This is a long article. But bear with it… the conclusions are important, and I want your feedback!
Someone recently asked me why we don’t hold our services on a Sabbath (that is, Saturday) instead of on a Sunday. That’s a good question! We so often do things in church simply because it’s tradition or it’s convenient, without actually stopping to work out why we are doing what we are doing.
After all, Genesis 2:2 tells us: By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. It’s pretty clear this verse is meant to give us more than a useful piece of information about what God did when He finished His work of creation. It tells us, rather, that a pattern of work and rest is woven into the very fabric of our life.
In the story of the Exodus – which is about the creation of a people holy to God – the command to hold to a Sabbath rest becomes part of the Ten Commandments. Exodus 20:8 tells us: Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. This command is reinforced by reference in Ex 20:9-10 to God’s work of creation in six days and rest on the seventh.
Interestingly, the fourth commandment is expressed somewhat differently in the book of Deuteronomy. There is the same command to keep the Sabbath but the reason for Sabbath observance stated there is: Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deut 5:15). This reminds us that rest on the Sabbath is not simply spare time for us to do as we please. It is time to remember the great act of deliverance by which the Lord saved us.
Because the Sabbath day was fundamental to the identity of God’s people, the penalty for breaking the Sabbath was severe. The penalty for working on the Sabbath was death (Ex 31:15). Later on in the history of God’s people, the prophets were sent to warn of the penalties involved in breaking the Sabbath and the blessings in observing it. Thus, for example, Jeremiah preached at the gates of Jerusalem (Jer 17:19-27) while Amos attacked the attitude which saw Sabbath observance as a nuisance and barrier to fraudulent trade (Amos 8:4-6).
In the New Testament Jesus said clearly in Matt 5:17 Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. Yet by the second century the whole Christian church was worshipping regularly on the Sunday. Ignatius, for example, talks about those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord’s Day (Epistle to the Magnetians, chapter IX). Sabbath observance was an issue in early church to which Paul wrote, but this reflected rather the tension between Jewish and Gentile believers, rather than an argument on which day the church should meet (see, for example, Col 2:16).
So what accounted for this change of attitude?
First of all, we need to look at Jesus’ own attitude to the Sabbath. It is worth noting that in one place or another Jesus quoted all of the ten commandments – except the commandment to keep the Sabbath. His attitude to the Sabbath was a major source of annoyance to the religious authorities. He proclaimed Himself to be the Lord of the Sabbath, as He plucked grain to eat and healed the sick on that day (Mark 2:23-3:6). We read in John’s gospel that when He was accused of healing on the Sabbath He replied: My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working. (John 5:17). It might be argued that the real issue here is not so much Sabbath observance, as the attitude each party had to teach other. Jesus was counteracting the excessive legalism of the Pharisees, and the Pharisees were reacting to His claim to being Lord over the Sabbath. But it seems that the argument is not just about tradition on the one hand or the identity of Jesus on the other. Jesus is challenging the whole concept of what it means to keep the Sabbath.
This leads on the second point, which concerns fulfilment. In what way did Jesus fulfil the law concerning the Sabbath? After all, Jesus rendered obsolete the need for animal sacrifice by His own sacrifice in our place on the cross (Heb 9:11-14). After much discussion and controversy the early church realised that even the sign of the Abrahamic covenant – circumcision – was no longer necessary for believers. It was a yoke that neither we or our fathers have been able to bear (Acts 15:10). What counts for believers is not an outward mark but the inward work of Christ in our hearts (Col 2:11-12).
All this suggests that Jesus brought with Him a new attitude to the Sabbath. This is drawn out in the complex but important arguments in Heb 3:7-4:13 where the key verse is Heb 3:14: We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first. Ultimately Sabbath rest is the promise made to believers of their future inheritance, but by participating in Christ now we begin to experience something of this reality now. Our whole existence – and not just one day in seven – should be marked by remembrance of the great deliverance Christ has wrought for us.
This does not however leave us any further forward as to when Christians should meet to worship. Indeed there are no clear instructions about this in the New Testament. I believe this partially comes from the fact that we are no longer under law but under grace, and there is no one pattern prescribed to all believers in every place. The early church after Pentecost, for example, continued to meet daily in the temple courts (Acts 2:42-47).
We have to be honest and recognise that as Christians we have very little direct teaching about the details of how we should worship – but we are given plenty of teaching as to why we should worship. So much of our thinking about dates, Christian leadership, sacraments, buildings etc. etc. comes from church history. Now much of our church history represents the attempts of faithful believers to proclaim the gospel afresh in their culture and their generation, but I also believe that many of these saints who have gone before us would be horrified to learn how their practices have become inviolable tradition.
Of course the reason why Sunday became the time when Christians worship together relates to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Mark clearly tells us in Mark 16:1-2 that the women went to the tomb When the Sabbath was over … Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise. The apostle John tells us in Revelation 1:10 that On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit and it is generally agreed this refers to worship on what we would now call a Sunday. In Acts 20:7 Luke records: On the first day of the week we came together to break bread while in 1 Cor 16:2 Paul urges the church in Corinth to set aside a portion of their money on the first day of every week (1 Cor 16:2). These scattered references, when taken together, point to a time for worship which quickly became uniform practice even in the apostolic era. This is not too surprising when you consider our identity as the people of God is founded in the new covenant relationship God instituted through His Son Jesus Christ.
To sum up: all other things being equal, it is has, as we have seen, been the practice for Christians to gather not on the seventh day of the week, the Jewish Sabbath, but on the first day of the week, the day of our Lord’s resurrection. But this is a matter of practice, not of gospel truth. In many Muslim countries, for example, the church has to meet on Friday and the children go out to Friday school!
This does not mean that the Old Testament teaching on the Sabbath has no value. The creation story reminds us that if we are made in God’s image we are called to share in a rhythm of work and rest. This is generally not understood by our culture. Either the principle of rest is ignored, and we wonder why despite our 24/7 work pattern we are not flourishing, or we equate rest with being free to spend our time as we would like. The Old Testament teaches us that rest is a necessary part of our human identity, but rest is to be valued as time to renew our relationship with the Lord, not to be consumed as a leisure commodity.
Which leads to a very practical question – what rhythm of life should we adopt as believers in the Lord? And how can it witness to the new covenant relationship we enjoy with Jesus our Lord and Saviour? Important questions, which we discuss all too infrequently together.
Now over to you…