Christian Perfection by Grace and Works
Perfection in the Sabbath
In the Sermon on the Mount, the sermon on holiness, Jesus said:
Matthew 5:19 Whoever, therefore, shall break one of these least commandments, and teach others to do so, shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven; but whoever shall do and teach them shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus takes the Ten Commandments deeper. Anger is murder. Lust is adultery. He summarizes the first four commandments with, “Love God.” He summarizes the last five with, “Love your neighbor.” Understanding the commandments is the secret of the kingdom, and the key to holiness.
Romans 13:9-10 The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself." (10) Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
Love is the fulfillment of the law. Jesus said he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Mat 5:17). So does love remove the fourth commandment? Or does love and the quest for holiness find a deeper meaning for the fourth commandment? Is resting on the Sabbath God’s provision for finding Christian perfection?
Before answering this question, let’s explore some of the Scriptural issues regarding whether or not the Sabbath has been abolished or changed. If you are a Sabbath keeper, you may be surprised at my conclusions. If you believe the Sabbath is on Sunday, you may be surprised at my conclusions. If you believe the Sabbath was abolished, you may still be surprised at my conclusions. The truth hides in the middle.
The first common approach to the Sabbath issue is to say that all Ten Commandments were a part of the Law of Moses, and were thus fulfilled in Christ. In Matthew 5:17, Jesus says that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. This approach is to interpret “fulfill” in very much the same way as you would interpret “abolish.” In effect, the approach is to say that the Sabbath is fulfilled in Christ, and therefore we can now work any day of the week.
People who take this approach would say that all Ten Commandments were fulfilled and thus done away with when we went from the old covenant to the new. Under the new covenant, God writes his law on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:31 34, Hebrews 8:8-12). We still know that we should not murder or covet, but it’s not because these are listed in the Ten Commandments.
The problem with this approach is that there is no clear verse of Scripture that says we can now work on the Sabbath. There is, however, Scripture that clearly says we no longer need to be physically circumcised (Romans 2:25-29, 3:1, 1 Corinthians 7:19, Galatians 5:6, 5:11-12, 6:15, Colossians 2:11). The Scriptural evidence for this change is overwhelming. Likewise, there is strong Scriptural evidence for abolishing the eating or dietary regulations (Acts 10:9 16, 11:4-9, Romans 14:20-21, 1 Corinthians 10:27-30). But there is no similar weight of Scripture for no longer observing the Sabbath.
Sabbath observance was considered much more important in the Old Testament than circumcision or the dietary regulations. Some quote Galatians 4:10 as meaning we no longer need to observe the Sabbath. This verse, however, does not specifically mention the Sabbath.
Colossians 2:16 does mention the Sabbath. For those who take this approach, this verse is reasonable. Nevertheless, the Sabbath in Colossians 2:16 can be viewed as associated with various religious festivals, since the context of rest of the sentence is focused on religious festivals. It’s not clear that Paul is referring to the weekly Sabbath. Hence, there is no clear verse of Scripture that removes the command to observe the weekly Sabbath.
The dietary regulations and the religious festivals were “nailed to the cross” (Colossians 2:16-17), because they were shadows of Christ. Likewise, circumcision was nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:11). These were shadows because they represented atonement for sin, whereas Christ is the only true atonement. Were the Ten Commandments shadows of atonement for sin, or were they commandments against sin? The Ten Commandments can be viewed as shadows of Christ in the sense that we are to obey all that Christ commands. How then, would the fourth commandment not also today be an example of what Christ commands?
Jesus often spoke of the Sabbath in the sense of correcting the overly strict interpretation of the Sabbath. Jesus never simply abolished the command even though he didn’t hesitate to make enemies by what he said.
One often-overlooked problem with no longer observing the Sabbath is Matthew 24:20. Some people interpret Matthew 24 as happening in 70 AD. Others believe Matthew 24 is still unfulfilled prophecy. If the Sabbath no longer needs to be observed, this change would have been made at the cross. In either case, Jesus, in Matthew 24:20, is speaking about a Sabbath that is still strongly in effect either in 70 AD or thereafter.
Therefore, I do not believe the Sabbath was abolished.
The second common approach to the Sabbath issue is to say that the fourth commandment is still in effect, but that the Sabbath was changed to Sunday. Some people have said the commandment can be read as “one day in seven,” basically leaving it open as to which day is the Sabbath. But this view is inconsistent with Scripture.
In Exodus 16, before the Israelites came to Mount Sinai, and before the Ten Commandments were written, God sent manna from heaven six days a week. The seventh day was the Sabbath and they were told to rest (verse 23). In other words, God picked the day when the manna did not fall. In verse 23 God said, “Tomorrow is to be a day of rest.” He thus confirmed the weekly cycle.
Since then, there have been changes in the various ancient calendars. However, there has never been a change in the weekly cycle. We cannot interpret the fourth commandment as “one day in seven” arbitrarily because the day is a specific day that God made holy. The commandment tells us to keep that specific day holy. We can’t pick the day to keep holy, because we can’t make days holy. We can only keep the day that God made holy. And God made the seventh day of the creation holy before sin came into the world (Genesis 2:2-3).
Everyone is taught that the crucifixion was right before the Sabbath (Mark 15:42, Luke 23:54 56, John 19:31-42), and then Christ arose on Sunday, the first day of the week (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:2, 16:9, Luke 24:1, John 21:1). How can anyone with a straight face then say that the Sabbath is on Sunday and it was never changed? But some have made this claim. A more arguable view is that the Sabbath was changed from Saturday to Sunday. This is done using several verses that may indicate the early church worshiped on Sunday.
Acts 20:7 is the primary verse used as evidence that they routinely worshiped on the first day of the week. Thus, it’s inferred that the Sabbath was changed to Sunday. However, there is no indication that this was a weekly custom. This verse is simply in the context of a narrative about some events that were happening at that time. Even if it was a weekly custom, there is no mention of the Sabbath.
A counter-argument to this verse is Acts 16:13-16. This verse specifically mentions the Sabbath. Verse 16 indicates that it was a routine event. They would routinely and privately gather for prayer on the Sabbath. So what about Acts 20:7? There is nothing wrong with the “breaking of bread” on any day of the week. It doesn’t even say this “breaking of bread” was in observance of the Lord’s Supper. It was probably simply the evening meal. Moreover, they kept talking until midnight because they planned on leaving the next day.
The issue here is whether or not they stopped working on the first day of the week, or on the Sabbath. Remember that the fourth commandment says nothing about assembly for worship. It’s a command to cease work for a day. We can routinely worship God in assembly any day of the week. However, it would seem that Paul and his companions preferred to do this routinely on the Sabbath.
Another verse that is used to argue a Sunday Sabbath is 1 Corinthians 16:2. Paul asked each of them to set aside some of their earnings on the first day of the week. Nothing is said about a gathering. The verse doesn’t even indicate that the money was collected on this day. Paul was simply asking them to individually, each week, set aside some of their earnings so that when he came there would be money available. Paul is asking each person individually to do this. It’s not a gathering event. Each person was to set aside the money and keep it so that it could be collected at a later date when Paul arrived.
The first day of the week was probably mentioned because Paul wanted them to set aside some of the money that they had earned the previous week. Even if this verse were to indicate a routine gathering for worship on the first, this verse still says nothing about ceasing work on the Sabbath.
The other verse that is often mentioned when arguing a Sunday Sabbath is Revelation 1:10. This verse mentions the Lord’s Day. It’s the only verse in the Bible that mentions the Lord’s Day, and this verse gives us no information about the Lord’s Day.
Early church history indicates that the Lord’s Day is the first day and was a day of worship. We should never use anything except Scripture to obsolete or alter Scriptural commandments. Even if the early church established a weekly worship on the first, that says nothing about whether they ceased work on Saturday or Sunday. I see nothing wrong with assembling for worship on the Lord’s Day. The fourth commandment says nothing about assembly for worship. It’s a command to cease work for a day. We can routinely worship in assembly any day of the week.
There is no verse of Scripture that specifically changes the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday. If Jesus had wanted to change the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, surely he would have told us to do so.
The fourth commandment says nothing about assembling for worship on the Sabbath. In Old Testament times, Leviticus 23:3 made assembly required on the Sabbath. However, this verse is right in the middle of talk about appointed feasts, which we know were nailed to the cross.
There are Old Testament verses that show us that during the millennium, there is worship on the Sabbath (Isaiah 66:23, Ezekiel 46:1,4,12). For those who believe in a millennium, these verses should show that the Sabbath has not been abolished. However, they are not conclusive as to the purpose or the nature of the Sabbath in this present age.
Basically, there is nothing in Scripture that requires us to have church on the Sabbath. It’s simply a matter of custom. Customs during the millennium may be different than the customs of this present age. We should feel free, therefore, to have church on any day of the week.
The day we attend church should not confuse the issue. Instead, we should focus on the question of whether or not we should cease work on Saturday. Just as Jesus said that anger is murder, and lust is adultery, we should focus on finding the deeper meaning of the Sabbath.
Many commentaries take the position that the Sabbath has been abolished. Three little verses in Hebrews 4:9-11 would seem to argue against this point. Some of these commentaries gloss over these three verses by saying that these verses are only speaking about God’s rest, which is the rest that we can enter. These commentaries seem to pretend that the phrase “rests from his own work” is simply not in the verse.
Hebrews 4:9-11 NIV There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; (10) for anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. (11) Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.
Hebrews was written to Christian Jews who had grown up religiously practicing the command to rest on the seventh day. In the Jewish culture of that time, the phrase “rest from his own work” would not have been words you just jump over and equate with “God’s rest.” Combine this with the fact that the writer had just a few verses prior mentioned the six days of the Creation, and God’s rest on the seventh. The clear meaning of the verse is that those who are able to enter God’s rest also rests from their own works by keeping the Sabbath.
These three verses should also present a problem for those who believe the Sabbath was changed from Saturday to Sunday. The weekly Sabbath in verse 10 is being compared with God’s rest on the seventh day in verse 4. The Sunday Sabbath, on the other hand, puts emphasis on the worship service, and on the Resurrection, while taking away emphasis on the Creation. It would have taken quite a bit of Scriptural explaining to convince Christian Jews of that time that the Sabbath had changed from the seventh day to the first. It’s unlikely that these Christian Jews were considering the first day to be the Sabbath. And it would be even more difficult to argue, using Scripture, that the Sabbath was changed for some Christians but not for others.
Some commentaries have said that we rest from good works, which are really bad works, because they were not given to us by God to do. But such a concept does not flow from the context. And it says we rest from these works “just as God did from his.” What would be the bad works from which God rested?
Let’s take a closer look at the context of these three verses. Hebrews 3 and 4 teach us about God’s rest. Verses 3:16-19 teaches us that those who are obedient to God will enter God’s rest. Verses 4:1-2 teaches that this message must be combined with faith, or it’s of no value. Verses 3b-5 show a relationship between God’s rest and the rest God took on the seventh day of Creation. Verses 6-8 (and prior verses) teach us that Israel wandered in the wilderness forty years and did not enter God’s rest. However, God said there would be another day when his people would enter His rest. These verses are talking about resting in victory after the struggle of overcoming sin. And verse 10 gives a requirement for entering God’s rest. That is, “anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his.”
Verse 11 shows us that breaking the Sabbath is simply an example of disobedience. In other words, those who enter God’s rest are obedient to all of God’s moral commands, including all the Ten Commandments. The overall context of the passage is God’s rest that we enter into with victory when we overcome sin. But that doesn’t take away the fact that the writer is using rest on the Sabbath as an example of obedience. Since the context is God’s rest, it seems only fitting that the author would pick the fourth commandment as his example.
Jesus summarized the Ten Commandments as the two greatest commandments: The first is to love the Lord. The second is to love our neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40). The first four commandments are all about loving God. The last five are about loving our neighbor (Romans 13:9-10). The fifth commandment relates to both and is the bridge between the two sets.
The first commandment is simple, and can have no deeper meaning. We must not love any other God. There can be only one God.
On the surface, the second command is very similar. We are not to make idols. Considering this command more thoroughly, we need to understand that God is the Creator. We can create things, but our love of those things cannot become more important to us than our love for our Creator. We make money with our work. Nevertheless, the love of money is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10, Matthew 6:24). Money is the idol of the world today.
The third command is also about the love of God. If we love God, we would never use his name in any way that could be disrespectful. If we truly love God, we would never use “Jesus”, “Christ”, or “God” in any way that is not expressing our love for Him. Looking at it another way, we don’t exclude “Jesus,” “Christ,” or “God” from our conversations. We always seek opportunities to unashamedly speak the name of our Lord.
The first three commandments are about loving God. The fourth commandment, to keep the Sabbath holy, is no exception. We spend time with those we love. The Sabbath is not some ritual whereby we stop working just in order to obey what God commands. The commandment is to "Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy" (Exodus 20:8). Then, the text of the commandments proceeds into all the issues of not working. The purpose of the Sabbath is not about work. The purpose is stated in the first sentence of the command. The purpose of the Sabbath is all about holiness.
The purpose of the Sabbath is to spend a quiet day with our Lord. It’s a day for prayer and meditation. It’s a day to reflect on our obedience at the end of the week and ask God to help us in the coming week. It’s a time to humble ourselves before the Lord, and to ask for holiness. This is also a time of joy and worship, to spend with our Father.
We remember the Sabbath by keeping it holy. We stop working in order to avoid the distractions of our work and the world. We have six days to work for our needs. The seventh is spent with God, and without the distractions of the six.
Some will say that they have a quiet time with the Lord first thing in the morning. Or perhaps it’s the last thing in the evening before bed. However, the things of the world seem to press in on these quiet times. I believe that it’s better to follow God’s design and spend a whole day with God. The pressures of the week tend to crowd in on a daily quiet time. I find that a whole day, spent with the Lord, is easier to manage.
It’s nice to spend the end of the week with God, and then start out the new week on Sunday by going to church. At church we praise God, and we spend time with other Christians. We hear sermons and teachings from other Christians. The Sabbath, however, should be just for God alone.
Many people have to work on Saturday. Our culture does not allow for everyone to spend time with God on the same day. Compromises must be made. If, however, we just understand the purpose of the Sabbath, then we can do our best to find the right day to spend with God. The Sabbath was made for us. We were not made for the Sabbath. So for right now, we do the best we can to find God’s holiness. When Christ’s kingdom fully comes, Old Testament Scripture indicates the Sabbath will be fully integrated into the worldwide culture.
So is breaking the Sabbath a sin? No, I believe we have a freedom under the New Covenant that was not present with the Old Covenant of law. Paul says:
1 Corinthians 6:12 "All things are lawful for me," but not all things are expedient. "All things are lawful for me," but I will not be brought under the power of anything.
Romans 14:4-6 Who are you who judge another's servant? To his own lord he stands or falls. Yes, he will be made to stand, for God has power to make him stand. (5) One man esteems one day as more important. Another esteems every day alike. Let each man be fully assured in his own mind. (6) He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks. He who doesn't eat, to the Lord he doesn't eat, and gives God thanks.
The Old Covenant was for a theocracy. In other words, it was part of the law of the land. To break the Sabbath when it's the law of the land would be a sin. And that law of the land will return in the age to come, during Christ's millennial reign (Isaiah 66:23, Ezekiel 46: 1,4,12). In the present age, strictly speaking, working on Saturday is not a sin. But we must remember the Sabbath was given to us for the purpose of overcoming sin. If we simply neglect this gift then we are not doing everything that God has for us to overcome sin. And that in itself could be a sin.
The New Covenant includes the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In this present age, the filling of the Holy Spirit is God's primary way for us to overcome sin. Paul had to face cultural differences. And when the Sabbath is not the law of the land there must be more flexibility. With the filling of the Holy Spirit we have this flexibility. But at the same time, we must understand the purpose of the Sabbath as being a tool that God has given us to overcome sin. We must work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). To this end, we should be using everything God has given us in order to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect at the coming of the Lord.
For example, if you have an exciting consuming-fire ministry that does not earn money, it's sometimes more important than keeping the Sabbath. Working in a consuming-fire ministry is not the same as working for money. The purpose of both is to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to overcome sin. But if at all possible, avoid doing work that earns money or a living on the Sabbath. Jesus healed on the Sabbath. That was part of his ministry.
So, it’s between you and the Father. The Sabbath was made for man. And each of us needs to overcome sin by whatever means the Father has provided.
The Sabbath was not abolished. The Sabbath was not changed to Sunday. And breaking the Sabbath is no longer a sin. But it would be a sin to neglect spending a day each week with the Lord if that’s His way of helping you completely overcome all sinful habits. We need to use all that the Lord has given us in order to finish the race and reach the goal of Christian perfection.
As we do God’s work, we get closer to God. Imitating God makes us more like God. It makes us more holy. We overcome sin much more easily as we do the Father’s work. As we do God’s work six days, we personally become more like God. As we build the kingdom of heaven, God builds us up. As we do God’s work, God also works in us. We must “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in [us] to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12b-13). God does the greater work as we do God’s work.
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