On Observing the Sabbath

This essay began as a reply to Chapter 19 of the Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy, in which C. Dennis McKinsey raised various objections to the Sabbath issue. We have found it convenient to expand it to address concerns from other parties.

In doing this chapter we offer no condemnation whatsoever of those who worship on Saturday. However, we will address any responses from Sabbatarians. I have heard from two: One who said that not minding the Sabbath was risking my salvation, and another who considered it a command to be obeyed out of love for Christ.

It is my idea that Sunday is not a "replacement" Sabbath for Saturday but an entirely different species of observation.

Why was the change made from Saturday to Sunday? The simple answer is, "the resurrection" - as well as it being that Sunday was also the day that Jesus appeared to the disciples, and it was the day of Pentecost.

McKinsey is aware of this, but he has a few counter-arguments to the common arguments for a Sunday observance. Not all of these, which we have taken from Walter Martin's Kingdom of the Cults, are counted by us to be worthy of defense, so we will just look at those that we will defend, and at his counters.

  1. Citing various places in Acts, McKinsey notes that "Paul also honored the sabbath." There are two problems with such citations, however:

    a) The verses in question only record that Paul went to the synagogue on the sabbath to preach to the Jews. Now if one wants to preach to the Jews (and the Gentile God-fearers who attended with them), then it is logical to look for them where they are found - on the sabbath, in the synagogue. This does not mean that Sunday (the first day) is excluded.

    b) Paul in no sense thought that the new covenant meant that a Jew had to stop observing the Law - his opposition was to Gentiles being forced to observe the Law. Thus his own observance of the sabbath does not exclude Sunday.

  2. McKinsey also cites several verses showing disciples of Jesus observing the Saturday sabbath - BEFORE the Resurrection. These verses have no applicability to the matter whatsoever.
  3. McKinsey objects that the Crucifixion is as important as the Resurrection, so why can Friday not be the sabbath? Of course this is merely his pinion: The Resurrection was of far greater importance in the "big picture" - if Christ is not risen, as Paul said, our faith is in vain! Not, "If Christ is not crucified." The Resurrection oveturned the legal judgment of shame that the crucifixion implied, and affirmed Jesus' divine identity and claims (without which, the crucifixion would be meaningless) so it is assuredly of greater importance in the big picture.
  4. McKinsey quotes Archer as "admitting" that the Christian community still celebrated the Sabbath as before. He omits the paragraphs following where Archer explains that no distinctively Christian assembly was ever held on Saturday. Thus Jewish converts had two religious observances.

Now what of some verses cited in favor of a first-day observance? Here is one:

Acts 20:7 And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight.

McKinsey says of this verse:

  1. It has no force because "it says Paul and his missionary company held a gathering on the first day of the week at night," so that the day itself could not be holy. McKinsey fails to note that this only says that the meeting ran on into the night - not that it started at night.
  2. It is objected that the mere fact of a meeting does not make the day sacred. That is not the point here: This is the only occassion when such a ceremony is identified with a specific day, and there is no reason to point that out unless it has significance.
  3. It is objected that this does not certify every first day, which likewise misses the point above and is really nothing more than an argument from silence. The historical precedent that followed indicates that this was the normal day of meeting.

Another verse cited:

1 Cor. 16:1-2 Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye. Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come.

Note that this is an order given not only to the Corinthians, but to the Galatians, indicating a much broader practice than simply random designation of a given day. Against this verse McKinsey objects:

  1. It contains "no suggestion of a day of worship or a religious service." It doesn't? This refers to the collection for the poor in Jerusalem, which was Paul's project on behalf of the Jerusalem church; if that does not indicate something related to worship (inasmuch as giving was directly tied to worship in this day) and religion, what does?

    Further religious connotation is indicated in that Paul uses the same word here used to designate the offering box set up at the court of the Jerusalem Temple.

  2. That it means one should "store up at home," not at church. Hardly: The last part of these verses indicates that Paul wants the gathering done ahead of time in one place - not at everyone's home. And if it were a case of collecting at home, why was the first day specified? (Several of these points are made by Gleason Archer in a book McKinsey cites in this very chapter - but he ignores it.)

Stepping over a few arguments for Sunday that we have no interest in defending, we move to this passage:

Col. 2:14-7 Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it. Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days (note: this includes festival sabbaths as well as the normal one on Saturday): Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.

Against this passage, McKinsey cites two pre-resurrection verses (which again, have no relevance). However, this is post-resurrection, and the grammar here is rather explicit in its insistence that there is no longer any binding for the Sabbath.

It should also be noted that the verses parallel the list of ordinances in Numbers 28-29, where the Sabbath is grouped with burnt offerings and new moons, all of which have passed away in the work of Christ. A similar parallel is found in Galatians 4:9-11 - "But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain."

Note that: a) In Galatians, Paul was acting to counter the effects of Judaizers who wanted to impose Jewish rituals on Gentile converts; b) the Greek here matches the LXX version of the Numbers passage.

In response to this, our friendly Sabbatarian answered:

Paul qualifies this statement twice, once at the beginning, and once at the end, in ways that clue us in that the seventh day Sabbath is not intended.
First, verse 14, "blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us." This is an allusion to Deut. 31:26, where God, after giving chapters of "ceremonial" laws including festival sabbaths, tells Moses, "take this book of the law and put it in the side ['beside', NKJV] of the ark . . . for a witness against thee." Thus, the things nailed to the cross, the "witnesses against us", were those things beside the ark. In contrast, the Ten Commandments (including the seventh day sabbath) were placed inside the ark. (Deut. 10:1-5). It is not part of what Paul tells us is nailed to the cross.

I am not convinced, however, that there is indeed an allusion to Deut. 31:26 here: "Take this book of the law, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, that it may be there for a witness against thee." The words "against thee" are found over 100 times in numerous contexts in the OT. This is close to saying that Paul is alluding to the "the" in a given verse when he says, "Christ is the Lord." I would have to demand a more substantial parallel before giving this argument credence.

Second, verse 17 "Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ." The seventh-day Sabbath is not a "shadow" of anything to come: it is a memorial of creation.

Our Sabbatarian therefore argues that "the festival sabbaths (which) included the Passover" are what is in mind here. We would argue in reply (as our writer anticipates) that Jesus is our rest, and therefore a fulfillment of the sabbath "shadow"; our writer address this with reference to Matthew 24:20 (see below).

Finally, neither here nor in a response to the Galatians parallel does our friendly Sabbatarian address the significant parallel to Numbers.

In the 93rd issue of the BE newsletter, McKinsey dismisses this effort by Martin as "an elaborate explanation" and then argues that:

1) "If Martin's analysis of Col. 2:16 were correct, people could imbibe to excess with impunity." That is false. This admonition forbids judging in respect to food and drink, in the context of the Judaistic/legalistic Colossian heresy which prescribed certain food and drink as the only things allowed -- it does not give a license to drink to drunkenness.

2) that Martin's interpretation means people "don't have to honor any sabbath or any day of any kind." And that is correct. And this is not a problem, because Sunday is not a Sabbath -- it is an observance of the Resurrection.

Here is another cited verse:

Rev. 1:10 was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet...

Against this verse, McKinsey writes:

  1. That there is no reason to assume that this refers to Sunday. This is false; as Archer points out - from The Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, a book McKinsey quotes from elsewhere - the Greek word here is the one always used for Sunday.
  2. It says nothing about the change from Saturday - to which we ask, why should it, if the change was presumed to be in effect already?
  3. It could refer to the day of judgment, which is false: It is used in the present tense to describe something that is taking place at that moment. That this verse indicates a day of honor designated for the Lord is indicated by the grammar, which does not indicate a possessive, as this argument would require.

Then there is this passage, which McKinsey does not cite at all in EBE, but does note in the 93rd newsletter:

Romans 13:8-10 Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

This passage indicates that love is the fulfillment of the law - not following the specifics. It is in this way that Jesus fulfilled the Law. This means that the Sabbath commandment is "fulfilled" also, and that observance is superfluous.

Against this, McKinsey provided a reply that did not even address Martin's main point.

A little later, there is also this passage:

Romans 14:4-6 Who art thou that judgest another man's servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand. One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks.

McKinsey misses the significance of this one, too: Here Paul says something that does indeed, on the one hand, permit those who wish to to keep a Saturday Sabbath; on the other hand, it also indicates that the day is not to be esteemed over any other.

McKinsey realizes this in the 93rd newsletter, but again thinks it is enough to object that this means that no one has to observe Sunday either -- and again, he is correct, and this is not a problem in the least. He is false about Martin's interpretation, but his interpretation of Martin's interpretation is itself truthful.

Our friendly Sabbatarian addressed this passage by saying:

There are a couple of responses to the position that this verse makes the Sabbath a matter of personal preference: 1) It is doubtful that these instructions refer to the keeping of the Mosaic or Sinaitic law at all. Rather it is likely that it is a reference to practice noted in the Ch. 8 of the Didache, where believers are enjoined to "fast on Wednesday and Friday, rather than on Monday and Thursday like the Jews." Such matters as these would, of course, be a matter of individual conscience for believers, whereas keeping commandments written with the finger of God is not.

On this point, I am not convinced, first, that the Didache predates Romans, and that correspondingly the practices referred to also predate them. At the same time, the point is not that this passage has to do with the Mosaic/Sinaitic law, but with behavior in general, of which the law only covers part of it.

In this case, both my friendly and "unfriendly" Sabbatarian made it a point to stress that the Sabbath rule was drawn up by "the finger of God" -- but I would ask, are those that God did not draw with His finger less important? Of course not. But the law itself is a mix of simple absolutes (no killing, no incest) and complex exemplars with absolutes behind them (build railings on your roof; met today by safety standards rather than by actually building roof rails).

Sabbatarians need to prove that the Sabbath command is one of these "simple" absolutes; merely that it is grouped with others is not sufficient proof, for in the larger law, the simple absolutes are mixed (though with some semblance of order) with the complex exemplars.

When I asked the "unfriendly" Sabbatarian whether he still put rails on his roof, and why not if not, he said that his answer was "Proverbs 26:4-5".

2) Even if it did refer to the Mosaic law, this would prove too much. Paul's instructions in ch. 14 cannot, for example, mean that we can eat ANY old thing, since The Jerusalem Council and the Holy Spirit said that Gentile converts should refrain from blood and strangled things (Acts 15: 20, 29).

Our friendly writer here is adopting an understanding of the Jerusalem Council's ruling that sees it as related to the Noahide covenant; but as Witherington has shown, this ruling is related to prohibiting attendance at pagan festivals. The objection is therefore off the mark.

Similarly, Jesus told His listeners to pray that they wouldn't have to flee in winter or on Sabbath. (Matt. 24:20). (It does no good to dismiss this as a quote from the pre-Resurrection Christ, since the Lord knew full well that Jerusalem wouldn't be destroyed till nearly 40 years after His resurrection.)

I would not explain this verse via the Resurrection, but I would point out that this no more proves that the Sabbath is still to be kept as sacred by all believers than it proves that winter is to be kept that way. Both would simply be inconvenient (!) times for flight to occur, much as Sunday today is a bad time to need certain stores open.

And so, back to McKinsey. Again, bypassing some arguing we don't care for, we have several notations from later church documents that the change to Sunday was an apostolic decree:

  1. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch (110 AD), wrote: "If, then, those who walk in the ancient practices attain to newness of hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but fashioning their lives after the Lord's Day on which our life also arose through Him, that we may be found disciples of Jesus Christ, our only teacher."

    Of this quote McKinsey says: "In no way does this quote say the first day of the week is the Lord's Day. The first day isn't even mentioned. At best, it only implies a distinction between the sabbath and the Lord's Day."

    Hardly. Ignatius specifies the "Lord's Day" as the one on which "our life arise through Him" -- the resurrection day, which all agree was a Sunday.

  2. Justin Martyr (150 AD) describes Sunday as the day when Christians gather to read the scriptures and hold their assembly because it is both the initial day of creation and the day of the resurrection.
  3. The Epistle of Barnabas (120-150) cites Isaiah 1:13 and indicates that the "eighth day" is a new beginning via the resurrection, and is the day to be kept.

    Here McKinsey objects to the use of a non-canonical writing as authoritative. This makes no difference and is no more than McKinsey refusing to recognize extra-biblical sources as data.

    McKinsey then suggests that Barnabas is misinterpreting Isaiah. That is beside the point: The point is that this is a source that recognizes the eighth day as something that is "kept" long before the Catholic Church invented the process as McKinsey alleges.

  4. The Didache (70-75) instructs believers: "On the Lord's own day, gather yourselves together and break bread and give thanks." Here again McKinsey objects that there is no identification of the "Lord's day" with Sunday -- for answer to this, see Ignatius above.
  5. And other later testimonies from Irenaeus, Cyprian, and Pliny the Younger.

McKinsey mentions none of these things in EBE, absurdly attributing the change to the Catholic Church instead. He may also argue that this is not from the Bible, but to push aside extrabiblical sources for the understanding of the Bible itself is merely arbitrary, something no responsible historian or commentator would do.

In the BE newsletter, he notes Walter Martin's use of such sources, and objects:

a) that Martin "relates the writings of only ten" such Fathers, and only four Scripture passages, and insists that more is needed for a change in the Ten Commandments. Why is the bar set this high? How many such cites are enough, and by what criteria is this number determined?

b) That the Church Fathers are not in the Bible -- which makes not a bit of difference; no historical matter is decided simply on the basis of what book the data is in, and McKinsey's stubborn insistence against using extra-biblical sources to interpret Biblical texts reflects nothing more than his own arbirary preferences.

c) That none specifically say that the sabbath is now excluded, which they did not have to: That was already established from the NT quotes. Other than that, McKinsey may ask what "right" the apostles had to make the change - and the answer is, if they were inspired men, then they had the right and indeed the permission to do so. It all depends where we start our argument.

Our friendly Sabbatarian added that "the tradition of Sunday worship, without regard for the Sabbath was hardly a uniform practice in Christendom. Christians in places as diverse as Ethiopia and Armenia kept the Sabbath. The historian Sozomen writing about the 4th and 5th centuries noted 'The people of Constantinople, and almost everywhere, assemble together on the Sabbath, as well as on the first day of the week, which custom is never observed at Rome or at Alexandria.' The 5th century historian Socrates wrote, '[a]lmost all the churches celebrate the sacred mysteries on the Sabbath of every week, yet the Christians of Alexandria and at Rome on account of some ancient tradition, have ceased to do this.'"

I regard both of these passages to be too late to be of any relevance -- they are obviously reversals upon earlier cites, and no more significant (in light of the context of this discussion) than the existence of modern-day Sabbatarians. Some have taken the choice of Saturday with their conscience, and that is their prerogative --which we offer no condemnation for.

Finally our friendly Sabbatarian finds this confirmation:

Heb. 4:9-11 are a clear endorsement of Sabbath-keeping. The NIV renders "rest" in v. 9 as "Sabbath-rest." The Greek word at issue is sabbatismos, which occurs only this once in Scripture, but in extrabiblical literature, it refers to plain old Sabbath-keeping. Further, v. 10 says that "he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his." This cannot refer to resting from "dead works" of trying to earn salvation, because the comparison to God obviously and necessarily fails here. The Writer concludes "Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief." v. 11. Thus we have a clear admonition from the NT to enter Sabbath rest as God did, by resting from our works on the seventh day.

Let's quote this passage:

There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his. Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief.

The friendly fellow is right about what this word is used for in other literature(Sabbath-keeping) but the context of the passage indicates that the "Sabbath" being referred to is an eschatological one -- the eternal "Sabbath" of enduring praise and celebration all believers will have. (Moreover, how would one "labour to enter" into a Saturday Sabbath, or into any chronological event?) The parallel here is to Paul's admonitions not to run a race in vain.