The Sabbath Not Bound under Christ
By Fred O. Blakely
The persistent espousal by one of our readers of sabbath-day observance as binding upon the church prompts The Banner’s public consideration of his claims in the light of apostolic doctrine. “Your paper gives most of the truth,” this reader, whom we shall not here identify, wrote us in one of several letters. “Without the sabbath, however, no one is really complete yet. The sabbath and the law are all in Jesus Christ. When you or anyone accepts Jesus Christ as his Savior he has to accept the sabbath and the law. The Bible has the proof. Is the Bible true? Then it has the proof of what I state.”
In a later communication, that writer goes further, making keeping of the law (including sabbath observance) a condition of eternal salvation. “All who are not encompassing the law and the sabbath in their ministry are in danger of Rev. 22:18-19 and Matt. 7:21-23,” he wrote. “The churches on the first day of the week, compared to the churches of the sabbath, are like the people on the broad road that leads to destruction. The sabbath church is like those on the narrow road that leads to eternal life (Matt. 7:13-14).”
The Claims of Modern Judaizers. This position, of course, is full-blown Judaism, against which Paul almost constantly strove in the first-century church. It is the attempt to bind the law upon the saints under the new covenant. Except you “keep the law of Moses,” you “cannot be saved,” was the contention (Acts 15:1, 5). The doctrine’s crucial significance now stems from the fact that it is widely contended for today, and by virtue of the very zeal for God with which it is insisted upon, poses a subtile and highly effective threat to “the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free” (Gal. 5:1). The line of these twentieth and twenty-first century Judaizers, like those of apostolic times, is that they wholeheartedly receive Jesus as Lord and Savior, but that, as a believer in Christ, one must also keep the law of Moses. That is precisely what our correspondent said above, and he truly represented the contention of all of his kind.
One of the glaring inconsistencies of those who take this position is that they “desire to be under the law” (Gal. 4:21), but without its penalties, which are inseparable from it. If we are bound by the Mosaic code as such, we are bound by all of it. The penalties which it levied for disobedience, which in many cases—notably that of sabbath breaking—was death (Exo. 31:14-15; Num. 15:32-36), must be imposed. But to this circumstance the contemporary law zealots do not consent. They do not demand that those who do not keep the sabbath be stoned to death, but they persist in demanding that all who believe keep it.
Let us examine the sacred writings under the new covenant to see whether the confident claims of the Judaizers that those in Christ are required to keep the law of Moses be so. Certainly, we know the holy Scriptures to be true—the veritable Word of God. But do they substantiate the declaration of our correspondent in this case? Let us see.
The Law Removed by Christ.“When one accepts Jesus Christ as his Savior he has to accept the sabbath and the law,” declares our critic. That is not what the Apostles taught, and they were guided by the Spirit “into all truth” (Jn. 16:13). In fact, it is diametrically opposed to their doctrine as that doctrine was enunciated by Paul. His categorical assertion is that Christ, in His death, “blotted out” the law, and took “it out of the way, nailing it to His cross” (Col. 2:14). Again, he declares that our Lord took “away the first” [covenant], that He might “establish the second” (Heb. 10:9; cf. ch. 8:13). And again, “If ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law” (Gal. 5:18). “The law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ,” the Apostle says in another place, ‘that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster” (ch. 3:24-25; cf. Rom. 10:4).
The same writer makes a sweeping declaration concerning circumcision, ‘a Mosaic requirement’ which was made representative of the entire legal code. “If ye be circumcised,” he asserts, “Christ shall profit you nothing,” because in that act they would incur the obligation to “do the whole law, which obligation could only result in death, not life (Gal. 5:1-4). Another statement made by our correspondent is specifically contradicted by Paul. “Without the sabbath, however, no one is really complete yet,” it was said. “Ye are complete in Him [Christ],” declares the Apostle, “which is the Head of all principality and power” (Col. 2:10). We are “accepted in the Beloved” by the Father (Eph. 1:6), which Beloved is the Substance, of which “the sabbath days” and other Jewish special days were the shadow (Col. 2:16-17). “In the body of His flesh through death,” our Lord has presented us to God “holy and unblameable and unreproveable,” “without the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:28; Col. 1:20-23). This is the blessed case, saith the Spirit, “If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel”—not, if ye keep the sabbath and the rest of the law of Moses (v. 23). It is by holding “the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end” that we are “made partakers of Christ,” as it is said in another place, not by sabbath-keeping and obedience to the other demands of Moses (Heb. 3:12-14; cf. v. 6).
The Decree of the Jerusalem Council.If it were possible that we should have misunderstood these transparent proclamations of Scripture, certainly the error would have been exposed by the epochal pronouncement of the great Jerusalem council. In this, the only general council of record held by the Apostles, the very point of consideration was the relation of the Mosaic law to Gentile believers. Were they required to keep it? That was the question. The agreement of the Holy Ghost, the Apostles, and the Jerusalem Elders in that conference, after due deliberation, was clearly set forth in a letter to the Gentile churches. “Forasmuch as we have heard that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised and keep the law,” it began, “it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us” to deliver this decree touching the matter. The decree was that no “greater burden than these necessary things” be laid upon the Gentile subjects of the new covenant. These “things” consisted of four of the law’s requirements: “That ye abstain from idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication” (Acts 15:23-29; cf. vv. 19-20).
If sabbath observance were binding under Christ, here certainly was the place to say so. The fact that it was not bound by this council forever precludes the notion that it is bound in heaven (see Matt. 16:19; 18:18). That makes of all who seek to bind it on believers today the same “subverters” of men’s souls as were the Judaizers who went out, without apostolic authority, from the Jerusalem congregation (Acts 15:24).
The Restriction to Jewry.The requirement for sabbath keeping by today’s believers is opposed to the genius of the new order under Christ. The fourth commandment of the Ten—”Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exod. 20:8)—was given to the nation of Israel as it was assembled before Mount Sinai (vv. 8-11). Although there is some indication that the sabbath may have been observed previous to that time, there is no clear-cut evidence of it in Scripture. Undeniably, there is no command of record for such observance. One of the reasons assigned for the imposition on the Jews of sabbath-day observance was to perpetuate the remembrance of their deliverance by God from Egyptian bondage (Deut. 5:12-15). It is specifically declared that it was a sign between God and Israel (Ezek. 20:12, 20). “It is not expressly said that the deliverance [from Egypt took place on the sabbath, but such is Jewish tradition on the subject. The reason assigned in Deut. 5:14-15 must be regarded as the main reason”: “The seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God. . . And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out hence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day.” “Man’s rest thus was purposely assimilated to God’s rest, in order to show the resemblance between man’s nature and God’s (cf. Gen. 1:27).
Since new-covenant saints have not been delivered from literal Egypt, but from the bondage of sin through Christ, it would be illogical to require them to observe the day especially commemorative of the former liberation. As a distinct part of the Mosaic law—of the original Ten commandments—sabbath keeping as a requirement is undeniably done away in Christ, along with the rest of the law as such. It is to be particularly observed that it was never bound upon the church by the Apostles, though all of the other nine demands of the Ten commandments were in some fashion cited by them and required under the new dispensation. This circumstance completely devas-tates the claim that sabbath keeping is necessary this side of the cross. Paul specifically forbids the judging of brethren with respect to its observance, or its requirement of them (Col. 2:16; cf. Gal. 4: 9-10).
The Greater Day of Observance. In their misled zeal for sabbath keeping the Judaizers reject the greater day of divine sanctification. The Lord’s Day, or first day of the week—the day on which the blessed Savior rose from the dead—commemorates by far the most significant event for sinful man ever to transpire, not excluding the creation. The exertion of God’s power in the resurrection of Jesus is cited by Scripture as the preeminent instance of its display (Eph. 1:19-20; cf. Rom. 1:4; 6:4). This was the beginning of the “new creation,” which is to abide eternally, and is vastly transcendent in importance to the completion of the natural creation, which is to be “shaken” and removed (Heb. 12:26-28; cf. Isa. 13:13; Hag. 2:6-7), which natural creation is commemorated by the sabbath.
Thus, the replacement of the sabbath by the Lord’s day under the leadership of the Apostles. See Jn. 20:19, 26; Acts 2:1; 20:7; I Cor. 16:2; Rev. 1:10. It is clear that by “consentient apostolic practice” the transition was made from the sabbath to the first day of the week. “The Apostles appear, both by Scripture and by the records of primitive Christian antiquity, to have practically made the change—i.e., they sanctioned the discontinuance of seventh-day observance and they introduced first-day observance in its stead. They regarded the Jewish sabbath as abrogated with the rest of the ceremonial law; and they established by their own authority, and doubtless by the direction of the Holy Ghost, the keeping of ‘the Lord’s Day by meetings for the Communion, worship, and instruction on that, the first day of the week, instead.”
The Liberty to Keep the Sabbath.All this, however, is not to say that observance of the sabbath on an individual basis is forbidden under Christ. It is quite clear that the Jewish believers continued to circumcise their children and otherwise walk “orderly,” after the Mosaic requirements, following the--Day of Pentecost, which practice no doubt included sabbath keeping (Acts 21:24). It is equally plain that Paul and his companions met with the Jews on the sabbath in order to preach the gospel of Christ to them (Acts 13:14, 42, 44; 16:13; 18:4). As time went on, though, and the new covenant became firmly established, the sabbath day was completely abandoned by the church as the day of assembly. In its place, as we have said, the Lord’s Day, or first day of the week, was kept for that purpose.
The principle laid down by Paul was that no one was to require of new-covenant saints the observance of Jewish holy days, including the sabbath “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days,” he declared. These things, he asserted, are but “a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ” (Col. 2:16-17; cf. Gal. 4:9-10).
Since the Holy Ghost has not bound these typical requirements of the Mosaic law upon believers in Christ (Acts 15:10, 19-20, 28-29), it is unlawful for anyone else to do so. It would seem that, under this rule of the Apostle, anyone is at liberty, as an individual, to keep the sabbath, if he so desires, in recognition of God’s having “rested from all His works” in creation of the natural order (Gen. 2:2-3; Exo. 20:11). Obviously, however, such a one would be expected to faithfully observe the first day of the week in commemoration of Christ’s resurrection, and as an expression of his recognition of the occasion which engendered him as a new and eternal creation (I Pet. 1:3; cf. II Cor. 5:14-17).
The principle enunciated in Rom. 14:4-13 would be applicable in such a case: “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind” (v. 5). There is liberty to regard the day “unto the Lord” (v. 6), but judging the brethren for not doing so—that is, demanding that they, too, observe the sabbath—is prohibited, since it has been made clear that sabbath keeping is not binding under Christ. As saith the Spirit touching such matters, “let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way (Rom 14:13).