by Thomas R. Schreiner
All of the Gospel writers call our attention to the fact that Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week (Matt 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1, 19). The day of the resurrection signifies the inauguration of the new creation. Even by stating that it was the first day of the week, the authors assign a special significance to that day. We also see hints elsewhere in the New Testament that the church gathered for worship on the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2; cf. Rev 1:10). Such a practice is most naturally linked to Sunday being the day on which the Lord rose from the dead, though no explicit link is made between the two. In any case, worship on Sunday must have come from the earliest days of the Palestinian church, for there was no debate about worshipping on Sunday. The lack of debate is striking when we compare it to the dispute over circumcision in the early church.
Nor was there any move toward saying the Lord’s Day was the Sabbath either in the New Testament or the second-century church. It was understood that the Sabbath was on Saturday and the Lord’s Day was on Sunday, and hence Ignatius contrasts the two (Magn. 9:1). In the same way, the Ebionite church practiced the Lord’s Day and the Sabbath, showing that the former did not displace the latter for them.
Along the same lines, most of the early church fathers claimed the Sabbath did not apply literally to believers; they interpreted it eschatologically and spiritually. It is evident, then, that the Lord’s Day was not equated with the Sabbath but distinguished from it. Neither was the Lord’s Day understood as a day of rest (the early Christians had to work on Sundays!) but a day of worship, and even such worship was not conceived of as a fulfillment of the Sabbath command. Richard Bauckham argues that the notion that the Lord’s Day replaced the Sabbath is a medieval development. The Puritans continued this vein of thought by understanding the Lord’s Day in sabbatarian terms.
Believers in Jesus Christ are under no obligation to keep the Sabbath. Christians may observe the Sabbath if they wish to, but they must not impose it as a requirement on other believers. The Sabbath was the sign of God’s covenant with Israel, just as the rainbow was God’s covenant sign with Noah. In other words, the Sabbath is the sign of the old covenant not the new. The Sabbath was given particularly to Israel as a sign and seal of God’s covenant with them.
When we consider the entirety of the scriptural witness, it is clear that the Sabbath is not a creation ordinance that applies to believers today. The New Testament teaches us that the new covenant has arrived with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The old covenant pointed forward to and is fulfilled in Jesus Christ; but now that the new covenant has come, the old is no longer in force. Hence, Christians are not under the stipulations of the old covenant, which includes the commands to be circumcised, to observe food laws, and to keep the Sabbath. Such laws functioned as a social barrier separating Jews from Gentiles. Jesus Christ has removed such barriers, abolishing the law with its commandments, and has reconciled Jews and Gentiles through his suffering on the cross. Now Jewish and Gentile believers are equally members of the people of God as citizens of the new covenant.
The Sabbath as a shadow pointed forward to the reality, to the fulfillment, which has come in Jesus Christ. We see in Hebrews that God’s creation rest and the Sabbath rest point forward to the end-time rest believers will enjoy in the heavenly city. The author of Hebrews says nothing about keeping a weekly Sabbath. Instead, he argues that the old covenant and its sacrifices are no longer needed. Such sacrifices were also a shadow (like the Sabbath) that pointed to the atoning work of Jesus Christ. The temple, sacrifices, food laws, circumcision, and the Sabbath are no longer binding now that the fulfillment in Christ has arrived.
Christians, of course, are still required to be wise. Rest, refreshment, and recreation are needed in order to sustain our lives, but there is no requirement that such rest is taken on a particular day. Here we can follow the practice of the early church. We are not required to keep the Sabbath, but we do gather together with other Christians and worship our God through Jesus Christ on the Lord’s Day.
Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from Progressive Covenantalism, edited by Stephen Wellum and Brent Parker.
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