What Is the Christian Sabbath?

Have you ever wondered what day Christians are to keep? Saturday? Sunday? Are we to keep the day as a Sabbath or as a Lord’s Day? Or maybe there is no day for Christians to keep. This might sound like a relatively minor issue. But this question, simple as it sounds, has divided Christianity into four camps, each supporting its own view.

What’s more, some people tend to judge others with different opinions on this issue. We are to defend the faith and expose error. But does the Bible authorize the judging of others over the issue of days? This article will answer these questions from the Bible. Whatever your view, please read this entire article to get the full picture. Also, please do not jump to conclusions about what my view is. I will state my view toward the end of the article.

I also want to point out that in writing this article, I am going to explain Scriptures as I see them. You, the reader, have the obligation to be as the Bereans and search the Scriptures to see whether these things I say are so (see Acts 17:10-11). As you read this article, you will see that I point out the deficiencies of all of the views but the one I hold. I hold that view because I believe it is the teaching of the Bible and does not have deficiencies. In doing so, I am not judging the Christianity of anyone holding to a view different from my own. Romans 14 is a good chapter to study in this regard (I will have more to say about Romans 14 later). I am only trying to point out what I believe is the Scriptural and better way to understand the issue of keeping days. All of us, when dealing with this subject, must be careful not to add to Scripture (for example, by saying there is a command to keep a day when there is not), impose our views on others against their will, judge others’ Christianity, or keep days to earn merit with God (which amounts to legalism).

The four views concerning the day Christians are to keep are:

1) The Sunday-Sabbath View. Christians are to keep the Sabbath because it is part of the moral law, but the day (Saturday) on which it was kept in the Old Testament was merely ceremonial and was changed to Sunday with the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Sunday morning. Those who hold this view sometimes call Sunday the Lord’s Day, but because they view it as a Sabbath, their use of this term does not put them into the Lord’s Day view discussed below. Presbyterians, Reformed Christians, Methodists, and some Baptists (especially Reformed Baptists), among others, have historically held the Sunday-Sabbath view. Today, however, only the more conservative churches in these denominations adhere—often quite adamantly—to Sabbath (Sunday) keeping. The rest seem to view the practice as a quaint custom of the past that has little relevance to today.

2) The Seventh-day Sabbath View. Christians are to keep the seventh day (Saturday) as the Sabbath as commanded in the Ten Commandments. This view is held, among others, by Seventh-day Adventists; the Seventh-day Baptists; the Church of God (Seventh Day); the Church of God 7th Day; and the various splinter groups of the Worldwide Church of God that adhere to the tenets of Herbert W. Armstrong, such as the Philadelphia Church of God, the United Church of God, the Living Church of God, and the Church of God, International.

3) The Lord’s Day View. The Sabbath day belongs to the Old Testament and is past, but Christ, by His resurrection and appearances to His disciples, instituted a new day called the Lord’s Day. The Lord’s Day is Sunday. Those who hold this view do not always agree as to how to observe the Lord’s Day. The spectrum ranges from those who treat the day as if it were a Sabbath in everything but name (and who are sometimes judgmental of those at the other end of the spectrum) to those who believe that it is the day on which we should go to church, but that it does not otherwise affect what we do outside of church. The Lord’s Day view is held by most who do not fall into the first two views. Some people hold a variation of the Lord’s Day view in which they say the Lord’s Day was not instituted in the Bible, but should be kept because it was an early church tradition.

The Lord’s Day view, by the way, is the official position of both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches (the Eastern church also gives some special regard to the seventh day [Saturday] as the day on which God rested from His works of creation and the day on which Christ rested in death in the tomb). In reality, however, the Roman church has wavered and continues to waver between the Lord’s Day view and the Sunday-Sabbath view. Cæsarius of Arles led a movement in the Roman church in the sixth century that taught a form of the Sunday-Sabbath view, but the church officially opposed this. Albertus Magnus (1193–1280) and Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) also held to a Sunday-Sabbath view.

Pope John Paul II, in his apostolic letter called Dies Domini, wrote in 1998, “It is the duty of Christians therefore to remember that, although the practices of the Jewish Sabbath are gone, surpassed as they are by the ’fulfilment’ which Sunday brings, the underlying reasons for keeping ’the Lord’s Day’ holy — inscribed solemnly in the Ten Commandments — remain valid, though they need to be reinterpreted in the light of the theology and spirituality of Sunday…. [Jesus Christ]…restores to the Sabbath observance its liberating character, carefully safeguarding the rights of God and the rights of man. This is why Christians, called as they are to proclaim the liberation won by the blood of Christ, felt that they had the authority to transfer the meaning of the Sabbath to the day of the Resurrection…. Therefore, also in the particular circumstances of our own time, Christians will naturally strive to ensure that civil legislation respects their duty to keep Sunday holy. In any case, they are obliged in conscience to arrange their Sunday rest in a way which allows them to take part in the Eucharist, refraining from work and activities which are incompatible with the sanctification of the Lord’s Day, with its characteristic joy and necessary rest for spirit and body.” It is interesting to see here how these words show that Catholics still struggle to explain how they believe that Sunday is not the Sabbath while also believing that somehow it is! Notice the equivocation: “…although the practices of the Jewish Sabbath are gone…the underlying reasons for keeping ’the Lord’s Day’ holy — inscribed solemnly in the Ten Commandments — remain valid…. This is why Christians…felt that they had the authority to transfer the meaning of the Sabbath to the day of the Resurrection.”

This same thinking can be seen in Pope Benedict XVI, when, in 2007, he wrote in Sacramentum Caritatis, “…the Synod Fathers reaffirmed the importance of the Sunday obligation for all the faithful…. To lose a sense of Sunday as the Lord’s Day, a day to be sanctified, is symptomatic of the loss of an authentic sense of Christian freedom, the freedom of the children of God…. Sunday thus appears as the primordial holy day, when all believers, wherever they are found, can become heralds and guardians of the true meaning of time. It gives rise to the Christian meaning of life and a new way of experiencing time, relationships, work, life and death…. For the sake of these important values – while recognizing that Saturday evening, beginning with First Vespers, is already a part of Sunday and a time when the Sunday obligation can be fulfilled – we need to remember that it is Sunday itself that is meant to be kept holy, lest it end up as a day ’empty of God.’… Finally, it is particularly urgent nowadays to remember that the day of the Lord is also a day of rest from work. It is greatly to be hoped that this fact will also be recognized by civil society, so that individuals can be permitted to refrain from work without being penalized. Christians, not without reference to the meaning of the Sabbath in the Jewish tradition, have seen in the Lord’s Day a day of rest from their daily exertions.” Again, while avoiding explicitly naming Sunday as the Christian Sabbath, the pope references refraining from work on Sunday to “the Sabbath in the Jewish tradition” and, quite in the fashion of the Jews, even says that this Sunday rest begins on “Saturday evening” (Jews, both anciently and today, keep the seventh day Sabbath from evening to evening).

In the above references, both popes call for laws to protect Sunday observance. Is it preposterous that we could, even today, return to enforced rest on Sunday? Not at all. As I write, France is trying to enforce Sunday laws, which the Associated Press says are “aimed to support ’dominical rest’,” against handbag manufacturer and retailer Louis Vuitton (“Louis Vuitton opens store Sunday amid legal battle“). French “law empowers a Prefect, after consultation with employers’ organizations and trade unions, to issue a formal decision concerning the Sunday closure of establishments within a particular sphere of activity and a particular geographical area” (“Sunday Rest“). And, backed by Catholic bishops, the European Union has proposed a new law on Sunday rest (“European bishops back proposed EU law on Sunday rest“).

4) The God’s Rest Fulfillment View. This position is somewhat similar to the third view in agreeing that the requirement to keep a Sabbath day (whether seventh day or Sunday) ended with the Old Covenant. The difference between this view and the Lord’s Day view is that those who hold this fourth view believe that the Bible does not enjoin Christians to observe any day. The Sabbath was a shadow and a part of the law pointing to Christ. Christians have entered God’s true rest and no longer need the shadow. Also, Jesus did not institute a new day called the Lord’s Day for Christians to keep. This is very much a minority view held only by small groups of Christians.

The Sunday-Sabbath View

The view that the Sabbath was transferred to Sunday, and that Christians are obligated to keep this day as a Sabbath, is called semisabbatarianism. In the thirteenth century, the scholastic theologian Albertus Magnus explained how this transfer from one day to another could have happened. He said that the command in the Old Testament to rest upon a Sabbath was moral and perpetual, but the day of the week on which this rest was commanded to the Jews was only a symbol subject to change. Those who today hold to a Sunday-Sabbath view still use this argument.

The Fourth Commandment, as found in Exodus 20:8–11 states: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.” Do these verses allow for the Sabbath to be transferred to Sunday?

Notice that the command says, “the seventh day is the sabbath.” It does not say one day in seven is a Sabbath. It specifically names which day is the Sabbath—the seventh. It goes on to explain why that day is the day on which to rest: because God made the heavens and the earth in six days and rested the seventh. The commandment makes no distinction between the rest as moral and the day as symbol. Since the command actually defines the Sabbath as the seventh day, it is impossible to divide the command by saying the Sabbath is moral law, but the seventh day is ceremonial law. To say that another day—the first day—could be the Sabbath is to do violence to the commandment.

The Sabbath command is repeated in Deuteronomy 5, where again it is stated that the seventh day is the Sabbath. It is also repeated in Exodus 31, where it says, “the seventh [day] is the sabbath of rest” (verse 15), and “for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed” (verse 17). These verses all intimately connect the seventh day with the Sabbath rest. The two are inseparable. As far as these passages are concerned, one must conclude that as long as there is a day to be kept as a Sabbath, it must be the seventh day.

Of course, those who believe that Sunday is now the Sabbath have additional arguments to support their case. Central to these is Jesus’ resurrection on Sunday. (The Seventh Day Adventist Church also teaches that Jesus was resurrected on Sunday, after resting in death in the grave on the Sabbath. But most other seventh-day Sabbath keepers believe Jesus was resurrected on the seventh day. For the Bible’s answer to this view, see “3 Days + 3 Nights = 1 False Doctrine.”) Other evidence offered includes the facts that Jesus, after His resurrection, met with His disciples on the first day of the week (John 20:19); that He met with them again “after eight days” (John 20:26), taken to mean a week later; that, during a visit from Paul, the disciples met to break bread (take the Lord’s supper) on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7); and that Paul ordered everyone in the Corinthian church to “lay by him in store” on the first day of the week (1 Corinthians 16:2). This article will mention these Scriptures again in discussing the Lord’s Day view. Here, only those aspects of them that specifically pertain to their being used as evidence supporting semisabbatarianism will be addressed.

Does Jesus’ resurrection on the first day of the week make that day a Sabbath? Proponents say that because Jesus’ death and resurrection make possible God’s free gift of grace, so that we can now rest in grace instead of doing the works of the law, and because the Sabbath pictures God’s rest, Jesus’ resurrection on Sunday shows that God was making Sunday the Sabbath day. Does the Bible say this? No. The Bible nowhere states that Jesus’ resurrection changed the day of the Sabbath. In fact, as we have seen, the Old Testament Sabbath command does not allow for such a change.

Can we logically deduce that the day on which Jesus was resurrected became the Sabbath day? As mentioned above, Sunday-Sabbath proponents says that Jesus’ death and resurrection make possible God’s free gift of grace. It is certainly true that Jesus’ death paid the penalty for the sins—past, present, and future—of all believers. His resurrection showed that those sins are truly gone because if He still bore them, He would have remained dead in those sins. It is also true that because of this, we are no longer bound to try to do the works of the law for our salvation, but can rest in God’s grace. Because of what Jesus has done, we enter God’s rest (more about this later). It is also true that the Sabbath day was a picture of that rest. All of this, God gives us as a free gift of His grace. But there is absolutely no reason to conclude that because Jesus was resurrected on Sunday, that Sunday became the Sabbath day. There is simply no logical connection. As a Lutheran minister, the late Leo Gruendemann, says of the proponents of the Sunday-Sabbath view, “Their conclusion therefore to say the least is not even a logical deduction” ( http://www.wlsessays.net/node/681 ). Semisabbatarianism requires us to assume that God is using various hints to show us that He changed the Sabbath day to Sunday. But there is no reason to make such an assumption, and God does not change clear commands through vague hints.

In fact, there is biblical evidence that shows that after Christ’s death and resurrection, the day that the Jews called the Sabbath and the day called the first day were different days. Matthew 28:1 states: “In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.” Notice that it says that the Sabbath was ending as the first day of the week was beginning. Obviously, the first day of the week was not the Sabbath. Matthew wrote this several years after the resurrection. If he understood Sunday to be the new Christian Sabbath, why did he not take the opportunity of explaining it in the context of the resurrection? And Mark 16:1–2 agrees: “And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him. And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun.” Notice that on the morning of the first day of the week—Sunday—the Sabbath was past. Also, there are numerous places in the book of Acts where the day on which the Jews met in the synagogue—the seventh day—is called the Sabbath (Acts 13:14, 27, 42, 44; 15:21; 17:2; 18:4).

Nowhere in the entire Bible is Sunday or the first day of the week ever called the Sabbath. The reason is that it is not the Sabbath.

Copyright © 2007-2009 Peter Ditzel