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All in the Family – Sabbath 3

The views of a pastor who believes that the Sabbath has been fulfilled in Christ. This is the final of three articles on the subject of the Sabbath as part of our “All in the Family” series.

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The aim of the All in the Family series is to explore the breadth of belief and practice that exists amongst FIEC churches on matters that our Doctrinal Basis doesn’t touch on and yet are important in church life.

For each subject we ask a variety of church leaders to respond to the same questions, with an emphasis on seeing how belief shapes practice in a local church.

In this collection on the Sabbath, the responses are:

You can download a combined PDF of the three papers under the image on the right hand side.

Introduction

Name: Andy Robinson

Viewpoint: The Sabbath fulfilled in Christ

Church: Woodstock Road Baptist Church is situated around a mile and a half from Oxford city centre. Because of our location we end up with a diverse congregation- some students, both British and international, find their way to us along with those from a nearby estate and others who have lived in Oxford all their lives. It is a joy to see the Gospel of Christ unite us across a variety of social and ethnic differences. That also means that people come to us from a variety of Christian backgrounds with a range of opinions on different matters including the Sabbath.

1) How do you understand the relationship between the Sabbath commands in the OT law and the account of creation in Gen 1-2?

The Sabbath appears to be the principal sign of the old covenant (Exodus 31:13-17). The reason for Sabbath observance most commonly given in the Old Testament Law is the order of creation as seen in Gen 1-2. God’s people were to refrain from work on the seventh day and regard it as holy because of the Lord’s rest on the seventh day of creation. The fact that there seems to be a link between creation and the Sabbath is, to my mind, the strongest argument for the abiding force of a command to keep the Sabbath as a literal day a week free from work. However, it is worth noting that some creation ordinances do get redefined in the light of the new covenant- for instance “Be fruitful and increase in number” cannot be seen as an ongoing command to Christians despite it coming before the Fall because singleness is now regarded positively in the new covenant. So, whilst the Sabbath commands are drawn from creation- particularly in Exodus- that doesn’t necessarily mean they shouldn’t be reapplied in the light of Christ. It should also be noted that in the OT Law, the Sabbath is to be an opportunity to remember God’s redemption of His people from slavery (Deut 5:15) which clearly points forward to a greater rescue.

2) How does a Christian now relate to the 4th commandment and apply the other regulations concerning the Sabbath in the OT law?

How a Christian should relate to the Sabbath is part of a much bigger question - what is the role of the OT Law in the life of the believer? Personally, I am not convinced by the argument that the civil and ceremonial law is fulfilled in Christ and is no longer binding on the believer whilst the moral law has lasting force. It seems to me that the Scriptures never divide the law in this way - the whole of the law is fulfilled in Christ (which is why Jesus himself keeps the Sabbath law if not the Pharisaical interpretation of it) who then calls us to live under His law. This seems to be where Paul is heading when he talks about not being under the law (almost certainly a reference to the Law of Moses) but under the law of Christ (1 Cor 9:20-21). Likewise 2 Cor 3:7ff and Romans 7:1-6 seem to indicate a strong discontinuity between the old and new covenants. The essence of the new covenant is gazing on Christ by the Spirit. The Lord Jesus- not the Law of Moses- is our ultimate source of authority when it comes to ethical conduct. So the question becomes- in what way does Jesus call His disciples to keep the Sabbath? Does he re-state the Fourth Commandment? I would want to argue that the new covenant applies the Sabbath differently from the observance of a single day of rest- as detailed below.

3) How do the NT references to the Sabbath (e.g. Mark 2:23-3:6, John 5:1-18, Col 2:16-17), the Lord’s Day (Rev 1:10), the observance of special days (Rom 14:5, Gal 4:10) and the Sabbath rest of Heb 3-4 inform your views?

This appears to be the central question, for the New Testament has to be our inspired way of understanding the application of the Old Testament to the Christian believer.

Jesus teaches that the Sabbath is given for the good of human beings (Mark 2:27). Why is it so good for us? I want to argue that it is good for us because it points us to Christ Himself. Jesus submits to the Sabbath law- he can only pay for our sin if He Himself has kept God’s Law. But He also claims a superiority over the Sabbath as the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28). In what way is Jesus superior to the Sabbath? In this regard - He provides a deeper and better rest. That seems to be the burden of Matthew 11:28-12:14 where Jesus promises rest for the weary, claims to the Lord of the Sabbath and then provides physical restoration on the Sabbath. The Sabbath is fulfilled in Jesus who offers rest to His people.

That’s why Paul argues as he does in Colossians 2. He tells the believers not to allow themselves to be judged on their attitude towards various days, including the Sabbath. The reason is because these days are a shadow of the reality that is to come. They are fulfilled in Christ. Putting these things together, I would teach that the Sabbath shows us the importance of rest from our work- and we are to find rest supremely in Christ, the one who restores us to God on the basis of His grace rather than our works.

Hebrews 3-4 pursues the same theme in a slightly different way. The creation account is cited picking up the Lord’s rest on the seventh day (Hebrews 4:5). The point being made though is not about a specific day of the week- rather that the seventh day in the Genesis account never ends. Since the end of the sixth day, God has, in some sense, been at rest. God invites His people into that rest, speaking of enjoying a relationship with Him in the place He has appointed. Initially this was the Promised Land given under Joshua but Psalm 95 indicates that there is another rest still to be given. The implied argument of Hebrews 4 is that it is Christ who offers us access to this deeper and more long lasting Sabbath rest- relating to God without reliance on our works. It seems to me that this is partly our experience now and we will enjoy this fully in the new creation - the ultimate Promised Land. We are to enter that rest through Christ rather than turning from Him- the temptation that it appears the Hebrews were facing.

So there appears to be a broad consistency in the New Testament handling of the Sabbath. It is never applied to believers as a special day that must be kept - rather it points us to Christ, the Lord and fulfilment of the Sabbath, who is the one who leads us into the rest of God.

So what should we make of the Lord’s Day (Rev 1:10)? It appears that it became common for the church to meet on the first day of the week to praise the Lord (perhaps implied in 1 Cor 16:2) and celebrate His resurrection. However, there isn’t evidence to suggest that the early church now regarded this as the Sabbath.

Finally, it is worth noting that Romans 14 teaches us how to handle different opinions on this subject. I do think that Paul’s reference to sacred days in Romans 14:5 includes reference to the Sabbath - some will regard it as sacred and others not. He regards it as a matter where each needs to be convinced in their own mind. We should not judge those who regard every day as the same but equally, those of us who do not hold a sabbatarian position need to be careful to respect the consciences of those within our congregations who do.

4) What in your view must or should a Christian do on the Sabbath/Lord’s Day? What must or should they not do?

As indicated above I believe the Sabbath points to Christ and so I don’t think that any day of the week should be regarded as the Sabbath today. In terms of the Lord’s Day I don’t see any specific commands that are attached to that so I would be wary of laying down too much in terms of what a Christian should or should not do on a Sunday. However, it seems natural for those who are united with Christ to want to meet with His people to celebrate His resurrection. It is the appropriate response for those who know and love the Lord.

5) How does your view of the Sabbath and/or Lord’s day shape…

a. ...the ministry of your church?

In teaching on the Sabbath I want explicitly to point to Christ as the source of our rest. That has significant pastoral implications that go beyond what one does on a certain day of the week. I recall a conversation with a student who had just started coming to the church. He gave me a long list of things that he felt he could and couldn’t do on the Lord’s Day. However, it didn’t take long before it became obvious, by his own admission, that he lacked a sense of peace and joy in knowing the Lord. I suggested that we meet up regularly and we worked our way through Colossians together. The end of Colossians 2 was a real eye opener for him - I think he became convinced that he was obsessing over the shadows when he should have been caught up with Christ. He became a significantly more joyful Christian as a result. I mention this with a degree of hesitancy in that I am not suggesting that those who would have a different perspective from me on this issue automatically lack peace and joy! And actually I have tended to steer clear of trying to persuade people in the church of my view on the Sabbath and, in this instance, I wasn’t particularly concerned about whether the student changed his mind on the Lord’s Day or not. However, I am very keen that people in the church have a deep sense of what the Sabbath points to - ultimate rest in Christ.

We also want to take Romans 14 seriously as a church. There are plenty of people in Woodstock Road who would differ from the line I am presenting here. I do believe we have a responsibility to respect each other’s consciences - and we seek to avoid doing things on a Sunday that would make life difficult for some.

We also believe that it is right and healthy for us to spend a fair amount of Sunday together - as early Christians did - to rejoice in the Lord Jesus and encourage each other. We meet twice as a church on a Sunday and around half the Sundays in the year we will have a lunch available for the whole church, provided by different homegroups. In truth, it is probably our understanding of what the church should be that leads us to do this rather than a view of a particular day - but it is beneficial for us.

b. ...your expectations of church members? (if you don’t think the Sabbath is binding, how else do you urge attendance and commitment?)

We would encourage church members to join together on a Sunday to praise God, hear from Him and spur one another on - but that would largely emerge from our understanding of our responsibilities in being part of the church. If you are united with Christ and, therefore, with each other why wouldn’t you want to meet to praise Him and enjoy being part of a family together?

In terms of attendance I want to encourage people to make wise decisions. For instance, I wouldn’t necessarily criticise a church member wanting to help a friend in need who met them on a Sunday evening because no other time was possible. I don’t think somebody who is exhausted who chooses to rest at home on a Sunday evening has sinned. Having said that, I think we do want to say- and probably need to say more clearly as a church - that there are few things better and more important in this world than being the family of God meeting together in His presence with His Word being heard. Why wouldn’t you want to be there?

c. ...your own practice as a Christian?

As a pastor I don’t always find Sundays to be particularly restful - though I do love being with God’s people as we meet with Him together. However, over the years, I have reflected on the impact that the Sabbath and its fulfilment in Christ should have on my Christian life. It does teach me that there has to be limits to my work. My tendency is to work too hard and arrogantly assume that everything depends on my efforts. My experience is that when my thinking heads in this direction then thoughts of the Lord and His glory drift away. So I need to be reminded that my work has its limits. And Sabbath principles also remind me that ultimate rest is found in rejoicing in and remembering the Lord and His salvation.

As I have reflected on that in the last couple of years it has meant that I have been more ruthless about taking a day off each week as a beneficial discipline in reminding me that work has limits. But if ultimate rest is found in Christ then I want to be wise in how I use that time off. Of course I can enjoy leisure activities (and a doctrine of creation would lead me not to negate these) but my experience is that consciously choosing rest with Christ- a walk where I spend time praising Christ, being aware of His presence with me, quietly meditating on His Word for the good of my own soul- is much more deeply refreshing and re-energising for the week ahead.

In some ways the above may sound like a traditional Sabbath - resting from work to remember Christ. That is probably right - I would simply suggest that I have got to it from wanting to enjoy rest in Christ rather than Law. It probably shouldn’t surprise us that if the new covenant life is living by the Spirit that He directs us to a life not a million miles away from the Law which He inspired.

6) What relevance do you think the Sabbath has for our wider society?

Similar to what I write above I would want to argue that the principles of Sabbath give us limits to work and a redefinition of rest.

It is an obvious point to make but for many in our culture work can become all consuming. That may be for financial reasons but it is often because work has become the ultimate source of a person’s worth- I am somebody because I am good at my job, respected at work and so on. The Sabbath teaches us the limits of that- I am not defined simply by what I do. There is a God who calls me to relate to Him.

I also want to suggest that Sabbath redefines rest. We need to know that in a society where the leisure industry is exploding, where there are a massive array of options for entertainment and yet where people end up exhausted and disillusionment. The cry of the Lord of the Sabbath is “Come to me, all who are weary and I will give you rest.” An exhausted restless society needs to hear the message of Christ.

If I am honest, I wouldn’t argue for Christians to moralise about working on a Sunday. However, I do want to use the principles that lie behind the Sabbath as an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel - the limits of our efforts to achieve and the offer of rest in Christ.

Recommended Reading

  • D.A Carson (ed), From Sabbath to Lord’s Day (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1999). This seems to be the most comprehensive work arguing for the position detailed above.

Because the Sabbath issue is part of the broader question of the role of the Law in the life of the believer the following works have been helpful for me:

  • Stanley N. Gundry et al, Five Views on Law and Gospel (Zondervan, 1996). The section by Douglas Moo is closest to the argument I am pursuing.
  • Thomas Schreiner, 40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law (Kregel Academic & Professional, 2010).