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The Church and the Sabbath | Theology Matters

  • February 2016 Issue
Practical Theology

Christians sometimes refer to Sunday as “the Sabbath” and call it a “day of rest.” Are these descriptions accurate? Is Sunday the Christian Sabbath?

The believers in the brand-new church in Jerusalem met daily, both at the temple and in homes (see Acts 2:46). Paul also regularly visited the synagogue on the Sabbath (the seventh day of the week), though this seems to have been primarily for evangelistic purposes (Acts 13:14–42; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4). The New Testament never commands believers to continue to observe the Jewish Sabbath. Instead, the apostle Paul urged: “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day” (Col. 2:16).

Sunday did have special significance to the early church because Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week. It was called “the Lord’s day” (see Rev. 1:10). Sunday was the day when the church met for congregational worship and instruction (Acts 20:7). Paul directed the church in Corinth to take a weekly offering when they met on Sunday (1 Cor. 16:2). This offering was to be sent to support impoverished believers in Jerusalem.

The church’s Sunday observance never included as many restrictions as the Jewish Sabbath, however. There is no New Testament Sabbath law, nor does Scripture ever describe Sunday as a day of rest. Instead, the emphasis on rest in the New Testament is connected to the work of Jesus Christ. Jesus provides a rest that the commandments of the Mosaic Law could never do. According to Hebrews 4:10–11, we enter that rest by ceasing from our own work and relying on the work of Jesus Christ.

It is not wrong for Christians to treat the Lord’s Day as a day of rest. Like the early church, we also can meet regularly on this day for worship and instruction. But Jesus’ statement regarding the Jewish Sabbath should
also inform the church’s practice when it comes to the Lord’s Day: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The Old Testament Sabbath pointed forward to a rest that Jesus provides as a gift of grace. How tragic to turn the Lord’s Day into a burden and a law.

FOR FURTHER STUDY

To learn more about how the church has viewed the Lord’s Day throughout its history, read From Sabbath Day to Lord’s Day, edited by D. A. Carson (Wipf and Stock).

BY Dr. John Koessler

Dr. John Koessler, who retired as professor emeritus from Moody Bible Institute, formerly served in the division of applied theology and church ministry. John and his wife Jane enjoy living in a lakeside town in Michigan. A prolific writer, John’s books include Dangerous Virtues: How to Follow Jesus When Evil Masquerades as Good (Moody Publishers), The Radical Pursuit of Rest (InterVarsity), The Surprising Grace of Disappointment (Moody), and True Discipleship (Moody). John is a contributing editor and columnist for Today in the Word.

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