Gary W. Summers
“What a Difference a Day Makes,” sang Dinah Washington in 1959. She was not talking about the correct day in which people ought to worship, but that subject has been a bone of contention for the past two centuries—ever since Ellen G. White had her famous dream in 1847 about seeing a halo around the fourth commandment given by God at Mount Sinai. She immediately came to the conclusion that the Sabbath-day commandment had not been nailed to the cross. Since God does not send out visions today (1 Cor. 13; Eph. 4), what she thought she saw came from her own imagination. But putting her and her vision aside, the Christian must ask what day did God authorize for worship under our covenant?
We do not know much about worship during the patriarchal age of history prior to the Law of Moses being given. If there was a particular day of the week that Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or Joseph worshiped, it is not mentioned all throughout Genesis. The only thing that is mentioned relating to the seventh day is found in Genesis 2:2-3:
And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which He had done.
However, nothing more is recorded concerning that day until the Book of Exodus. And these verses do not include any mention of man’s worship habits. Not only is the word worship not found, the text makes no suggestion that man should rest on that day because God did. In fact, no application for man is contained at all in these two verses. If man observed the Sabbath day from that time forward, God did not see fit to inform us of it. Furthermore, no such information is contained in any historical or poetic narrative afterward. The observance of the Sabbath is tied to Israel after they left Egypt.
Actually, the lack of a command about keeping the Sabbath makes sense and shows God’s foreknowledge. Had the nation of Israel been commanded to keep the Sabbath, how would they ever have survived Egypt? Can anyone imagine that the same Pharaoh that would not give them time to offer up a sacrifice in the wilderness would have been so generous as to give them one day out of seven off to rest? If they tried to keep a Sabbath commandment, they would have been beaten or killed; the only other option would have been to deliberately disobey God.
For this reason, we have no Sabbath-type of commandment in the Christian system, either. No day of rest is required for the first or the seventh day under our covenant. What would have happened in the first century if slaves who had obeyed the gospel had insisted on having a day of rest? Again, the results would have been catastrophic. The only time period where God’s people could have had a Sabbath of rest was under the Law of Moses when Israel was a theocracy.
Under The Law
Absolutely no controversy exists about what God expected after He delivered His people out of Egypt. God began to prepare them for the Sabbath-day commandment in connection with the manna He provided them. They were instructed to gather twice as much manna on the sixth day and rest on the Sabbath day (Ex. 16:4-5, 22-30), which they did not quite get right the first time, but they soon obeyed the Lord in that matter. Then God spoke His holy law, and it included honoring the Sabbath (Ex. 20:8-11). The reader cannot help but notice how thorough the work stoppage is; verse 10 explains: “but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work; you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gate” (see also Exodus 23:12). An Israelite could not even pay a passerby to plow with his oxen on the Sabbath.
And it is amazing how many more times this prohibition against work is mentioned. Probably the passage most often quoted outside of Exodus 20:8-11 is Exodus 31:14-17:
“You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off among his people. Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.”
Notice the additional information in this text.
The penalty for violating the Sabbath is death.
It is a sign between God and the children of Israel forever.
It is part of a perpetual covenant.
Notice that the text does not say:
That the Sabbath was in effect from the Creation onward.
That it would be part of the future covenant with Christians.
That it was made with all nations.
Some Sabbatarians will surely point out that the word forever is used concerning the keeping of the Sabbath. The Hebrew word for “forever” is olam. It often meant “age-lasting.” Circumcision was part of an “everlasting (olam) covenant” (Gen. 17:13). Yet Paul wrote: “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters” (1 Cor. 7:19). The Judaizing teachers insisted that Gentiles be circumcised, but they were wrong and soundly repudiated (Acts 15:1, 23-29). The Passover was an “everlasting” (olam) ordinance (Ex. 12:14), but today Jesus is our Passover (1 Cor. 5:7). The Levitical system had an “everlasting (olam) priesthood” (Num. 25:13), but today we are all priests, and Jesus is our High Priest (1 Peter 2:5; Heb. 3:1; 4;4; et al.). The Sabbath was a part of the covenant that God made with Israel; that law has been nailed to the cross (Col. 2:14; cf. Eph. 2:15). The first covenant has been replaced with the far better second covenant (Heb. 8:6-7).
As one reads through the remainder of Exodus and Leviticus, he finds more references to the Sabbath day. In Numbers 15:32-36, a man is stoned for gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. And, of course, the Ten Commandments are repeated in Deuteronomy 5:12-15. What is truly remarkable is that, if God intended the Sabbath day to be the day upon which Christians were to worship just as Israel had done under the Law, He failed to even give one command to do so. Someone might protest, “But there are other ways in which God authorized besides commands.” This is true, and we would do well to review them.
God has always expected His commandments to be obeyed; that’s the reason He gave them. The Israelites frequently violated the first two commandments—and were eventually taken into captivity for doing so. God does not have to say, “This is a commandment you must keep” for human beings to know they must observe what He said. Jesus, for example, said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). These words appear to be more of an exhortation than a commandment, but the statement, nevertheless, is true. We cannot logically follow God and disregard what He says to us. All statements that God makes, if they have a universal application, must be obeyed. A specific application would be God’s telling Noah to build an ark or telling Abram to leave Ur of the Chaldees; these are not universal. We must be able to distinguish between the universal and the specific.
Another example would be when Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “But earnestly desire the best gifts. And yet I show to you a more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31). He wrote these words when the church actually had miraculous gifts, but in that same text (1 Cor. 13), Paul reveals that the gifts were going to be done away (which is one reason love excels the gifts). So, that text has a specific, rather than a universal application.
Approved examples have also been considered a way of God authorizing a practice. We may not see a command specifically authorizing a practice, but if brethren are engaged in an activity, and there is no criticism of it, and, in fact, it appears to be enjoined, then we consider that approval sufficient authority for Christians to do the same today. Brethren in Corinth, for example, were meeting together as a church (1 Cor. 11:18). When they came together, they ate the Lord’s Supper. Was that a command? Possibly. It was something they steadfastly did from the very beginning (Acts 2:42). But we safely follow their lead. They set another example, which is one we avoid at all costs—blending the Lord’s Supper with a common meal (1 Cor. 11:18-29). No church anywhere makes that mistake any more. So, we feel confident in following good examples, and we reject the actions performed in a bad example.
The third method of authorizing actions is implication, which was alluded to above. We know that the church, from the very beginning, “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” The doctrine that the church believed and practiced, they received from the apostles. Jesus had taught the apostles how to remember His death, and in return they taught the church what to do. We do not need a direct command in such a case because Jesus taught them, and they taught the church. They partook of the bread and the fruit of the vine when they assembled together (1 Cor. 11:23-26).
What Day is Authorized?
Is the Sabbath day the day Christians are to meet for worship? Do we have a command in the New Testament similar to, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”? No. The Sabbath day is mentioned dozens of times in Matthew-John because the Law was in effect. Jesus kept the Sabbath because He lived under the Law—even though there were times He was accused of violating it. Of course, He did not transgress that or any other commandment. But He issued no command concerning the Sabbath as part of the kingdom He would shortly be establishing.
A Sabbath’s day journey is mentioned in Acts 1:12, and then nothing else concerning this day occurs until Paul’s first missionary journey. In other words, no command to meet on the Sabbath can be found in the text during this time period. The reader finds no example of the church meeting on the Sabbath, and nothing implies that they did, either. But then we find no less than eight references to the Sabbath day. “Aha! See, Christians were meeting on that day!” some would argue. Were they? Let’s take a look.
The first four instance are found in Acts 13:14, 27, 42, and 44. In Antioch, Paul and those with him went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day. Does the text say that they entered in to engage in Christian worship? It does not. They were attentive during the reading of the Law and the Prophets. They were then given an opportunity to speak a word of exhortation to the people (v. 15). Paul took advantage of the opportunity to preach Jesus to them (vv. 16-41). He did so the next Sabbath, also. Paul met with the Jews on the Sabbath for one simple reason—that’s the day they had been meeting since the Law was spoken by the Lord at Mount Sinai. What other day could he hope to find them all gathered together? Paul, as a Jew, could meet with his fellow Jews. Presumably, they partook of no false worship when they prayed and listened to the Law and the prophets. But no indication is provided here that this was in any sense Christian worship. It is unlikely the Jews had the Lord’s Supper.
Acts 15:21 (the fifth mention of the Sabbath) simply refers to the custom of the Jews concerning the reading of the Law each Sabbath. The sixth occurrence describes Paul’s finding of Lydia in Philippi. She and other women were meeting down at the riverside on the Sabbath. Paul took advantage of this gathering to preach the gospel. He did the same thing for three Sabbaths at a synagogue in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-2). Paul had the same opportunity in Corinth (Acts 18:4). None of these eight passages say that Christians were meeting on the Sabbath day; these were all Jews who were still keeping the Law. In fact, the only Christians in these places were the ones traveling with Paul. He was in the process of establishing churches. The reader finds no evidence in these texts that God commanded Christians to meet on the Sabbath day. No example of such an assembly exists on the seventh day, and nothing implies that our brethren in the first century did so.
Mia Ton Sabbaton
On the way home after Paul’s third missionary journey, he stopped to meet with the church in Troas. He waited seven days to meet with them. Did they meet on the Sabbath? No, they met on mia ton Sabbaton, the first day of the week (Acts 20:7). Someone might want to argue that this is the Sabbath day, but the KJV, NKJV, ASV, RSV, NAS, the ESV, and even the NIV translate the phase as “the first day of the week.” Thus, we have an example of brethren meeting on that day.
The Bible does not provide every detail that we might want. For example, the events on Pentecost began on the third hour of the morning; the sermon and the baptizing that followed undoubtedly pushed things into the afternoon. What time did they meet for worship that day, since it was the first day of the week? We do not know more than we are told in Acts 2:42. We infer that the church met thereafter on a regular basis for worship, including the Lord’s Supper, but the text does not provide any details. We know from 1 Corinthians 16:2 that Paul commanded them to lay aside an offering on the first day of the week. Does anyone imagine they met on the Sabbath for worship and then returned to bring their offering the next day?
One can almost hear Sabbatarians shouting, “Two verses? That’s all you’ve got? Two verses that mention the first day of the week and worship?” While it is true that references are few, it proves to be two more verses than anyone can find for Christians worshiping on the Sabbath day. Under the Law of Moses, the Sabbath day was mentioned prominently. In Christianity, it is not mentioned at all.
The New Covenant
While it is the case that Hebrews 4:9 mentions a rest (sabbatismos) for the people of God, this designation is for heaven—not worship on earth. The only other occurrence in the letters is found in Colossians 2:16, but it does not support the idea of the Sabbath day in Christianity; in fact, it is quite the opposite. It appears just two verses after the proclamation that the handwriting of requirements that was against us (the Law of Moses) God took “out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (v. 14). Therefore, Paul advised the brethren not to let anyone judge them “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).
Since Christians live under a new covenant, they should not be judged for not keeping the things of the old covenant. This attitude relates again to the Judaizing teachers, who insisted that Gentile Christians had to practice circumcision and keep the Law of Moses (Acts 15:1, 5). The Law of Moses was no longer binding on Jewish Christians, let alone Gentile brethren. Although some may be surprised by this truth, the fact is the first covenant has been replaced (not part of it, but all of it) by the new covenant.
Besides Colossians 2:11-17, there are several other texts. Jesus has broken down the middle wall of partition between Jew and Gentile by abolishing the law contained in ordinances, thus making peace between them (Eph. 2:14-18). The first covenant was faulty and has been replaced by a new covenant (with a better Mediator), which was established on better promises (Heb. 8:6-7). Anyone who appeals to the first covenant as authoritative—who attempts to be justified by it (including the keeping of the Sabbath)—“is a debtor to keep the whole law” and has “fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:3-4).
The first day of the week Jesus arose from the dead; so agree Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Jesus appeared to His disciples the same evening of that first day of the week (John 20:19)—and a week later (John 20:26). The Day of Pentecost was the first day of the week, also; on this day the church began. Disciples met on this day to observe the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7), and Paul required the Corinthians to put an offering aside that day. What special events occurred on the Sabbath in the New Testament? What assemblies occurred on that day? The main thing that happened was that Jesus had a good rest on that day. He was buried just before the Sabbath began, and He arose after it was completed. The New Testament provides no authority for the Sabbath day being the day for Christians to meet. A day really does make a difference—not only romantically, as in the song mentioned at the outset—but spiritually, as well. Christians are authorized to meet on the first day of the week.