Friday, February 6, 2015

Sabbath, or Sunday?

I was recently contacted by a friend who is a pastor asking me about Sabbath (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown) as compared to Sunday observance and gathering. He was doing his work as a shepherd in relation to people who had questions on this topic. I was delighted to respond to him, and am reproducing a slightly edited copy of my email below.

To the question regarding doing Sabbath “right” - it is very clear that reverting to a Fri sundown to Sat sundown pattern would deviate from what the early church itself did. 

Some material:
  • In our devotional/sermon prep this morning, Rosemarie and I were reading Acts 15, the account of the Jerusalem Council. No, Sabbath itself isn’t mentioned in the account in terms of Christian observance (Acts 15:21 does refer to synagogue practice), but that is significant in itself. The two primary accusations against Christ had to do with his claim to be God, and his violation of the Sabbath. If that had been an ongoing issue for the early church I believe that a stipulation of Sabbath-keeping would have have been part of the requirement for the Gentiles in Acts 15.
  • Christ makes it clear in his rebuttals to his critics that Sabbath is to serve man in respect to God, rather than be an obstacle. (cf. Mark 1:27 and many other passages). That in itself is not an argument against keeping the Sabbath: when we visited Israel it was impressive to see the extent to which even non-religious Jews considered Sabbath a gift, a time to invest in family. However, it is also clear that in contrast to the legalists/restrictionists, Jesus views Sabbath as opportunity and blessing rather than as a way of marking personal holiness and rejecting others.
  • Specific prohibition against demanding a return to Sabbath observance can be found in Col 2:16 (express mention and use of “Sabbath") and Rom 14:6 and Gal 4:10 (clear reference to sacred or special days, and read the context as well). This is in clear violation of a direct command in the NT, and I cannot find any NT passage that suggests that believers should observe the Sabbath. Ah, but what about passages where the apostles go to the Temple or a synagogue on the Sabbath? (cf. Acts 13:14, 44; esp. 17:2 and 18:4 etc.) Read carefully: Paul and the others were going where the mission field was: that was the day and place of gathering where they could invite others in to relationship with the Messiah.
  • So when should believers gather? The NT does not demand one day or another, but there is strong indication in the NT that the practice of the earliest church was to worship on Sunday. Here’s the basis for this:
    • Jesus appears to his followers twice on the first day of the week, the day of Resurrection, as they are gathered together (John 20:1 is the resurrection itself; Jn 20:19 is the first such appearance to the assembled believers; Jn 20:26, a week later, is the appearance to Thomas, and again the disciples are specifically gathering and Jesus appears). It is of interest to me that these accounts do not seem to indicate that Christ commanded them to gather - they are doing so, and then Jesus shows up.
    • While the above accounts could show the beginning of a pattern, they don’t have to do so: it could just be coincidence. However, my next bullet points will indicate that there is a pattern. How is this established as a regular observance? Ultimately we do not know: Scripture doesn’t record a direct statement by Christ to choose Sunday over Saturday. However, 
      • keeping in mind the primacy and inviolability of Sabbath observance for the Jews, and 
      • given that we have no debate in the early church on the topic at the Jerusalem Council (although the fact that in other passages Paul addresses the issue and prohibits making it a test of relationship indicates that there were some who disagreed), 
      • I would argue that the early church made Sunday their day as a result of Jesus’ teaching in the 40 days between resurrection and ascension (Acts 1:3). 
      • In other words, a few people made an issue of it, but for the bulk of the church it was a non-issue, and I personally believe that this is because Christ instructed them in this. We certainly see them carrying this out in the following explicit statements.
    • Acts 20:7 says of  the early church: “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread.” This was not just a ritual meal - this was an extended day of sermons which in this case went to midnight and beyond (the Eutychus incident). Cf. Acts 20:7-12.
    • 1 Cor 16:2 has offerings being gathered on the first day of the week. The discussion on tithes and offerings is another thorny issue for some, but there can be no doubt that this fits the context of a church gathering. 2 Cor 9:12 uses a word in connection with this act of offering which relates to our English word “liturgy”.
    • Rev 1:10 makes reference to the Lord’s Day. There is some debate among scholars as to what this means, but most of us agree that this refers to the day of Resurrection, Sunday, the first day of the week. If this was the only support for Sunday gatherings I wouldn’t have a strong case to make, but with the other material as well, I think the pattern is an established and solid one.
  • While it is not as compelling for us as is the text of the New Testament, early Christian writers confirm Sunday observance. We see this from Ignatius in his Epistle to the Magnesians (ca. AD 110-117), as well as Justin Martyr (ca. AD 150), who gives us the earliest full description of a Christian worship service in Apology 65-67. It is interesting to me that these writings are simply reporting normal behavior in the flow of the story: they were not written to argue for Sunday vs. the Sabbath. There seems to be no debate on the topic. While their writings do not have the force of Scripture, they do tell us what the early church did, and (contra Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code) this is a pattern established long before Constantine and the church councils of the Fourth Century.
In the end, I would be violating Scripture to demand that all Christians worship on Sunday, but it is a very direct disobedience (if there are grades of disobedience) to demand Sabbath (Fri-Sat) observance.