The Sabbath in the New Testament (Part 3)

Last week’s article on the Sabbath examined how other parts of the Old Testament law were maintained, discarded, or modified in the New Testament. We saw that the Sabbath’s unique combination of moral and ceremonial elements gives us reason to expect it to remain relevant for New Testament Christians, though with changes that reflect Christ’s atoning work. But what does the New Testament actually say about the Sabbath?

The Sabbath in Jesus’ Life and Teaching

In keeping with the Old Testament’s intense interest in the Sabbath, Jesus devoted more time to teaching about the Fourth Commandment, through both word and example, than to any other commandment. In general, when the Gospels record Jesus speaking about Old Testament law he is clearing away misunderstandings of it, and the Sabbath is no different.

The Pharisees had piled man-made precepts on top of the Fourth Commandment, and Jesus decisively rejected the misrepresentations of the teachers of the law. So, for example, he insisted that showing mercy to a neighbor or taking care of basic daily needs (Matt 12:1-13) were not violations of the Sabbath. Jesus declared he was “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:23-28), with authority to say how it should be kept.

But clarifying how the Sabbath should be observed assumes that it should be observed. Jesus’ famous declaration in Mark 2:27 that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” is an affirmation that the Sabbath—properly understood—belongs in the life of God’s people. And in fact Luke tells us that Christ consistently attended Sabbath worship at the local synagogue (4:16-20).

Luke also tells us what Jesus’ disciples were doing the day before he rose from the dead: They had prepared spices and ointments to anoint his crucified body, but “On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.” Christ had taught his closest associates and followers to honor the Sabbath.

And then he rose from the grave, all four of the Gospels tell us, “on the first day of the week.”

After the Resurrection

As soon as Jesus emerges from the tomb, the Sabbath day almost disappears from the pages of Scripture—a striking contrast with its frequent appearance both in the Old Testament and in Jesus’ life and teaching. But perhaps “disappear” isn’t quite the right word, because the spotlight simply shifts from the seventh day to the first day of the week, the day Jesus rose from the grave.

The fact that all the Gospels record that Jesus’ resurrection was on the first day of the week is significant in itself, because it is rare for any fact to appear in all four Gospels. Even the story of Christ’s birth only appears in two of them! The few elements which do appear in all four are usually very significant. For example, the feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle other than the resurrection to be recorded in all four Gospels, because it simultaneously fulfilled Messianic prophecy and pointed to Jesus as “the bread from heaven” whose body would bring eternal life (John 6:35-51). If God similarly inspired all four Gospel writers to record the detail that Christ rose on the first day of the week, we should anticipate something more than mere chronology from that information.

It is also suggestive that Jesus’ disciples appear to have immediately begun gathering together on the first day of the week. Luke 24 and John 20 record several times when Jesus appeared to them then. (These are the only post-resurrection appearances for which the Gospel writers specify a day. Jesus seems to have met with his disciples on other days of the week, but none of the Gospels bother to identify any of those days, implying that only the first was significant.) When Jesus first poured out his Spirit on the assembled disciples, it was, also, on the first day of the week—Pentecost, the fiftieth day after the Sabbath of Passover week.

Moving forward a bit, Acts 20 finds Paul meeting with the Christians in Troas to teach and share a meal “on the first day of the week,” even though he had been in the city for most of the preceding week, including the Sabbath the day before. Then in I Corinthians 16, Paul directs that a collection be taken up for needy fellow believers “on the first day of every week,” apparently taking it for granted that the Christian community in Corinth would be gathered together to make such a collection possible.

These New Testament accounts correspond with the records from the first century of the Christian church, which state that believers gathered for worship on Sunday, which was called the Lord’s Day. So, for example, the church father Ignatius wrote, “Those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord’s day, on which also our life has sprung up again by him and by his death.” Since the first generation of the church was overseen by the apostles who Jesus had personally taught and commissioned to establish his church, this shift carries greater authority than mere human tradition.

How Does It All Fit Together?

So what is the Lord’s Day? It is curious that a practice seemingly so universal in the early church would receive such glancing attention in the New Testament. What we see is a great emphasis on Jesus rising and then meeting with his disciples on the first day of the week, then a few passing comments which seem to take it for granted that Christians would be gathered together on the first day—an assumption which fits with everything we know about the early church from apostolic days onward. The Apostle John even casually refers to the Lord’s Day in Revelation 1:10, apparently sure that his readers will know what he was talking about. Yet there is barely any information anywhere in the New Testament about what Christians are to do on the Lord’s Day.

Or is there? Either Christ and his apostles inaugurated a new day for fellowship and worship and didn’t bother to tell anyone what to do with it, or Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath, inaugurated a new day for fellowship and worship and didn’t bother to tell anyone anything new about it because he had already revealed everything we needed to know in the pages of the Old Testament and in his own teaching ministry.

As we saw last week, the Old Testament Sabbath looks very much like a moral law—the sort of law which is binding on all mankind because it flows from God’s nature and reveals his will for his people. (It is worth noting that Jesus said in Mark 2:27 that “the Sabbath is made for anthrōpos,” a Greek word referring to mankind generally.) The call to rest and worship, to enjoy a taste of heaven and celebrate our Lord’s redemptive work, is as needed in the New Testament as in the Old, which helps to explain why Jesus devoted so much of his attention to renovating and restoring his followers’ understanding of the Sabbath.

Yet, as we also saw, the Sabbath’s ceremonial characteristics suggested that it would change as a result of Christ’s work on earth. Moral laws didn’t change because they reflected God’s eternal character and will, but ceremonial laws were inevitably reshaped by the arrival of what they had anticipated. It would be odd if the Sabbath was the only element of the ceremonial law which was not affected by the incarnation. So, in fact, we find the Old Testament week looking forward to a coming Sabbath rest, while the New Testament week begins clothed in a Sabbath rest which should infuse all the days after it.

While it is never explicitly spelled out (but then, neither are other important doctrines like the Trinity!), it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Christ expected us to allow the content of the Sabbath to fill our celebration of the Lord’s Day. I will have one final article next week exploring what that might look like in practice, as well as considering a few verses which might seem to rebut the idea that the Sabbath still holds something of value for New Testament Christians.

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