitly repeated in the New Testament epistles—the Sabbath commandment is the only one that is not repeated. The epistles were addressed to the churches. One should think it would be obvious that the moral law—do not murder, do not steal, obey your parents, do not worship false gods, etc.—are still in force today, and that believers would not have to be told this. Yet Scripture repeats them in the epistles to impress upon us the necessity of holy living. However, the Sabbath, being a ceremonial ordinance, would naturally be a matter of some dispute, since Scripture teaches that other ordinances, such as animal sacrifices, circumcision and dietary regulations, are not in force today. If Scripture does not reaffirm the Sabbath commandment, as it does the other nine commandments, then the natural presumption is that it, like other ceremonies of the law, is not binding upon Christians. This presumption is confirmed by the various passages which teach that there are no Sabbaths or special days for Christians (Colossians 2:16-17; Romans 14:5; Galatians 4:9-11).

Also, those who claim to observe a Sabbath of any kind (whether Saturday or Sunday) need to squarely face the fact that work was expressly forbidden on the Sabbath. The Jews were not permitted to prepare meals on the Sabbath—that was to be done a day ahead. Gathering firewood was strictly forbidden. Even walking more than a short distance was forbidden. Those who are serious about Sabbath observance should meticulously abstain from such activities. Also, the Jewish Sabbath began at sundown on Friday and lasted until sundown on Saturday. Those who claim to follow the Biblical Sabbath should follow the same sundown to sundown pattern. Otherwise, they may be transgressing the Sabbath on Friday evening (or Saturday evening, in the case of a "Sunday Sabbath").

Sunday Sabbath?
It should be evident that we do not obey the Sabbath commandment by keeping the first day of the week sacred when the commandment clearly stipulates that the seventh day is the one to be hallowed (Exodus 20:10; etc.).  The Old Testament Jew could have been put to death for presuming to observe the Sabbath on Sunday rather than Saturday!  Anyone who has studied this issue carefully will confess that there is no Scripture that plainly says that the Sabbath should be observed on Sunday.

This is the great weakness of the Sunday-Sabbath position.

The handful of "first day of the week" passages tell us that Jesus appeared to His disciples on Sunday, that the disciples sometimes met on Sunday, that they were to set aside their contributions on Sunday, and that the Holy Spirit came upon them on Pentecost Sunday.  But no passage teaches, nor even suggests, that the disciples ever abstained from labor on Sunday, nor that they used the word "Sabbath" to speak of the first day of the week.  Arguments for moving the Sabbath to Sunday are based upon mere conjecture and speculation, and who can deny that this is a very careless way to handle God's solemn and holy commandments?

What does it commemorate? Scripture nowhere says that the Sabbath is intended to be a memorial of our Lord's resurrection.  This popular myth has no basis in Scripture.  The Sabbath is consistently identified with God's resting on the seventh day of creation (Genesis 2:3; Exodus 20:11; 31:17; Hebrews 4:4, 10), and with His redemption of Israel from Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:15).

Is it binding? The Sunday Sabbatarian frequently asserts that the Sabbath command is "binding unless rescinded".  He is correct, of course, and I would add that the original stipulations (i.e. of a Saturday observance) are likewise "binding unless rescinded".  The Sunday Sabbatarian does not observe the command as it was originally given, and, without a clear command to observe the Sabbath on Sunday rather than Saturday, he discredits his own position whenever he argues that the Sabbath is "binding unless rescinded".

Morever, the Sabbath command clearly has been rescinded in such passages as Romans 14:5-6; Galatians 4:9-11, and especially Colossians 2:16-17 which teaches that the Sabbath finds its fulfillment in Christ.  Scripture is just as clear in teaching the discontinuance of the Sabbath as it is concerning the discontinuance of animal sacrifices, temple worship and dietary restrictions.

One day in seven?  The Sunday Sabbatarian sometimes claims that the fourth commandment does not stipulate any particular day as the Sabbath day, but that it merely sets forth a "one-in-seven" (or, as some prefer, a "six-and-one") cycle of days.  When the fourth commandment speaks of "the seventh day", the Sunday Sabbatarian will claim that this means merely the seventh day in a nonspecific cycle of seven days—a period of six days of labor, followed by a seventh day of rest—without regard to whether the day of rest falls upon any particular day of the week.  Thus, he claims that God is at liberty to move the Sabbath day from Saturday to Sunday, if He so pleases, since the specific day of the week is not explicitly spelled out in the commandment.

Of course, the Sunday Sabbatarian does not claim that we are at liberty to choose which day of the week we will observe as the Sabbath—that is God's exclusive right.  Yet, in his system, the identity of a particular day of the week is not spelled out in the Sabbath commandment itself, but is merely an addendum to it.  God must supply the identity of the day separately from the specific wording of the commandment, and (so we are told) He has done this differently subsequent to the resurrection than He did prior to it.

But this demonstrates a profound inconsistency in the way the Sunday Sabbatarian thinks of the Sabbath commandment.  According to the Sunday Sabbatarian, it is a violation of the Sabbath commandment to observe the Sabbath on Saturday (as some Sabbatarians do).  But how can observance of a Saturday Sabbath violate a commandment that does not specify the day?  The Saturday Sabbatarian observes a "one-in-seven" (or "six-and-one") cycle, which is precisely and exclusively what the Sunday Sabbatarian claims the commandment requires.  The Saturday Sabbatarian may be in violation of the hypothetical "addendum", but he is not in violation of the commandment itself.

The Sunday Sabbatarian wants to have his cake and eat it too.  He wants the commandment to be non-specific regarding the day of the week so that the day can be shifted from Saturday to Sunday without violating the wording of the commandment.  But he also wants to be able to say that to observe any day other than Sunday is to violate the Sabbath commandment.  This is gross inconsistency and betrays a glaring fallacy in his theology of the Sabbath.

Moreover, the only basis for observing the Sabbath on Saturday in the Old Testament is the "seventh day" language such as that found explcitly stated in Exodus 20:8-11.

Exodus 20:8-11 – 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 of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your 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 sabbath day and made it holy.
If "seventh day" does not here signify "the seventh day of the week" following labor on the first six days of the week, then where would anyone get the idea that Sabbath was to be observed on the seventh day of the week?  On the other hand, if "seventh day" here does signify the seventh day of the week, then the commandment specifies far more than a mere "six-and-one" pattern—it also specifies which day of the week is to be observed as the Sabbath day, and this precludes moving the Sabbath day to a different day of the week.

We should remember that the weekly cycle of seven days is merely a continuation of the original sequence of seven days established at creation.  It is most significant, therefore, that the Sabbath commandment explicitly points us back to the original creation, when God labored six days and rested on the seventh day.

Exodus 20:11 – 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 sabbath day and made it holy. ...
This underscores the fact that the Sabbath command requires more than a nonspecific "six-and-one" principle, but in fact expects the Sabbath day to fall on the seventh day of the customary week, paralleling God's activity during the original week.  The Jews observed a Saturday Sabbath for the simple reason that this is what the fourth commandment explicitly required them to do.

The wording of the commandment did not suddenly change when Christ rose from the dead.  The commandment still identifies the "seventh day" as the Sabbath day, and it still refers us back to the creation week, teaching us that God Himself rested on the seventh day.  God would have to rewrite the fourth commandment in order to make it compatible with a Sunday Sabbath, and we know He will never do that.

Psalms 119:89 – ... Forever, O LORD, Your word is settled in heaven.
Finally, it must be noted that any shift of the Sabbath day to a different day would necessarily violate the "six-and-one" cycle stipulated by the commandment.  The commandment requires that every Sabbath day must be preceded by six days of labor...
Exodus 20:9-10 – Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God ...
But Sunday Sabbath observance allegedly began with the Resurrection of our Lord, which occurred on the first day of the week—which immediately followed a Jewish Sabbath.  This "first Christian Sabbath" does not fit the requirements of Exodus 20:9-10, which says that the Sabbath day must be immediately preceded by six days of labor.  Or, if the Sunday Sabbatarian wants to claim that the "Christian Sabbath" began a week later, then this would also violate the Sabbath commandment, since it would mean that there had been an uninterrupted period of seven days of labor in which there was no Sabbath day, preceding the first "Christian Sabbath".

The only way out is to say that God temporarily suspended the requirements of the Sabbath commandment, in order to move the Sabbath to a different day of the week.  But this raises the question:  If God could suspend the commandment during resurrection week, could He not just as easily suspend it altogether?  At the very least, we must say that the Sunday Sabbatarian is hypocritical and inconsistent when he accuses the non-Sabbatarian of violating the Sabbath.  According to his own theology, the "six-and-one" cycle must have been broken at least once, in order to accommodate a change of day from Saturday to Sunday.

"Circumstances" and Essentials Another approach taken by Sunday Sabbatarians is to pick apart the Sabbath commandment into two pieces.  They claim that one part—the cycle of one day in seven—is essential, eternal and unchangeble.  The other part—the identity of a particular day—is a mere "circumstance"—something that God can change without violating the essential moral requirements of the commandment.

However, such distinctions in the Sabbath commandment cannot be supported from Scripture.  The commandment is very explicit, identifying Saturday as the Sabbath day—"... the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God" (Exodus 20:10).  If God had given us a New Testament variation of the commandment, saying "... the FIRST day is a sabbath of the LORD your God," then we could readily accept the claim that the identity of the day is a mere "circumstance".

However, He has not done this.  God has given us, in Scripture, only one version of the commandment—a Saturday version—and it is purely arbitrary and unfounded to suggest that some other version—a Sunday version—is in effect today.  If we today are under obligation to observe a Sabbath day, then we must abide by the terms stipulated in the Sabbath commandment as it is recorded in Scripture and observe Saturday, not Sunday, as the Sabbath day.

It is the height of presumption to seek to overturn the explicit terms of God's commandment by a appealing to a few New Testament passages that describe various events that occurred on "the first day of the week".  Unless the New Testament explicitly uses the word "Sabbath" to refer to the first day of the week, or else claims that the disciples performed no labor on the first day of the week, then there is no justification whatever to suppose that God has moved the Sabbath day to Sunday.

Moreover, the Sabbath commandment explicitly tells us why Saturday was chosen as the Sabbath day:

Exodus 20:11 – 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 sabbath day and made it holy.
The customary week is to echo the creation week, in which God "labored" six days and rested on the seventh day.  The pattern of the original creation week—six days of labor, followed by one day of rest—did not change when Christ rose from the dead.  This is an invariant fact of history, and the Sabbath commandment explicitly tells us that this fact is the basis for the commandment.  To observe Sabbath on any other day of the week would depart from the creation pattern.

The Sunday Sabbatarian likes to believe that the Sabbath no longer celebrates the original creation, but the new creation, and that this is why Sunday is the appropriate day.  The problem with this view is that is purely conjectural—there is not one line of scripture that describes the Sabbath in this way.  Nor is there any scripture that describes a situation where a day of rest precedes six days of labor.  All such notions are the product of a fertile imagination rather than of Biblical revelation.

What changed? To say that the Sabbath should be observed on Sunday rather than Saturday is to admit that there has been a change in the Sabbath commandment. The question we need to consider is: What does Scripture say about the nature of this change?

Rather than telling us that Sabbath is to be observed on a different day of the week, Scripture often tells us that the Law has been fulfilled in Christ. Animal sacrifices prefigured the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. Dietary regulations symbolized the believer's need to live a separated life—avoiding what is unclean and choosing those things which meet with God's approval. The various washing ordinances symbolized man's need for cleansing in order to be acceptable to God. In fact, the entire ceremonial law appears to have been fulfilled in Christ, and there are passages which say this very thing, even with respect to special days and Sabbaths (e.g. Colossians 2:16-17).

If it appears that I have labored the Sunday-Sabbath position, it is because it is the most subject to theorizing by its proponents.  It is relatively easy to see how one might extract a Saturday-Sabbath view, or a no-Sabbath view from Scripture.  The Sunday-Sabbath view, however, requires a great deal more pleading and argumentation simply because it stems from trying to synthesize a Saturday Sabbath commandment with a presumed New Testament practice of Sunday observance.  There are far too many holes and loose ends in the Sunday Sabbath position that must be patched up by elaborate arguments and frivolous hypotheses.

Lord's Day?
When we affirm that there is no Sabbath for present-day Christians, but insist that there is, nevertheless, a special day of the week for the church, we find precious little Scriptural basis for such an assertion. By severing "Lord's Day" from the Sabbath commandment, we forfeit any direct injunction to keep one day of the week sacred above the others. Again, we are left to argue from circumstantial evidence and speculation, for Scripture never plainly states that any particular day of the week is to be a special day for Christians. On the other hand, the various passages which teach that there are no special days for the church would disqualify a "Lord's Day" observance just as they disqualify a Sabbath observance.

The Testimony of the New Testament Scriptures.
Given that there is no clear injunction in the New Testament to observe a special day, it is all the more significant that Scripture teaches...

  • that the believer who regards each day the same is to be accepted the same as him who observes one day above another...
  Romans 14:5 – One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.
  • that the Sabbath day, together with new moon observances and dietary regulations, were mere shadows of Christ, who was to come...
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.
  • that the observance of days, months, seasons and years is a symptom of spiritual or doctrinal error...
Galatians 4:9-11 – But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain.

The early church typically met each day to break bread and to receive teaching (Acts 2:46-47; 5:42), indicating that they regarded every day to be holy, and as a day of worship, and that no special day was to be set aside for this purpose.

Certainly, I see nothing wrong with a church meeting every Sunday. But I see no Biblical basis to institutionalize this practice, nor to enjoin it upon all the churches of Christ. To do so is to violate the liberty we have in Christ, and to mandate a practice that is never mandated in Scripture.

Let's examine each of these passages in a bit more detail...

To regard one day above another.

Romans 14:5 – One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.
This verse is found in a context that discusses how we are to respond to the "weaker brother".  Paul tells us in verse 2 that the "weaker brother" eats only vegetables whereas the "strong brother" has no such scruples.  Two specific concerns are addressed by the apostle in contrasting the weaker brother with the stronger brother:  the eating of special foods, and the observance of special days.

It is the weaker brother who distinguishes one food from another, eating one kind of food, while rejecting the other.  Paul does not say explicitly whether it is the weaker or the stronger brother who "regards one day above another", but the parallel with the eating of foods would dictate that the weaker brother is the one who makes a distinction between days, just as he is the one who makes a distinction between foods.

Of course, the issue here is that of ascribing particular spiritual or religious significance to certain days above other days, just as likewise it is the spiritual or religious significance of certain foods that is in view.  A person may have very good medical or health reasons for avoiding certain foods, just as he may have such reasons for taking off a day from his usual employment.  But Romans 14 is solely concerned with matters of religion and conscience.

So what are the concerns that prompted Paul's discussion in Romans 14?

First, Paul is not saying that it doesn't matter whether we observe special days or not—if that were the case, then it would be inappropriate to distinguish between the "weaker" and the "stronger" brother.  If the observance of special days is truly inconsequential, then brothers who observe special days would not necessarily be any stronger or weaker than those who don't.  Yet this verse is set in a context where the "stronger" brother is to respect the convictions of the "weaker" brother.

Second, the inspired apostle obviously knew the mind of the Lord regarding the observance of special days.  If this were merely a theological controversy between Christians as to the correct, Biblical position regarding special foods and special days, then the apostle could easily have settled the dispute by declaring which side of the controversy was the correct one.  Clearly, there was a deeper issue here than simply identifying the correct doctrine—and that "deeper issue" concerned the matter of the weaker brother's conscience.  The weaker brother could not, in good conscience, eat certain foods, even though he may have had the objective knowledge that God has now declared all foods to be ceremonially clean (see Romans 14:2; 1 Timothy 4:3-5).

Paul appears to be thinking of a Jewish man who had come to faith in Christ, but could not easily break from his longstanding Jewish practices of resting on the Sabbath day or eating only kosher foods. If he could not be certain that a piece of meat had come from an animal that had been butchered and prepared according to the strict kosher rules of the Jews, he would take the safer route and eat only vegetables.  The Jewish kosher rules were designed to make sure that the blood had been fully drained from the animal, and that the meat had not been handled by anyone who was ceremonially unclean.  The Jewish brother's conscience was molded by years of rabbinical teaching and scrupulous adherence to the law, and it was not easily weaned from these strictures. Paul warns the stronger brothers to respect the conscience of the weaker brother as they gently help him to understand and appreciate the liberty we now have in Christ.

Another question is posed by Romans 14:5.  Why would certain brothers "regard every day alike" if both the Jews and the Church were taught to observe a Sabbath day?  We can see why there might be controversy over which day (i.e. Saturday or Sunday) to regard more highly than the others, but Paul tells us that the controversy was between those who did regard one day above another, and those who did not.  Only if the Christian has been released from the Sabbath law would there have been a faction in the early church that "regards every day alike".  The "weaker brother" would very naturally, then, be the Jewish brother who found it difficult to give up the dietary and Sabbath practices he had grown up with.

Sabbatarians typically respond to Romans 14:5 merely by denying that the passage is talking about the Sabbath. They will admit that it covers such matters as Jewish festivals, holidays invented by church tradition, and perhaps even pagan holidays, but they firmly reject any suggestion that it could be speaking of the Sabbath day as well.

Yet, Paul states this principle in the most general of terms—"One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike"—and gives us no reason whatever to suppose that he entertains any exceptions to it.  It is sheer presumption to respond "Except the Sabbath!" whenever a passage of Scripture plainly says that there are no special days for the Christian. Without contextual evidence to support his claim that the Sabbath is excepted, the Sabbatarian's objection appears very hollow indeed.

Finally, we should note carefully the implications of this passage regarding Christian liberty:  Even if it were true that the "stronger brother" is the one who observes a Sabbath day, he is still forbidden to pass judgment on the weaker brother for not observing the day.  This would disqualify anyone from using the Sabbath command in any sort of censorious, judgmental way to condemn those brothers who have not yet come to see the Sabbath as binding upon the Christian.  As the apostle says: "Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind."  That is, a brother in Christ must never be coerced to violate his conscience.  Luther expressed it well at Worms:  "To go against conscience is neither right nor safe."

This demonstrates that the Sabbath command is not a moral law, such as "Do not murder", "Do not steal" or "Do not commit adultery"—none of which can be merely a matter of personal conscience.  The apostle plainly teaches us that the man who "regards every day alike" is not to be condemned for his stance.  In contrast, a man who sees nothing wrong with murder, theft or adultery is the worst sort of reprobate, who should never be received as a brother in Christ, and whose denials of the Law deserve the strongest censure!

The substance belongs to Christ

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.
Paul is very explicit in Colossians 2:16-17, where he uses the word "Sabbath" (Greek: sabbaton) and speaks of its fulfillment in Christ. Sabbatarians sometimes argue that, since the word "is" ("a mere shadow of what is to come") is in the present tense, the Sabbath is still to be fulfilled at some future time. But this proves far too much, for the Sabbath is here grouped with "food or drink", "festivals" and "new moon" observances. To argue that the fulfillment is still future would mean that these dietary regulations, drink offerings and annual and monthly festivals should also still be in force today.

Moreover, the apostle is very clear in saying that the "substance" or "fulfillment" (lit. "body") of these ordinances is Christ Himself, who has already come in fulfillment of them. This passage places the Sabbath, along with Jewish festivals and dietary laws, in the same category with animal sacrifices, which were fulfilled in the cross of Christ.

There are some who question whether the expression "food or drink" could properly be speaking of Jewish dietary laws and/or drink offerings. However, the same phraseology occurs in Hebrews 9:10, which is clearly discussing the Jewish ceremonial law (see Hebrews 9:1ff) ...

Hebrews 9:10 –  ... they relate only to food and drink and various washings
It seems that the only possible way to rescue the Sabbatarian position is to claim that the word "Sabbath", in Colossians 2:16, is used in its secondary sense, to speak of the Jewish feast-days, rather than of the weekly Sabbath. However, Paul has already covered these non-weekly Sabbaths by referring to them as "festivals". It is highly unreasonable, in listing the things that are fulfilled in the cross, that the inspired apostle would list the same item twice: (1) dietary laws, (2) festivals, (3) new moons, (4) festivals.

Moreover, on what basis may we safely conclude that the weekly Sabbath is not intended by the use of sabbaton in this passage? The Sabbatarian is adamant in his claim that the Sabbath is "binding unless rescinded." Yet, here is a verse telling us that the Sabbath has been rescinded, and it seems that the Sabbatarian argument is reduced to trying to find a loophole in the passage—arguing that "Sabbath" can, in certain contexts, refer to something other than the weekly Sabbath. Unless he provides evidence to show that, in this particular context, the weekly Sabbath is exempted, he is engaging in special pleading. Suffice it to say that in the context of Colossians 2:16 there is no evidence whatever that would exclude the word "Sabbath" from having its usual meaning of the weekly Sabbath observance.

Expositors commonly regard Paul, in Colossians 2, to be confronting the errors of gnosticism—a heresy that plagued the early church. Paul makes reference in verses 18-23 to such gnostic practices as angel-worship and asceticism. It sometimes appears that the gnostic elements of the passage are used as a smokescreen to deflect the force of Paul's clear anti-Sabbatarian statements. While we do not discount these gnostic influences, this does not change the fact that Paul speaks specifically of the "Sabbath" in verse 16. Undoubtedly, the Colossian heresy was some mixture of Judaism and gnosticism, borrowing features from both, and Paul's reference to "Sabbaths" therefore has to do with Jewish Sabbaths. Paul cannot be speaking of pagan, gnostic practices in verses 16-17, for he says that they are "a mere shadow of what is to come", and that they have their fulfillment in Christ. This can only be speaking of the Old Testament ordinances, with their Christ-centered typology.

Observing "days and months and seasons and years".

Galatians 4:9-11 – But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain.
In Galatians 4:9-11, the apostle expresses his deep concern over the Galatian saints, for after having come to Christ from paganism, they were now being persuaded by certain "Judaizers" that, in order to be justified before God, they needed to become circumcised and adopt the Jewish ceremonial law. If this were true, it would mean that the sacrifice of Christ was incomplete or insufficient, and that His righteousness, in itself, was not fully acceptable to God without our good works being added to it.  The Galatians supposed that they needed to add their own law-obedience to Christ's righteousness and redemptive work in order to be fully justified before God. This amounts to a return to the legalistic principles they practiced under paganism and denies the very heart of the gospel—the undeserved grace of God displayed in the cross of Christ. Paul is therefore very severe in his condemnation of their observance of Jewish ceremonies—fearing that perhaps his labor for them had been fruitless.

What were the Galatians doing that seemed so inconsistent with genuine Christian faith? —They were observing "days and months and seasons and years".  It was the heresy of the Judaizers that occasioned the writing of the epistle, and so we understand Paul to be referring to the various Judaic observances that recurred over a period of days, months, seasons or years—and not necessarily that these events lasted for days and months and seasons and years. It would be difficult to identify many specific observances that lasted for entire "months", "seasons" or "years".

Thus, Paul has in mind the entire spectrum of Jewish special times and days: the 50th-year Jubilee, the 7-year cycle of sabbatical years, the annual (seasonal) feast-days, the monthly new moon observances, and the weekly Sabbath. It is only the weekly Sabbath that recurred over a period of mere days, and so it is certain that the apostle has this in mind when he uses the term "days".

Any of these things represents an observance that is foreign to Biblical Christianity. Otherwise, Paul could not have cited them as evidence that the Galatians had a wrong view of justification. Had there been an appropriate or legitimate reason for the Galatian saints to observe any of these special days and times, then it would not automatically follow that they were seeking to be justified by law-observance.

This, of course, does not mean that everyone who observes the Sabbath is thereby trying to work his way to heaven.  Even in the case of the Galatians, it didn't necessarily mean that—perhaps the Galatians only thought that observing the ceremonial law would aid in their sanctification[2].  But, Paul couldn't be sure of this, and he could not treat the matter lightly if it might have meant the Galatians had embraced a false gospel.

The crucial thing we need to recognize is that Paul saw the Galatians' observance of special days as a "red flag"—an alarm signal that something was seriously wrong in their doctrine and practice.  Why were these Galatian Christians treating some days as more sacred than others?  Their practice did not conform to the teaching he had given them about how to live the Christian life.  Who had given them the idea that there was some benefit in the observance of special days?  What benefit did they imagine they would obtain from such practices?  Paul could smell the scent of the Judaizers in all of this—and he knew well their teaching of works-justification.  Hence, he sharply rebuked the Galatians for thinking that practicing the ceremonial law could be of any spiritual benefit to them.

We must recognize that Paul's teaching in Romans 14 about the "weaker brother" would not apply to the situation in Galatia.  Romans 14 describes a person who, having been brought up in Judaism, found it difficult to break away from the Biblical, God-ordained Sabbath keeping and dietary regulations that were so ingrained into his conscience and practice.  While he would certainly confess that Sabbath keeping and dietary laws were not the ground of his acceptance with God, he would nevertheless feel the sting of conscience if he were to violate these ordinances.  In his case, he kept the ceremonial law, not as a means of justification before God, but simply to maintain a clear conscience and a God-honoring life.

However, the Galatians had not been brought up with these Judaistic practices.  It was not their own consciences which condemned them for violating the Sabbath, but rather the consciences of the judgmental Judaizers, who sought to control the Galatian saints by bringing them under bondage to Moses.  When these Galatian saints had first come to Christ, they had no delusions that their righteous standing before God depended upon their own faithfulness in keeping the Mosaic ceremonies.  Paul says that they had "begun in the Spirit", but now were seeking to be "perfected by the flesh" (Galatians 3:3).  In other words, they were regressing, rather than progressing in their Christian sanctification, and there was reason to suspect that they were never truly saved.

Notice that here, just as in Romans 14:5, the apostle uses the most general of terms to describe the error of the Galatians. He doesn't list specific feasts or festivals they were observing, such as Pentecost, Passover, Tabernacles or Day of Atonement. He doesn't even mention the Sabbath by name. Rather, by speaking in very general, all-encompassing terms, of observing "days and months and seasons and years", he instructs us that there are to be no special times or days on the church's calendar that are regarded as more sacred than others—no annual holidays, no monthly convocations, no weekly Sabbaths. Instead, each and every day of our lives is to be regarded as "the Lord's Day" and is to be lived for His glory. It is not as though there are no sacred days for the Christian—quite the contrary, there are no days that are not sacred.

This does not deny that the church must come together for worship on a regular basis, nor that it must observe the sacraments from time to time. It does not rule out annual business meetings or monthly fellowship dinners. It does not mean that we cannot set aside one or two days of the week to rest from our secular employment, or to devote exclusively to the worship of God. The error is in attaching special religious significance to a particular day or season. This error is compounded when we treat such observances as compulsory, or seek to impose them upon our brothers in Christ, accusing or condemning those whose conscience does not lead them to follow such practices.

Notice in particular that the apostle does not merely charge the Galatians with observing Sabbath on the wrong day of the week. If their error had merely been observing a Jewish (Saturday) Sabbath rather than (or in addition to) a "Christian" (Sunday) Sabbath, then Paul would have addressed that error. Instead, he charges them with observing "days and months and seasons and years"—as though the very idea of regarding one day as more sacred than another is fundamentally flawed and inconsistent with pure Christian practice and worship.

Christ, Our "Rest".
Hebrews 4:3-11 is one more passage that bears examination, for it reveals to us the imagery behind the Old Testament Sabbath command.  It should not be considered a "pillar" of the non-Sabbatarian position in the same sense as Romans 14:5; Galatians 4:9-11 and Colossians 2:16-17.  These three passages expressly tell us that there are no sacred days for the church of our Lord.

We should never base doctrine upon a particular interpretation of the imagery and symbolism found in Scripture, but rather upon the plain declarations of God's Word.  Imagery and symbolism exist in Scripture to illustrate and amplify Biblical doctrines—not to establish them.  It is far too easy to misunderstand or misapply the symbolism, or to see doctrinal significance in minute details where no significance was intended.  It is only after we have carefully analyzed the Bible passages that clearly and directly expound the doctrine that we can be confident that we possess the doctrinal clarity and insights to properly interpret the imagery.

Hebrews 4:3-11 is useful, therefore, as a corollary or epilogue to Romans, Galatians and Colossians, to explain to us the spiritual significance pictured in the weekly cessation of work that epitomized the Sabbath ordinance...

Hebrews 4:3-11 – For we who have believed enter that rest, ... For He has said somewhere concerning the seventh day: "AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY FROM ALL HIS WORKS"; and again in this passage, "THEY SHALL NOT ENTER MY REST." ... For if Joshua had given them rest, He would not have spoken of another day after that. So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience.
The Sabbatarian view is that the Sabbath-rest mentioned here refers to our glorification, when we will no longer experience suffering, grief, weariness or death.  The glaring problem with this view is that verse 3 uses the present tense, indicative mood to say that we who have believed are already entering that rest—right now.  "For we who have believed enter that rest ... " —not "... someday will enter that rest ...", but presently enter that rest.  The author of Hebrews does not represent this as some future event that we patiently hope for, but rather as the present possession of every true believer.

What is this present-day Sabbath rest?  Consider the facts: It is God's rest.  Joshua, in the Old Testament, did not give this rest to the people of Israel.  We who have believed are presently entering this rest.  The one who has entered this rest has rested from his works, just as God rested from His.

I submit that this "rest" is the gospel-peace of knowing that God has imputed to us His own perfect righteousness in Jesus Christ—that we can rest from trying to satisfy God's justice through our own works of righteousness—that this rest is the present possession of every true believer in Christ.  The following table illustrates the compelling reasons for this conclusion...

It is God's rest we must enter. It is Christ's righteousness we must have.
The Old Testament Joshua did not give them rest. The New Testament Joshua (i.e. Jesus) did provide this rest.
The Jews failed to enter through unbelief. We who have believed are presently entering this rest.
He who enters this rest has rested from his works. "But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness," (Romans 4:5)

The cessation of work is what characterized the Sabbath command.  The cessation of works to obtain justification is at the heart of the gospel, and is a consistent and pervasive theme in the New Testament...

Romans 3:20 – because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.
Romans 3:27 – Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith.
Romans 3:28 – For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.
Romans 4:2 – For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.
Romans 4:6 – just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
Romans 9:11 – for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God's purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls,
Romans 9:32 – Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone,
Romans 11:6 – But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.
Galatians 2:16 – nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.
Galatians 3:2 – This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?
Galatians 3:5 – So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?
Galatians 3:10 – For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, "CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO DOES NOT ABIDE BY ALL THINGS WRITTEN IN THE BOOK OF THE LAW, TO PERFORM THEM."
Ephesians 2:8-9 – For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God;  not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.
2 Timothy 1:9 – who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity,
Titus 3:5 – He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit,
Hebrews 6:1 – Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God,
It is noteworthy that the Greek word for "works" (ergon) in all these passages is the same word as in Hebrews 4, verses 3, 4 and 10, where God is said to have ceased from His "works", and that the one who has entered God's rest has likewise ceased from his own "works".

Surely it is no mere accident that such an important gospel concept would be so vividly pictured in the Sabbath ordinance!  Surely the Sabbath, like so much of Old Testament ceremonialism, points us to Christ and His cross.  Surely, the burden of proof lies with those who would claim that the "Sabbath-rest" spoken of in Hebrews 4 speaks of future glory rather than our present justification by grace alone, apart from works!

This imagery is also suggested by Deuteronomy 5:15, where the Sabbath is said to be a memorial of God's redemption of the Israelites from their slavery under the Egyptians...

Deuteronomy 5:15 – You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day.
But this illustrates the spiritual slavery of trying to measure up to the standards of the Law through our own works of obedience. Christ has redeemed us from this slavery by satisfying the just demands of the Law in our place and imputing to us His own resplendent and unblemished righteousness.  We now can rest in Christ from works of self-righteousness.  Truly, He is both our Passover (1 Corinthians 5:7) and our Sabbath-rest!

"Lord of the Sabbath".
An instructive event took place during the earthly ministry of Christ, when His disciples picked grain on the Sabbath day and ate it...

Matthew 12:1-8 - At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat.  But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, "Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath." But He said to them, "Have you not read what David did when he became hungry, he and his companions, how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat nor for those with him, but for the priests alone? Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent? But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, 'I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT A SACRIFICE,' you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath."
The Pharisees criticized the disciples for violating the Sabbath in this way.  Our Lord's response to them was that God can grant exemptions to the Sabbath command when He pleases, and to whom He pleases.  It would normally have been a violation of the laws of consecration for David to enter the temple and eat the consecrated bread "... which was not lawful for him to eat".  However, God, in grace, granted David an exemption from this law in order that he and his men might receive nourishment during their flight from Saul.

Similarly, Jesus tells us that the law against laboring on the Sabbath does not apply to the priests, who continue to minister on the Sabbath day.  He sums up His teaching by saying:

Matthew 12:6 - But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here.

Matthew 12:8 - For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.

His point is simply this:  It was Christ Himself who appointed the Sabbath day.  The day belongs to Him to do with as He pleases.  If He wishes to rigorously enforce the Sabbath stipulations, He is free to do so.  Or—if He wishes to grant an exemption to David, to the priests or to His disciples, then He is free to do that as well.  He does not sacrifice His sovereignty on the altar of Sabbath-observance.

Christ declares Himself to be "greater than the temple", for He is the Exalted One who is typified by the temple.  The temple, with its priesthood and sacrificial system, were but shadows of Christ Himself.  Surely, the One who is foreshadowed by the temple and its priestly service is greater than the shadows!  In this context, therefore, our Lord is likewise the fulfillment of the Sabbath ordinance.  Surely, the shadow must bow before the Exalted Lord to whom it bears witness!  By lifting the stringent demands of the Sabbath, our Lord demonstrated Himself to be the promised Messiah—the Great High Priest—who was typified in both the temple worship and the Sabbath ordinance.  As forerunners of Christ, they must step aside when He takes His place on the scene of history.  Like John the Baptist, they must "decrease" as He increases in public prominence...

 John 3:30 - He must increase, but I must decrease.
Someone will argue: "But what about verse 7?  —Isn't our Lord simply saying that the Sabbath was not meant as a burden on men, but as a relief to them?  Doesn't He criticize the Pharisees for their lack of mercy toward the disciples?  Doesn't He mean merely that it is permissible and proper to do deeds of mercy and necessity on the Sabbath?"

Certainly, the reason why our Lord granted an exemption to His disciples was to show mercy to them in their hunger on the Sabbath day.  However, He is not saying that such exemptions are an integral part of the Sabbath day.  Because He is the sovereign "Lord of the Sabbath", He is free to suspend the Sabbath requirements in order to show mercy if and when He pleases.  No one else has this right but Christ alone!

The Pharisees were doubly guilty:  First, because they did not acknowledge Christ as the rightful Lord of the Sabbath—an ordinance whose purpose was to point men to Him!  Second, because they complained that our Lord would use His sovereignty to show mercy to His disciples.  They were more concerned for the sanctity of the ritualistic shadow than for the Lord to whom the shadow bore witness, or for His glory revealed in the sovereign mercy He showed to His disciples when He allowed them to pick grain to eat on the Sabbath day.

Compare this episode with the time that God fed the Israelites with manna in the wilderness.  He explicitly told them that He would provide them with a double measure on Friday so that they would not have to go out and gather manna on the Sabbath day.  When some did go out on the Sabbath day in search of manna, they did not find any, but God was displeased with them for seeking it on the Sabbath...

Exodus 16:4-5 -  Then the LORD said to Moses, "Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day's portion every day, that I may test them, whether or not they will walk in My instruction. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily."

Exodus 16:25-29 - Moses said, "Eat it 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.  It came about on the seventh day that some of the people went out to gather, but they found none.  Then the LORD said to Moses, "How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My instructions?  See, the LORD has given you the sabbath; therefore He gives you bread for two days on the sixth day. Remain every man in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day."

It appears, therefore, that gathering food on the Sabbath day constituted a violation of the Sabbath command.  Yet, our Lord sovereignly permitted His disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath day, granting them an exemption from the commandment, to demonstrate that He is "Lord of the Sabbath", and possesses the sovereign right to do as He pleases with the day.

Ceremonial or Moral?
We conclude, then, that our Lord has the sovereign right to modify, or even suspend, the terms of the Sabbath command.  This shows that the Sabbath commandment is not strictly a moral commandment, but has ceremonial aspects that God can freely modify or suspend according to His wise, gracious sovereignty.

God cannot, without violating His own unyielding holiness and righteousness, rescind His commandments against murder, theft, adultery or bearing false witness.  These are moral laws that say in words what is clearly imprinted on the heart of every man born into this world.  This is why human government universally has laws against murder, theft, adultery and perjury.  But the keeping of a particular day of the week (be it Saturday or Sunday) is not imprinted on the human conscience, and human government does not normally enforce the observance of any particular day as a day of worship or rest.

Moreover, there is no way, apart from special revelation (i.e. the inspired Scriptures), that men would know how often to cease from work, or which particular days they should be.  The frequency and identification of the Sabbath day are not a matter of moral law, attested by conscience.

On the other hand, there are aspects of the Sabbath command that are moral in nature:

  1. We have a moral obligation to exercise mercy by periodically granting rest to servants and even to beasts of burden.
  2. We have a moral obligation to set aside time periodically for worship and the contemplation of God.
  3. We have a moral obligation to grant time periodically to servants and employees that they may worship God.
But the matter of when, how often, and how long to do this are a matter of special revelation rather than of natural law, imprinted on the conscience.  Or, in the absence of special revelation, they are a matter of personal judgment, common sense and mercy.  Moreover, the obligation to grant rest to servants, employees and beasts of burden is not strictly a matter of the calendar.  When they are severely exhausted from their labor, or suffering from illness or injury, we have an obligation to grant rest to them that they may recover from their infirmity.  It is not enough to say "I give you a weekly Sabbath-restthat ought to be enough for you!  You can wait until then to rest from your labors, you lazy servant!"  Indeed, we also have an obligation to refrain from overburdening a healthy, rested servant or beast by requiring from them more than they are able to do, or requiring them to do something that is likely to cause permanent injury to them.  This would seem to be inherent in the moral aspects of the Sabbath command.

We can distinguish various aspects of the Sabbath command as follows...

Discretionary Christ, as "Lord of the Sabbath", has the exclusive, sovereign right to institute, rescind, modify or grant exceptions to, the Sabbath command and the specific way in which it is observed.  In this sense, the Sabbath stands as a token of God's arbitrary sovereignty, whereby He may demand of men whatever He wishes, consonant with His own justice, wisdom and holiness. 

Just as He arbitrarily set aside one tree in the garden and forbade Adam to eat of it, so also He arbitrarily set aside the seventh day of the week and forbade the Israelites from working on that dayall to demonstrate His kingly authority and His sovereign right to regulate their lives and command their obedience.

Moral The need to set aside time periodically to worship God, and the obligation to show mercy to servants by granting them rest from their daily labors, is a matter of moral law.  Such concerns remain in effect, regardless of whether a specific day of the week is designated as a "Sabbath Day".
Ceremonial / Representative By setting aside the seventh day of every week as a day of rest, the Sabbath served as a sign and reminder of three important events:
  1. God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day.
  2. God redeemed the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt.
  3. Christ, at Calvary, was to redeem His people from works of self-justification.
This ceremonial aspect of the Sabbath law was embodied in the weekly cycle of six days of labor, followed by rest on the last day of the week.  Because the specific timing and duration of the Sabbath is a matter of ceremonial law, rather than moral law, it is subject to revision or repeal according to God's good pleasure.

Note that it is the timing of the Sabbaththe setting apart of a specific day during the weekthat is at issue in the Sabbatarian controversy.  No one should deny that it is important that we devote time to the worship of God.  Nor can we accept the idea that servants and animals may be freely abused by denying them rest from their labors.  These moral concerns remain in effect throughout all ages, regardless of whether there is a specified day set apart for worship and rest.

Luther and Calvin.
It is commonly supposed that the Puritans and Reformers were united in their acceptance of the "Christian Sabbath".  It will therefore no doubt come as a surprise to some that both Luther and Calvin rejected the idea that the Sabbath command was binding for the church.  I wish to extend my sincere thanks to the "Grace for Today" website for publishing the following quotations...

Luther criticized the Sabbatarian Carlstadt and certain Anabaptists for their Judiazing of Sunday: "that if Sunday were anywhere made holy merely for the day's sake or its observance set on a Jewish foundation, 'then I order you to walk on it, to ride on it, to dance on it, to feast on it, to do anything that shall remove this encroachment on Christian Liberty' " (p.17). 

Calvin "regarded the external observance of the Sabbath rest as a Jewish ceremonial ordinance and no longer binding on Christians." He said of Sabbatarians that they "surpass the Jews three times over in a crass and carnal Sabbatarian superstition" (p.19). 

For very practical reasons, Calvin wished to retain a stated rest day for rest and worship. "When Spirituals taunted Protestants as Judaizers for still keeping Sunday, Calvin replied that they celebrated it not scrupulously but 'as a remedy needed to keep order in the church.' " Solberg notes also that "in Calvin's Geneva, citizens were free to amuse themselves after Sunday worship, and they did so with military drill and bowling. Calvin himself bowled on Sunday and was buried on a Lord's Day afternoon" (p. 19). 


The above text may be found at:

Dabney agrees in his assessment of the views of Luther and Calvin, and acknowledges that these views were held by some of the Reformed Churches as well...

Opinion of Calvin.

We proceed now to state the opinions of Calvin, and some of the Reformed Churches. By consulting Calvin’s Institutes, (B. 2, chap. 8), it will be seen that his views of Sabbath observance are substantially those of Luther. He states that, among the Israelites, there were three grounds for the observance of the seventh day: first that it might be a type of that cessation of the works of self righteousness which true believers practice; second, that there might be a stated day for public worship; and third, that domestic animals and servants might enjoy a merciful rest from bodily labor. Only the last two of these grounds exist, according to Calvin, under the New Testament. Hence he says (ch. 8, ch. 33): “We celebrate it not with scrupulous rigor, as a ceremony which we conceive to be a figure of some spiritual mystery, but only use it as a remedy necessary to the preservation of order in the Church.” In the previous section he says: “Though the Sabbath is abrogated, yet it is still customary among us to assemble on stated days, for hearing the Word, for breaking the mystic bread, and for public prayers; and also to allow servants and laborers a remission from their labor.” And in section 34: “Thus vanish all the dreams of false prophets, who in past ages have infected the people with a Jewish notion, affirming that nothing but the ceremonial part of this commandment, which, according to them, is the appointment of the seventh day, has been abrogated; but that the moral part of it, that is, the observance of one day in seven, still remains. But this is only changing the day in contempt of the Jews, while they retain the same opinion of the holiness of a day; for, on this principle, the same mysterious signification would be attributed to particular days, which formerly obtained among the Jews,” And in the same tenor, he remarks upon Col. 2:16: (“Let no man, therefore, judge you in meat or in drink, or in respect of a holy day, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days”) “Such a distinction (of days) suited the Jews, to observe sacredly the appointed days, by separating them from other days. Among Christians, such a distinction hath ceased. But, somebody will say that we still retain some observance of days. I answer, that we by no means observe them, as if there were any religion in holy days, or as if it were not right to labor then; but the regard is paid to polity and good order, not to the days.” 

Dabney, R. L., Systematic Theology, (Escondido, CA: Ephesians Four Group) 1999.

There is no question that the Westminster divines were fully Sabbatarian, as were many of the Baptists, the Presbyterian Church in Scotland and the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  It is interesting to note that, in contrast, John Calvin himself, the guiding star of Puritanism, as of all these Calvinistic groups, did not share their strict Sabbatarian views.

It is my sincere prayer that this treatise will help provide light rather than heat to a controversy that often becomes quite heated.  I have many dear friends in several of the various camps on this issue, and I fully respect those brothers who hold their respective Sabbath or Lord's Day views.

We all must recognize that many of those who observe a "Christian Sabbath" or "Lord's Day" do so, not out of a sense of burdensome obligation, but of sweet joy and delightful gratitude—viewing it as a welcome gift from a compassionate and loving God who has provided the Sabbath for our good and His glory.  No one should ever dispute both the physical and spiritual benefits of periodically setting aside time to rest from the rigors of daily employment and especially to devote that time to worship, prayer, Bible study or deeds of mercy.

However, none of these pragmatic concerns proves that the Sabbath is, or should be, still in force for the church today.  It is Scripture—not personal testimonials extolling the virtues of Sabbath observance—that is the standard of our faith and practice.  My opposition to the observance of a "Christian Sabbath" is based purely on the Biblical considerations presented earlier—not from a spirit of malice or rebellion.

Above all, we need to respect the conscience of other saints who may have come to a different conclusion than we ourselves hold, and not try to impose our own Sabbath convictions upon them contrary to their conscience.  We should instead seek humbly to instruct others while maintaining a teachable spirit—engaging in friendly, open dialogue with those who differ, prayerfully considering their arguments in the light of God's holy Word and thereby seeking to hasten the blessed consensus we will enjoy in glory when God's people finally come to understand His Word aright.


[1]Because Revelation is the account of John's vision of "the Day of the Lord", I understand John's statement to mean "I came to be, by the Spirit, in the Day of the Lord." The word "was" is, in the Greek, ginomai, which means "to become". "In the Spirit" is en pneumati (instrumental [dative] case), which denotes the instrumentality of the Spirit, and "on the Lord's Day" is en kuriake hemera which is the locative [dative] case, and indicates a "day" belonging to the Lord.

There are some who argue that the expression kuriake hemera carries some special reference to ordinances, comparing it to the similar expression kuriakon deipnon (Lord's supper) in 1 Corinthians 11:20. However, this is a very weak argument, for it would seem incongruous that a particular grammatical construction should carry the theological implication of an ordinance. Moreover, one passage is simply not an adequate statistical sample to support the claim that this construction carries with it a necessary implication of ordinances.

Such an argument fails to take into account that the expression hemeran kuriou (day of the Lord), which everyone acknowledges is not referring to an ordinance, is parallel to the expressions koterion kuriou (cup of the Lord) and trapezes kuriou (table of the Lord) in 1 Corinthians 10:21.

The point is that kuriake hemera and hemeran kuriou are grammatically equivalent. They are two ways to say the same thing, just as in English "cup of the Lord" or "the Lord's cup" would express the same idea.

What is to me the more compelling argument is that Scripture ought to be the canon by which we determine the meaning of a Scriptural expression. If "Lord's Day" does not mean "day of the Lord", then this expression occurs only once in Scripture (Rev. 1:10), and is never defined nor explained in that passage. It seems far more likely that "Lord's Day" is simply another way to say "day of the Lord": a concept which is fully and unambiguously identified elsewhere in Scripture.

The expression "day of the Lord" occurs frequently in Scripture, and almost always refers to a future day when God's power will be openly manifested, either in judgment, or in blessing...

1 Corinthians 5:5 - I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
1 Thessalonians 5:2 - For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night.
2 Thessalonians 2:2 - that you not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.
2 Peter 3:10 - But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.
See also: Isaiah 13:6,9; Lamentations 2:22; Ezekiel 13:5; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1,11,31; 3:14; Amos 5:18,20; Obadiah 1:15; Zephaniah 1:7,8,14,18; 2:2,3; Malachi 4:5.

Of all the Old Testament references to "day of the Lord", only Isaiah 58:13 refers to the Sabbath.

This understanding of Revelation 1:10 fits the context quite well... John is about to give us a revelation of what will occur in the day of the Lord, and he opens by telling us how he came to have his vision of "the day of the Lord".

On the other hand, the interpretation that John received his vision on a Sunday (rather than on some other day of the week) is

  1. without precedent (i.e. no other apostle or prophet ever told us which day of the week he received a revelation from God) and
  2. without purpose, other than to give Sunday sabbatarians fodder to support their position.
[2]It would still have been a serious error to suppose that keeping the Jewish ceremonial law could aid in the Christian's sanctification, and the apostle would have sought to correct such a misconception, had that been the actual problem among the churches of Galatia.  Instead, the apostle speaks as though it was entirely inappropriate for Christians to keep the Jewish ceremonial law for any reason (other than to evangelize the Jewish people1 Corinthians 9:20), as he addresses the most serious error that might have occasioned the Galatians' observance of the ceremonial lawnamely works-justification.

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