September 18, 2005 Q & A

Sabbath Day Change - Part 1


I have always wondered how the Sabbath day was changed to Sunday. As Reformed and Presbyterian, I do worship on Sunday, but have always wanted to know specifics of the change.

Obviously, Sunday was the day of our Lord's resurrection, but I was curious to know your position and specific scripture references to back this up.

I have been asked this question by a Seventh-Day Adventist.


I take it from the way your question is worded that you believe—as Presbyterians always have—that the Fourth Commandment continues to be binding on people in the new covenant age.

But to get the question of "the day" in context, it may be helpful to back up and look briefly at the New Testament basis for believing that to be true. I hope you will also forgive me for making use of a couple of papers I wrote years ago. I have tried to sew them together in a way that will be helpful to you, but if my answer seems "bookish" that is why.

In the Gospels we see our Lord Jesus observing the Sabbath by regularly attending upon synagogue worship. Was our Lord merely accommodating himself to prevailing practices for the sake of his ministry? The Gospels show him frequently making a public break with the "traditions of the fathers" (e.g., Mark 2:23-3:6, 7:1-13, etc.). Christ did not follow all of the man-made regulations by which Jewish tradition governed activity on the Sabbath day. Did he follow Mosaic law as the one "born under the law to save those who were under law" (Galatians 4.4), such that his practice had meaning only under the old covenant but no relevance at all to the pattern of new covenant life? Such a conclusion does not follow and is contradicted by our Lord's own words.

In Mark 2:27,28 our Lord teaches that the Sabbath ordinance extends into the new covenant age. "And he was saying to them, 'The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Consequently, the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.'" [New American Standard Version, cf. Matthew 12:8]

Jesus declares himself to be the "Lord of the Sabbath." He does so in response to put the Pharisees who had attacked the conduct of his disciples on the Sabbath (pulling of grains of wheat, rubbing them in their palms, and eating the kernels, while walking through a field—regarded by the rabbis as harvesting and threshing, labor which violates the Sabbath). The real purpose of the Pharisees was to attack the disciples' Teacher.

Jesus' reply makes clear that he is not under the rabbis' authority in this matter; but rather the entire Sabbath ordinance is under his authority. He does this not to say, "I have authority to abolish the Sabbath," but rather, "I have authority to determine its proper observance." "The Sabbath was made for man" does not mean "for man to do whatever he pleases;" it means "for man's blessing." That man might receive the intended blessing our Lord delivers the Sabbath from the perversions of Jewish tradition and asserts his own authority over the day.

How our Lord asserts his authority is important. He claims for himself the Old Testament messianic title, "the Son of Man" (the most common title by which he refers to himself throughout the gospels). The background for his use of this title is found in Daniel 7:13f. which reports a vision God gave Daniel of a divine-human person ("a son of man") who passes through the heavens to receive from the Ancient of Days the eternal and world-wide kingdom of God. The Son of Man is the Savior-King (Messiah) who will appear at the end time to bring about the glorious era of salvation and blessing. Jesus, sent by the Father "at the fullness of time" (Galatians 4:4) is the divine-human Son through whom the Father speaks to us "in these last days" (Hebrews 1:1f.). "Son of Man" is Jesus' royal title in the new age, the age of the new covenant sealed in his blood, the age in which we live. Jesus asserts his authority over the Sabbath as a reality for this age. Far from delivering men from the Sabbath ordinance, Jesus delivers the Sabbath from the clutches of men—in order that its proper observance might lead to blessing for those who become part of his messianic kingdom in this age.

What we learn from Mark 2:27f. is reinforced by Hebrews 4:1-11. We need to examine this passage in the context of the whole book of Hebrews.

Hebrews presents Jesus as the Son of God who surpasses and fulfills all that has gone before in God's previous dealings with his people. The Son is the final Word, surpassing the words of the prophets (1:1-3). He surpasses angels, being the Creator and Lord (1:4-14). Through his suffering Jesus attains and completes the mandate Adam lost (2.5-18). While Moses was a faithful servant in God's house, Jesus is the Son and heir over the house (3:1-18). Finally, he is the high priest whose priestly service and sacrifice of himself fulfill and far surpass the Aaronic priesthood and ceremonies which went before and as types and shadows pointed forward to Christ (4:14-10:18). Thus Jesus mediates the new and final covenant between God and his people, making obsolete the old covenant which he has fulfilled (8:13).

The argument regarding Christ's superiority to Moses in chapter 3 merges into that regarding his superiority to Joshua in chapter 4, tied together by the theme of entering into God's rest. Neither Moses nor Joshua were able to lead the people of God into the promised rest. Because of unbelief God sentenced the generation which left Egypt under Moses to die in the wilderness, His sentence cited in the words of Psalm 95 (Heb. 3:7-11). Although their children did enter Canaan under Joshua, Psalm 95 still urged them to receive God's word with faith so that they might enter God's rest, indicating that Canaan was the type of the still future promised rest with God. Now that Christ has come and has done his saving work, have God's believing people entered the promised rest? We are told that God continues, even now, to hold before his people the promise of entering his rest: "there remains therefore a Sabbath-rest for the people of God" (4:9, using a word coined just for this passage, sabbatismos). Those who believe (4:3), who "consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Jesus Christ" (3:1), who "hold fast our confession firm until the end" (3.14)—these will enter God's rest. But we will enter only after we have completed our labors (4:10f.). Jesus Christ, who is greater than Joshua, will lead us into the promised rest after our appointed time of wilderness testing, for he is already seated at the Father's right hand, having passed through the heavens on our behalf as our great High Priest (4:14f.). Christ has entered his rest of enthroned triumph and majesty (1:3, 8:1; cf. Ephesians 1:20-23, Philippians 2:9-11) with the Father. We follow him to that rest as we "run with patience the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the majesty on high" (12:1,2).

We may now summarize the scheme of Hebrews and see the significance of 4:1-11 for the question of the Sabbath ordinance. God's final revelation has come: his Son. He—the Son—has accomplished salvation as perfect priest and perfect sacrifice for sin. The full experience and joy of that salvation will belong to those who persevere in trusting Christ, looking ahead like the patriarchs of old to the eternal city whose builder and maker is God (11:10, 16). "Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate. Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach. For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come" (13:12-14). Many of God's ancient promises have now been fulfilled in Christ, and so their types and signs have served their intended purpose and no longer require observance. But the promise of eternal rest with God "remains" before us, so that the weekly Sabbath—the sign of entering God's eternal rest—remains in effect in this age. "There remains a Sabbath-rest for the people of God," does not state that the weekly Sabbath-sign remains an ordinance, but that the promised eternal rest remains before us for future fulfillment. But it follows from this that the sign pointing forward to that rest, the weekly Sabbath, must also still remain in effect until the fulfillment comes.

Therefore, in this age of the new covenant the Fourth Commandment remains in effect under the lordship of Jesus Christ. The Sabbath is indeed "the Lord's Day" (Revelation 1:10). To be sure, Revelation 1:10 merely refers to "the Lord's Day" without defining what is meant. But the expression clearly refers to a specific day which John's readers would know by that name. What other day could it be than the day our Lord rose victorious from the dead, the day on which the new covenant church gathered for worship each week? This leads directly to the next subject.

What we observe so far is the continuity from old covenant to new in the continued authority of the Fourth Commandment. But there is also discontinuity. The new covenant is new! That discontinuity appears in two ways, which we'll look at in the next two weeks.



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