Why Easter Makes Me a Sabbatarian

Article by   August 2012
During this past Easter season, I was grateful to Paul Levy for drawing to my attention the interesting and well-written post by John Stevens on a theology of the Sabbath. John's articulate presentation is simple and straightforward, highlights relevant biblical texts, and probably represents the mainstream view in modern evangelicalism on the New Testament relevance of the Old Testament Sabbath. 

Notwithstanding the fact that his blog post arose out of a piece of scurrilous and sensational journalism over a vending machine in my part of the world (I am not related to the Campbell of the story!), his argument is a strong one. I am in fundamental agreement with him when he says that the Sabbath question 'is a test case by which the success of any systematic or biblical theology ought rightly to be addressed', and that it has important implications for 'our understanding of the covenant structure of the progress of redemption, and the role of the law in the Christian life'. 

But I am in fundamental disagreement with him in his application of his exegesis, which is effectively saying that of all the ten commandments, the fourth is one that need not be applied literally under the new covenant, and that the Sabbath has now been fulfilled spiritually as we rest in Christ. 

The issue, as John correctly observes, has important implications not only for our understanding of relevant biblical passages, but also for our confessionalism. Many Presbyterian ministers, for example, are committed to the theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith - a seventeenth century document, to be sure, but one to which many of us gladly subscribe as the confession of our doctrinal position. It aruges that the Lord's Day is the Christian Sabbath, and presents a theology of transference in which the requirement of the fourth commandment are to be applied now to the first day of the week instead of the seventh. 

One of John's arguments is that a seventeenth century statement of doctrine cannot serve the twenty-first century church well, since its time- and culture-bound authors will have necessarily erred in their formulations. His own preference is for a reduced doctrinal basis, although it is not immediately obvious that twenty-first minimalist confession writers can fare any better in producing an inerrant confession than did their seventeenth century counterparts!

That apart, the argument which John presents is so important, and the issue so relevant, that I have tried not to rush into a counter-argument. I hope that a new discussion on the issue of the Sabbath will demonstrate that the older view is right, not because it is old, but because it is scriptural. 

The Sabbath theme in Scripture

It seems to me that the Sabbath theme is not simply a prominent Old Testament one; there is a sense in which it is the overall theme of Scripture. God sabbathed in the rest of his triune being and fellowship before he emerged from it to create a world. The work of creation was not instantaneous - it was deliberately spread over six days, with a day of rest following on the seventh. 

That God's rest was not due to fatigue is clear from the whole teaching of the Bible concerning the power and self-sufficiency of God. It's purpose was different - it was to set an example to man. The fact that the fourth commandment (in its Exodus 20 form) refers to the Sabbath of creation considerably weakens John's argument that 'there is no evidence from the Genesis account that man rested on the Sabbath'. That is true as a statement of fact, but the silence of Genesis cannot allow the conclusion that man did not rest on the Sabbath, otherwise there is no coherence in the fourth commandment. 

More importantly, it is self-evidently not true, as John's blog argues that 'it was not until the law was given by God to his redeemed people at Sinai that they (and not the whole of humanity) were commanded to observe the Sabbath'. The regulations governing the gathering of the manna in Exodus 16 required Sabbath observance, before the Sinai law was given. 

The Sabbath day was not the only Old Testament Sabbath. There were, for example, Sabbath years (Leviticus 25:4,6), in which the 'land' would rest. Failure to honour these regulations is given as a reason for the exile in 2 Chronicles 36:21; God himself imposed a Sabbath rest on the land by emptying it of its inhabitants. 

Into the restored land, in the fulness of time, comes Jesus Christ, the self-designated 'Lord of the Sabbath'. He honours God's law by observing the Sabbath day; even his burial takes place before the Sabbath so that he will rest in his grave, and with his resurrection will fulfill all that was required of him to secure rest for his people. 

'Rest' becomes an important gospel theme in the Old Testament; yet the Sabbath principle remains, whatever view one takes of specific days. The end-time discourse of Matthew 24 assumes the continuance of Sabbath days in some form (Matthew 24:20), and Hebrews 4:9, however we interpret it, certainly states that 'there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God'. 

Ultimately, it is into God's rest that Christ will bring his redeemed people. They shall rest from their labours (Revelation 14:13), and be given the ultimate bliss in the presence of God. 

It is important to underscore that the reason the Sabbath becomes such an important test case for biblical theology is because there is a sense in which it is the theme of biblical theology. God sabbaths in his rest, and determines to bring a people into it with him. That's the fundamental Bible story. How he does it is the great drama of salvation, enacted on the stage of the world that God has made. 

The Sabbath in Israel's life

It is quite wrong, therefore, to suppose that the Sabbath institution was given only to Israel. The Sabbaths were certainly given to God's redeemed people; John is right to highlight that the Sabbath day functions at one level as a sign of God's covenant with them. 

But like the rainbow, which became the sign of the covenant with Noah, and circumcision, the sign of the covenant with Abraham, the Sabbath was not invented for that purpose. There is no reason to suppose that rainbows were not seen before the post-diluvian revelation of God's purpose, or that circumcision was not practised in the ancient world until Abraham's day. 

Nor is there any reason to think - indeed, there is much reason not to think - that the Sabbath was given to Israel with significance for no-one else. Are we really to believe that the ten commandments functioned in this way, and that their ethical requirements were only for the redeemed people? Idolatry was practiced in the ancient world, and it is not only Israel who is judged for the practice. The first commandment, demanding monotheism of Israel, demands it not because it is a law for Israel alone, but a law that everyone, everywhere, is bound to keep. The Sabbath too, built into the fabric of creation, is a sign for Israel certainly, but has universal significance since it is built into the creation order. 

The only alternative to saying that the ten commandments represent unchanging moral absolutes is to say that they represent situational advice. Yet who would argue that it is ethical to kill or helpful to commit adultery? The decalogue, distinctive in both form and substance as well as in the manner in which it was given, reflects the moral nature of God, and its standards are non-negotiable. 

But even if we grant that the Sabbath of Israel's history was merely a sign, of what is it a sign? It seems to me that a neglected text in this connection is Ezekiel 20:12 - 'I gave them my Sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the LORD who sanctifies them.' That is the heart of the matter: Israel was to keep days and specific years, holy, sanctifying them as a sign that God was the one making Israel holy. There is an intimate link between Sabbath observance and God's sanctifying work in his people. 

Lord of the Sabbath

The claim by Jesus to be Lord of the Sabbath is an important one. It seems to me that it implies at least three things. 

First, it implies that Jesus is the God of Sinai. It is a claim to divinity. The deity of Jesus is everywhere present on the pages of the New Testament, and not least in the fact that Jesus assumes to himself possession of, and jurisdiction over, the Sabbath day. He is Lord of the Sabbath in exactly the same way as God said of the Sabbath that it was His day. 

Second, it implies that the Sabbath is still in place. On John Steven's argument, the fourth commandment belongs to the old covenant which is now obsolete through its fulfillment in Christ. But if that is so, there is now no Sabbath over which Jesus is Lord. Did he fulfill this role for only three years of public ministry? Has his title been rendered obsolete too? It is a strange Christian exegesis that would claim that Jesus is no longer something he himself claimed to be. 

Third, it implies that the primitive Christian confession that 'Jesus is Lord' must, necessarily, include this claim. If Jesus is our Lord, he is still Lord of the Sabbath. What else does Lordship mean? 

Is there a Christian Sabbath?

So the trajectory of biblical revelation is that there was a day commanded by God to be of special significance, and our Saviour claimed to be Lord of it. He argued with the Pharisees over it, but never argued it away; as J.C. Ryle, in his brilliant chapter on the Sabbath in Knots Untied  puts it, 'He no more abolishes the Sabbath than a man destroys a house when he cleans off the moss or weeds from its roof'. In his eleven references to the Sabbath, Jesus never argues for its abolition, but only for a correct, spiritual view of it. On the analogy of the argument of the Sermon on the Mount, our Sabbath-keeping is to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. 

But does this warrant us to believe that there is such a thing as a Christian Sabbath? This is the crux of the issue, and the answer to this question rests on both broad and narrow considerations. On the one hand, if John Stevens is correct to say that 'the Law is a system as a whole which cannot be divided up in an arbitrary way into civil, ceremonial and moral categories', then anything goes. We are at liberty to pick and choose which of the laws stay and which do not. 

This argument has been effectively demolished by Philip S. Ross in his recent book From the Finger of God (Mentor, 2010), in which he argues that the threefold division is no arbitrary imposition. The nature of the ten commandments, and the form in which they were given, sets them apart as moral absolutes which even unbelieving pagans observe (Romans 2:14-15). When Jesus refers to commandments, it is to the Decalogue he refers (Luke 18:20). When he explains how he fulfills the law, it is from the Decalogue that he takes his examples (Matthew 5:21,27). The ten commandments were to be preserved in a way that other commandments were not (Exodus 34:27-8). 

So yes, Jesus fulfills the law, not by abolishing these moral imperatives, but by demonstrating their true depth and meaning, by uncovering the motive of love which ought to compel obedience, and by obeying them himself. If being a Christian means being like Christ, it means obeying these ten commandments out of love for God, and with a spiritual, and not a legalistic, attitude. The whole tenor of Jesus' teaching, therefore, is that the ten commandments are still in force. 

On the other hand, Jesus brings change. He is both circumcised and baptised himself, and commands his church to baptise, not to circumcise. He brings Passover to an end, and gives the Lord's Supper instead. And, by his resurrection, he changes the order of history, making last things first, prioritising the first day of the week over the last, and giving his church a new day of rest and worship. 

Jesus shows himself to the gathering of his people on the first day of the week, gives the Holy Spirit at Pentecost on the first day of the week, asks us to lay aside a collection for the saints on the first day of the week, and his disciples, brought up in the traditions of Judaism, see no difficulty in the transition. The law is written on the hearts of new covenant believers, who have new reason, as the new Israel of God, to rejoice in the fulfillment of the law in Christ, and make it the glad and joyful rule of their conduct. Why else would Paul say 'I delight in the law of God after the inward man' (Romans 7:22)?

And what of the apostle John's reference to 'the Lord's Day' in Revelation 1:10? It simply will not do to say that it is 'hardly sufficient' to demonstrate a transfer of obligation. What else does it prove? The apostle John uses the same language of the first day of the week that God had used of the old Sabbath in the Old Testament. His weekly routine in isolated Patmos was to mark out one day as especially different, and uniquely 'the Lord's Day'. 

But what about.....?

What about Romans 14:5 and Colossians 2:16? Do these verses make the observance of the Lord's Day a matter of personal conscience and demonstrate that 'the Sabbath was not binding on Christian believers?' Actually, they prove the opposite. In Romans 14, Paul is talking about matters over which some believers have tender consciences, and others have strong consciences. His point will be that we need to help each other, and be patient with people who differ over us in some areas of living. But the last thing Paul urges is that any of us is free to reject any of the ten commandments. He has already argued in Romans 7 that the commandments are holy and good. His position cannot be that on one commandment of the decalogue we are free to pick and choose. A tender conscience needs to be educated; it does not become the norm. 

Yet Paul mentions Sabbaths specifically in Colossians. Does he teach there that there is no Sabbath day any more? Paul uses a phrase employed often in the Old Testament to refer to the ceremonial system - 'holy days, new moons and Sabbaths' is a frequently occurring phrase in the Old Testament. These ceremonies anticipated the coming of Christ and of something better. 

But the ceremonies were only the practical application of the fourth commandment in the Old Testament era. The substance belongs to Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath. He died for our sins - including our Sabbath-breaking - and saved us so that the righteous requirement of the law would be fulfilled in us (Romans 8:4). There is a righteous requirement on us to keep the Sabbath Day holy. The transition to a day of rest on the first day of the week is no compromise on that principle, but the fulfillment of it. 

In these passages Paul is warning against legalism, against offence, against judging others - counsels which we do well to live by and apply in our modern world. But nowhere is he suggesting that the law of God is of no relevance to the Christian, and nowhere does he suggest that it is advantageous to us now to do away with the Sabbath principle. The whole burden of the New Testament is that the day on which the believers laid aside their work to take up the duty of worship was the first day of the week, to which they applied the principle of the fourth commandment - one day out of seven to be kept holy, as a day of joy and gladness.  


I have no wish to argue for a Sabbath keeping like that to which Jesus took exception. It is possible for evangelicals with a high view of the Lord's Day to be overly prescriptive and legalistic in their approach. It is also possible for evangelicals with a fulfillment view of Sabbath theology to become antinomian. Neither Jesus nor Paul wishes to do away with the law - it is what enables us to understand sin and to understand holiness. 

This has become something of a test case for interpreters and theologians, but I still feel obliged to argue for the abiding moral authority of all ten commandments; our point of departure is that the law is ordained by God, and recast in a new form in the new covenant era, as the law is now engraved onto new hearts by God's Spirit. After all, that is what the Old Testament anticipated in Jeremiah 31:33: 'I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts'. 

It seems to me that the position that bests suits the biblical evidence is precisely that of the Westminster Confession of Faith, that the Sabbath of Sinai becomes the Lord's Day of the resurrection, joyfully set apart by God's people as their day of special witness and corporate worship. If we deregulate our time and make times of worship according to our own minds and consciences, we descend into the worst form of subjectivism and indiscipline in our Christian lives. 

Christ deserves much more. He is our Lord. He is Lord of the Sabbath. He is Lord of all our days. Let us observe the rest he offers and the time for worship and devotion which he gives, that all our days shall be spent in happy service for him until he comes and brings the final Sabbath rest with him. 

A native of Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis, Iain D Campbell has been called to minister in the Free Church of Scotland on his native island. He is the author of numerous books, including The Gospel According to Ruth and Heroes and Heretics.

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