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  • Writer's pictureShannon Makujina

Sabbath - Part One

“Don’t mow your lawn on Sunday. Don’t go grocery shopping on Sunday. Don’t work on Sunday.” I heard it almost every Sunday, predictably. “It’s the Lord’s Day. It’s a day of rest.”


However, we could mow the lawn on Sunday if we were leaving for vacation on Monday—that was pulling the ox from the ditch. We could play Uno as a family, but we could not play outside. And our arbitrary ‘day of rest’ was not restful when we had Sunday School, ‘normal’ morning service, adult choir practice, children’s choir practice, Christmas or Easter play practice (depending on what time of year), and evening church to cram into the day.


We had friends who did nothing on Sunday, not even their dishes. They were super holy.


When I was 12, I discovered that my family was not keeping the Sabbath well enough. If I could keep it more strictly, I would have favor with God! Deal sealed, I started spending all my time on Sundays sitting in a chair reading the Bible and praying. I would not read my novels, sew my cross-stitch pattern, or play Uno with my family.


After all, Isaiah said, “If you keep from desecrating the Sabbath, from doing whatever you want on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight, and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, seeking your own pleasure, or talking business; then you will delight in the Lord” (Isaiah 58:13-14, CSB).


When I was 14, I made friends with several Seventh Day Adventists and the things they had to say shook my world. They told me the Bible never replaced the Saturday Sabbath with Sunday as the new ‘Christian Sabbath’. It’s just not in there. Churches only met on Sundays as tradition, a tradition that started long after Jesus and the apostles. Churches originally met on Saturday. Yes, John was in the Spirit on the ‘Lord’s day’, but where does it say that day was Sunday? However, the Bible does say Saturday is actually the Lord’s day. If I didn’t repent of my Sunday keeping and start Sabbath keeping, I might not go to heaven when I die. Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. It’s because we have all forgotten and started Sunday worshipping.


It's confusing. If you are from an IFB, Oneness Pentecostal, Plain, or other legalistic church-cult background, you probably heard and believed some/all of the same stuff about Sunday. Your church’s rules might have differed, but the idea was mostly the same. Sunday was the Sabbath—the Lord’s Day—and it was sacred. Don’t work on Sunday.

 

The Old Testament Sabbath—A Promise of Rest

The very first Sabbath took place on BC. 00, January 7th. Ok, not exactly, but you get the idea.


On the seventh day God had completed his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, for on it he rested from all his work of creation” (Gen 2:2-3).


Why did God need to rest from his work? Was he tired? Actually, it’s a presentation of the Gospel.


God completing his work and resting from it was a foreshadowing to Jesus crying out “it is finished” on the cross and sitting down at the right hand of God—his work on behalf of sinners accomplished. Just like seven is the number of perfection, Jesus’s work was holy and perfect, with nothing left to be added to it. This is the Gospel in Genesis 2.


Even when God instituted the Sabbath for the Jewish people to observe, the whole point was for them to take time and reflect on what he had done for them. “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exodus 19:4). The first word of the 4th commandment is remember. Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.


In resting on one day of the week, the Israelites were imitating God by ceasing from their work and resting. But their rest was imperfect and incomplete, much like their sacrifices were only faint imitations of the final sacrifice to come. Unlike the other commandments, which deal primarily with how to treat each other, Sabbath keeping was only intended to point to something better in the future—Someone better.


Somehow, just like everything else we humans mess with, the Sabbath turned from a time of remembrance and rest to a collection of suffocating rules about what you could and couldn’t do. Rather than being restful, the Sabbath was a prime time to get yourself executed—even for something as small as picking up sticks. Numbers 15:32-36 is one of the most baffling accounts in the Old Testament, something many of us struggle to understand. Why would someone be put to death for something so insignificant?


Here’s how I’ve come to think about it. The seeming harshness of accounts like this one show Israel’s inability to truly keep the Sabbath. Their rest—just like everything else they did—was incomplete and broken. As a result of that brokenness, people died.


The purpose of the Sabbath was to force the nation of Israel to rest. The rules surrounding it were because the people of Israel had a bent towards sinning and left to their own would not keep God’s laws. The purpose was rest and celebration of God’s works, not what it turned into.

 

Jesus and the Sabbath

In his flagship sermon on the mount, Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. “I did not come to abolish but to fulfill,” He says (Mat 5:17). He immediately follows it up by telling the crowd that breaking even the smallest commandment is worthy of death and unless they are better than the prestigious Pharisaical class, they will never enter the kingdom of Heaven.


Then he starts turning the 10 commandments on their head.


Saying ‘go to hell’ to someone in the heat of an argument is equivalent to murdering them (5:21-22). Staring lustfully at a woman on the street is adultery (5:27-28). Bold-faced lying is unthinkable when you shouldn’t even make a promise you can’t keep—and you shouldn’t bring God’s name into it (5:33-37)! Jesus not only reaffirms multiple of the commandments—he sets even stricter standards for them.

The sermon on the mount stands as a divine contrast to the Old Testament law. Its purpose is the same. We are unable to keep the law—no matter how hard we try. We are unrighteous. We cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.

While the Sermon on the Mount sets new expectations for how to trust God and love neighbors, Jesus does reinforce four of the Ten Commandments on a later date, talking to the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-19). However, Sabbath keeping is not one of the ones listed.


In some way or another, Jesus either directly mentions, or reinforces all 9 of the commandments, except for the 4th one. Jesus’s standards for purity were much higher than the Old Testament law and He demanded wholehearted adoration towards God, not just putting away physical idols. However, when it came to keeping the Sabbath, Jesus was different.


Out of all the things that Jesus did to make the Pharisees mad, Sabbath violations must have been his most repeated act. From harvesting grain to healing people to making mud, Jesus flaunted his violations of the Sabbath law constantly. But when Jesus did this, he was not breaking the Sabbath—He was fulfilling it. He was bringing the healing and fulfillment and rest that had been promised to the nation of Israel for generations. And when he performed miracles and healed on the Sabbath, he was sending a loud message: the kingdom of heaven is already here!

 

Does the Bible say to have church on Sunday?

When I was researching to debate my SDA friends, I realized the Bible does not make a clear change from worshipping on Saturday to worshipping on Sunday. There are only three verses that can be used to argue that Christians were meeting on Sundays in the early church, and none of them carry any connotation that Christians were keeping Sunday like the Jewish Sabbath.


Church tradition is that we meet on the first day of the week because that is the day Jesus rose (more on that in a second). But there are only traces of this in the New Testament.

In Acts 20:7-12, we have an account of Paul at Troas. In vs 7. it says the church assembled to break bread—on the first day of the week. However, Paul was leaving the next day, so it would only make sense to get one last sermon in. Also, the early church met more often than once a week, constantly breaking bread from house to house, so it would make sense to assume that since the apostle Paul was there for a visit, he probably spoke to them many times during his visit. For all we know, this account was only mentioned because Eutychus fell out of the window late Sunday night, not to mark the first day of the week as a holy day or the only day to have church.


The next time we see the first day of the week mentioned is in 1 Corinthians 16:2, where Paul is giving instructions on offerings. He says, “On the first day of the week, each of you is to set something aside and save in keeping with how he is prospering…” While it is traditionally assumed that this means the Corinthian church was meeting on the first day of the week, it is possible that Paul was telling them to set this money aside privately—much like you might do your weekly planner on the first day of the week, or meal prep for the rest of the week. While I think it’s more likely that the church was meeting on this day, it doesn’t say so directly, so there could be other explanations. The important thing to note right now is that there is zero mention of the Jewish Sabbath or any connection between it and the first day of the week.


There is nothing in the New Testament that says Sunday is replaced by the Saturday Sabbath as a day of rest for Christians. Nothing.


There is nothing that says Sunday is more special than any other day of the week. The only conclusion you could draw—tenuously—is that the church met on Sundays (and probably not exclusively, at that).


The very last passage that Christians will use to explain Sunday worship/Sunday keeping is Revelation 1:10. John says he received his revelation from Jesus while he was ‘in the Spirit on the Lord’s day’.


If you grew up like me, the ‘Lord’s Day’ was synonymous for Sunday, so when I used to read this verse I always assumed it meant John saw Jesus on a Sunday. However, that’s not what is in the text. If you look at church history that dates after the Revelation, Sunday is sometimes referred to as the Lord’s Day, but that is still not in the text.


Some scholars have proposed that the day referred to here is an eschatological reference to the ‘day of the Lord’ from Joel 2:1 and other OT prophesies, saying that John is experiencing his vision in the day of God’s judgment, from a spiritual perspective. Based on church history, I think it’s more likely this was an early reference to Sunday. Assuming this is the correct interpretation, it should be pointed out that the Jewish Sabbath is nowhere referred to as the ‘Lord’s Day’ in the OT or elsewhere.


Sometimes people will use this term to say that Sunday belongs to God and therefore we should not do anything that is not centered around worshiping him on his day, including work. However, that is not in the text and requires a made-up definition of the term that equates it to the OT Sabbath, which is not at all supported by the text.


In short, those are the only three verses in the Bible that come remotely close to saying the early church met on Sunday. None of them say it directly, none say to meet on Sunday exclusively, and none say it has replaced the Jewish Sabbath as a sacred day. Legalistic Christians who want to tell you that it is wrong to work on Sunday have zero scriptural support for their claims and are just—well—legalists.




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