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 (The Doctrine of Sabbath)
Chapter 15: Answering Some Key Arguments and Questions
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CHAPTER 15: Answering some key arguments and questions

15.1       Introduction

In the previous chapters, we learnt that influential Christians in the post-apostolic era decried the Sabbath as a redundant Jewish tradition and promoted Sunday—the Lord’s Day—as the new Christian feast day. Other erroneous teachings included the claim that Jesus abolished the Ten Commandments, thereby rendering literal Sabbath-keeping unnecessary. Today, the legacy remains, for the majority of Christians keep Sunday as their day of rest. However, there are also those who hark back to the Lutheran argument that all days are alike and that any day can be observed in honour of God.

In this chapter, we shall use the Bible to address some of the key arguments and a number of common questions. 

15.2       Argument 1: The Sabbath is a redundant Jewish tradition

God established the Sabbath at creation (Gen 2:1–3), two thousand years before the emergence of the Jewish nation, and two and a half thousand years before His delivery of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. Even after He chose a holy nation for Himself—a people who would enter into a covenantal relationship with Him (Ex 19:5–6)—He continued to extend the Sabbath blessing to those Gentiles who knew Him through their interactions with His people. This point is evidenced in the detail of the Fourth Commandment: “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 manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates (Ex 20:10).

However, God’s ultimate will was for all of mankind to return to Him and to keep His Sabbaths. Therefore, the Book of Isaiah prophesies of a time when salvation would extend to the Gentiles:

“Also the sons of the foreigner

Who join themselves to the Lord, to serve Him,

And to love the name of the Lord, to be His servants—

Everyone who keeps from defiling the Sabbath,

And holds fast My covenant—

Even them I will bring to My holy mountain,

And make them joyful in My house of prayer.

Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices

Will be accepted on My altar;

For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”

                                                                                        Isaiah 56:6–7

“For as the new heavens and the new earth

Which I will make shall remain before Me,” says the Lord,

“So shall your descendants and your name remain. 

And it shall come to pass

That from one New Moon to another,

And from one Sabbath to another,

All flesh shall come to worship before Me,” says the Lord.

                                                                            Isaiah 66:22–23

The apostle Paul describes this aspect of God’s plan as a mystery—one that was finally revealed to the early church, and which continues to be fulfilled to this day (Col 1:26–27). Therefore, far from being a redundant Jewish tradition, the Sabbath has become a blessing to “all flesh”, where people of different backgrounds come before God “from one Sabbath to another”.    

15.3       Argument 2: Christians should observe the Lord’s Day 

15.3.1    Origin of the term

From as early as the first century, many Christians have been interpreting the term “the Lord’s Day” to mean Sunday, attributing its origin to Revelation 1:10 which records the following words of John: “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, and I heard behind me a loud voice, as of a trumpet”. However, there are at least two problems with such a view.

One problem is that nowhere in the Book of Revelation does John equate the Lord’s Day with the first day of the week—the day of Jesus resurrection. Moreover, in his other book, the Gospel of John, he refers to Sunday as simply “the first day of the week” (Jn 20:1, 19). 

Another problem relates to the setting of Revelation. The book states that John was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” (Rev 1:10; cf. 4:2). In other words, the Holy Spirit transported him into the spiritual realm, to witness “the things which are, and the things which will take place” (Rev 1:19). These included the Lord’s pronouncement upon the seven churches (chapters 1–3) and visions of an eschatological nature (chapters 6–22). In light of this, it would be more appropriate to interpret the Lord’s Day as the day of divine judgment. This would tally with the concept of a fearsome “Day of the Lord” that is already well documented in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament prophetic books (e.g. Isa 2:12; 13:9; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11; Amos 5:18; Obad 1:15; Zeph 1:14; see also 2 Pet 3:10).  

15.3.2    Did Jesus’ disciples commemorate the resurrection?

One argument relating to the need to observe Sunday in commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection is that this is allegedly what the disciples did (cf. Lk 24:33–51; Jn 20:19–23). Proponents point to an account in Luke where two followers returned to Jerusalem to proclaim news of the risen Lord to a gathering of the eleven disciples: “So they rose that very hour and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together” (Lk 24:33).

The question is, had the eleven disciples actually gathered in worship that Sunday? The Book of John indicates not: “Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews…” (Jn 20:19). The reason they were together was because they were frightened. Furthermore, we note that many of the disciples remained sceptical about Jesus’ resurrection, despite having heard the news from others (Lk 24:11). It is hardly plausible, then, that they were holding a service to commemorate, or even to celebrate, the event. It was only later, when Jesus appeared to all of them, that they truly believed and rejoiced (Lk 24:36–43; Jn 20:19–29; 21:1–14).

15.3.3 Did Paul and the believers in Troas observe the Lord’s Day?

Another biblical passage that is commonly cited in support of the Lord’s Day is Acts 20:7–12. However, it is important that we look carefully at the context of the event. The passage records that Paul had been in Troas for a week as part of his third missionary journey and was preparing to leave. On the day before his departure, which was the first day of the week, the disciples gathered to break bread, and Paul took the opportunity to encourage them (Acts 20:7).

The first point to note is that the account depicts a farewell fellowship, not a routine service. This is evidenced by the fact that Paul was “ready to depart the next day” (Acts 20:7). As it transpired, the fellowship lasted until daybreak on Monday (Acts 20:11)—longer than could be expected for a regular service.

A second point is that the breaking of bread took place after midnight (Acts 20:7, 11). As Troas was a Gentile region, this would have been reckoned as Monday morning. Therefore, assuming that the breaking of bread in this context was the Holy Communion sacrament (as opposed to a simple fellowship meal), it did not actually take place on Sunday at all.

Thirdly, we can be confident that if the believers were partaking of the holy sacrament, Paul would have taught them to do so in commemoration of Jesus’ death, not His resurrection (1 Cor 11:24–26). 

In light of the above, there is nothing to suggest that the disciples at Troas were commemorating Jesus’ resurrection through a newly established holy day, namely the Lord’s Day. Rather, the evidence points to the nature of the occasion as being one of a farewell fellowship in honour of Paul.

15.3.4 Did Paul instruct the church in Corinth to keep the Lord’s Day? 

1 Corinthians 16:1–2 simply records Paul instructing the Corinthian believers to set aside a portion of their earnings on the first day of the week so that there would be a fund ready for dispatch to needy believers in Jerusalem by the time of his next visit (see Rom 15:26). There is no mention that he asked them to do this during a service.

15.3.5    Is the Lord’s Day a biblical teaching?

In the Bible, we can find no teaching, either from Jesus or from the apostles, concerning the need to keep the Lord’s Day in commemoration of His resurrection. Moreover, there is no basis for the elevation of Sunday above the Sabbath, despite the seemingly authoritative arguments that emerged in the post-apostolic era.

One argument is that Sunday took on a new significance when Jesus resurrected and appeared to His disciples. However, the counter-argument is that the Bible was merely documenting the fulfilment of prophecy and nothing else—the fact that Jesus would die and rise again after three days (Mt 12:38–40; Lk 18:33; Jn 2:19–22; 1 Cor 15:4). In any case, after His first appearance on the Sunday, Jesus continued to show Himself to His disciples on other occasions: eight days later, on a Tuesday (Jn 20:26); on an unspecified day (Jn 21:1, 14); over a period of “forty days” (Acts 1:3). 

Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” (Mt 7:21). To be saved, we must do God’s will. It entails that we keep His commandments faithfully and not follow the traditions of man.

Take which you will, either the fathers or the moderns, and we shall find no Lord’s day instituted by any apostolical mandate; no Sabbath set on foot by them upon the first day of the week.

      Peter Heylyn, History of the Sabbath, 1636

Not any ecclesiastical writer of the first three centuries attributed the origin of Sunday observance either to Christ or to his apostles.

      William Domville, The Sabbath;
      An Examination of the Six Texts
, 1849

15.4       Argument 3: Jesus abolished the Law to usher in an era of grace

To address this argument, we need to consider three related matters: the Bible’s teachings concerning grace, the Law, and the Ten Commandments. 

15.4.1    The Bible’s teaching concerning grace

The word for “grace” in the New Testament Bible is the Greek word charis[1]—a word that signifies “unearned and unmerited favour”.[2] This is a particularly fitting description for that aspect of God’s work which underpins the whole Christian faith: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph 2:8–9); “…who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began (2 Tim 1:9).

The Bible is clear that we have been saved on account of God’s grace. Salvation is His free and merciful gift; we did nothing to earn it. God bestowed it when He sent His beloved Son to die for us and to shed His blood. The outcome is that we are now justified through faith in Jesus Christ.

[B]eing justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth to be a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith.

             Romans 3:24–27

However, the Bible is equally clear that grace through faith in no way relinquishes our practical obligations towards God. On the contrary, faith entails action. This is well illustrated by the fact that when God invites us to accept salvation through the gospel, we are required to respond in the appropriate manner: to repent, receive water baptism and to ask for the infilling of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; Lk 11:13). In short, grace only becomes ours when we manifest our faith.

Furthermore, after entering into God’s salvation, we have a duty to press onward and upwards by keeping God’s commandments and living a fruitful and holy life (Mt 19:17; Jn 15:8; 1 Pet 1:15–16). His commandments include the Ten Commandments in their entirety. When we live proactively in this way, we reveal our Christian faith: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (Jas 2:18). 

15.4.2    The Bible’s teaching concerning the Law

Concerning the issue of whether Jesus abolished the Law, there is no clearer answer than His own words, which are recorded in the Book of Matthew:

Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.    

            Matthew 5:17–19

From Jesus’ words, we note two points: He came not to destroy the Law, but to fulfil it. The word for “fulfil” in Greek is pleroo and has various nuances of meaning, including to “make full”, “complete”, and “make perfect”.[3] Knowing this helps us to understand a couple of key points.

Firstly, Jesus fulfilled the Law by making it complete. He did this by realizing those aspects that had been a “copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Heb 8:5; cf. 10:1). These were the rules governing the religious life of the Israelites and concerned matters such as the tabernacle (Ex 25–31), offerings (Lev 1–7), clean and unclean animals (Lev 11), purification (Lev 12–15), the priesthood (Lev 21–22) and festivals (Lev 23). They also included the ceremonial laws of the Sabbath—the offerings (Num 28:9–10) and the setting out of showbread (Lev 24:5–8). All these pointed to the work of salvation that would be accomplished by Jesus, including His establishment of the church (Heb 8:2; 9:11). Hence, the writer of Hebrews explains that some parts of the Law were “concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation” (Heb 9:10)—the time of reformation being the coming of Christ. Likewise, Paul describes these as “a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Col 2:17). 

Secondly, Jesus fulfilled the Law by making it full and perfect. He did this by making clear its spirit—specifically those aspects to do with our moral obligations towards God and man. Hence, during His ministry, He expounded on God’s commandments—including the Ten Commandments (Mt 19:17–19)—to reveal their meaning at a more profound level and to highlight the fact that God now requires us to keep them from within our hearts (e.g. Mt 5–7). In terms of the Fourth Commandment, Jesus showed us through His personal example and teachings a number of important truths: the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath (Mk 2:27); it is a day for doing good to others (Mt 12:12); God desires mercy over sacrifice (Mt 12:7); He is Lord of the Sabbath (Mt 12:8). 

In summary, far from abolishing the Law, Jesus fulfilled it through His work of salvation and by making clear the spirit of God’s commandments. The Bible reveals that, under the new covenant, God has placed His laws inside our hearts through the Holy Spirit, and no longer in writing as in times past (Heb 8:10; Ezek 36:27). His will is that we submit to the Spirit, so “that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:4).  

15.4.3    The Bible’s teaching concerning the Ten Commandments

It is important to reiterate that Jesus did not abolish the Ten Commandments. From the Bible, we understand that they constitute a special element of God’s Law. Indeed, their unique status was first indicated through His writing of them with His own finger onto tablets of stone (Ex 31:18) and His instructions to Moses to place them within the ark of the covenant (Deut 10:2). It is particularly significant that, thousands of years later, the Holy Spirit enabled the apostle John to glimpse the ark in a vision of the heavenly temple—God’s true church (Rev 11:19). These truths reveal that the Ten Commandments remain binding on God’s people until the end of time. Importantly, for our purpose, they are simple to keep and do not carry the curse associated with the old covenantal Law. For this reason, elder James refers to them as the “law of liberty” and exhorts believers to live by them (Jas 2:12).

In conclusion, the Fourth Commandment—the Sabbath commandment—still applies today. What do not apply are the regulations and the penalty of death for transgression. Jesus Christ has ushered us into a period of grace and spiritual maturity, whereby we no longer need the letter of the Mosaic Law to teach us in detail how to keep the Sabbath (Gal 3:24–25). What God now requires of us is to keep this holy day from our heart, in sincerity and faith.

15.5       Argument 4: Jesus has fulfilled the Sabbath rest 

A compelling and often heard argument is that Jesus fulfilled the Sabbath rest and rendered literal Sabbath-keeping unnecessary. Here, the fulfilment is interpreted as the complete realization of the Old Testament shadow. Those who hold this view are apt to cite those famous words of Jesus: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt 11:28–29).  

While no one would argue against the biblical teaching that Jesus has given believers spiritual rest—rest not only from the need to strive for our own righteousness through the keeping of the Mosaic Law (Rom 3:20–22; Gal 2:16), but also from the bondage of sin and death (Rom 8:2)—we cannot conclude that this equates to the realization of the Sabbath, nor its obsolescence. This is because the Bible is clear that there is a Sabbath that remains to be fulfilled. The writer of Hebrews says:

There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His. Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall after the same example of disobedience.

             Hebrews 4:9–11

Here, the original Greek word for “rest” is sabbatismos[4], which refers to the heavenly rest that awaits victorious Christians—the time when they can lay down their earthly labours once and for all. The writer therefore exhorts his Christian readers—those who have already accepted Christ as their Saviour—to be “diligent to enter that rest” through obedience to God (Heb 4:11). The fact of the matter is, by keeping the Sabbath rest here on earth, we are reminded that there will be a future sabbatismos in heaven, and that we need to prepare for it through spiritual cultivation (2 Pet 3:13–14).  

Christians who argue that Jesus has already fulfilled the Sabbath also point to Colossians 2:16–17: “Therefore let no one judge you 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.” They infer from this passage that Jesus, being the substance, has done away with the shadow, which is the Sabbath itself. For this reason, they say that believers can no longer be judged for non-observance. However, such a view sits neither well with Paul’s own custom of Sabbath-keeping (Acts 13:14, 44; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4), nor with the Bible’s teaching concerning a future heavenly rest (Heb 4:9).

It is therefore important that we clarify the context of Paul’s words. The point is, he was writing to address an issue of heresy at Colosse which involved the “commandments and doctrines of men” (Col 2:22) and which had “an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body” (Col 2:23). It appears that some Christians were promoting a brand of religion that combined Mosaic traditions (Col 2:11–14) with ascetic principles (Col 2:21) and were criticizing others for not adhering to it. It was therefore incumbent upon Paul to point out that the written Law was merely a shadow of Jesus. It was a shadow in one sense because it pointed to His salvation work (see Heb 7–10:22) and the era of justification by faith (Gal 3:23–25). However, the Law was a shadow in another sense because Jesus revealed the deeper meaning of the moral element—including the Sabbath commandment—to help us be clearer about what God requires of us in this time of grace.

In short, Paul was not speaking against the need for the Sabbath itself. Rather, he was pointing out that we no longer need to keep the regulations of the Mosaic Law.

15.6       Argument 5: All days are alike

Some Christians cite Romans 14:5–6 to make the point that all days are alike and that they are free to dedicate to God whichever day they choose. However, they fail to grasp that this biblical passage does not address the matter of the Sabbath at all, but rather an issue relating to food and drink.

A problem in the church at Rome was that some believers regarded all food as fit and proper to eat, while others—whom Paul described as “weak in the faith”—abstained from foods they considered to be unclean (Rom 14:1–2, 14, 20–21). In Romans 14, Paul admonished the stronger believers to accept the weaker ones (Rom 14:1) and to avoid doing anything that would make them stumble (Rom 14:13–15, 20–21). He also urged both parties to stop judging the other (Rom 14:3–4, 10, 13) because, differences aside, everyone was motivated by the same desire to please God (Rom 14:6).    

In Romans 14:6, Paul spoke particularly about observing “the day” alongside the matters of eating and not eating. This leads us to understand that the day (or days) was either a fast day or a feast day, although we cannot be sure of its exact nature.[5] In other words, some believers appeared to have had a custom of fasting or feasting on certain days, while others did not. This explains Paul’s words: “One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike” (Rom 14:5).

What was Paul’s conclusion? He said that, while personal convictions about food, abstention and other related matters were all very well, they should never cause offence to others (Rom 14:21). Importantly, believers have a duty to pursue peace: “[F]or the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom 14:17). 

15.7       Argument 6: We do not need to keep days, months, seasons and years

The letter to the Galatians was for a Gentile church, for Paul says they were uncircumcised (Gal 5:2; 6:12–13) and used to worship false gods (Gal 4:8). His purpose in writing was to reprimand them for turning away from Jesus to a “different gospel” (Gal 1:6) that was being taught by false teachers who wanted to “pervert the gospel of Christ” (Gal 1:7). The latter advocated works of the Law (Gal 3; 5:4), including circumcision (Gal 5:2; 6:12–13), as requirements for salvation.

In Galatians 4:10, Paul addressed an outcome of the false teachings which was the believers’ observance of “days and months and seasons and years”. These were the Jewish festivals which were integral to the Mosaic Law and included the Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, Day of Atonement, the Sabbath Year and the Year of Jubilee and so forth. By adhering to this Jewish calendar, the Galatian converts were giving up their liberty which came from believing in Christ in exchange for enslavement to the Mosaic ordinances, hence Paul’s rebuke: “But now after you have known God…how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage?” (Gal 4:9). The ordinances were deemed “weak and beggarly elements” because of their inability to bring about man’s justification before God (Gal 2:16).

It is important to point out that Paul was not talking about the weekly Sabbath, which is part of the Ten Commandments—God’s enduring and timeless laws for all believers. Jesus says we need to keep these in order to “enter into life” (Mt 19:17).


© January 2012 True Jesus Church.

[1]      Strong’s reference no. G5485.

[2]      Zodhiates, S., The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament (USA: AMG Publishers, 1993).

[3]      Strong’s reference no. G4137.

[4]      Strong’s reference no. G4520.

[5]      Black, Matthew, The New Century Bible Commentary: Romans. Second edition (Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1973).

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