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Is there a Christian Sabbath?

On Sunday 13th September, the first fully timed marathon to be staged in County Tyrone passed through the village of Sixmilecross, bringing 850 runners on to the rural roads, and impacting travel to and from our regular morning service. That it should be so scheduled, and that the sole concern of the race official with whom I spoke was for the safety and support of participants, is testimony to the disdain in which the Lord’s Day is held in our province. Times have changed! And nowhere perhaps more obviously than in the realm of sporting events – rare is the spirit of Eric Liddell, who refused to take part in the 100 metre competition at the 1928 Olympics because the heats were planned for Sunday; rare indeed is such principle among professing Christians today!

Those Christian sportsmen are not alone in this – many evangelical churches and their members appear to have abandoned the long-held view of the first day of the week, siding with the New Testament scholar who concluded that “it cannot be argued that…God appointed the first day to be observed as the Sabbath”. Such a concept, it is said, is of the old covenant, now abolished in Christ. On the other hand, the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that the Lord’s Day is “to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath”. So who is right?

Old Testament Reflections
Opponents of the idea of ‘a Christian Sabbath’ are fond of observing that the concept is inextricably linked with the law – it is, after all, part of the Decalogue, the fourth of the Ten Commandments. But it must be kept in mind that the Sabbath pre-dates Sinai, that it was instituted at the very beginning of time; it is, therefore, a creation ordinance. On the seventh day, God ended His work, rested, and blessed and sanctified the day (Genesis 2:2-3). Not that He was in need of a rest – the idea is nonsensical if not blasphemous – but He established this weekly refrain for the benefit of His creation, and to show that there was to be a regular time for honouring Him. Thus the Sabbath principle was ordained at creation, when man was made, the apex of God’s creative work, to share His life and to enjoy His blessing, and a special day, every week, would bring these truths before him.

The Sabbath prescription was then repeated in the Ten Commandments, hence the directive to “remember” this day, an indication that the people were already aware of what was expected of them (compare, for example, Exodus 16:22-30). The importance of these laws must be acknowledged. There is evidence of this in the requirement to have them formally recorded (Exodus 34:27-28 cf 31:18) and perpetually preserved (Exodus 25:16, 40:20).

It is evident too that Christ made much of the Ten Commandments. When He sought to honour the law (Matthew 5:17-18), He moved immediately to expound some of the key points of the commandments (Matthew 5:21, 27), demonstrating the timeless quality of these precepts over against those laws that were obviously ceremonial and so abrogated by the Gospel. When He set about defining ‘goodness’ – and indicting “a certain ruler” – it was by appeal to the Ten Commandments (Luke 18:18-20). While Christ had no liking for the plethora of man-made decrees, often elevated to the status of ‘laws’ (Matthew 15:1-9), nowhere does He undermine any of ‘the ten words’ – the fourth commandment included. The question for those who would set aside this obligation is this: which of the other nine commandments will you dispense with? If the answer is ‘none’, then why single out the fourth?

New Testament Revelations
Christ Himself observed the weekly Sabbath, and made it His habit to go to the place of worship, Luke 4:16. The two go hand-in-hand – is it coincidence that a diminishing respect for the day sits alongside declining church attendance? Surely not!

Consider that Christ associated Himself with the Sabbath in a very particular manner. He declared “That the Son of Man is Lord also of the Sabbath” (Luke 6:5). Something of the glory that belongs to Him is His lordship over this day! That He should make such a claim is another indication of deity, associating Himself with the very Creator of the day – but that He should do so identifying Himself as the “Son of Man” is significant, taking the requirement to honour this day beyond the Jewish constituency and relating it to all over whom He exercises rule in His kingdom. He is Lord of the Sabbath – who are we to set it aside, if we profess to own his lordship in our lives?

Mark records Christ’s assertion that “the Sabbath was made for man” and not vice-versa (2:27). This day was instituted for man’s benefit – to assist him physically, psychologically and spiritually. Are we in any less need of this divinely ordered benefit today?

Subsequently, the resurrection of Christ saw the day of rest become the first day of the week. Pentecost bore powerful testimony to His glory and power, when, as He had promised, He sent the Holy Spirit. This occurred on the first day of the week. This day, ‘the Lord’s Day’, became a Sabbath to the first-century church, Acts 20:7. Thus Paul, giving direction for regular giving in the congregation at Corinth, assumes that it will be done on the first day, 1 Corinthians 16:1-2.

Those Scriptures said to advocate, at best, a relaxed attitude to this matter – Galatians 4:9-11 and Colossians 2:16-20 are often cited – must be kept in context. The danger of those times was of adding ritual to faith, making observance of such old Jewish practices necessary for salvation; in truth, the exhortations have nothing to do with the keeping of a Christian Sabbath – if they did, they would contradict Paul’s practice elsewhere.

An interesting verse is Hebrews 4:9 where, after using one Greek noun to signify ‘rest’ in verses 1, 3, 5, 8, another is chosen, ‘sabbatismos’, signifying ‘a keeping of Sabbath’. Why? To remind believers of an anticipation of future, eternal, heavenly rest – and it is theirs as they observe a weekly Sabbath here and now!

Contemporary Requirements
Puritan Thomas Watson once described the observance of the Lord’s Day as the Christian’s ‘badge of religion’ – that he could be identified by his honouring of the day. Perhaps we need to be so identified again! Let us see to it that what we do on the day advances holiness, drawing us after God and away from the world. Let us do only works of necessity and mercy. Let us determine to glorify God, to make our loyalty to His house and His service means to that end. And let us resolve to put God first – first in our week, and first in all our affairs!

By the time these words are read, the rugby World Cup will be over for another four years. If New Zealand has triumphed, no doubt former player Michael Jones will celebrate. Michael played over fifty times for the ‘All Blacks’. He was, by all accounts, one of the finest ever to represent his country or any other. But he would have won many more ‘caps’, and he would have been selected for the World Cup squad in 1995, but for one thing. Michael Jones, a Christian, refused to play on Sundays. For him, it was that important – God did come first, and He must for us too!

Rev Timothy Nelson.