Sabbath & Sunday, Rest & Worship

The status of the sabbath day has been exercising my mind over the past few months so I resolved to give it some definite thought and study. It is a divisive issue, sadly. Those who seek to observe a day of rest are sometimes called legalists or worst. Those who do not are reckoned licentious or worldly.

There seem to be three schools of thought among Bible-believing Christians. I’m going to explore each one and then I’ll share my own analysis.

If this lengthy piece tries your patience, just go straight to the end to see my conclusions.


Interpretation Number 1: The sabbath has moved from the sixth day to the first, ie from Saturday to Sunday.

On the first day- Sunday- we must not work or be distracted from godliness. This is the majority protestant view since the reformation. Sunday became the day of rest. Christians met on the day marking Christ’s resurrection which not only honoured this most significant event, but drew a distinction between the early Christians and those Jews who rejected the Messiah. The ‘Christian sabbath’ was important to many puritans whose faith relished the day’s distinctive status. This retained the concept of a rest day without appearing to be ‘under the old covenant’.

I cannot, however, see any justification in the Bible for altering the sabbath from the seventh day to the first. Christ fulfilled the law but He did not alter it. He appears to have observed the sabbath Himself, though not to the liking of the pharisees who disdained His sabbath healings and crushing of grain. That these are the ‘worst’ things they accused Him of doing on the sabbath suggests His observance otherwise was fairly typical. Furthermore, the sabbath was instituted at creation, not Sinai. God rested on the seventh day (Saturday) and his creation was commanded to do likewise. Although the Christian is not under the Mosaic covenant, He is presumably still bound to a creation ordinance.


Interpretation Number 2: The sabbath no longer applies; it a feature of the old covenant we may discard.

The New Testament makes it clear that the Christian is saved by God’s grace and not his own actions. The ceremonies of Moses such as circumcision we no longer perform; they were a temporary institution for one people. The gospel has now broadened salvation’s remit; repentance and belief must trump ritual and symbol. The sabbath, which certainly has a symbolic value according Hebrews 4, was a temporary imposition to which we owe no further obligation. There was certainly a reaction against the ‘Christian sabbath’ among members of the 1970s’ house churches and new charismatic fellowships, who scandalised their evangelical colleagues by buying ice-creams on Sunday afternoons and going out for lunch after the morning service.

Exercising their freedom from ‘law’ revealed a misunderstanding of scripture. Our guilt for breaking God’s law is removed by Christ, yet the child of God wishes to be distinct from the world and to live a life pleasing to God. This means observing his moral laws, not in order to gain salvation, but to demonstrate our love and change of heart. Whereas the ceremonial laws were fulfilled by Christ and the civic laws ended with the destruction of Israel, the moral laws remained in place. Being saved by grace does not make murdering any less evil or worthy of avoidance, so why should ignoring the sabbath day, also a part of God’s Ten Commandments?


Number 3: We Christians are expected to observe the sabbath as the Hebrews of old. Sunday worship is not mandated and may even be a devilish invention.

These believers relish the faith’s Jewish foundation and note with sadness the way many Christians discard God’s commands simply for their being recorded before Matthew's gospel. Yet they tend to go too far. Jewish believers may continue to observe all the Hebrew covenant including circumcision, it is their heritage, but no longer necessary to please God. Such a belief dismisses much New Testament teaching and is in danger of degenerating into salvation by works.

Would people holding this view also observe the sabbath year, as described in Leviticus 25? Every seventh year, like every seventh day, the Hebrews were not to engage in crop-growing, eating instead what God provided. I would have more sympathy for proponents of view number 3 if they applied their mind to this command as much as the sabbath day. To give up work every six years and live by faith for 12 months would be putting money where the mouth is.


Did the early church observe the sabbath?

When all the believers were all Jewish, I think this was almost certainly the case. They probably continued to circumcise their children and attend both synagogue and temple. As gentiles were added to their number, a council in Jerusalem was called to settle the relationship between non-Jewish converts and Moses’ law. Should they be circumcised before baptism? Should they abstain from pork? Indeed, converted pharisees contended: “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” This last clause presumably included sabbath observance.

In Acts 15, the Council decided on four things (in bold):

verse 24: Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, “You must be circumcised and keep the law”—to whom we gave no such commandment— 25 it seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who will also report the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: 29 that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.

Here was the golden opportunity to ensure that gentile converts observed the sabbath day- and this the council failed even to mention. The four items they chose were prevalent problems in gentile culture and would certainly have hindered fellowship between Jewish and gentile believers. Someone might object and say ‘but they weren’t told not to murder either; this is why the sabbath isn’t mentioned’. Murder, however, was already forbidden by gentile law and needed no repetition. As sabbath observance was not already a part of Greco-Roman culture, we can assume that few or none were already acknowledging it. The council of apostles could have included sabbath observance, but they deliberately refrained.

Let’s look at the Corinthian church. This fellowship was in a right mess. Drunkards spoilt communion. Sexual immorality was tolerated. False apostles had crept in. The resurrection was denied. Apostle Paul wrote several letters to them to help sort it out, addressing each of their problems in turn. Sabbath observance is not mentioned. Why is this? If there was no expectation for Corinthian believers to spend the seventh day resting, this may account for why Paul never charged them with it. Otherwise, we must conclude that they faithfully and devotedly observed the sabbath day as correctly as any scribe, despite their fondness for drunkenness and sexual perversions. This I doubt.

Furthermore, in those epistles where the sabbath is mentioned, the text indicates it is a matter of personal conviction rather than expectation. Colossians 2 states

V. 16: So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, 17 which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.

Should I drink wine or abstain? Should I celebrate the new moon? Should I eat bacon or observe Moses’ dietary laws? Do I rest on the seventh day? It is to be left to my judgement rather than someone else’s. Those Christians from Jewish backgrounds- they may still keep it. Those gentile believers rejoicing in their faith’s Jewish foundation many also choose to keep it. For everyone else, let them make up their own mind.

Paul addresses the Roman church in chapter 14:

V. 5 One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; [a]and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died [b]and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living. 10 But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother?

Unlike their Corinthian brethren, this really was a better mixed Jewish-gentile congregation. The issue of food laws and sabbath observance was therefore likely to be higher up their list of priorities than elsewhere. Now Paul doesn’t mention the sabbath by name, and some suggest the ‘days’ he speaks of refer to something else. But what else might these days be? Pagan holy days? Unlikely. Some suggest they are special fasting or feasting days selected by the Roman church itself, and the immediate context is indeed one of eating. Perhaps- but why would this be an issue over which they might fall out? Might it refer to Talmudic feast and fasts (ie ones that were Jewish tradition, but not scriptural) which the Jewish members were observing but the gentiles were not? Now this is possible, but it seems strange that Paul would not clarify that the sabbath is the exception when it comes to observing holy days and should be sacred to all church members. If that were so, he might have written:

One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike, except of course the sabbath which we all keep and esteem anyway. 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. But we all observe the sabbath anyway, so I’m clearly not referring to this.

Critics of my position will say I’m ‘reading’ the sabbath into the text, but I suspect that feasts and fasts of the Talmud is an even bigger imposition. The sabbath is scriptural, and scripture interprets scripture. I think only someone determined to demonstrate that we are bound to observe the sabbath today would opt for this interpretation. They would still struggle over the issue of why so little apostolic teaching is devoted to something which they consider quite clear-cut and mandatory in its observance.

The simplest, plainest interpretation of Paul’s teaching is that each believer must decide for themselves their relationship to the sabbath day, presumably having first engaged in study and prayer. This will result in some difference of opinion and practice, and this we should tolerate.


The Lord’s Day

A further element of the discussion should concern the New Testament’s development of ‘the Lord’s Day’. I believe this was the first day of the week, corresponding to our Sunday and was the day on which they most regularly met for worship and breaking bread.

Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight (Acts 20:17).

This was the day we now call Sunday. Was this communion service and sermon typical practice, or an exception, hastily arranged to accommodate Paul’s travel plans? Did they meet before sundown on Saturday and Paul preached till midnight so the meeting was kind of on the sabbath? Such interpretations defy the text’s plain meaning: they met on the first day.

Paul writes to the Corinthians, regarding a collection for other churches:

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. (1 Cor 16:2)

Now was Paul offering them savings advice like a junior banker doing school’s outreach work, or was the first day of the week the day they gathered and could contribute to the church-wide collection? The latter, methinks.

In Revelation 1:10, John was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, and [he] heard behind [him] a loud voice, as of a trumpet…

This does not prove others met with him on that day for worship, but it was the day on which the Lord chose to speak to Him.

Interestingly, the ‘Day of the Lord’ was an Old Testament prophetic term for future judgement and the activation of God’s promises. I think it is no coincidence that the redeemed people of God- whose sins have already been judged and atoned for by Christ crucified- should meet on that day to hear God’s word and behold His promises fulfilled in their lives.


The Day of Rest and the Day of Worship

Resting and worshipping are not the same. Resting is a cessation, worship a positive action. Those of us in church leadership know that organising, executing and clearing up after public worship is not a rest or relaxing experience. I can only rest once I’ve returned home and the chapel doors are locked. I’ve often reflected on this irony, but it’s no irony at all when we realise that the Bible does not God command us to worship Him on the sabbath. We are to rest on that day. Those who argue we should only worship on the seventh day will have trouble supporting this from scripture. It’s true that the Jews met in their synagogues on the sabbath day, but it is never commanded by scripture. Furthermore, synagogues only developed during the sixth-century exile; prior to that people worshipped as families and at the tabernacle throughout the week.

Only a handful of verses come close to suggesting that the day of rest is a day of worship, and that they are the one and the same:

Leviticus 23:3: ‘Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work on it; it is the Sabbath of the Lord in all your dwellings.

Convocation means gathering, but it need not be a mass gathering of many households. This could be gathering for formal worship together as families and friends, back together again having departed from their different fields and work activities.

Likewise, Leviticus 19:30 states ‘You shall keep My Sabbaths and reverence My sanctuary: I am the Lord.

The weekly rest day was to be no mere day of idleness and ease; there was a sacredness about it. It was, afterall, bestowed by God Himself. No longer distracted by the plough or the sheep pen, one might better contemplate the things of God, including His tabernacle.

Some sabbath days were certainly part of the celebration of the great Hebrew festivals. Others, interestingly, began the day after- the first day of the week. The Feast of First Fruits, for example, began the day after the Sabbath with the priest making a wave offering (Lev. 23:11). This proves that worship was not necessarily bound up with the sabbath day, and sometimes commenced on the first day, much like our modern pattern. So worship followed rest. And so with us. A typical Christian works five days a week, rests on the Saturday (by which we might include family time) and worships corporately on the following day.



I appreciate I’m unlike to satisfy anyone but myself in this regard, but I conclude thus:

The sabbath day was never moved from ‘Saturday’ to ‘Sunday’, the seventh to the first day.

The sabbath (literally meaning cease, rest) was a blessing from God to the world from the time of creation to the present day; it was later confirmed by Moses at Sinai.

The sabbath was never a formally prescribed day of worship, though resting from toil will inevitably cause our thoughts to consider God.

The Jews later combined the sabbath rest with formal synagogue worship, conveniently marrying the two; it was a day when all were free and available.

The early Christians of Jewish descent continued to observe the sabbath; they probably attended the synagogue on that day and met with all other believers the following day.

As ostracism of Jewish Christians developed among fellow Jews and the churches became more ethnically gentile, so the first-day of worship became the only 'holy' day of each week.

Some debate occurred within the early church regarding the requirement for believers to observe the sabbath day, along with circumcision and the dietary laws. Although the Jews still observed it, gentiles who were engaged in commerce or employed as slaves may not have observed it; the apostles refused to declare it a requirement of the faith and asked Jewish believers not to look down on gentiles, and vice versa.

Christians were left to decide for themselves how and when they would both rest and worship.

With time, the original Jewish decision to combine rest with worship was again reached, this time focusing on the first day rather than the seventh. This may have been because the financial loss of ‘two’ non-work days was considered too great.


Practical Conclusions

I have no problem with those who combine rest and worship on the first day (Sunday) or the seventh day (Saturday).

My own preference is to keep both: to rest and cease from my employment on the sixth day and to focus on sharing corporate worship on the seventh. I appreciate that having two days off from work each week is a luxury some cannot afford.

On the Saturday I will not engage in my weekly job, and neither will I on Sunday. Neither shall I shop or engage in worldly entertainment, as the day of worship is set aside for spiritual thoughts. I must not therefore feel guilty for not attending church on the seventh day, nor for feeling busy on the first.

I will worship God on all days, but particularly on Sundays because:

-The early church worshipped on the day.

-Having rested the day before, I am stronger and more focussed for the worship of God the following morning.

-It is the day on which the Lord Jesus was resurrected, a kind of weekly Easter celebration.

-It marks the day of the week in which God began creation, saying “let there be light’. It also marks the day of God’s resumed activity at the start of the second week.

-This day of divine activity is reflected on our first-day gatherings: as we actively worship God and serve each other, so He actively joins our meetings and pours grace into our lives.


Missing the point

When the sabbath day is discussed on among Christians, it is as though it were an imposition, a burden, an inconvenient observance for which we are thankfully now exempt. Rather, the sabbath was a gift from God to His creation. From kings and nobles to slaves and donkeys- all need rest, which a weekly sabbath provides. As it was given before the covenants, it is not a Jewish concept or some anachronistic relic of the Old Covenant. It’s as much a gift to us as the stars in the sky and the flowers of the field. Speak not of the sabbath as though it were some dirty word; neither turn it into a burden for yourself or others. Neither must it become a source of spiritual pride. Enjoy it for the gift it is. Each one of us is called to work, to rest and to worship.


And call the Sabbath a delight,

The holy day of the Lord honourable,

And shall honour Him, not doing your own ways,

Nor finding your own pleasure,

Nor speaking your own words,

Then you shall delight yourself in the Lord;

And I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth,

And feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father.

The mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Isaiah 58:13-14


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