by Tom Warner
ONCE UPON a time, I became a Sabbath-keeper. A few years later, I came to see that keeping a day wasn't a requirement for New Covenant saints, so I eventually went back to meeting with and ministering to a first-day congregation. I’ve known many wonderful seventh-day Christians. What I write here should not be taken as an attack on brothers and sisters whom I love, but merely an explanation for how my mind was changed.
A Day of Rest Did Not Mix With a Day at Church.
In the late 1980s, while pastoring a loving
congregation of first-day Christians in Ashland, Maine, I read
Making Sunday Special, by Karen Mains. She argued that the Ten
Commandments are perpetually binding, and that the Sabbath
obligation had been transferred to Sunday. I was impressed, but
wondered, “Where does the New Testament clearly teach that
the Sabbath obligation applies to Sunday?”
That question led me to books by seventh-day scholars: The Forgotten Day by Desmond Ford (1) and From Sabbath to Sunday by Samuele Bacchiocchi.(2) Eventually, I was convinced by their arguments. So, Shelley and I and our two children began to observe the seventh-day Sabbath, while I continued serving our Sunday congregation.
Our early Sabbath-keeping proved to be a good experience in many ways. We would have a Sabbath-welcoming meal after sunset Friday, with opportunity for each of us, and sometimes guests, to tell what God had been doing in our lives that week. Then we tried our best to unplug from stress until Saturday sunset. I felt free to do visitation on Saturday - after all, Jesus ministered on the Sabbath. But we generally aimed to have a restful day that would be spiritually refreshing.
In order to accomplish that, we avoided things such as shopping, television (other than a good nature show, or a Christian video), physical labor, and intense mental labor such as sermon preparation. In place of these, we enjoyed relaxing Christian music, reading, prayer, picnics (northern Maine weather permitting), playing with the kids, and fellowship with Christian friends.
Some days we struggled about a particular activity, wondering if it violated the Sabbath; however, most of the time, we truly enjoyed our day of rest. The next day, we'd go to church and I'd work hard at preaching, etc., for our Sunday congregation.
Finally, I became convinced that I needed to be in a seventh-day church in order to be free to proclaim what I had come to believe. After three and a half years of a wonderful relationship with the church in Ashland, we decided to accept a call to a Seventh Day Baptist Church (3) in Lakewood, Colorado. Thankfully, God gave us grace to part ways with our first-day Christian brothers and sisters in a peaceful, mutually respectful way. We hated to say goodbye, but thought it was the necessary price we had to pay in order to “be true to the Sabbath.”
Our new church family accepted us warmly, and we enjoyed living in Colorado. Ironically, though, becoming the pastor of a seventh-day church ruined the restful day we had discovered. As a Seventh Day Baptist pastor, I worked hard each Sabbath, and I was not alone. Many of our members drove 20-30 minutes to church in Denver Saturday traffic. Choir members had to arrive an hour early for practice. Various people prepared refreshments, set up and took down tables and chairs, staffed a full Sabbath School program, ran off copies of the worship folder, and cleaned up the building after we finished, so it would be ready for he Sunday congregation who rented from us. Such was “church” - and normally well worth the effort - but, it did not feel like a Sabbath-rest. The "romance" of the Sabbath was gone for me.
Seeing Sabbath-keeping's Negative Side Effects
I soon learned that seventh-day Christians (like
all others) have their share of problems - and maybe a few more.
We sometimes found it difficult to relate to first-day Christians
without awkwardness. After all, they disagreed with our major
distinctive, and more than a few of them regarded us as
legalists. Feeling cut off from the larger body of Christ is not
universal among seventh-day Christians; but neither is it
I saw some “lone Sabbath-keepers” struggle along, worshiping by themselves or with only their family, because they felt there was no acceptable seventh-day church near them - even though there were good Sunday congregations nearby. One such lady from a rural area in Kansas visited our church and told me it was the first time in years that she had taken Communion! A few others I met attended a seventh-day church, but were unhappy with it. Yet, because other churches near them worshipped on “the wrong day,” they did not feel free to attend a more uplifting fellowship.
Certain Sabbath-keepers have a negative attitude toward Christian holidays, (4) such as Christmas and Easter, preferring Jewish holidays instead. Seventh Day Baptists are not generally known for this, but they sometimes draw in other seventh-day Christians who bring that sort of baggage with them. I met more than one Sabbath-keeper who seemed proud of his “stand for God's eternal moral law” (especially, the fourth commandment), who then fell into very serious sin (cf. 1 Cor. 10:12). I counseled a Seventh-day Adventist man who was “well-established in the Sabbath truth” who eventually was exposed for an adulterous affair that had continued for years. It was tragic. From conversations with him and his wife, I gathered that part of his rationalization process was: “Why should I feel too badly about breaking the seventh commandment, when even famous Christians like Billy Graham and Chuck Swindoll go on breaking the fourth?” (5) It seemed that his self-righteous Sabbath mindset was partly to blame for his fall. I began to think Sabbath-keepers, especially Seventh Day Adventists (who are taught that they are the “true remnant church,” face a greater temptation toward spiritual pride.
Learning More About Church History
A year or so after becoming a Seventh Day Baptist
pastor, I ran into a challenge to Bacchiocchi's theory about how
the vast majority of Christians could have been persuaded to
abandon the Sabbath for Sunday. His theory was based on two
discoveries: the Roman Empire had passed laws against
Sabbath-keeping, which were aimed at persecuting the Jews; and,
at the same time, certain early Christians in Rome were affected
by anti-Jewish sentiments.
Bacchiocchi suggests that these factors led Christians at Rome to distance themselves from anything Jewish, and to forsake the Sabbath for Sunday. He believes they justified the change by saying it commemorated the first day of creation and Jesus' resurrection; and, that Sunday was already respected, due to the popularity of sun-worship cults - therefore, the move would have been quite “politically correct.” Since the church at Rome enjoyed a certain prestige (perhaps because Paul and Peter had been martyred in Rome), Bacchiocchi suggested that almost all churches everywhere followed the lead of the bishops of Rome, who said Sabbath-keeping was not proper for Christians.
Originally, I thought this made good sense, partly because it fit with my “conspiracy view” of Church history, which tended to blame everything that I thought was wrong in Christendom on the Church of Rome. (6) Then in the providence of God, I met a Russian Orthodox priest in Denver. I found that I knew almost nothing about Eastern Orthodoxy, and was prompted to study its history and teachings. What I found made Bacchiocchi's suggested scenario seem impossible.
Here was the problem: Orthodoxy has had a long line of metropolitan patriarchs (big city bishops), to whom they’ve looked for spiritual guidance. The eastern churches have had a great respect for these “metropolitans” as the guardians of true apostolic practice. They originally viewed the bishop of Rome on a par with those patriarchs. Later, though, when bishops at Rome claimed universal authority, that “power grab” caused a rift between east and west, and Rome went its own way.
For eastern churches to abandon the Sabbath, if it had been their original custom, would have been a very obvious, dramatic reversal of an apostolic practice (according to Bacchiocchi's view). But how could church leaders at Rome succeed in persuading thousands of congregations in the east, as well as the west, to switch their primary day of assembly, if those churches had started out meeting every seventh day? If so-called “papal authority” was the result of a gradual historical process (as Protestant scholars, and even some liberal Catholic scholars, believe), it didn’t seem reasonable to think that early bishops of Rome would have had the power and influence to cause such a major shift in the practice of so many churches in the first three centuries of the church.
It seemed impossible to me that the Eastern Orthodox - many of whom had willingly suffered for their faith - would have been willing to change such a basic feature of their church life, merely because a distant bishop at Rome said they should do so. Of course my feeling about the impossibility of that happening did not disprove Bacchiocchi's thesis. But it did motivate me to reexamine Biblical interpretations that had led me to adopt seventh-day Sabbath-keeping in the first place.
Reconsidering First Day Texts in a New/Old Light
Another thing I learned about Eastern Orthodoxy
challenged me. Despite the differences between it and Roman
Catholicism (e.g., the Orthodox generally practice triune
immersion baptism, do not require belief in Mary’s supposed
sinlessness, do not exactly believe in Purgatory, do not forbid
priests to marry, etc.), there was one thing that was much the
same: the highpoint of their worship is the Sunday celebration of
I granted that both Roman Catholic and Orthodox Communion liturgies seem to have added layers of elaborate ceremony to the original Lord’s Supper, as well as the belief that the bread and wine actual become the body and blood of Christ. But, I couldn’t help but wonder if their common practice might date back to a first century Christian custom. That custom would have been the first-day meetings we find mentioned in the New Testament.
Three texts are generally thought to indicate a pattern of first-day meetings:
Acts 20:7 “Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight.”
1 Corinthians 16:2 “On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come.”
Revelation 1:10 “I was in the Spirit on the Lord's Day, and I heard behind me a loud voice, as of a trumpet…”
These are viewed by seventh-day Christians as “proof texts” taken out of context. They contend that Acts 20:7, rather than indicating a practice of regular first-day meetings with Communion, was a one time special gathering of believers to share a meal with Paul before he left their region. 1 Corinthians 16:2, they say, instructed believers to set aside an offering at home each week, rather than telling them to bring it to church on Sunday. Finally, they believe that the “Lord's day” of Revelation 1:10 is not a reference to Sunday at all, but refers instead to the seventh day, or to the eschatological Day of the Lord, i.e., the time connected with the glorious return of the Lord Jesus to the world.
By themselves, these three texts may not appear conclusive. However, when I considered them in the light of early Christian writings and practice, they were very difficult to dismiss. There is mention of a weekly first-day Communion service in Christian writings of the second, third, and fourth centuries, such as in those of Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Didache. (“From Sabbath” 221-298) Some of them refer to Sunday as “the Lord's Day” (cf. Rev. 1:10); and some write against Sabbath-keeping.
In the light of those references, when I read Acts 20:7 concerning the believers coming together on “the first day of the week” in order to “break bread,” it wasn't hard to see a link with that later practice of weekly Sunday Communion. And, if (as some seventh-day scholars argue) Christians in Troas usually gathered on the Sabbath, why was there no mention of Paul's meeting with them on that day? The wording suggests that it was their regular custom to gather on the first day to “break bread,” i.e., have a fellowship meal/Communion service. It doesn’t sound like they called a special meeting to hear Paul, but that he joined with them at their customary Sunday gathering. That fit well with my suspicion that the custom of a Sunday Communion service in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches might have a first century origin.
The idea that most early Christians had a weekly Communion service also fits with Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 11:20 where he remarks sarcastically, “When you come together in one place it is not to eat the Lord's Supper ...” Paul's point is that they were doing it all wrong, refusing to share their food with late-comers, and even getting drunk (11:21-22). The wording of the passage implies, however, that when they came together for their weekly meeting, it was for the purpose of observing the Lord's Supper. And on what day did they meet? A likely answer is found in the same epistle, where Paul instructs them to contribute a portion of their income on the first day of each week (1 Cor. 16:2).
Sabbath-keepers resist the idea that 1 Corinthians 16:2 indicates regular Sunday meetings. They contend that the Greek phrase par heauto literally means to set it aside "by oneself," at home. But that makes little sense. Paul asked them to set aside something each Sunday so that “ there be no collections” when he arrived (16:2c). However, a setting aside of funds at home would not eliminate the need for a collection of all funds when Paul came. Only weekly collections at church would seem to fulfill Paul’s wish.
And if, as seventh-day scholars argue, Paul were only commanding a setting aside of funds at home, why would he tell them to do it every Sunday? From a Sabbath-keeper’s viewpoint (seeing Sunday as a common day like any other), there is no apparent reason for that. They grope for reasons (e.g., suggesting that maybe everyone was paid on Sunday); but their reasoning sounds like rationalizing to me.
In the light of all the early references to first-day Christian meetings, 1 Corinthians 16:2 is more easily interpreted as another indication that the Gentile churches (if not also some Jewish Christian assemblies) were meeting on Sundays, at which time they would “break bread” (have a fellowship meal that included Communion) and receive an offering. The phrase par heauto (“by oneself”) need not be interpreted in a rigidly literalistic manner. It is more likely an odd expression that shouldn’t be translated “word for word” from Greek to English. After hearing all the arguments, I concluded that it seems to refer to a Sunday collection at church, rather than a private putting aside of funds at home.
It eventually became apparent to me that seventh-day writers often quickly dispensed with those New Testament texts that seem to indicate first-day Christian meetings. But, when pressed for an explanation of their meaning, they sometimes expended a lot of energy attempting to explain away their apparent significance.
Rather than viewing those texts in the light of references to Sunday meetings in the early post-apostolic writings, they come up with very strained interpretations that were no longer convincing to me.
Distinguishing Between the Covenants
Before I adopted Sabbath-keeping, I had come to
see the Ten Commandments as “God’s unchanging moral
law.” In that, I was influenced by Puritan writings, and by
various Christian catechisms, which use the Decalogue as the
chief summary of moral duty. Eventually, however, I came to
believe that Christians create confusion when they say or imply
that "the law" is a usually a reference to the Ten
When the New Testament speaks of “the law,” it often means the whole Mosaic Law (the first five books of the Bible, believed to have been authored by Moses), with their hundreds of commands (e.g., Jn. 8:5, referring to Lev. 20:10). The Jews often referred to three basic sections of the Old Testament; and, we see this usage in our Lord's statement, " ... all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me" (Lk. 24:44). Sometimes “the law” can even refer to the entire Old Testament (cf. 1 Cor. 14:21 quoting Isa. 28:11-12; and 1 Cor. 14:34, perhaps alluding to Gen. 2; and Jn. 10:34 quoting Ps. 82:6).
According to a Jewish encyclopedia (which I happened to find in the Seventh Day Baptist denominational center’s library), there are actually 613 commandments in the Law or "Torah" (Genesis through Deuteronomy). Even before the time of Jesus, some rabbis debated which was the greatest, the second greatest, and on and on to the least important commandment. That explains why our Lord was asked, “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the law?”
Jesus chose none of the Ten Commandments (in Ex. 20 and Deut.5) as the greatest; he chose specified Deuteronomy 6:5 – “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” The second greatest commandment, according to Jesus, is Leviticus 19:18 – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He went on to say, “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:34-40), i.e., all the ethical demands of the Old Testament can be summed up in those.
Christ’s answer reveals that he regarded “the law” as including Deuteronomy and Leviticus; he did not see it as a reference to only the Ten Commandments. And, according to our Lord, the two greatest commandments are found outside of the Ten Commandments.
On another occasion, Jesus warned “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill... Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven…” (cf. Matt. 5:17-20). In saying this, Jesus was upholding all the moral principles revealed in the entire Old Testament. He was not speaking of only the Decalogue’s ten commands. (I’ll say more in a moment about how Christians can “obey” commands “in the Spirit,” but be free from “the letter” of the law.)
What is the least important commandment in the law? I’ve heard some seventh-day Christians argue that Jesus’ warning was aimed at those who would come along later and say that the fourth commandment (keeping the Sabbath holy) as unimportant, and need not be obeyed. However, when we understand that “the law” includes the first five books of the Bible, it seems very unlikely that any Jew would have classified one of the Ten Commandments as least important, when compared with the other 603 commands in the Torah.
That Jewish encyclopedia said many rabbis agreed that the "least" of the commandments was Deuteronomy 22:6-7 – “If a bird’s nest happens to be before you along the way, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, with the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young; you shall surely let the mother go, and take the young for yourself, that it may be well with you and that you may prolong your days.” (7)
I finally realized that to think only of the Ten Commandments as “God's law” was inaccurate. To call them “the moral law” was also misleading. I found that there were many moral issues not addressed by the Decalogue, which were forbidden by other portions of the law (e.g., premarital sex, rape, sorcery, homosexual acts, incest, bestiality, mistreating the helpless, kidnapping, etc.).
We might have wished that God had divided the 613 commandments of the Law into neat categories (moral, civil, dietary and ceremonial); but he didn’t do that - even in the Decalogue. Though nine of its commandments plainly deal with moral issues, the fourth seems to be classified by Paul as ceremonial (cf. Col. 2:16-17). More about that later.
Certainly the Ten Commandments were central to God's covenant with Israel, but not separate from the whole Law. The Sabbath was a peculiar sign of the Old Covenant, which God made with the nation (Ex. 31:12-18). In a sense, obedience to every commandment - even the ceremonial ones - was a moral issue for those who lived under the administration of the Mosaic Law. That law was in force from Sinai to Calvary (Gal. 3:16-25; 4:4-7; Eph. 2:14-16). But the New Testament informed me that certain laws were never intended to be forever binding on God's people - at least, not binding “in the letter.” We “... have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter” (Rom. 7:6). Literal obedience to certain laws was no longer demanded of Christians.
For example, the Law required animal sacrifice. But Christians approach God through the sacrifice of Jesus, the Lamb of God, thereby fulfilling the spirit of the Law. The Law required circumcision on the eighth day. We don't obey that command literally, but have a “circumcision ... of the heart, in the Spirit, and not in the letter” (Rom. 2:29). Under the Law, it was forbidden to yoke an ox with a donkey. The application for New Covenant saints, is “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6:14). The Law required a seventh-day Sabbath-rest, but we find true spiritual rest in Christ himself (Matt. 11:28-30). These are the new applications for old commandments. This is how our righteousness can exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt.5:17-20).
I began to understand that Christians are under "the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2; 1 Cor. 9:21). He had sent forth his apostles to “make disciples of all nations ... teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20, NIV). Our Lord’s commands, addressed to and given through the apostles, constitute this new law. We find those commands spelled out in the four Gospels and the rest of the New Testament (cf. Jn. 16:12-13; 1 Cor. 14:37). Finally I came see clearly that the Lord Jesus is our New Covenant Mediator and Lawgiver, replacing Moses. (8) We are not to come to Christ for salvation, but then return to Moses to learn how to live. No! We are to follow Jesus’ law.
I came to believe that, when Paul said we are “not under the Law,” he intended more than what the Puritans might have thought he was saying. They thought he meant that we are freed from trying to be saved by law keeping, or liberated from the burden of trying to keep the law without the Holy Spirit's help. Those things are true, of course; but Paul was saying more than that. He was saying we're no longer under the Mosaic system with its 613 commandments and corresponding curses and penalties.
This is important to understand. In union with Christ, Christians are now regarded as having “died to the law, that [we] might live to God” (Gal. 2:19). In other words, the penalty of the broken law has fallen on Christ, our Substitute; so we are reckoned as having been legally executed: “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal.2:20). Our relationship to that Law is finished. We are God’s new creation, spiritually raised and enthroned with Christ, our Representative, in heavenly places (Eph. 1:3-4; 2:4-6).
The Law is done with us. We broke it and its curses have been poured out on us, in Christ, who “redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us…that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (Gal.3:13-14). God now remembers our sins no more, and his Spirit writes the Law on our hearts (Jer.31:31-34), i.e., he motivates and empowers us to live a life of love for God and others - which is the essence of all the 613 Mosaic commandments (Matt.22:37-39; Jn.13:34-35; Rom.13:8-10; Gal.5:22-23).
Finally Facing Up to Colossians 2:16-17
Sabbath-keepers like to point out that Paul often
went to the synagogue, or to some other Jewish meeting, on the
Sabbath during his missionary journeys (e.g., Acts 13:14,42-44;
16:13; 17:2; 18:4). “We should follow his example of
Sabbath-observance,” they say. However, it became obvious
to me that Paul was targeting Jewish meeting places as a
missionary strategy, not because he felt bound to keep the day
holy (cf. 1 Cor. 9:19-20). There, on any Sabbath, Paul had a
ready-made audience of people who were acquainted with the Old
Testament Scriptures, which predicted Messiah's coming, death and
resurrection. If some really want to follow Paul's example in
this matter, they need to go to the nearest Jewish synagogue next
Sabbath, and preach Jesus! (9)
But, what did Paul specifically teach about the Sabbath? He said, “ ... let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Col. 2:16-17). In that statement, he covers three kinds of Jewish holy days: yearly religious festivals, monthly new moons, and the weekly Sabbaths. All these foreshadowed Christ, he says; therefore, we should not allow anyone to judge us in regard to these things. They are no longer an issue. Jesus is the great Reality; we need not be concerned about symbols - we have him!
Seventh-day scholars sometimes interpret the “sabbaths” of Colossians 2:16-17 as being yearly sabbaths, i.e., the annual religious festivals. However, Paul already mentioned those in the passage. It would be senseless repetition for him to mention them again. Obviously, by “sabbaths” (NKJ) or “a Sabbath day” (NIV) he means the weekly Sabbath. Bacchiocchi himself acknowledged that in From Sabbath to Sunday.
In a later book, The Sabbath in the New Testament, he reverted to the idea that the sabbaths Paul mentions are the yearly festivals. Evidently he realized that, if the weekly Sabbath was included in Colossians 2:16-17, then it has no more binding force for Christians than the monthly new moon celebrations or Jewish holy days. Oddly enough, Bacchiocchi eventually wrote God’s Festivals in Scripture and History, a book that recommends the keeping the annual holy days! It seems to me that Bacchiocchi’s rejection of the plain sense of Colossians 2:16-17 put him into a rather unstable position, and so he continued to shift the other “pieces of the interpretive puzzle” for a while, until he felt more comfortable.
I know how that feels! I finally had to conclude that I had been wrong about the Sabbath being a moral obligation for Christians. It was an Old Covenant ceremonial practice (a “shadow”) that was no longer required. That explains why Sabbath-keeping is not spoken of as a duty for Christians to obey in the New Testament.
Bacchiocchi and others argue that since it was mentioned in the Gospels, it therefore must be regarded as a Christian duty. But, this overlooks the fact that the Gospels often record the common Jewish practices of our Lord and his disciples, who were under the Old Covenant Law. The binding force of that Law came to an end, legally, at the Cross, when the shedding of Jesus’ blood formally instituted the New Covenant (Eph.11-18; Luke 22:19-20); but, it took a while for Jewish disciples to realize that. So, for example, they continued to participate in Temple worship—which, like the Sabbath, foreshadowed Christ and was not a Christian duty (cf. Acts 2:46; 3:1; Heb.10:1-22). But, no Christian would argue that we ought to rebuild the Temple and reinstitute sacrifices!
Finding New Freedom to Rest and Worship
According to Hebrews 4, a
“sabbath-rest” remains for the people of God (v. 9,
NIV), but even as a Sabbath-keeper I could see that it was not a
mere 24-hour day. After considering many explanations of that
passage, here's what I concluded: God's rest, mentioned in
Genesis 2:1-3 and Hebrews 4:10, began on the seventh day of
creation week, but it continues even today. It was a rest of
great satisfaction as he beheld the very good creation he had
made. He ceased from his work and delighted in a job well
But since God knew the future, including how his perfect creation would be marred by sin and the curse (Gen. 3), we might have expected him to be troubled, rather than resting in the satisfaction of what he’d made. How could he rest, knowing what would happen to it? Presumably, because he had predetermined to redeem it from the consequences of sin (cf. Eph.1:3-4; Titus 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:18-20; Rev.13:8)! Thus it appears that the Father was resting in the saving work he would accomplish through his Son. (10)
This is the rest into which we too can enter. It is a true, lasting rest in Christ, by which we cease from our own works and rest in his finished work (Heb. 4:10). Salvation has been won by the doing and dying and rising again of the Son of God. We are assured that by coming to Christ and submitting to his “yoke” (his lordship), we will find rest for our souls (Matt. 11:28-30). That, I believe, is the spiritual reality that the Old Testament Sabbath beautifully foreshadowed.
There are also practical lessons in the fourth commandment, e.g., we need to regularly take a break from work, and we need to spend time worshiping the Lord. Under the Old Covenant, this time for rest and worship was to be strictly observed every seventh day. However, I learned that Christians have passed out of a kind of Old Testament “childhood” into a mature stage of New Testament “sonship” (cf. Gal. 3:23-4:7, NKJ or NIV), and are free to apply the principles of the Sabbath law, as we are guided by the Holy Spirit, without being bound to the “letter” of the Law (Gal. 4:9-10; Rom. 7:6).
One might compare this with strict bedtime rules that a mother may enforce for her three year old son. They are good for him; and yet, when he grows to maturity, he will be freed from the old rules of childhood related to bedtime. Naturally the mother hopes he will understand the principles behind the old rules, and will keep the “spirit” of them. For example, he shouldn't abuse his health by staying up until 2:00 a.m. every night - even though she understands there may be a good reason to stay up that late, or later, at times. This is similar to the difference between the letter and the spirit of the Sabbath commandment, it seems to me.
We need regular rest and time for worship and Christian fellowship. However, we are not bound to use a particular day to meet these practical needs, nor are we required to fulfill them on the same day. For those who are working hard at church, that day may not be possible. While Sunday became known as “the Lord’s Day” among Christians, and became the common day for their primary worship services, nowhere does the New Testament tell us to keep Sunday as a “Sabbath.” It may be a very helpful practice to refrain from work on that day; but, it’s not a command. What, then, is our duty?
We are commanded to assemble regularly together with other Christians for worship and mutual encouragement (cf. Heb. 10:16-25), and to carry out Christ's commission to make disciples, baptizing and teaching them to obey his commands (Matt. 28:18-20), and to gather frequently at his Table to give thanks and remember him, until he returns (1 Cor. 11:23-26). Which day we do those things is not the important issue. It's more important that we learn to love God and one another and bear each other's burdens, and reach people for Christ (Matt. 22:36-40; Gal. 6:1-2,10; Jn. 13:35; Acts 1:8). God wants us to be free to focus on the things that matter most!
Still Resting in God's Grace
Thank God, becoming a Sabbath-keeper did not
require that I abandon the Gospel. I never kept the day perfectly
enough to become self-righteous. I have always fallen enough
short of total sanctification that I’ve known it is only by
grace that I could be accepted by a holy God, and that this grace
is entirely based on the perfect obedience and atoning death of
As a Sabbath-keeper, I reasoned that God sees the hearts of first-day Christians, and knows that they “walk in the light they have.” Through their faith in Christ, they are “accepted in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:6), and are not condemned for their “unbiblical practice,” I thought. Now that I am a first-day Christian again, I hope my friends who remain committed to Sabbath-keeping will be able to regard me with that attitude. (11)
Please, let no one suppose that I intend to contradict the moral absolutes of God's Word or deny the necessity of obedience and holiness. I believe that we are freed from certain Old Testament practices, but that we must obey the “law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). Any who call him “Lord,” but go on practicing lawlessness, are not saved (Matt. 7:21-23).
We’re not to look down on brothers and sisters who consider one day more sacred than another (Rom. 14:1-10). If we feel differently and have opportunity to share our views with them, we should speak the truth in love. Most of them keep the Sabbath in order to please God, and I believe he understand their intent, even though he no longer requires his children to keep a day. Indeed, “the Lord looks upon the heart.” I'm glad he does.
Seventh-day and first-day Christians belong to the same Lord and have no other hope but his free grace. May we rest in him and be gracious to one another.
1. Dr. Ford came to the U.S. from Australia, and was a popular Seventh-day Adventist preacher and college professor. But, because he dared to disagree with their unique “Investigative Judgment” doctrine, his ministerial credentials were withdrawn. He then founded an independent ministry, Good News Unlimited, 11710 Education Street, Auburn, CA 95602, which still carries his books and taped sermons. In 2001, Dr. Ford moved back to Australia.
2. Dr. Bacchiocchi and some of his books about the Sabbath have been well received by various seventh-day Christians. He himself is Seventh-day Adventist.
3. There are about 100 Seventh Day Baptist churches in the U.S., some of which are quite small. Their denominational center is in Janesville, Wisconsin. When I visited there, it was staffed by some of the nicest Christians I’ve ever met. SDBs seem to be more grace-oriented than most other Sabbath-keepers I’ve met. Though not nearly as well known as Seventh-day Adventists, their movement dates back to the 1650s in England, and to 1671 in this country. SDAs didn't appear until after the Adventual Awakening of the 1840s.
4. Evangelist Ralph Woodrow, a former Sabbath-keeper, has written helpful books in which he recants his former Saturday resurrection, anti-Christmas and anti-Easter positions. For years his book “Babylon Mystery Religion” was popular with Sabbath-keepers and others who regarded the Roman Church as more pagan than Christian. He wrote that book as a young man, basing it mostly on Alexander Hislop’s “The Two Babylons.” Years later, after much research, he withdrew it from publication and published “The Babylon Connection?” which exposes the many errors of Hislop. Ralph Woodrow has not converted to Roman Catholicism; but his protestant views are based on the Bible, not on Hislop’s sloppy scholarship. Contact him at: Ralph Woodrow Evangelistic Association, P.O. Box 21, Palm Springs, CA 92263-0021, 760-323-9882.
5. It is significant that Sabbath breaking never appears in New Testament warning passages which say that those who persist in sins such as adultery, fornication, homosexual acts, idolatry, drunkenness, sorcery, thievery, etc., will not inherit the kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Galatians 5:19-21). Under the Old Covenant, Sabbath breaking was a very serious sin. After Christ's death and resurrection, it was not an issue.
6. One of the things that made me susceptible to Seventh-day Adventist arguments for the Sabbath was that I, like them, held a historicist view of prophecy, believing that the Roman Catholic papal office was the ultimate fulfillment of the Antichrist predictions. SDA’s teach that Daniel 7:25’s “little horn” who would “intend to change times and law” are the popes who attained great political power, and boasted of their authority to change the Sabbath to Sunday. I no longer believe that is correct. According to Bacchiocchi, the change of day happened early in the second century, before there were any “popes” around. The official Catechism of the Catholic Church (recommended by John Paul II) states that, “The Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Day and his Eucharist is at the heart of the Church’s life…This practice of the Christian assembly dates from the beginnings of the apostolic age” (sections 2177-2178). Even if later bishops of Rome made statements about the papacy having authority to change the day of worship, I don’t believe they were necessarily claiming it was a post-apostolic change. From the Catholic viewpoint, if a pope made the change, it would have been Peter, whom they regard as the first pope—not some later pope who’d gained so much political power that he could be regarded as a fulfillment of the little horn prophecy of Daniel 7.
7. Deuteronomy 22:6-7 may carry a message of ecological concern, i.e., be careful not to kill off the species by eating the mother birds that produce the eggs. And/or, it may have been intended to teach respect for elders, through a simple object lesson. Or, it’s possible the prohibition may relate to some pagan religious practice that we do not know about. Since there is no New Testament application of that command, we don’t have an inspired guideline for understanding its relevance for Christians. At any rate, it was regarded as “the least” important of the commandments in the Law by many rabbis.
8. We see a parallel between Moses and Jesus suggested by “event-matching” in Matthew's Gospel: Jesus comes out of Egypt (cf. Matthew 2:15 with the nation of Israel coming out of Egypt in the Exodus). Jesus goes through a baptism (cf. Matthew 3:16 with how Israel was, in effect, “baptized into Moses” in crossing the Red Sea, according to Paul, in 1 Corinthians 10:2). Jesus ascends a mountain to give his Law (cf. Matthew 5:1ff with Moses' ascent to receive the Law on Mt. Sinai). According to some interpreters, the concept behind these parallels seems to be the idea that Jesus replaces Moses as the covenant Mediator/Prophet for God's people (cf. Acts 3:22-23).
9. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 explains Paul’s willingness to adapt to Jewish or Gentile cultural norms in order to more effectively share the gospel with whatever group he was among at any given time. “…I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law….” This principle has led some Jewish Christians to avoid “unclean meats” and to observe the Sabbath, and the annual holy days – not because they are bound to do so, but because it provides greater opportunity to witness to their Jewish neighbors that Jesus is the fulfillment of those things. This may be a good strategy. But, they need to remind their people that they are not under the Old Covenant law.
10. This idea was suggested to me by the late E.W. Johnson, a Baptist pastor in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, who published The Sovereign Grace Message; and by Rodney Nelson's “Entering God's Rest.” Mr. Nelson can be reached at 509-946-9588, or 1107 Cottonwood, Richland, WA 99352.
11. Unfortunately, Seventh Day Adventists have the idea that a “final crisis” will come when observing Sunday, rather than the Sabbath, will actually be the “mark of the beast” (Revelation 13:16-18). This makes them less sure, even now, about the spiritual status of believers who do not keep the Sabbath. More tragically, other things in the traditional SDA belief system make it hard for even conscientious SDAs to be sure of salvation. Some of their authors have become aware of this, and are writing helpful things about grace and assurance.
Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version, unless otherwise indicated.
Bacchiocchi, Samuele, From Sabbath to Sunday: A Historical Investgation of the Rise of Sunday Observance in Early Christianity (Rome: Pontifical Gregorian University Press; distributed in the USA by the author, 1977).
Ford, Desmond, The Forgotten Day (Newcastle, CA: Desmond Ford Publications, 1981).
Carson, D.A., editor, From Sabbath to Lord's Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981).
Zens, Jon. “This is My Beloved Son: Hear Him,” Searching Together, n.d. My interaction with Jon Zens played a significant role in my theological pilgrimage on this issue. For subscription information, or to obtain back issues, contact Searching Together, Box 377, Taylor Falls, MN 55084, phone: 651-465-6516. www.searchingtogether.org
This article first appeared in the Advent Christian journal Henceforth, 22:1. (Spring 1995):27-40.
You may also wish to read:
Was It Impossible For the 'Creation Sabbath' To Ever Change?
Understanding Matthew 5:17-19.
Why Worship on a Sunday?
How First Day Sabbatarianism Entered the Church
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