In my recent posts on the physical center of the Christian worship, a few commentators challenged the idea that the Christian church should assemble on Sundays. I promised them that I’d explain why, so here it is:
- The Sabbath is as physical and natural as night and day. The origins of the Sabbath come from the seven-day cycle God established in the first week of creation, not from the Ten Commandments. God worked for six days and rested for one. Work six, rest one is built into the essence of creation, just as the cycles of night and day and winter and summer are. Although we should worship with our whole lives and pray without ceasing, there is a special day in seven created for us to focus on worship. In other words, we can’t just celebrate the Sabbath whenever we feel like it, just as we can’t turn night into day just because we want to get more work done.
- The Sabbath provides us rest and worship. The creation account and Commandments tell us that the purpose of the Sabbath is to rest (for ourselves and our servants) and to worship. Neither purpose is made obsolete by the New Testament.
- The Sabbath is a gift, not a law. A few earlier commentators have asked me to show where the New Testament “requires” observance of the Sabbath. Why are we looking for a law? The Sabbath can’t be understood without understanding grace; it is God’s special gift to us. If I tell my son that he has to be back from playing with his friends in time for dinner, I don’t expect him to ask me where in the family rule book it insists that we eat dinner. Because he’s a member of my family, I am delighted to offer him dinner, but he needs to be at home when we eat so we can enjoy it as a family. Similarly, God gives believers the Sabbath as our spiritual sustenance. To ask for specific rules dictate why and when we should benefit from it misses the whole point.
- Jesus didn’t abolish the Sabbath, he embodies it. Some argue that because Jesus fulfills the Sabbath, it’s no longer on the books. Jesus describes himself as the Lord of the Sabbath, which is a designation he would be unlikely to use for something that had passed away. Exodus 31:16 tells us that God gave the Sabbath to his people for generations to come. The analogy is imperfect, but when we refer to the President of the United States, we don’t assume that the president has replaced the country. Instead, we see the president as a personal representative of the country. Jesus not only embodies the Sabbath, he is an essential part of it. The two central elements of the day can only be found through him. He is the source of our rest and the only reason we can worship. Rather than abolishing the Sabbath, Jesus was necessary to preserve the Sabbath.
- The Sabbath publicly celebrates Jesus. Paul instructs the church or assemble an an orderly fashion. Although churches were sometimes assembled in believers’ homes, church worship was not a willy-nilly whenever and wherever proposition. The question, then, is when did the early church leaders decide was the best time to exploit the Sabbath and worship God. The early church re-calibrated the six-plus-one sequence from Genesis 1 and moved the day of rest and worship to the first day of the week, which became known as the Lord’s Day. In 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 Paul assumed that the most convenient time for the church to collect money was on the first day of the week, presumably because everyone had gathered then. John received his revelation on the Lord’s Day (Revelation 1:10), and the term’s usage assumes that his readers would know what day that was. When we enjoy God’s Sabbath on Sunday, we proclaim Christ’s resurrection just as surely as we do on Easter. The great thing is that we only have to wait seven days to do it again, not a whole year.
I’m sure there’ll be objections and other observations in the comments, but let me try to replicate a quick Q&A here.
- Are you saying that we must observe the Sabbath? No, because Paul tells us in Colosians 2:16 that we are not to observe the Sabbath simply because it is the Sabbath. Our salvation is not found in works of observing Sabbaths and holy days. I’m saying that the Sabbath is a part of God’s grace to everyone. As an element of common grace, he gives all men rest, which is a point I made in the cultural argument for a Sunday Sabbath. It’s also part of God’s special grace to believers that we are privileged and able to worship him on a special day that he reserved for us. The Sabbath is best understood as a gift, not a law.
- Can we celebrate the Sabbath on Wednesday like Rick Warren does? I don’t think so. The reason is that the Sabbath offers two privileges: rest and worship. Although Warren’s Wednesday services are opportunities to worship, it’s unlikely that it really functions as a day of rest for most of the congregation because our culture treats Wednesday as a work day, even in Southern California. Worship becomes something that is tacked on to the end of the day, rather than being the main point of the day, as Sunday worship is, or should be. It’s interesting that although Warren says his Wednesday services are his church’s real Sabbath, they don’t get the attention that a rest/worship day would enable. To quote an observation from my test-marketing post,
In his long-term goals, [Warren] dreams of having 15,000 members, though only 5,000 attending midweek (p. 363). This isn’t reality; it’s his dream. The Christian service is really just an optional extra.
- Can we celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday like Piper does? This is an improvement over Warren’s plan because Saturday worshippers are more likely to be able to combine rest with their worship. The weakness is that it misses the resurrection proclamation and celebration of Lord’s Day (Sunday) worship.
- Aren’t you relying on church tradition rather than the Bible? A little, but no more than anyone who uses a Greek lexicon to study the New Testament. Although the New Testament does not specifically say the church worshipped on Sunday, we can look at how the term Lord’s Day was interpreted by contemporaries of Paul and John. We see that they understood it to be Sunday. I don’t think that looking at how contemporaries understood a term is much different than consulting the works of Greek scholars to see how various NT words were understood in their time (something I did, for example, in the scatology post).