This article first appeared in A Light to London, the bulletin of the London Church of Christ, May-June 1987.
Christians must observe the Sabbath! Such at any rate is the contention of many in the religious world today. But what does the Bible say? For one the Sabbath is the seventh day of the week not the first (Sunday) so if we do have to observe the Sabbath the Adventist and Jewish position is the only correct one. Moreover it will not do to set aside just any one day in seven at our convenience. Those who insist on Sabbath observance should remember that failing to observe the seventh day was punishable by death in the Old Testament (Numbers 15:35)! In addition the Sabbath entailed considerably more than one weekly burst of piety and tranquility. The Bible says that on the Sabbath one must stay home (Exodus 16:29).
No sports, no visiting friends, and (strictly speaking) no attending church services! Nor may any cooking be done—all food must be prepared in advance (Exodus 16:23-29). All work is prohibited (no compromising)—under pain of death. On top of all this Sabbath observance includes sabbatical years and jubilee years (Leviticus 25). Thus in a fifty-year span a typical Jew would have observed over 5000 different Sabbath days as compared to only 2600 for today's "Sabbath keeper." I know of no one today who observes the Sabbath as God commanded.
Was the early church bound by the Sabbath? Does the New Testament teach that Sabbath observance is still part of God's will for his people? The early Christians met on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7) most likely because of Christ's resurrection on that day (Matthew 28:1; Revelation 1:10). Synagogues were occasionally entered for the purpose of evangelism (Acts 17:2) but it was absolutely clear that the early church did not keep the Sabbath law. If they had been doing so why wasn't Sabbath breaking included in at least one of the thirty lists of sins in the New Testament? (There were countless warnings against Sabbath infractions in the O.T. law and prophets.) And why would Paul declare the whole matter a non-issue (Colossians 2:16)? See 2 Chronicles 2:4 and note the parallel with Colossians 2. Paul is discussing the entire Jewish system of special days, as he is in Galatians 4.
The institution of Sabbath observance was a temporary regulation a sign between the nation Israel and their God (Exodus 31:17; Ezekiel 20:12). And if it be objected that it is described as a lasting covenant (Exodus 31:16) the same could be said of circumcision (Genesis 17:13) which like the Sabbath was abrogated at the Cross (Ephesians 2:15).
Again as Paul said, the whole matter is a non-issue. If someone wants to keep some sort of Sabbath that is his choice: "One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind" (Romans 14:6). In the context of this passage we see that it is the weaker brother who feels obliged to observe certain days—and hopefully he will be enlightened in due course that this is not necessary—but in the meantime he is not sinning.
Sabbath observance is a non-issue. And yet the topic serves well as an introduction to a fascinating and useful Bible study. This study is "The Old Covenant and the New Covenant." It may be led as a group Bible discussion or a personal study. I have taught "Old Covenant, New Covenant" dozens of times and have found it invaluable for those from a ritualistic and traditional background (even for those from other world religions) as the study emphasizes the uniqueness of New Testament Christianity and explains much of the confusion in today's "churchianity."
The Old Covenant and the New Covenant
I. Number Four
Ask which of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) are repeated in the New Testament. Every one recurs except number four: the Sabbath. Why is this? Why is it that the early Christians met on Sunday? Matthew 28:1 gives a clue: Jesus was resurrected on that day. There is not proof that Sabbath observance is an integral part of New Testament Christianity.
II. The Two Covenants
The discussion of the Sabbath leads to a larger question: What is the relationship between the Old Covenant (the law of Moses given at Sinai some 1300 years before Christ) and the New Covenant (instituted by Jesus and implemented from the day of Pentecost 33 AD)? Hebrews 9:15-17 shows us that the New Covenant—a covenant is a will or testament—superseded the Old Covenant. Just as two wills cannot be in effect at the same time so there was no overlap between the two testaments. Some parts of the Old Testament are carried over into the New Testament the heart of the Law like the heart of God was unchanged (Galatians 5:14; Matthew 22:37-40). Colossians 2:13-14 definitely shows that the law was nailed to the Cross and the specific commandments that went with it were also nullified.
III. Double Standards
If we say that some says are holy (or special) today what does that say about the others? May we be on our best behavior Sunday morning and follow a lower standard the rest of the week? Of course not! The Old Testament distinction between holy and unholy or special and not-so-special has been utterly transformed. All days are holy all places are holy and all people are holy. Or to put it a different way we might say that there are no special days people etc. The devastating implications of the distinction become obvious when we examine a number of areas in denominational religion.
IV. Holy Time
We have seen that whereas the O.T. Sabbath involved holy time this is no longer the case in the N.T. era. Key passages to consider are Colossians 2:13-17 and Galatians 4:8-11. Popular Christianity indeed considers some times more weighty or holy than others. You can sin all week if only you come to church at the weekend. Or you may miss most Sunday church services as long as you make "the big ones," Christmas and Easter! The double standard is clear. Christianity is not what we do at certain times but who we really are deep down. We are not acting a part but rather striving to be like Christ—all the time!
V. Holy Space
Is the church really "the house of God"—as many claim today? The truth is that all space is holy and the worship of God could never be confined to a particular geographical or architectural location (Acts 7:48-49; John 4:20-24). Unlike the Old Testament system which subdivided space and physically restricted access to God (Hebrews 9:1-8, see also Matthew 27:51) the New Testament does not confine the presence of God—or his worship—to particular places (Ephesians 2:18). Romans 12:1 teaches that our whole lives are our worship! Often we obscure the truth with terms like "worship service." All our life is worship and in fact you will be hard pressed to find a single passage in the N.T. indicating this is the primary purpose of our meeting together. This is not to say that worship is not important—for it is!—but those passages that clarify why disciples meet such as Acts 2:42 simply do not mention worship. It may be assumed but it is by no means the primary focus.
VI. Holy People
Priests represent the people before God and God before the people. In addition they offer sacrifices to atone for sin. The Old Testament had such a priesthood (Hebrews 7:23-28) yet Christ fully assumed the priestly function. As a result there is not need for priests today—except insofar as all Christians are priests (1 Peter 2:9). Nor is there any separate class of "saints," for we are all saints by definition (Romans 1:7; Ephesians 1:1). There are no mediators either other than Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5) so praying to the saints is right out. (And isn't it good to know you don't have to die to become a saint?!) Moreover, there is no "clergy" (Matthew 23:9; Revelation 5:10; Romans 15:15, etc). The denominational ideal is essentially that you pay the clergyman to practice your religion for you: he is the one who should know his Bible, visit the sick, live a simple lifestyle, share his faith, pray and try to lead a holy life. Since he is "closer" to God and can "put in a good word for us"—we are absolved of our responsibility to be disciples (Acts 11:26), which is the duty and privilege of all Christians. Nothing could be further from the spirit of Jesus Christ than the clergy-laity system, which implicitly holds up a double standard.
VII. Holy Cow!
Holy foods (1 Timothy 4:3; Hebrews 13:9; Mark 7:19) altars (Hebrews 7:27; 13:10) images and icons (Exodus 20:4; 1 John 5:21) vestments, water, censers, crosses, medals, relics, languages, formulae and on and on the list goes...! The importing of Old Testament categories into New Testament Christianity just will not do! (See Mark 2:21-22.)
VIII. From Shadows to Light
Colossians 2:17 teaches that the Law was only a shadow of the reality or substance (that which casts the shadow) found in Christ. Today the Old Testament, as a law binding us to follow it, is obsolete (Hebrews 8:13). And yet most church systems these days resemble Old Testament Judaism more than New Testament Christianity!
Let's leave the shadows of the Old Covenant and come into the light. That's where the freedom is.