In the previous chapter we saw that worship is our response to the gracious acts of God on our behalf. For ancient Israel, worship was centered in the Exodus experience—what God had done for them. For Christians, worship is centered in the gospel, what God has done for all believers. Christian worship celebrates and participates in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the salvation and redemption of all people.
The worship pattern given to Israel was designed especially for them. God gave the Israelites, through Moses, a worship pattern designed to enable them to respond in celebration to what God had done for them in delivering them from Egypt and bringing them into the Promised Land.
Christian worship does not require observances based on ancient Israel’s experience with God, but responds instead to the gospel. We might say by analogy that the “new wine” of the gospel is to be poured into “new wineskins” (Matthew 9:17). The “old wineskin” of the old covenant was not made to hold the new wine of the gospel (Hebrews 12:18-24).
Articles About the Sabbath
Israelite worship was for Israel. It lasted until Christ came. Now God’s people worship in new forms that reflect their response to new content—the transcendent new thing God has done in Jesus Christ. Christian worship is geared around the rehearsal of and participation in Jesus Christ. Its key components include:
- The Lord’s Supper, also called Eucharist (or thanksgiving) and Communion, which was commanded by Christ.
- Reading of Scripture, through which we rehearse and review the record of God’s love and promises, especially his promise of the Savior, Jesus Christ, and through which we are nourished with the Word of God.
- Prayer and song, through which we make our petitions to God in faith, repent of our sins in humility, and honor, praise and give him thanks in joyful and grateful adoration.
Focused on content
Christian worship is focused primarily on content and meaning, rather than primarily on form or time. Therefore, Christian worship is not limited to any day of the week or to any particular season of the year. Nor is any day or season commanded or required of Christians. However, Christians are free to, and normally do, set aside special seasons to celebrate major aspects of the life and work of Jesus.
Christians also set aside one day a week for corporate worship, that is, for gathering together as the Body of Christ to worship God. Most Christians set aside Sunday for such worship. Some Christians set aside Saturday. A few choose to meet at other times, such as Wednesday evening.
Typical of seventh-day sabbatarian teaching is the belief that it is a sin for Christians to use Sunday as their regular day of gathering for worship. However, there is no biblical support for this idea.
Major events on Sunday
Surprising to many seventh-day sabbatarians, the Gospel accounts specifically pinpoint events of major importance as having taken place on Sunday. Even though there is no command that Christians worship on Sunday, there is certainly no reason for Christians to feel uncomfortable with worshiping on Sunday.
John’s Gospel tells us that disciples of Jesus came together on the first Sunday after Jesus was crucified, and that Jesus appeared among them (John 20:1). All four Gospels tell us that Jesus was first discovered to have been raised from the dead on early Sunday morning (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1).
All four Gospel writers considered it significant enough to mention that these events occurred at a particular time—Sunday. They could have left that detail out, but they did not. The Gospels declare that Jesus chose to reveal himself as the resurrected Messiah on Sunday, first in the morning, then in the afternoon, and finally in the evening. Not only did these Sunday appearances of the risen Jesus cause the Gospel writers no concern or alarm, they chose to make it plain that these things took place on that particular day of the week.
Road to Emmaus
If there is any question about which day the resurrection occurred on, consider the plain testimony of Luke’s account of the two men on the road to Emmaus. Jesus had prophesied that he would be raised from the dead on “the third day” (Luke 9:22; 18:33; 24:7).
Luke records that Sunday, the day on which the women discovered that Jesus’ tomb was empty, was “the third day.” He makes the point that the women discovered that Jesus was raised on Sunday morning (Luke 24:1), then makes the point that “the same day” (24:13), Sunday, was “the third day” (24:21), the day Jesus had said he would be raised (24:7).
Let’s review certain key facts that the Gospel writers were inspired to record about the first Sunday after the crucifixion of Jesus:
- Jesus was raised from the dead (Luke 24:1-8, 13, 21).
- Jesus was recognized in the “breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:30-31, 34-35).
- The disciples were meeting together, and Jesus came to be with them (Luke 24:15, 36; John 20:1, 19). John also records that on the second Sunday after the crucifixion, the disciples were again meeting, and that Jesus again came to be with them (John 20:26).
In the early church
Luke recorded in Acts 20:7 that Paul spoke to the church in Troas when it assembled on Sunday to “break bread.” In 1 Corinthians 16:2, Paul told the church in Corinth, as he had told the churches in Galatia (verse 1), to use every Sunday for setting aside an offering for the famine-stricken Jerusalem church.
Paul does not say that the church must meet on Sunday. His statement here does, however, seem to indicate that Sunday meetings were not extraordinary. The reason he gives for the weekly offering was so that “when I come no collections will have to be made” (verse 2). If the members had been setting aside the money each Sunday at home, rather than giving it each week at a meeting, then a collection would still need to have been taken when Paul came.
The natural reading of these passages shows us that it was not unusual for Christians to meet on Sunday, nor was it unusual for them to “break bread” together (a term Paul associates with the Lord’s Supper; see 1 Corinthians 10:16-17) during their Sunday meetings.
As we can see, the inspired writers of the New Testament inform us that Jesus was raised on Sunday. They also had no qualms about the fact that at least some believers gathered on Sunday to break bread. While Christians are not commanded to gather for worship on Sunday, these examples show that there is no reason to have any qualms about doing so.
As we have seen, there are sound reasons for the Christian practice of gathering on Sunday as the body of Christ to commune with God. So then, must Christians meet on Sunday? No. Christian faith is not based on days, but on faith in God and his Son, Jesus Christ. It would be a mistake to exchange one set of “commanded” days for another. Christian faith and worship is not about commanded days, but about knowing and loving God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.
When we decide which day we will gather with fellow believers for worship, we should make our decision for right reasons. Jesus’ command, “take, eat, this is my body” and “drink of this, all of you,” is not bound to any particular day. Yet, it has been a tradition of Gentile Christians to gather in communion with Christ on Sunday since the earliest years of the church, primarily because Sunday is the day on which Jesus revealed himself as raised from the dead.
The Sabbath commandment, along with all of the Mosaic law, ended with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. To embrace it, or to try to reapply it in the form of a Sunday Sabbath, is to diminish God’s revelation of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of his promises.
To believe that God commands Sabbath-keeping for Christians is to deprive ourselves of the full joy God wants us to have in Christ. God wants us to trust in him alone for salvation, and he wants us to find our rest and consolation in him alone. We are saved by grace, and we live by grace.
Despite all the above evidence, some people think that the weekly Sabbath is God’s holy day for Christians. They declare that they will “obey God rather than men,” regardless of what anyone tells them. Certainly, such commitment to do what one believes God requires is good; the misunderstanding is in what it is that God requires. The strong sabbatarian conviction that we are obeying God by keeping the weekly Sabbath illustrates the confusion and error that sabbatarian teaching has given unwary Christians.
First, sabbatarian teaching sets up an unbiblical understanding of what it means to obey God, then it sets up that version of obedience as the defining content of Christian faithfulness. The result is an “us vs. them” way of thinking, an approach to God that creates divisions in the body of Christ based on adherence to a command that the New Testament teaches is not in force.
Faithfulness to the weekly Sabbath is not a matter of obeying God, because God does not command the weekly Sabbath for Christians. God commands us to love him, and loving God is not defined by keeping the weekly Sabbath. It is defined by believing in Jesus Christ and by loving our neighbor (1 John 3:21-24; 4:19-21). There is, the Bible says, a new covenant and a new law (Hebrews 7:12; 8:13; 9:15).
It is a mistake for Christian teachers to set up the weekly Sabbath as a measuring rod for Christian faithfulness. The teaching that the Sabbath commandment is in force for Christians introduces destructive legalism into the Christian conscience, clouds the truth and power of the gospel and creates division in the body of Christ
The Bible says that God’s will for humans is that they believe the gospel and love him (John 6:40; 1 John 3:21-24; 4:21; 5:2). The greatest joy humans can have is knowing and loving their Lord (John 17:3), and such love is not defined by or enhanced by observance of a particular day of the week.
The Christian life is one of resting joyfully in the Savior, of entering the divine rest. It is a life in which every part of life is dedicated to God, and every activity is a sacrament of devotion. To set up Sabbath-keeping as a defining element of “true” Christianity causes a person to miss much of the joy and power of the truth that Christ has come, and that in him God has established a new covenant (Matthew 26:28; Hebrews 9:15) with all who believe the good news (Romans 1:16; 1 John 5:1).
The weekly Sabbath was a shadow, a hint, of the reality that was yet to come (Colossians 2:16-17). To hold up the hint as forever essential is to ignore the truth that the reality is indeed present and available. It robs one of being able to take full joy in what is really important.
It might be something like continuing to dwell on, treasure and meditate on one’s engagement announcement long after the wedding has taken place. It is high time to put one’s first attention on the spouse, and let the engagement announcement recede to its proper status as a pleasant memory, a step toward its own true goal.
Places and times are no longer central to the content of worship for the people of God. True worship, Jesus said, involves spirit and truth (John 4:21-26). The spirit involves the heart. Jesus is the truth.
When Jesus was asked, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” he answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:28-29). That is why Christian worship should revolve around Jesus Christ, around his identity as the eternal Son of God and his work as Lord, Savior and Teacher.
To believe that obedience to the Sabbath command is the criterion by which we will be saved or damned in the final Judgment, as many sabbatarians have taught, is to misunderstand both sin and the grace of God. If Sabbath-keepers are the only ones who will be saved, then the Sabbath is the standard of judgment, not the Son of God who died and rose from the dead for our salvation.
Sabbath-keepers believe that it is more pleasing to God to keep the Sabbath than it is to ignore the Sabbath. But this reasoning does not come from the Bible. The Bible teaches that the Sabbath command, along with the entire law of Moses, has been superseded and transcended in Jesus Christ.
Therefore, it is not “more pleasing” to God for us to keep the Sabbath than it is for us not to keep the Sabbath; the Sabbath was not given to Christians. The destructive element in sabbatarian theology is its insistence that Sabbath-keepers are the only true and faithful Christians, which means that the blood of Jesus is not enough to save you without your also keeping the Sabbath.
The Bible opposes such doctrinal confusion with powerful assertions that we are saved by the grace of God through faith in Christ without works of any kind (Ephesians 2:8-10; Romans 3:21-22; 4:4-8; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:4-8). Such unvarnished declarations of the sufficiency of Christ alone to save us apart from the law plainly contradict the sabbatarian doctrine that salvation will not come to people who do not keep the Sabbath.
The average Sabbath-keeper feels he or she is doing something more godly than non-Sabbath-keepers. Consider these statements from old literature:
- Only those who continue to obey God’s command to keep the Sabbath will finally enter the glorious “rest” of God’s Kingdom and receive the gift of eternal, spiritual life. (Ambassador College Bible Correspondence Course, Lesson 27 of 58 [Ambassador College, 1964, 1967], 5)
- Those not keeping the Sabbath will not be bearing God’s Sabbath “sign” which identifies His people, and therefore will not be born of God at Christ’s coming! (ibid., 12).
Not only was Sabbath-keeping considered more godly, it was believed that no one would be saved without it. Consider this statement from a Seventh-day Adventist book:
- Sunday observance, in the context of this eschatological struggle, will constitute in the end a distinguishing mark, here spoken of as the mark of the beast. Satan has exalted Sunday as the sign of his authority, while the Sabbath will be the great test of loyalty to God. This issue will divide Christendom into two classes, and will characterize the final time of trouble for the people of God. (Don Neufeld, ed., Seventh Day Adventist Encyclopedia, 2nd. rev. ed., vol. 3 [Review & Herald Publishing Association, 1966], 492)
This statement displays the concept that Sabbath-keeping is the deciding criterion of who is faithful to God and who is not, a concept that emerges from a fundamental misunderstanding of the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, a concept that promotes an attitude of spiritual superiority.
Sabbatarian theology works against the grace of God in Jesus Christ and the plain teaching of the Bible. The law of Moses, including the Sabbath commandment, was given to Israel and not to the church. Although Christians should feel free to gather for worship on any day of the week, we must not make the mistake of thinking there is any biblical reason for choosing Saturday above any other day. We can summarize it this way:
- It is contrary to biblical teaching to say that the seventh-day Sabbath is binding on Christians.
- It is contrary to biblical teaching to say that God is more pleased by Sabbath-keepers than by non-Sabbath-keepers, whether they are seventh-day sabbatarians or Sunday sabbatarians.
- It is contrary to biblical teaching to say that one day is more holy or godly than another for the church to gather for worship.
- A central gospel event occurred on Sunday, and that is the basis for the Christian tradition of gathering on that day to worship.
- The resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who came as one of us to save us, forms the foundation of our faith. Therefore, gathering for worship on Sunday is a reflection of our belief in the gospel. Yet, gathering on Sunday is not commanded, nor does worship on Sunday make Christians more holy or loved by God than gathering on another day of the week.
- It is spiritually harmful to believe and teach that the Sabbath command is binding on Christians, because that teaching is contrary to Scripture and works against unity and love in the body of Christ.
- It is spiritually harmful to believe and teach that Christians are required to worship on either Saturday or Sunday, because such a teaching sets up the day of worship as a legalistic hoop that one must jump through to be saved.
A final thought
As followers of Jesus, we must learn not to condemn one another in the decisions we make in accord with our consciences before God. And we must be honest with ourselves about the reasons that lie behind our decisions. The Lord Jesus Christ has brought believers into his divine rest, into peace with him in full favor with God. May we, who love God, grow in love for one another as Jesus commanded.
Comparison of Worship Forms
|Holy Days of Leviticus 23||Christian Festivals|
|Rehearse God’s deliverance of Israel from bondage in Egypt through the events of the Exodus and the desert wanderings (Exodus 12:26-27; Leviticus 23:43).||Rehearse God’s deliverance of all peoples through the events of the life, death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus (Luke 2:8-11; 22:19-20; 24:44-48; Acts 2:17; 1 John 2:1).|
|Spelled out in the law code (Exodus 12; 13:3-10; 23:14-19; Leviticus 16; 23; Deuteronomy 16).||Emerge from faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the resurrected Lord (Galatians 3:26; 5:1; 1 Timothy 2:8; John 4:23-24; Romans 12:1; Philippians 3:3).|
|Centered in Tabernacle/temple worship (Exodus 25:8; 1 Kings 6:12-13; Hebrews 9:1-2).||Centered in the redeemed community of faith (Acts 17:24; Ephesians 3:16-19; John 14:23; 1 Corinthians 1:2).|
Things to think about
1. Why is Christian worship focused on content and meaning rather than on form and time?
2. What great event in Jesus’ life occurred on Sunday?
3. Why isn’t Sunday a “holy day” for Christians in the way the Sabbath was for ancient Israel?
4. What events and situation ended the authority for Sabbath observance?
5. What is wrong with the concept that we will be saved or damned in the judgment by our obedience to the Sabbath command?
6. In what way does the belief in literal Sabbath-keeping work against the grace of God?
Author: J. Michael Feazell