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Sunday and the Sabbath

Like many Christians, I grew up with a general understanding of Sunday as the Christian Sabbath. I perceive this position to be rather widespread having encountered it in both personal experience and primary source historical documents. Lots of people refer to Sunday as “the Sabbath.” Over the last couple of years, though, I have begun to change my mind. The process overall has been very gradual with several crisis points along the way. I think the shift began with texts like Colossians 2:16-17 where Paul lumps the Sabbath in with other Jewish holy days saying that they lack substance being only a shadow of what is to come, namely, Christ. This text did not make or break the issue for me. It simply lodged a certain amount of uncertainty in my mind regarding the relationship between Sunday and Sabbath. Another crisis moment came during the course of a class in Methodist history when the professor distinctly instructed us not to refer to Sunday as the Sabbath in our discussions or in assigned work. Sunday is not the Sabbath, he claimed; it is the Lord’s Day. By this time I was accustomed to not thinking of Sunday as Sabbath. So, this was not problematic for me. In fact, I found it somewhat humorous.

The more I studied the history of earliest Christianity, the more I saw the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian Lord’s Day as two very distinct days. For one thing, the first Christians were Jews. It seems likely that they observed both the Sabbath on Saturday and the Lord’s Day on Sunday. Peter and John still went to the temple for prayer (Acts 3:1). They probably also observed the Sabbath. Even though these practices were maintained for a period, Christians developed the early and widespread practice of worshipping on the first day of the week as a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Paul customarily attended the synagogue on the Sabbath not necessarily primarily to worship but to proclaim the word of the Lord and to evangelize (Acts 13:42-44; 17:1-2 18:4). It is not hard to imagine the earliest Christian Jews observing both the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day. Eventually, the Lord’s Day eclipsed the Sabbath in significance such that Paul could tell the Colossians not to let anyone condemn them for not observing it.

The most recent critical moment in my thinking on this subject came this last week when considering with some classmates the meaning and significance of the Sunday as the day of resurrection. The most important point is that the first Easter Sunday is the first day of God’s work of new creation. I emphasize work because this is in direct contrast to the Sabbath. God did not rest on Easter Sunday. Quite the opposite, he went to work raising Jesus from the dead on the first day of the new week. Like Genesis 1, Easter Sunday is the first day of the week, and it is a day of work. Except this time, the project is not creatio ex nihilo. It is a making new of the old, it is kaine ktisis, new creation. Jesus’ dead body was transformed, renewed, and given new resurrection life. This is the most important work ever. It is the climactic work of God to initiate his project of new creation. This is where the distinct difference between Sabbath and Sunday is most clear. Sabbath is about rest; Sunday is about work! On the Sabbath Jesus rested; on Sunday God raised him from the dead!

Of particular interest is that early Christians would get up before dawn to worship on Sunday, the first day of the ancient work week, in order to celebrate the Lord’s Day before going off to work. They did not celebrate the resurrection on the Sabbath. Nor did they associate Sunday with rest. They associated it with God’s work of redemption and new creation. I propose, then, that Christian worship on Sunday was originally a challenge, and perhaps even a subversion, of both Gentile and Jewish ideals. It subverted the Gentile work week by beginning the week with a special day to celebrate the worship of the creator God who was active in Jesus Christ doing new creation. Non-Christian Gentiles found it peculiar that the Christians would worship before going to work. Sunday worship also challenged the holy day of Judaism. While not abolishing the Sabbath, the Lord’s Day quickly eclipsed the Sabbath as the most important day of the week. The Sabbath may have been a reminder of God’s rest after his previous creative work. But the Lord’s Day was, more importantly, a celebration of God’ new creative work. Sabbath and Sunday stand for two the two fundamentally different realities of rest and work.

This does not mean that Christians are not permitted to observe the Sabbath. However, if they are to observe it, then it’s significance should be maintained and it should probably be observed on the appropriate day of the week, Saturday. It should be practiced as what it is, a reminder and celebration of God’s creative work and his rest afterward. It should probably also be seen as a day of rest in preparation for the celebratory work coming on Sunday, the work of new creation and the celebration of our Lord’s resurrection. It must also be remembered that the Sabbath is not required of Christians. As Paul said, “Do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or Sabbaths. These are a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col 2:16-17). As far as I can tell, this is the only place where Paul seems to specifically revoke one of the ten commandments. Sabbath observance is not something required of Christians. It is part of the Mosaic Covenant, not the New Covenant of Christ. If a Christian wants to observe Sabbath, it must not be required of those who do not.

It is important to maintain the distinction between the Lord’s Day and the Sabbath. They stand fundamentally for two different realites. Both are important, but they are different. Sabbath is about God’s rest after his work of creation. Sunday is about God’s work of new creation after his Sabbath rest. As my history professor declared, Sunday is not the Sabbath!

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