The people of God gather in His name on the first day of the week. We do so, not because of mere convenience or out of vain tradition, but because it is right to do so. But this practice has not been without its critics.
Some object to the very idea of a change in the day because the fourth commandment is one of the Ten Commandments, and its seems that the Ten Commandments have to be inviolable. They were written by the finger of God on tablets of stone, after all. But we may not object in principle to changes within the Ten Commandments (provided they are changes by God). First, remember the Ten Commandments are summary law (Ex. 34:28). They summarize all of God’s covenant with Israel. This means that the Ten Commandments summarize both creation law and redemptive law—remember that in the new covenant some obedience looks the same, and some looks different. In addition, the sabbath command is a positive ordinance, meaning the visible appearance of obedience can vary while the heart of the commandment remains.
As a summary of both kinds of law (creation and redemptive), we should expect changes. Further, this particular commandment changes in its form in the short time between Exodus and Deuteronomy. We can also see that a clear change is made elsewhere in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:12; Eph. 6:3). So the idea of change in form should not be excluded at the outset.
But on what basis do we say there has been a transfer of the day from the seventh to the first? Christians have observed the first day of the week as holy since the first century. Why? We should begin with the basis of the transfer, which is the Lord’s resurrection from dead on the first day of the week (Mk. 16:9; Jn. 20:1). He then made a point of appearing to the disciples on the following Sunday (Jn. 20:26). He was establishing a pattern for them to follow, which was reinforced again by the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, also on a Sunday. The disciples were not as spiritually slow as they had been during the Lord’s earthly ministry, having now been enlightened and empowered by the Holy Spirit. They led the Church in establishing worship on the first day of the week. They met together to break bread in the Lord’s Supper on the Lord’s Day (Acts 20:7), also gathering for the preaching of the Word. Paul required the Corinthians to take a collection on the first day of the week so that they would not have to scramble to get the money together when he arrived (1 Cor. 16:2). The apostle John received the vision that we call Revelation on a day which he called the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10).
The author of Hebrews puts everything in theological perspective when he says this: “For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his” (Heb. 4:10). The passage is admittedly vague because of the use of many pronouns, but we can still understand the point through examining the context. Just as God accomplished the work of creation and then rested from His labors, so the Son of God accomplished the work of redemption (recreation) and then rested from His labors. In the Old Covenant, the pattern was work followed by rest; in the New Covenant, the rest is on the first day, and is followed by work.
An alternative understanding of the passage, which is that a sinner repents of the work of trying to save himself, in a comparable way to God’s resting after creating the world, is too much of an exegetical (not to mention theological) stretch. It depends upon a maladroit metaphor—God’s work of creation being compared to a life of self-righteous striving, and His satisfied rest compared to a repentant rejection of what had gone before. In the first sabbath, God said it was good. In repentance, a sinner says it was pretty bad.
Now we are in a position to understand Paul’s teaching to the effect that every day is alike (Rom. 14:5), and his point is that sabbath observance is part of the old Jewish calendar of sabbaths, new moons, and annual festivals (Col. 2:16-17). We have already seen that for the apostle John, every day was not alike, because he was in the Spirit on a special day, called the Lord’s Day. When we remember this we can reconsider the context of Paul’s teaching in Romans, which was his opposition to a continuation of particular levitical observances. His statement was not an absolute, requiring us to say that no day is special. This would bring him into collision with John. But if he is simply opposing the Jewish ceremonials, there is no conflict with John at all. It was John, remember, who saw the water of the Jewish ceremonial cleansing turned into the wine of the gospel.
The same is true of the passage in Colossians. The triad of sabbaths, new moons, and festivals is a common one in the Old Testament, referring to the sacrificial calendar. We must not forget that the Jews had more sabbaths than just the weekly sabbath. These sacrificial sabbaths (plural) are fulfilled in the coming sacrifice of Christ.
Too many Christians have allowed various controversies surrounding the fourth commandment to distract and tangle them up. This is largely due to the fact that there is very little gospel in their version of this “gospel ordinance.”
The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing; It is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day the Lord has made; We will rejoice and be glad in it. Save now, I pray, O Lord; O Lord, I pray, send now prosperity. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! We have blessed you from the house of the Lord. (Ps. 118:22-26)
This is one of the most frequently quoted passage of the Old Testament in the New. The disciples of the Lord learned the messianic application from the Lord Himself (Mt. 21:9; 21:42; Mk. 11:9; 12:10-11; Lk. 13:35; 19:38; 20:17; Jn. 12:13). Of course, all the Old Testament speaks of Christ, but this portion of this psalm seems to shout about Him. The disciples learned their lesson well (Acts 4:11; 1 Pet. 2:7). But which day is spoken of here? It is the day the Lord has made.
The cornerstone was laid on the day of Christ’s resurrection. The stone had been rejected three days and nights prior, but now Christ has been declared to be the Son of God with power, by the Spirit of Holiness, by His resurrection from the dead (Rom. 1:4). This day, the day of His resurrection, is the day the Lord has made, and it is the day on which we should rejoice in the gospel.
As we have seen, Christ rose from the dead on the first day; He appeared again on the eighth day, the next Sunday; He sent His Spirit on Pentecost Sunday; He established apostles who met with the Church on the first day. Taking all Scripture together, when we say this is the day the Lord has made, which day are we talking about?
There remains therefor a rest for the people of God. For he who has entered into His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His (Heb. 4:9-10)
Two key words are important here. The first is sabbatismos, or sabbath rest, and the second is the word for “remains.” If Joshua had given the people rest, then there would be no need to speak of another day (Heb. 4:8).
God created the heavens and the earth in six days, and on the seventh He rested. God recreated the heavens and the earth in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and when His work was completed, Christ rested again just as God had rest at the initial creation. Ant this is the resurrection rest that we are to enter into by faith.
This helps us as we seek to get the gospel right. All the various forms of what we might call “cranky sabbatarianism” are simply ways of breaking the sabbath, and consequently are ways of misrepresenting the gospel. Cranky sabbatarianism preaches a false gospel. But we must remember that if we say nothing about resurrection and rest, we are acting as if there is no gospel.
We are called to a clear declaration of the gospel. As we seek to grow in grace, these are some aspects of the gospel message we are privileged to preach in how we live our lives, and particularly how we live out the gospel in sabbath resting.
It is a time for holy convocation. “Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work on it; it is the sabbath of the Lord in all your dwellings” (Lev. 23:3). The gospel gathers the saints of God.
The sabbath sets sweet rest before us. “Six days you shall do your work, and on the seventh day you shall rest, that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female servant and the stranger may be refreshed” (Ex. 23:12). The gospel relieves. Far from bringing burdens, the Lord’s yoke is easy, and the burden is light.
Another important part of this practice is redemptive remembering. Even in the Old Testament, the people of God were to remember by this means, not just their creation, but also their salvation. “And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15). The gospel saves, and the right kind of sabbath keeping is a declaration of this salvation.
We are creatures; although we are redeemed, we still live in the world God made. “Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because He rested from all His work which God had created and made” (Gen. 2:3). The gospel, and because we reject a gnostic understanding of our salvation, we realize that it restores us physically as well as spiritually. The physical rest given by sabbath-keeping is a gospel blessing.
And then we come to feasting—this is especially to be remembered: The Lord’s Day is not a day of fasting. This gospel is to be heard in a spirit of joy, gladness, and feasting. On the day of resurrection commemoration, how did our fathers in the faith act? “These are spots in your love feasts, while they feast with you without fear, serving only themselves” (Jude 12). The gospel gladdens, and the weekly commemoration of that central event of the gospel should do the same thing. Take care to adorn gospel through a bright countenance. One way to brighten it is to curl up in the nearest sun-puddle on Sunday afternoon.