Embraced  by  Truth . . .
                                    reflections on theology and life

THEOLOGY > God > Work of Creation > The Seventh Day > Teaching of Paul 


Early Christians, especially Jewish Christians, observed both the Sabbath and Sunday, observing Sunday in memory and recognition of the resurrection of Christ. Many Gentile believers in the first century also met on both days. Evidence for believers meeting on this new day, which came to be called the “Lord’s Day,” is found in the New Testament:

Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul . . . spoke to them and continued his message until midnight (Acts 20:7);

On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come (I Cor. 16:2);

I was in the spirit on the Lord’s Day, and I heard behind me a loud voice, as of a trumpet (Rev. 1:10).

But over time Sunday became the sole day of worship for the Church. As more Gentile believers were added to the Church and as Jewish Christians came to understand the true relationship of Judaism to Christianity, the meeting of believers on the Sabbath declined. Sunday became the acceptable day of worship.

What should be the position of the believer regarding this change? Are Christians correct in abandoning God’s example and command that reaches back to Creation? By doing so, have they shown contempt for the Ten Commandments in refusing to obey the Fourth Commandment? Can the Fourth Commandment be kept by changing the day specified by the Commandment? If it was God’s intent that believers change the day of rest and worship from the Sabbath to Sunday, would He not have specified it to the Church explicitly by at least one New Testament writer?

Several reasons have been given for believers choosing to meet on Sunday rather than the traditional day of Saturday:

* One, Jesus, the Savior of the Church, rose from the dead on the first day of the week; so believers in Christ meet on the day that His earthly work on earth was vindicated by His rising from the dead.

* Two, the Holy Spirit was given to the Church on Pentecost, the fiftieth day after the Passover Sabbath, which would make Pentecost fall on the first day of the week; on Sunday Christ arose, and on Sunday the Holy Spirit was given.

* Three, by the Christians meeting on Sunday they could distinguish themselves from the Jewish faith; Judaism had the Sabbath, while the Church had Sunday.

Was the Church justified in forsaking the Sabbath in favor of Sunday? Was it correct for the Church to depart from a day that originated at the time of Creation? Was the essential nature of the Sabbath related mainly to Judaism or to Creation? In choosing Sunday was the Church rejecting the mandated rest ordained by God?

In response to these difficult questions there is the teaching of Paul, where the main principle appears to be the freedom of the believer in Christ. Concerning special days and feasts, the believer is not to be judged for his refusal to celebrate them or for his desire to keep them. Romans, Galatians, and Colossians touch on this point:

One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it (Rom. 14:5-6);

So then each of us shall give account of himself to God. Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way (Rom. 14:12-13);

But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain (Gal. 4:9-11);

So 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. Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God. Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations—"Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle," which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh (Col. 2:16-23).

Are these passages sufficient to justify the Church’s move from Sabbath observance to Sunday observance? Do these passages make void the necessity to obey the mandate given by God at Creation? Was the rest commanded at Creation actually temporary, extending from Creation to the death of Christ? Was the Sabbath, like many of the days, sacrifices, and laws of the Old Testament, before and during the life of the nation, a practice to teach spiritual truth and to anticipate the Atonement and its implications? Were the Pharisees, like many interpreters today, guilty of considering merely the outward observance, without perceiving the inward reality?

What did Paul mean by the disparity of “shadow” and “substance” (Col. 2:17)? How is he to be understood?

Paul contrasts one believer, who considers one day superior to another, with another believer, who considers all days to be equal. He does not take a position, but affirms that both may be doing it for the Lord. Choosing to consider one day more holy than another day is a matter of personal preference. A believer could keep certain days, but was under no requirement to do so. Considering all days to be equal is an exercise of Christian freedom. In light of this, he plainly states: “Let us not judge one another anymore” (Rom. 14:13). Whatever practice is followed, Paul is careful to point out that the believer is accountable to God and will give account of his actions to God.

In Galatians, Paul equates observance of “days and months and seasons and years” with “weak and beggarly elements,” which are an indication of bondage, a legalistic bondage. From this bondage the believer has been freed; Paul asks: “How is it that you turn again” to these things? To understand that one is known by God is to understand the freedom of that relationship, a relationship that graciously bestows the righteousness that it demands. It is to understand that the keeping of days does not merit favor. To keep a day in order to curry favor with God is to trust in “weak and beggarly elements”; it is a rejection of grace—it is a return to legalistic living. The believer is free from these things.

In Colossians, the apostle instructs the believer not to allow another believer to judge his Christian life regarding food, drink, festivals, or days; he even equates these things with “worship of angels.” To place priority on such things is to be “vainly puffed up” and not to “hold fast to the Head,” who is Christ. It is to look in the wrong direction for fulfillment and security; it is to believe that I can contribute to my standing before the Lord; it is a prideful arrogance. In response to these kinds of regulations, which Paul calls “commandments and doctrines of men,” that encourage personal deception, he asks a question: “Why do you subject yourselves to regulations?” They serve no ultimate purpose; they merely satisfy vanity.

An additional point is to be observed. All of these Old Testament practices that Paul discusses are “a shadow of things to come”; that is, the Old Testament anticipates the New Testament, Old Israel gives way to New Israel—there is anticipation, followed by accomplishment. The apostle plainly teaches this truth; he affirms that “the substance is Christ.” And this “substance” follows the “shadow.”

Two questions from above are repeated: Was the Sabbath, like many of the days, sacrifices, and laws of the Old Testament, before and during the life of the nation, a practice to teach spiritual truth and to anticipate the Atonement and its implications? Were the Pharisees, like many interpreters today, guilty of considering merely the outward observance, without perceiving the inward reality?

An additional query is appropriate: Do we hold onto the “shadow” and fail to appreciate and live in the freedom of the “substance?”

“shadow” is before “substance”

“substance” replaces “shadow”

In Christ the believer is free!

One major issue with the above passage is obvious: Do the references to “days” include the Sabbath day? Or the issue can be addressed in another way: Do the texts apply uniquely to the ceremonial “days” of the Jews and, therefore, do not relate to the seventh day at all? The position taken by the believer on this issue will determine his response to the question of which day, if any, is the day of rest for the believer, and how to observe that day.

Throughout the history of the Church three positions have been practiced.

One, some believers keep the Sabbath, understanding the Sabbath rest to be a Creation mandate.

For them (Seventh Day Adventists, Seventh Day Baptists, Messianic Jews) the essence of the Sabbath is not Jewish but Creational. Therefore, the directive at Creation was not temporary but binding throughout history; its inclusion in the Decalogue confirms the fact that it is part of God’s moral order that is immutable. New Testament events and teachings do not negate the responsibility of believers to keep the Sabbath. Paul’s epistles are understood to be against “doctrines of men” and Jewish sacrificial and ceremonial practices, and have nothing to do with God’s command at Creation regarding the seventh day of rest.

Two, some believers transfer the principles of Sabbath rest to their observance of the Lord’s Day.

For them the “days” in Paul’s writings refer to the ceremonial days of the nation of Israel and do not negate the responsibility of believers to keep one day holy because of the Creation requirement. The new day, justified by its association with the finished work of Christ, is invested with concepts that reach back to both Creation (rest) and Jewish history (no work). For those who accept this transfer of Old Testament concepts of the Sabbath to the first day of the week, Sunday partakes of influences from both Creation and the Decalogue; Sunday observance, therefore, is both Creational and Jewish. The believer is under obligation to honor it.

Examples can be found in history where Sunday was invested with concepts derived from the Old Testament. For instance, Tertullian taught that Christians were to rest and were not to work on Sunday, and Constantine outlawed most work on Sunday. From the Puritans in this country came the beginning of what has come to be known as the Blue Laws, which made various forms of activity illegal on Sunday. Until recently, businesses in the United States reflected the influence of this thinking by being closed on Sunday.

Three, believers are free from any constraints on the Lord’s Day (the “shadow” has given way to the “substance”); they are free to follow their conscience and are not to be judged by other believers for their practice on this day.

Conduct is determined by conscience, a conscience illuminated by Scripture and led by the Spirit. The Church has worshipped on this day throughout its history, a practice that is recorded and is never condemned by the New Testament. Believers should take seriously this historical example of the Church and feel free to celebrate this day, remembering the admonition that corporate worship is expected of those who follow Christ (Heb. 10:25). Christians should have a day for worship, but the day in no way is a continuation of the Old Testament Sabbath.

Foundational to this third position is the proper understanding of the relationship of the Old Testament (“shadow”) to the New Testament (“substance”). All of the Old is anticipatory of the New, which means that the Old can only be understood in light of the New. The Old Testament is not an end in itself but finds its ultimate fulfillment in the New Testament, for the people and events of the Old must finally be interpreted in terms of the Lord’s life and death. From this perspective the Sabbath rest of Creation and, for example, the Jewish sacrifices, both kept in the Old Testament time because of Divine Mandate, find their completion and termination in the Christ event.

The Old passes because its purpose is preparation for the New, and when the New arrives, the reason for the existence of the Old has ceased. If this thinking is correct and the application of it to the Creation Sabbath is valid, then the believer is not bound by law to a particular day. Believers meet out of desire, a desire based upon knowledge of what happened on the first day of the week following the death of the Savior, and an abiding thankfulness for the soteriological significance of the Resurrection.

He who observes the day,
observes it to the Lord;
and he who does not observe the day,
to the Lord he does not observe it.
Rom. 14:6

Return to The Seventh Day; Next Article: Eternal Rest

For overview of THEOLOGY, see: Site Map - Theology
Copyright © Embraced by Truth
All rights reserved.
Materials may be freely copied for personal and academic use;
appropriate reference must be made to this site.
Links are invited.