Questions as to the meaning of the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day for believers in God’s New Covenant administration are preeminently issues in biblical-theological hermeneutics. There is no overt discourse in the NT concerning what relation obtains between the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day or specifying what ethical obligations are associated with observance of the Lord’s Day. Therefore, these respective Old and New Covenant ordinances must be compared in light of the biblical hermeneutical principles we are given to guide our evaluation of cross-covenantal development and application of biblical ordinances in general, so that thoroughly biblical inferences might be drawn. Exegesis of the texts explicitly outlining these hermeneutical principles, and inductive study of Christ’s and His apostles’ working hermeneutic are thus also relevant in the synthesis of texts dealing with the Sabbath and Lord’s Day which seeks to appropriate Scripture’s full counsel on these practical matters.
Thesis: The weekly Sabbath, as a ritual type, is fulfilled in the reality of Christ’s inauguration of eschatological Sabbath rest, and no longer requires prefigurement in the prescribed rites of the original ordinance; yet the Lord’s Day, as a celebration of Christ’s inauguration of eschatological Sabbath rest, entails specific obligations of worship for God’s New Covenant people.
In order to explain and defend this thesis I will first present the biblical hermeneutical principles by which we must proceed in interpreting and applying the Mosaic Law in the New Covenant era. Second, I will examine some of the most important biblical texts dealing with the theology of the Sabbath and the Sabbath commandment and show the manner in which the Sabbath receives eschatological fulfillment in Christ in terms of its theological significance and ethical obligation. Finally, I will briefly indicate the key New Testament material outlining the significance of the Lord’s Day and the obligations the Lord’s Day entails for New Covenant believers.
1) The fulfillment of the Mosaic Law in Christ and correspondent hermeneutical principles.
Craig Blomberg is right in identifying the fulfillment motif as paradigmatic in Christ’s and His apostles’ self-conscious understanding of the relation of the New Covenant which they heralded to God’s Old Covenant administration. Jesus’ own words in Matthew 5:17 in His Sermon on the Mount are properly taken to articulate the quintessential principle operative in the NT appropriation of the full-orbed OT revelation. Here our Lord denies that His aim in coming is “to tear down” (καταλῦσαι) the Law and the Prophets and asserts that it is contrarily “to fulfill” (πληρῶσαι) them. The phrase, “the Law and the Prophets” may be understood to compass the whole of the Hebrew Bible in terms of the Mosaic Law and the subsequent prophetic witness which enabled the Law to be correctly apprehended. The Greek verb πληρόω, that Jesus selects to describe the activity toward which His incarnation and ministry are directed with regard to the Hebrew Bible, is best translated “to give the true meaning to,” (L&N) or “to show (something) forth in its true meaning” (BDAG) in this context. Jesus carries out just this activity in His Sermon in the capacity of a teacher, giving a heightened sense to some of the centrally important moral commandments of the Mosaic Law, and enjoining moral obedience in respect to other Mosaic stipulations transcending that which the original laws could have required. Furthermore, through certain elements in the Sermon such as the repeated “ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν…” formula conveying self-referential authority (Matt. 5:22,28,32, etc.), and the promise of blessing for endurance in persecution on account of allegiance to Himself (Matt. 5:12), Jesus unmistakably indicates that it is not merely His teachings but His very person which gives the true meaning to the Law and the Prophets. Thus, while insisting that the Law maintains abiding significance and binding obligation (Matt. 5:18), Jesus shows Himself to be the One in whom this abiding significance receives its full expression and the One to whom this binding obligation is ultimately due.
The rest of the NT bears out the manifold notion of Christ as the fulfillment of the Hebrew Bible and specifically the obligations of the Mosaic Law, primarily in setting Him forth as the culmination of the Law’s salvific function (Rom. 10:4). Yet although believers in Christ as adopted sons and daughters of God are absolutely free of the tutelage of the Mosaic Law as it sets forth the means of meriting eternal life and the measure of judgment and curse for disobedience, the whole of the Law as fulfilled in Christ remains eminently relevant to New Covenant life (Rom. 3:31). Inductive study of Jesus’ and His apostles’ expository on the Law reveals that different aspects of the Mosaic Law receiving different manners of fulfillment in Christ have different New Covenant applications. Moral obligations of the Law are seen as fulfilled in Christ in terms of their heightening and intensification in His life and teaching. These fulfilled moral norms are repeatedly enjoined upon New Covenant believers and comprehended under the “law of love” for God and neighbor set forth as a perpetual rule and guide for the sanctification and ethical life of God’s people (Matt. 22:37-40, Rom. 13:10, Gal. 5:14, Jas. 2:8). Ceremonial and other typological obligations of the Law are viewed as fulfilled in Christ in terms of the reification in His person, word, and work of those things which their observance had foreshadowed. While the history of the Old Covenant typological rites remains illustrative as to the nature of the Spiritual realities these rites prefigured, New Covenant believers are loosed from continued observance of the rites that they might through faith participate in the realities of eternal salvation in Christ (cf. Acts 10-11:18, Eph. 2:11-22, Heb. 10:1-14).
Thus, before moving on to consideration of Sabbath and Lord’s Day ordinances, we may formulate two biblical hermeneutical principles key to correct interpretation of cross-covenantal development and application of Mosaic Law ordinances in general. 1) Every element of the Mosaic Law, whether or not explicitly mentioned in the New Testament, must be understood and applied in the New Covenant in light of its particular fulfillment in Christ (no portion may be discounted as irrelevant since Jesus Himself has assured us of the whole Law’s abiding significance and permanently binding obligation). 2) Different aspects of the Law receiving different manners of fulfillment in Christ have different New Covenant applications, and so careful attention must be paid to the particular manner of each element’s fulfillment in Christ’s person, word, and work in order that we may make correct life application.
2) Sabbath fulfilled in Christ
Resuming admonishment of the saints at Colossae against the liability of being “taken captive” by proponents of philosophico-religious alternatives to Christian faith, the apostle Paul exhorts, “[L]et no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ (Col 2:16-17 ESV).” As this text has prima facie potential to offer pivotal NT comment on both the theological significance of, and the New Covenant obligation associated with the Sabbath, it is no surprise that the meaning of the term σάββατον as here employed is a topic of controversy. The controversy is not insoluble, however, and the exegesis of Col. 2:16-17 thus proves rewarding and auspicious as a starting point for this study.
Blomberg cites this text as a plain reference to the weekly OT Sabbath celebration and accuses those who would take measures to impute a different meaning to σάββατον in this context of exegetical sleight of hand. Since the three terms “festival” (ἑορτῆς), “new moon” (νεομηνίας), and “Sabbath” (σαββάτων) are listed together in a number of OT texts clearly referencing celebratory ordinances of the Jewish calendar, it is clear that Paul’s use of this triad has such mandated Jewish holy days in view (Cf. Ezek. 45:17, Hos. 2:11, 1 Chron. 23:31; 2 Chron. 2:4; 31:3, Neh. 10:33, Isa. 1:13–14). Blomberg suggests that it is natural to read Paul as making exhaustive reference to holy days prescribed in the Jewish Law by enumerating in succession those which occur yearly (festivals), monthly (new moons), and weekly (Sabbath observance). Given that the OT loci which Paul’s locution most closely resembles appear to have precisely this same referential effect, Blomberg’s suggestion seems highly plausible.
Seventh-Day Adventist and Sabbatarian exegesis of Col. 2:16-17 often attempts to show that Paul uses σάββατον in v.16 to indicate special Sabbath celebrations associated with the Mosaic system of appointed feasts and not weekly Sabbath observance. Ronald du Preez advances the hypothesis that the immediate lexical context of σάββατον (or שַׁבָּת) in the OT and NT consistently indicates whether the weekly Sabbath ordinance or festal observance is to be understood. According to du Preez’s study, one or more members of a certain set of Hebrew and Greek lexemes (including those translated to English as “keep,” “the Sabbath,” “day,” “holy,” and “my”) consistently occur in the syntactic context of σάββατον (שַׁבָּת) when the weekly Sabbath is manifestly intended, while one or more members of a disjoint set of lexemes (including those translated as “your” or “her”) consistently occur with σάββατον (שַׁבָּת) when the festal Sabbaths are contemplated. Since none of the usual lexical signals of the weekly Sabbath are present in Col. 2:16, and since one of the specified lexical signals of the special festal Sabbaths is present in Hosea 2:11, the LXX text with which Paul’s triad in Col. 2:16 evidences the strongest structural affinity, du Preez concludes that Paul must have meant to exhort and instruct the Colossians in matters of festal, and not weekly, Sabbath observance.
Blomberg handily shows this conclusion to be wanting for corroboration by pointing out that, even granting the validity of du Preez’s hypothesis concerning contextual lexical indicators of the meaning of σάββατον, du Preez’s exegesis of Col. 2:16 does not follow since none of the lexemes signaling either meaning of σάββατον are present in Col. 2:16. Furthermore, the hypothesis itself comes to appear dubious upon close evaluation of the OT texts. In Hosea 2 the prophet likens idolatrous Israel to an adulterous wife and pronounces imminent judgment against her which will entail the termination of a variety of the people’s holy day celebrations as enunciated in verse 11. The immediately apparent reason for the third feminine singular suffix appended to שַׁבָּת in verse 11 is the sustained metaphorical portraiture of Israel as an unfaithful wife rather than the intentional lexical marking of the term for special festal denotation. Since, as Blomberg notes, the judgment foretold in this verse entails the halt of all holy day celebrations (general nouns modified byכֹּל bracket the trio of festival, new moon, and Sabbath) it makes sense that the weekly Sabbath would be mentioned in addition to yearly and monthly celebrations. Ezek. 45:17 is another probable candidate as the background of Col 2:16 which du Preez utilizes in support of both his hypothesis and his exegesis of the Colossians passage. In the proximate context the prophet elaborates upon the different kinds of holy days this verse lists in succession. Ezek. 46:1-3 expounds details concerning the rites to be associated with Sabbath observance in the restored temple and makes clear that the weekly Sabbath is in view (even employing du Preez’s lexical indicators of weekly Sabbath). To suggest an equivocation on שַׁבָּת in this near context requires impressive exegetical sleight of hand indeed. If du Preez’s hypothesis is discounted, these OT texts, along with many of the others which enumerate the triad of festivals, new moons, and Sabbaths, may be seen to support and strengthen the view that Paul’s statement in Col. 216 makes exhaustive reference to holy days prescribed in the Jewish Law.
It seems most reasonable, therefore, to conclude that in Col. 2:16-17 Paul is urging believers not to let themselves be judged in regard to weekly Sabbath keeping since the weekly Sabbath, like the food laws, the new moon and festival days, was a shadow (σκιὰ ) of the coming things (τῶν μελλόντων) , but the reality (σῶμα ) is Christ. In urging them thus, Paul effectively looses the Colossian Christians from continued observance of the rites associated with weekly Sabbath keeping and directs them to Christ that they might through faith participate in the realities these rites had foreshadowed. This evinces a conception of the Mosaic Sabbath as a typological ordinance which is fulfilled in Christ. Paul’s teaching that the weekly Sabbath ordinance is fulfilled in Christ should not surprise anyone. Yet Paul’s teaching concerning the typological manner in which the weekly Sabbath ordinance is fulfilled in Christ seems at odds with the view of the Sabbath as morally binding in its New Covenant obligation.
The view of the Sabbath command as a moral aspect of the Mosaic Law is commonly motivated in large part by the hermeneutical presupposition of the Decalogue’s primary functionality as a legal code propounding the moral core of the Mosaic Law as “timeless expression of God’s moral will.” Appeal is made to the distinguished character of the Decalogue within the rest of the Torah, and to several NT texts forthrightly reaffirming parts of the Decalogue and applying them together as perpetually binding moral imperative in order to ground this presupposition (Matt 5:21-29, Matt. 19:17-19, Rom. 9-10). Yet while the unique nature of the Decalogue and its majestic moral revelation should be appreciated and reverenced, the notion that the purport of the Decalogue is limited to the exposition of legal code delineating the “moral essence” of the Mosaic Law does not stand up to exegetical scrutiny. Meredith Kline laments the fact that a customary tendency to take the “ten words” written by the finger of God on two stone tablets and given to Moses as a legal code has obstructed the apprehension of their true nature as a suzerainty treaty, epitomizing the covenant granted by YHWH to his elect and redeemed servant, Israel. Kline insightfully compares the form of the “ten words” and the manner of their bestowal with parallel ANE treaty form and protocol to demonstrate that the two tablets given to Moses and deposited inside the ark were duplicate copies of content that was intended to represent and bear witness to the whole of the Sinai covenant, not merely two tables of a brief ethical catechism. Viewing the Decalogue as representative of and witness to the whole of the Sinai covenant, we may expect to find typological as well as moral aspects of that covenant summarily comprehended therein. Thus Paul’s conception of the Fourth Commandment as a typological ordinance fulfilled in Christ should not strike us as surprising or disconcerting.
If asserting that an element of the Sinaitic Decalogue is typological in character appears daring, proposing that the creation ordinance that it republishes is so might seem cavalier. Yet the consistent testimony of Scripture confirms rather than cautions us in viewing the creational mandate of the weekly Sabbath as a calling for God’s covenantal image-bearers to imitate His eschatological seventh day rest as a way of typologically prefiguring their future participation in the Lord’s eternal eschatological rest and enthronement. In order to appreciate the Sabbath ordinance in its typological function we must first apprehend its antitype telos and then trace the lines of its tributary flow toward fulfillment in that telos.
The Gen. 1-2 creation account clearly indicates the movement of God’s fiat-creational activity toward consummation in the seventh day. After the account describes God’s work in days one through three of constructing the diverse cosmic realms and in days four through six of constituting beings to “rule” or “have dominion” over the respective realms, it announces the plenary completion of God’s handiwork in Gen. 2:1, and in 2:2 relates that God rested (שׁבת ) from all His work on the seventh day. The pattern of the narrative’s hierarchical ascent from focus on realms to focus on rulers of the respective realms guides us to an understanding of God’s rest upon the finishing of all the heavens and earth and all their hosts as a rest of absolute dominion over all. There is no mention of “morning,” and “evening,” in association with the seventh day (these are the rhythmically reiterated terminal markers of every other day-frame), which meaningful omission reserves for the divine rest of that day an unbounded transcendent duration wherein God’s perpetual Kingship over all things is unshakably established.
Fuller, more direct exposition uniting consummatory and regal aspects of God’s rest in Gen. 2:2 is given in the NT book of Hebrews. In Heb. 3:11 the author, through his quotation of Ps. 95:11, invokes the historical type of the Israelites’ entry into and occupation of the land of Canaan (or their failure of enter and occupy) in the homiletic application of urging believers to persevere that they might enter the eschatological rest which God has set before them. In 4:3-4 the antitypal promised rest (κατάπαυσις) which the unbelieving Israelites failed to enter (3:19), and which even Joshua who led the successful conquest of Canaan could not give (4:8) is associated with God’s rest on the unbounded seventh day of creation. It becomes clear in 4:9-11 that the eschatological Sabbath rest (σαββατισμός) which the author exhorts the believers to strive to enter is a precisely a participation in the same seventh day rest which God has enjoyed from the foundation of the world (cf. especially 4:10).
Genesis 2:3 sets forth the original Sabbath ordinance. This verse records God’s acts of blessing the seventh day and making it holy. As Kline notes, God’s previous acts of blessing in the creation account were aimed specifically at beatifying the creatures’ spheres of existence (Gen. 1:22, 1:28). Throughout the Torah the designation of persons, places, and objects asקֹדֶשׁ marks their commitment to employ in the sacramental typological rites of Old Covenant worship. We may thus recognize in Genesis 2:3 a similar designation of an element of the creaturely realm of existence marking it for commitment to use in typological covenantal worship ritual. The consummative enthronement of YHWH over the heavens and the earth and all their hosts heralded in 2:1-2 immediately issues in a mirroring anticipatory religious mandate for His covenant creaturely vice-regents. In Exod. 20:11 the Fourth Commandment cites Genesis 2:3 as rationale for abiding by its stipulation of a weekly Sabbath noting that because God rested on the seventh day, therefore He blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. Kline plausibly suggests that this variation in terminology bespeaks a conscious distinction and correlation between archetype (God’s transcendent eschatological regal repose) and ectype (God’s consecration of a day of the week for human celebration of the former) consonant with the distinction and correlation evident in Genesis 2:1-3.
Hebrews 4:1-11 thus confirms what we might have inferred about the hope and expectation which would have been the spirit of this ordinance’s observance from the very beginning. Eschatological Sabbath rest (σαββατισμός) – participation in the in the seventh day rest which God has enjoyed from the foundation of the world - is the antitype and telos of weekly Sabbath keeping for man. Thus before the Fall, man would have yearned after this telos, as he was reminded in the pattern of his weeks’ movement toward Sabbath celebration, of the pattern of all things’ movement toward the great seventh day of the Lord’s consummate enthronement which would reward his own obedience with eschatological blessing. Since the Fall, God has graciously opened to sinners the promise of entering His rest, and as the promise has stood open, yet pending, believers have yearned for this telos. At one time they were reminded through weekly Sabbath keeping of the movement of history toward the seventh day of the Lord and the eschatological blessing it would somehow bring for them despite their disobedience. But these were a shadow of the things to come, the reality is Christ’s.
Though our full inheritance of σαββατισμός is still outstanding, Jesus Christ’s is not. Jesus was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Holy Spirit by His resurrection from the dead (Rom 1:4), and by way of this conquest, the Lord of the Sabbath entered into the eschatological rest and enthronement of God’s seventh day. Believers in Christ are given His Holy Spirit (who is also featured in the protology/eschatology of the creation narrative) and so are granted a foretaste and earnest of the participation in God’s consummation rest which Christ now fully enjoys (Rom. 8:23). The eschatological σαββατισμός which Christ has thus inaugurated in His resurrection for all His own is the fulfillment of the ritual type of the weekly Sabbath. This reality may now be tasted and expectantly awaited simply through faith in Christ, and thus faith in Christ and rest in Him are the binding New Covenant obligations associated with the fulfilled Mosaic Sabbath ordinance.
3) The Lord’s Day
All the gospel writers take pains to highlight the fact that Christ’s resurrection conquest occurred on the first day of the week. In Revelation, John purposively notes the date of His visions of the eschatologically enthroned Lamb who rules and conquers on behalf of His saints to have been the Lord’s Day, the day of the Lord’s resurrection, so as to promote the use of the apocalypse in church’s liturgy. Luke evidences intentionality in recording two occasions of the believers’ gathering to celebrate the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week. The consistent and intentional apostolic witness is sufficient evidence to guide our inference that association of the corporate worship which the Lord requires of us with the celebration of Christ’s resurrection on the first day of the week is obligatory. Such specific obligations of worship as the convoked gathering to hear the preached Word, and the celebration of the sacrament are required on the Lord’s Day per the NT. Devotion of the whole of the day to public and private worship of the Lord, Christian fellowship, and acts of mercy are beneficial in lands and societies which allow or promote such activities among Christians on the first day of the week. Yet, general cessation of work on the Lord’s Day is nowhere Scripturally required. Simply in view of the specificity of the Lord’s Day as a particular day out of the seven day week some relation to the fulfilled Sabbath ordinance is naturally suspected. From the synthesis of the biblical notions we will not falter in viewing our Lord’s Day worship as a celebration of Christ’s inauguration of eschatological Sabbath rest and an anticipation of our entry into that rest at His consummatory return.