Chapter 9 (“from the book, “Messianic Judaism”) — The Sabbath
This chapter addresses Messianic Judaism’s treatment of the Sabbath. The Messianics teach that we need to keep the Sabbath today as one of the Ten Commandments. Accordingly, members of this movement do not gather on Sunday, but on Saturday.
Seventh-Day Adventists came into existence in the nineteenth century with a similar message about the Sabbath. Here we will look at scriptures to consider this teaching, and we will conclude with some thoughts about the good aspects of keeping the Sabbath and how to interpret the fourth commandment.
Sabbatarians, those who adhere to the Sabbath as a day of rest, insist that it does not fall on Sunday, but Saturday. They are correct about the day of the week assigned to Sabbath. Historically and theologically, Sabbath was and is the seventh day of the week (Saturday, or technically sundown Friday to sundown Saturday). Although Christians have been meeting on Sunday to take communion since the very beginning, this issue became confused when, in the fourth century, the church created a Sunday Sabbath. Before Emperor Constantine, Sunday was not a legal day of rest or worship; it was a workday even for Christians who met to worship. In the early 300s, the pagan emperor Constantine, who converted to Christianity, made Sunday the legal Roman day of rest. There was no Sunday Sabbath or day off until the fourth century. This was put in place by the state, not by biblical mandate.
In the book of Acts, Paul preaches in the synagogue on Sabbath three times. Some Sabbatarians use this as evidence that Paul is still an observant Jew keeping Sabbath. They extend this further to say that his actions are a model for Christian practice. However, the Bible does not tell us exactly what Paul thought about the Sabbath. His purpose was to preach to Jews first, and then to the Gentiles. Sabbath would be the optimal time to preach to the largest audience of Jews, unlike, say, Tuesday or Thursday. The early church evangelized on the Sabbath because they always wanted to reach out to those who were familiar with the Scriptures, the original sons and daughters of Abraham, who could serve as a kind of beachhead providing leadership and stability in the faith. The Gentiles were grafted into the olive tree, so to speak.
What does Scripture reveal about the significance of Sunday? The early Christians had a reason for feeling differently about Sunday compared to Saturday or Friday. Jesus appeared after his resurrection on Sunday morning, and again that Sunday evening (John 20:19). He was also seen the next Sunday. The church began on Pentecost, a Sunday (Acts 2:1). In Acts 20:7, it says that the Christians gathered to break bread on the first day of the week, though they were not legalistic about this: since they did not break bread until after midnight, it occurred on Monday. 1 Corinthians 16:2 also uses “first day” wording, this time regarding monetary collections. In Revelation 1:10, John the revelator says he was in the Spirit on “the Lord’s Day.” That word “Lord’s Day” in modern Greek, kyriakē, is the same word as in the book of Revelation: the word for Sunday.
Sabbath was not changed from Saturday to Sunday in the early church teaching or practice. Rather, Sunday only became a so-called Sabbath three hundred years later, when church and politics started overlapping in the fourth century. “The Lord’s Day” was always Sunday.
Even if Sunday was always, historically, the Christian day of worship, do Christians still need to observe the Sabbath? Many maintain that the Sabbath originated and was observed in the beginning of creation, even observed by Adam. An ancient Jewish text, The Book of Jubilees, claims that Adam was born circumcised and kept all the festivals and feasts. Adam and his wife being the only humans in creation, this task seems quite challenging. There is no biblical evidence of a Sabbath prior to the time of Moses. Before Moses delivered the children of Israel from cruel bondage in Egypt, Hebrew slaves were not allowed a day of rest. In Egyptian history, there was no weekend, and the work week may have been ten days long. For the few days when the Nile flooded each summer, work ceased, but there was no “day off.” We indirectly thank the Torah for the weekend. The prayer in Nehemiah 9:13–14 makes the mosaic origin of Sabbath explicit:
“You came down on Mount Sinai; you spoke to them from heaven. You gave them regulations and laws that are just and right, and decrees and commands that are good. You made known to them your holy Sabbath and gave them commands, decrees and laws through your servant Moses.”
While the concept of Sabbath, God’s rest on the seventh day, may be traced back to the creation narrative, we must not infer that its observance was instituted before Scripture makes it explicit.
The writings of the church fathers support the view that early Christians met on Sundays to take communion and to worship. They also confirm that Sabbath does not need to be observed by Christians. The three comments from church fathers included below are typical. One is by Ignatius of Antioch in Syria, who was martyred soon after the year 100. He says this: “If then, those who had lived in antiquated customs came to newness of hope, no longer keeping the sabbath but living in accordance with the Lord’s Day—on which also our life arose through Him… how shall we be able to live apart from him?”27
He uses that phrase “the Lord’s Day,” kyriakē, the Greek word for Sunday. “No longer keeping the sabbath but living in accordance with the Lord’s Day” clearly indicates that Sunday worship was not the same as the Sabbath, even in the early church.
The Epistle of Barnabas is also an early-second-century text. Here he quotes from the Prophets and offers commentary:
Moreover God says to the Jews, “Your new moons and Sabbaths I cannot endure.” You see how he says, “The present Sabbaths are not acceptable to me, but the sabbath which I have made in which, when I rested from all things, I will make the beginning of the eighth day, which is the beginning of another world.” Wherefore, we [Christians] keep the eighth day for joy, on which also Jesus arose from the dead and when he appeared ascended into heaven.28
Barnabas describes the day of worship as the eighth day, the day after the Sabbath. Although we say that Sunday is the first day of the week, from another perspective (in many other passages) it was viewed as the eighth day.
Justin Martyr, the Samaritan philosopher who became a Christian and was martyred in the middle of the second century, also addresses the significance of Sunday worship:
But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.29
According to Justin Martyr, Sunday gained its theological importance as the day that Jesus rose from the dead and the day that he ascended.
It is unlikely that the generation after the apostles forgot the truth about the Sabbath. For Messianic Judaism to be correct, because it is refuted by all the abundant evidence of the second century, the generation of the apostles would have had to have lost the theological thread completely. We looked at Ignatius: Ignatius was a disciple of the apostle John, and he says we no longer keep the Sabbath, but live in accordance with Sunday. The Epistle of Barnabas is very early, perhaps even from the first century. It says that they celebrated on the eighth day: Sunday, not Saturday.
The Sabbath receives no emphasis at all in the New Testament documents themselves. If it is mandatory or preferable for Christians to keep the Sabbath, it is odd that Paul mentions the Sabbath only once, in Colossians 2:16. In that verse, he asserts that Sabbath observance is not required and that believers should not be judged on keeping the Sabbath or religious festivals. In Galatians 4:8–11, Paul is upset because the Jewish calendar is creeping back into the church, so that they are observing special days, months, seasons, and years. Therefore, according to Colossians 2 and Galatians 4, Sabbath days, Sabbath years, Jubilee years, new moon celebrations, and festivals must not be emphasized. Although they remind us of their fulfillment in Jesus and they are not forbidden, these rituals and special days are not meant to be the rhythm or focal points of the new covenant.
Some Messianics might counter that the New Testament did not emphasize these holidays because everyone knew you had to obey the commandments. Yet most of the Old Testament commands do not carry over, and historically, the church’s demographic makeup was becoming increasingly Gentile. Chapter 3 illustrates how some regulations could only be followed if you were living in Israel.
While primary sources offer a compelling and consistent explanation of the biblical and early church view of the Sabbath and Sunday worship, some readers may still feel unbalanced with the lack of symmetry regarding the Ten Commandments. For uniformity, it seems correct that either they should all be repudiated or, if they are not repudiated, then all ten should be required. For nine of those commandments, from the first, to worship the one God, and the second, to have no idols, all the way to the tenth, not to covet, each one is repeated in the New Testament. There is a flagrant and obvious exception in the fourth commandment: to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. The truth is asymmetric: four of the first five apply, and all five of the second five apply. While I yearn for symmetry, the fourth commandment is repealed according to the New Testament and the early church.
There are other examples of such asymmetries in Scripture, which does not remove the authority or poetry of God’s word. We have the twelve tribes, except that the tribe of Joseph splits into Ephraim and Manasseh; there are eleven and two half-tribes. The Levites’ tribe does not have a territory; this is not a tidy picture. In the New Testament, there are the twelve apostles, then eleven, then twelve again. When Paul comes as “one abnormally born” the chosen group totals thirteen apostles.
The above examples should reduce our discomfort with the incongruencies around the Ten Commandments, or the Decalogue. The most important instructions found in Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 6 are not in the Decalogue. Additionally, we have not just one version of the Ten Commandments, but two, or maybe three versions if we include Exodus 34. Consider also that the fourth commandment is the only particularly Jewish commandment.
We see irregularities biblically with various numbers, but also in nature and mathematics. The number of lunar cycles in a solar year is not even. A lunar cycle is normally less than one month, so the cycles do not fit roundly within a year. We have eight major planets and dwarf planets and other entities in our solar system. The Earth is the only one, as far as we know, that is inhabited. Would it be better if they were all inhabited or not? Mathematics has irrational numbers like π and e. You might argue for balance because it feels more pleasing to have all ten commandments, but the world is full of anomalies. Arguments from symmetry have an aesthetic appeal, but they have no logical power. Whether seven, nine, or ten commandments apply today, that must be determined by careful Bible study, not by preference for elegance or simplicity or tradition.
Christianity is a continuation and a fulfillment of Judaism, yet there is also a disjunction. In the new covenant, Christians did not have to observe circumcision, eat kosher, or stay in one land and go three times a year to Jerusalem. Even early Christian leaders had difficulty grasping how the new covenant relates to the old, and what to do with the Old Testament scriptures now that we have the inspired New Testament scriptures. The Sabbath, like many other Old Testament components, belongs to the world of shadows that faded once Christ came. We are called to embrace substance, reality—not shadow (Colossians 2:17). Living in Jesus today is fulfilling the Sabbath. It is a life of rest and peace in Christ, as well as a life of love in all we do.
Sabbath may not be required, even though we appreciate the theological principle. Hebrew informs us that there is still a sabbath for Christians, although it is not a weekly day of rest (Hebrews 4:9). We do not have to execute those who violate the Sabbath. We do not have to cease our work every seventh year. We do not return all acquired property every seven times seven years. Still, there is a spiritual principle for us to implement that hints at the freedom Moses brought when he led a slave nation out of bondage. We are not machines. Constant work crushes the spirit, wears us down. We need to set aside time for the Lord. For Torah-observing Jews, Sabbath (Shabbat) was a quiet family time, a time for prayer and study of the word, especially the Torah. That dominated the day. The Jerusalem Talmud, written a few centuries after Jesus, taught that the Sabbaths were given to Israel in order that they might study Torah. Setting aside a day each week to focus on family and Bible study rather than work is a wonderful idea. Shabbat is rest, yet not laziness. In the creation account, the Lord rests from his labor on the seventh day. The text does not say that God was tired or that he was not doing anything at all. Jesus said, “My Father is always at his work to this very day” (John 5:17). He is still working. The seventh day was rest, not laziness; devotion to God, not work. It was for study and prayer.
You may know people who truly believe that one day is more special than another, who hold the Sabbath as binding. Or they may have a view about Easter or a Jewish festival. Romans 14:4–6 guides us in these situations. To paraphrase, “Yes, we can proclaim the truth, but we do not have the right to judge someone else’s servant. We need to be gracious and understanding with those who have a different view about holy days.” We have seen abundant evidence that the early church did not observe the Sabbath as a Christian ordinance. That was part of the first covenant, but not the second.30