The Hebrew scriptures tell the Jewish people to set aside one day in seven for physical rest and to keep it holy by honouring God. In the past, atheistic regimes in both France and the Soviet Union attempted to abolish the seven day week in an attempt to abolish religion. They tried a ten day week (one rest day) and a five-day work week respectively. Both attempts failed. Why? It turns out that the seven day cycle is fundamental to the human body, being rooted deep in our metabolic, hormonal, and neuronal networks, link. Medical science refers to these as ‘circaseptan rhythms’, link.
The question here is not so much the need to rest one day in seven, but “which day?” Orthodox Jews follow the fourth commandment and rest on the Sabbath (Heb: Shabbat) or seventh day of the week. In Judaism this is a Saturday. So why do most Christians worship on a Sunday?
See also Pagan Christian Festivals
The Ten Commandments Covenant
Some see the Ten Commandments (Exod 20.1-17) as “God’s Law” and distinguish them from the hundreds of moral, social, and ceremonial commands in the Mosaic Law given in the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch). For example, it is claimed that the latter were written by Moses on parchment (Exod 24.4), whereas the Ten Commandments were written by God on stone (Exod 31.18). So it is claimed that the first covenant (the old covenant) that was declared “obsolete” by the new covenant (Heb 8:13) was not the Ten Commandments – the Ten Commandments and the Old Covenant are two different things. With this view, the Ten Commandments are seen as laws to be obeyed today since they were not made obsolete by the new covenant.
But the truth is that only one set of laws in the Bible is identified as the actual covenant: the Ten Commandments (Exod 34.28). The Ten Commandments formed a special covenant between God and His people:
So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, the Ten Commandments; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone (Deut 4.13)
If Israel kept this covenant then God promised to bless them. In fact, Israel promised to obey “all that the LORD has spoken” (Exod 19.8, 24.3) and the covenant was later ratified in blood (Exod 24.1-8):
Then he (Moses) took the Book of the Covenant and read in the hearing of the people. And they said, ‘All that the LORD has said we will do, and be obedient’ (Exod 24.7)
The Mosaic Law
The Ten Commandments formed the core of the old covenant, like the ‘basic rules’ for correct living. They are a comprehensive summary of the law of God and are fundamental to our relationship with God. They began the revelation of the law for Israel with the ten principles that summarized the way in which men are to deal with God, with their families, and with their fellow men.
Immediately after Moses had received the Ten Commandments, God proceeded to expand on His moral, social, and ceremonial commands (Exod 20-23, 31-35). Moses wrote them all down (Exod 24.4) to become what is known as the Mosaic Law. For example, Exod 21.12-14 expands on the 6th commandment – “You shall not murder”. There is a difference between premeditated murder and accidental death, or manslaughter, as it is called today. And Exod 23.10-13 expands on the 4th commandment – “Remember the Sabbath day” to include the Sabbatical year.
The New Covenant
The whole package of laws of the old covenant was set aside and replaced by Christ. After His death and resurrection, Jesus Christ became the Mediator of a much better covenant (Heb 8.6):
You are not under law but under grace … now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter (Rom 6.14, 7.6)
The laws of the first covenant are not abrogated, but fulfilled in Christ and written on man’s heart by the Spirit. So the letter of the law does not have to be followed. Does the new covenant apply to the Jews (Israel) today? Yes. God promised to write a new covenant for them:
Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah— not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people (Jer 31.31-33)
Sadly, the majority of Jews today reject the work of Christ and so are still blind to this truth (Rom 11.25).
The Fourth Commandment – the Sabbath
Following the theme of the seven days of creation, the fourth commandment instructed Israel to keep the seventh day of the week holy, and rest. But which day of the week is the seventh? It is widely accepted that Jesus died on a Friday and was in the tomb on the Sabbath. Then, after “resting on the Sabbath” women went to the tomb early “on the first day of the week” (Lk 23.53-56, 24.1). So, clearly, in Jesus’ time the seventh day was a Saturday.
In 1582 Pope Gregory made some calendar changes (resulting in today’s Gregorian calendar). But the seven day weekly cycle was not disturbed and so the seventh day is the same seventh day of the week that Jesus observed, link. Moreover, the Jews have been counting off time meticulously, week after week, for thousands of years and to this day regard Saturday (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown) as the seventh day or Jewish Sabbath.
A Sign: The fourth commandment commanded Israel to do no work i.e. to rest, as God had rested on the seventh day. Of course, God never needed to rest but it is said here for man’s benefit. Man, being human, needs a Sabbath rest (Mk 2.27). But not only physical and mental rest. It is a day to be kept holy and for the LORD (Isa 58.13). Observation of the fourth Commandment (the Jewish Sabbath) is also a sign of Israel’s special relationship with God:
The sons of Israel shall observe the Sabbath, to celebrate the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever (Exod 31.16,17)
Note that Israel’s celebration of the Sabbath is a perpetual sign to the nations. Taking the Pre-Millennial view of prophecy, we see that the sign of the Sabbath goes on into the next age, the millennial age, when Christ rules as King over all the earth from Jerusalem (see later). As already noted, the Law of Sabbaths extended to years when God instructed Israel to let the land rest and lie fallow in the seventh year (Exod 23.10,11). So today, the majority of the Jews in Israel keep the weekly Sabbath (Shabbat) and many also keep the Sabbatical year (sometimes at economic cost).
Keeping the Law and the Sabbath
The question arises: “if the old covenant (which embraced the Ten Commandments) is now obsolete, how should Christians today regard the fourth commandment?” In other words, “should the Jewish Sabbath law (rest on Saturday) be honoured?” It could be argued that, since the Jewish Sabbaths appear to extend into the millennial age (and then apply to all Gentile nations), then careful observation of the Sabbath is still important.
Similar questions arose in the early church when some believing Pharisees said it was (still) necessary to circumcise new believers (Acts 15.5). Peter’s reply was that God knows the hearts of Gentile believers and acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit. So why put a yoke on the neck of new disciples? (Acts 15.6-11). Paul agrees. When referring to Gentile believers, he says:
The real Jew is the person who is a Jew on the inside, that is, whose heart has been circumcised, and this is the work of God’s Spirit, not of the written Law. Such a person receives praise from God, not from human beings (Rom 2.28-29)
So on the question of observing the law of circumcision (Gen 17.10), Peter and Paul are both saying that Gentile believers are led by the Spirit and so are not under the letter of the law (Gal 5.18). And when it comes to believers strictly keeping the Jewish Sabbath Paul makes the same point:
In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands … you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive … so let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ (Col 2.11-17)
Here Paul is playing down strict religious observation of the Sabbath. He is saying that, like the other rituals of Judaism, Sabbath keeping is not a basis for judging. The Christians at Colossae should not let other people judge them by what they do on the Sabbath day – and in the same way, they should not judge other Christians by what they do on the Sabbath. In other words, they are not to say it is wrong for other Christians to be working on the Sabbath. Christians should not let anyone make them feel guilty for what they do on the Sabbath. All this arose because there is no explicit command in the New Testament to keep the Jewish Sabbath.
Of course, the Ten Commandments still apply today – the laws on loving God and murder and adultery and coveting are not rescinded. But since Pentecost they are written by the Holy Spirit on the heart of each believer. So Christians should keep the ritual of the Sabbath law (rest and regard it as God’s holy day and not ‘do their own thing’) but they do so in the liberty of the Spirit and not in the letter of the law. As Jesus pointed out to those in the synagogue, those who prefer to worship on the Jewish Sabbath should interpret it with the freedom of the Spirit (Lk 13.10-17). The day of rest exists for the benefit of the believer (Mk 2.27).
Worship on the First Day of the Week – Sunday
So what happened in the early church? Did they worship on the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday)? When Paul was preaching the gospel in a new city, his custom was to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath (Acts 13,14; 16.13; 17.2). But this does not mean that he kept the Sabbath. Paul wanted to preach to Jews first, and the best place to do this was in a synagogue! Jesus also honoured the Sabbath, but like Paul He used it as an occasion to teach and correct the Jews (Lk 4.16-30 14.1-6).
There are indications that the early church worshipped on the first day of the week:
On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight (Acts 20.7)
Here it appears that believers gathered together at the start of the first day of the week (Saturday sundown) since Paul went on preaching until midnight. Worship on the first day of the week is also suggested in Jn 20.19,26 and 1 Cor 16.2. Why the first day of the week and not the Jewish Sabbath? Certainly the Corinthian church was aware that the resurrection occurred on the first day of the week (Mk 16.9 1 Cor 15.1-8). And so worship on Sunday can be seen as celebrating the resurrection. Also, early Christians knew that the Holy Spirit was given to the church on the first day of the week – the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2.1-4).
But there is also a theological reason. Of the 10 commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) only 9 of them were re-instituted in the New Testament. The first three commandments are embraced by instructions to worship God, five (murder, adultery, stealing, false witness, honor parents) are found in Matt. 19.18, and coveting is found in Rom. 13.9. The one command not reaffirmed in the New Testament is the fourth commandment: honour the Sabbath. Instead, Jesus said that He is the Lord of the Sabbath (Matt. 12:8) and that the Sabbath was made for man’s benefit:
The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath (Mk 2.27)
So, as already stated, there is no trace in the New Testament of an explicit command to keep the Jewish Sabbath and worship on the seventh day. On the other hand, no scripture explicitly states that the seventh day has been annulled. It seems that any day of the week, including Sunday, is an acceptable day to worship God. So, in the light of the new covenant, Paul needed to clarify this point:
One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord … therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day (Rom 14.5-6 Col 2.16-17)
The instructions here are that individuals must be convinced in their own minds about which day they observe for the LORD. Romans 14 makes it clear that Christians today have the freedom to rest and worship God on the day that they choose. The important point is that they do it (Isa 58.13)! Christians should bear in mind that the Jewish Sabbath (the seventh day) is a perpetual and special sign between God and His people Israel (Exod 31.17). It is not a special sign between God and Gentile believers.
Messianic Believers: These are Jews who believe that Jesus is their true Messiah. Many refer to themselves as ‘believers’ not converts, and as ‘Jews’ not Christians. Since they are still Jews, many tend to keep the Jewish Sabbath since they are God’s chosen people, link.
Humanistic Law takes over Sunday
Israel’s days are modelled on the seven days of creation i.e. first day, second day … seventh day (Saturday or Shabbat), link. And following the creation narrative, the Jewish days start and end at sunset as in Genesis 1.5. In contrast, today’s international standard ISO 8601 defines Monday as the first day of the week and Sunday as the seventh and final day.
So where did the term “Sunday” (as used in non-Latin-based languages like German, English and Swedish) come from?
In contrast to Jewish days, the Greeks and Romans named the days of the week after the solar system. Besides the sun and moon, they saw Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. So Monday was “Moon Day”, Saturday was the “Day of Saturn”, and Sunday was “Sun Day” (“dies Solis” – day of the sun in Latin), link. In Hellenistic astrology, Sunday was therefore the “Day of the Sun”, link. These pagan concepts were retained in Old English (sunnandæg “day of the sun”) and in Germanic (sunnon-dagaz “day of the sun”), link.
Humanistic Law: A rest from work on a Sunday became official in the Western world, when, in 321 AD the Roman Emperor Constantine (a sun worshipper himself even after conversion) created the earliest Sunday law by proclaiming, link:
On the venerable Day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed …
Note the humanistic link of the first day of the Jewish week (Sunday) to “sun day”. Constantine’s Sunday law was soon confirmed by the Roman Papacy when the Council of Laodicea in 364 AD decreed:
Christians shall not Judaize and be idle on Saturday but shall work on that day; but the Lord’s day they shall especially honour …
Clearly, pagan concepts and man’s legislation have masked the real significance of the first day of the Jewish week by linking it to “the day of the sun”. Believers should perhaps simply ignore the pagan label later attached to the name Sunday and remember why many in the early church chose to worship on that day.
The Future of the Sabbath
What does the Bible mean when it declares that the Jewish Sabbath is a perpetual covenant and sign between God and His people (Exod 31.16,17)? The implication is that the Sabbath has special significance beyond the present age – beyond the “church age”. This concept can be accommodated if we adopt the Pre-Millennial (futuristic) view of prophecy, where Christ’s Second Coming is taken to be at the start of His 1,000 year reign as King over all the earth (Zech 14.9). Pre-Millennialism sees Israel taking center-stage in world affairs and the Gentile nations honouring the Jew:
In those days ten foreigners will come to one Jew and say, ‘We want to share in your destiny, because we have heard that God is with you’ (Zech 8.23)
Key prophecies are found in Ezek 40-48 and in the books of Isaiah and Zechariah. Here we see the LORD dwelling alongside Israel in a glorious new temple in Jerusalem (Ezek 43.7). We see Levitical priests ministering to the LORD (Ezek 44.15) and temple sacrifices reinstated for man’s unintentional sin (Ezek 43.18, 45.20). We see the keeping of some Jewish Feasts (Ezek 45.21, Zech 14.16) and the Jewish lunar calendar applied through recognition of New Moons (Ezek 45.17 46.1). And, more significantly for this discussion, we see worship on the Jewish Sabbath, with the gateway to the inner temple court being opened on the Sabbath (Ezek 46.1-3). In fact, it seems that one day all Gentile nations will honour the Jewish Sabbath:
And it shall be from new moon to new moon and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all mankind will come to bow down before Me (Isa 66.23)
This view of prophecy implies that the Jewish rituals and temple ordinances defined by God will be used to worship Christ the King in the next age on this earth. And it implies that both Jew and Gentile will observe the true Sabbath! The true church will have been taken to the LORD and will return as resurrected saints with Him (1 Thes 3.13). So gone will be the international solar calendar and Sunday worship (together with man’s Sunday laws). It seems all mankind will one day honour the true Jewish Sabbath.
Re-instated Laws and Sacrifices
Many believers object to such a radical view of the future on the grounds that Christ’s death was the final sacrifice:
He cancels the first covenant in order to put the second into effect. For God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time (Heb 10.9-10)
This is true, but even the most conservative believers have to acknowledge that the present age, the so-called “Church Age” or “Age of Grace” appears to be rapidly coming to an end. The Pre-Millennial view is that the next age will be a totally different dispensation. Just as the “Age of Law” (Mosaic Law) was replaced by the “Church Age” – see John 1.17 – so it seems the “Church Age” will be replaced by the “Kingdom Age”, with the church replaced as God’s witness on earth by God’s chosen people, Israel.
In that age Christ again literally dwells with man as He did over 2,000 years ago. He will rule the earth from His glorious future Temple in Jerusalem, and the whole area surrounding the Temple will be “most holy” (Ezek 43.12). Here is the key point. Prophecy implies that when the holy Christ again dwells physically alongside sinful man, then traditional cleansing and sacrifice are again required. So if someone unintentionally sins there is priestly atonement (Ezek 45.20).
The division between Christ’s holiness and man’s sinfulness will be clear to all. The inner court of the Holy Place (the Temple) will be most holy and only the Levitical priests are permitted to enter this area in order to minister to the LORD (Ezek 44.15-17). The outer court is for the people (Ezek 42.14, 44.19). Just as when Moses came down from Sinai and his face shone with holiness, so the Levitical priests will be in danger of transmitting holiness to the people (Ezek 44.19). In fact, Israel’s millennial priests have other traditional Jewish ordinances to apply:
When a legal dispute arises, the priests are to decide the case according to my laws. They are to keep the religious festivals according to my rules and regulations, and they are to keep the Sabbaths holy (Ezek 44.24)
Pre-Millennialism could of course be an erroneous view of prophecy. But it does accommodate many prophecies that are not explained by Post-Millennialism or Amillennialism. The present “Age of Grace” or “Church Age” is rapidly drawing to a close, together with the freedom to choose the day on which a believer worships. Pre-Millennialism sees a “Kingdom Age”, when Christ rules from Jerusalem. It seems this will be a totally different dispensation with Christ and His people Israel center-world stage. This view sees Christ dwelling in a new and glorious temple with all the associated temple rituals, including Sabbath worship.