In the larger discussion about harmony and unity within the body of Christ, Paul mentioned several issues that led the Christians in Rome to come to differing convictions about the same issues. He primarily talked about the appropriate diet for a believer, whether or not it should include meat or be a vegetable only diet (see Romans 14.2). He also mentioned the consumption of wine (see Romans 14.21). But it is his mention of special days that concerns us in this post.
5One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. (Romans 14.5-6 ESV)
As one commentator wrote, it almost seems that Paul is intentionally being vague so that the truths he wrote about might apply to various situations within the church. That may be the case, but the Bible student in me sure would appreciated a little more detail about the “special days” in question among the faithful in Rome. All we know for sure is that it was a day “observed in honor of the Lord” (Romans 14.6). This may have been a special feast day, but most likely it is a reference to the one day of the week that was unlike the other days. This, of course, was the Sabbath day.
The debate seems to be that some believers in the church in Rome felt that the Sabbath day was special, unlike any other day of the week. And those believers observed that day in a special way as a way of honoring the Lord. However, there were other believers in the church who esteemed all days alike. I assume that means that they did not set aside that “one day” as an observation to honor the Lord, as least not in the same manner that some did in the church.
This is not the only time that observing special days was the subject of debate in light of one’s freedom in Christ or in light of the new covenant of grace. Consider the following.
16Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. 20If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—21“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22(referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2.16-23)
8Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. 9But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? 10You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain. (Galatians 4.8-11)
Some would argue that Paul is not talking about observing the Sabbath in Romans 14.5, but about other holy days. But it seems quite obvious that Colossians 2.16 is indeed speaking of the Sabbath, and he references it to a discussion about passing judgment, food and drink, and asceticism. It is hard to miss the link between Romans 14 and Colossians 2.
The Sabbath and The New Covenant
There are basically three positions regarding the believer’s relationship to the Sabbath under the new covenant: (1) Christians are still obligated to obey the commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy, (2) Christians are still obligated to keep the Sabbath holy but the first day of the week is the new holy day for believers, and (3) Christians have been set free from the law including the Sabbath law.
Obey the Sabbath
Some would say that Christians are still obligated to remember the Sabbath and to keep it holy in obedience to the fourth commandment (see Exodus 20.8-11). Under this conviction, the Sabbath is still the seventh day of the week (Saturday), and the biblical commands of resting from all forms of work and asking no one else to do work on your behalf are still in effect. Those who advocate this position believe that Saturday is the day to gather together for worship, even though the Sabbath in the old covenant was not a day for worship corporate worship but a day to cease from all labor.
Consistency would mean that to observe the Sabbath would mean to not only be employed on Saturday, but also to do nothing that would require another to work on your behalf. That means going out to eat, shopping, watching TV, using electricity, mowing the yard, or cleaning the kitchen. It is a day to cease from all labor, and the cessation of labor is the key mark of a day “observed unto the Lord.”
The Seventh Day Adventist Church is one such Christian group that holds to this position. According to their statement of faith,
The fourth commandment of God’s unchangeable law requires the observance of this seventh-day Sabbath as the day of rest, worship, and ministry in harmony with the teaching and practice of Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath.
Keep the Lord’s Day
Some would say that Christians are to remember the Sabbath and to keep it holy, but the new covenant has changed the basic nature of the Sabbath. First, the day of the Sabbath has changed from the seventh day to the first day of the week to remember and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Second, the primary characteristic of the Sabbath is a day of worship instead of a day of rest. While there is some variety in how this is applied, a good example would be the words from the Westminster Confession of Faith.
This Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs before-hand, do not only observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up, the whole time, in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy. (Westminster Confession of Faith)
Those who consistently hold to this position assert that the Sabbath is a day of worship, rest, and free from worldly employments and recreations. However, as of late, a modified application to this position is becoming more mainstream. Most people who assert that Sunday is the new covenant Sabbath only emphasize the worship aspect of the Sabbath to the exclusion of rest and cessation of recreations. Many insist that to remember the Sabbath and to keep it holy means to attend church on Sunday morning, but it does not exclude going out to eat (making another person work on your behalf), shopping, watching football on television, or mowing the yard.
Free at Last
Others would say that when the Scriptures teach that we have been set free from the Law, it meant that we have been totally set free from the law. Not only have we been liberated from the dietary codes, circumcision, cleanliness codes, and the sacrificial system, we have also been liberated from the Sabbath regulations.
This position takes serious what the New Testament teaches about the new covenant of grace.
18On the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness 19(for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God. (Hebrews 7.18-19)
In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. (Hebrews 8.13)
6But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit. (Romans 7.6)
10For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—14so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. (Galatians 3.10-14)
By grace, we have been released from the law, including the law of the Sabbath.
I believe that the third option is the most biblical, theological, and realistic. Before you brand me a heretic and cast stones at your computer screen, let me explain.
First, I take very serious that the new covenant has set aside the old covenant (Hebrews 7.18) and that by grace through faith we have been released from the curse of the law (Galatians 3.13). This includes the dietary restrictions (see Romans 14.14), circumcision (see Galatians 6.15), and feast days and Sabbath laws (see Colossians 2.16-17).
Consider the words of the Lord to Moses about the Sabbath.
12And the Lord said to Moses, 13“You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. 14You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. 15Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. 16Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. 17It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’” (Exodus 31.12-17)
Notice that the Sabbath was a sign between the Lord and the people of Israel. While the Gentiles have been grafted into Israel by faith (see Romans 11), they have been grafted in under a new covenant.
Further, notice that those who disobey the Sabbath laws were to be put to death (Exodus 31.14). How is it that the first part of the verse can be the “unchangeable law of God” but the second part has been rendered obsolete? We have been set free from the curse of the law.
Second, we are not commanded to observe the Sabbath in the New Testament. Using the “Scripture interprets Scripture rule,” I would be looking for a counter balance to Colossians 2, Galatians 4, or Romans 14, but there is none to be found. There is no apostolic teaching that we are to continue to obey the Sabbath laws of the Old Testament.
Further, there is no indication that the early church in Acts observed the Sabbath either. The only time the Sabbath is mentioned is when the apostles entered the synagogue to do missionary work by preaching the gospel to the Jews. In fact, once Paul shifted his focus and said “For now on, I am going to the Gentiles” (see Acts 18.6), the Sabbath is not mentioned again in the book of Acts.
Third, there is no teaching in the New Testament that changes the day of the Sabbath from the seventh day to the first day. True, the Christians gathered on the first day of the week for worship and prayer, but there is nothing to indicate that they thought of this as the new Sabbath.
Fourth, Jesus set aside the teachings of the Sabbath and went out of His way to break the laws of the Sabbath. Jesus constantly healed on the Sabbath (see Matthew 12.10) or picked grain on the Sabbath (see Matthew 12.1). He even declared that the Sabbath was made for mankind and not the other way around (see Mark 2.27). This was one of the primary reasons why the religious leaders of the day wanted Jesus put to death. They knew that He did not observe the Sabbath and keep it holy.
Fifth, virtually no one really attempts to obey the fourth commandment as stated in the law of Moses. We all feel that we have been liberated from it on some level. At the minimum, we know that we are not to put to death those who pull some weeds from their gardens on the Sabbath. But those who want the Sabbath law to still be valid don’t obey it either for they work or cause others to work on their behalf on the Sabbath.
Grace is risky business.
You may say, “If we are liberated from the Sabbath laws, then people will stop coming to church.” To which I would say, the majority of the ones who come to church are those who been set free from the law by grace. The ones still under the law just ignore the law and don’t come to church. The motivation for coming to church is becoming a new creation in Christ and joyfully gathering in His name to worship.
If you have a differing opinion, then I welcome you to come to be fully convinced in your own mind and to observe the day in honor of the Lord (see Romans 14.5-6). I will “esteem all days alike” and honor the Lord by being liberated from the law and serving in the new way of the Spirit.
And we all shall stand at the judgment seat of Christ.