Maverick Victor Witlouw
The church has historically held that Sunday, the Lord’s Day is the Christian day of worship (Rev 1:10). It is the challenge of dispensational and New Calvinism’s “New Covenant Theology” that makes this affirmation difficult. Various New and Progressive Covenanters, if they could even be called “covenantal” propose that the Sabbath has been “abolished in Christ.” Why do those of us in the Reformed confessional streams of theology deny this claim?
An Arbitrary Hermeneutic
“New Covenant” theologians lament that somehow only the reinstated commandments found in the New Covenant are those we should keep. They continue that only 9 commandments, rather than all 10 are mentioned. What can we say about this?
Firstly, this hermeneutic is absurd flat on its face. It is based solely on an assumption that cannot be proven. The Old Testament was legitimately seen as canonical and relevant to the New Covenant church (2 Timothy 3:16 cf. Rom 13:10; Galatians 5:14; 1 Cor 14:21; Eph 6:1-3; 1Tim 1:8-10). Even at the Acts 15 Council, the Law was seen as useful, “For Moses from generations of old has in every city those who preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” (Acts 15:21) Waldron rightly points out, “the Christian is under the Law as a rule of life. He is obligated to obey its instruction in righteousness.” (2017:18) The Old Testament was seen as inspired, and a rule of faith, the apostolic/prophetic revelation and tradition, namely the New Testament should be seen as an authentic and inspired commentary of the Old Testament not as a replacement.
Second, Christ’s own admission refutes any claim that Sabbath would be abolished: “”Don’t think that I came to destroy the law or the prophets. I didn’t come to destroy, but to fulfill. 18. For most certainly, I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not even one smallest letter or one tiny pen stroke shall in any way pass away from the law, until all things are accomplished. 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. 20. For I tell you that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, there is no way you will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matt 5:17-20) The only laws that the Scriptures present as being “not for today,” are those positive laws (ceremonial and civil laws), “For the priesthood being changed, there is of necessity a change made also in the law.” (Heb. 7:12 cf. Ephesians 2:15) It is important to note here that the Reformed distinction between moral, ceremonial and civil laws are not arbitrary; but rather they present a dichotomy between essential/moral laws which are transcovenantal, and positive laws which are time-bound expressions of the one covenant of grace. The New Covenant presents a positive institution of the Lord’s Supper and baptism (Matthew 28:19; 1 Corinthians 11:25), which replaces the positive institutions of the ceremonial law of the Old Covenant (Heb 8:6; 12:24).
Third, Christ himself points to the natural or moral aspect of the Sabbath law. He states, “He said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Matt 2:27) Christ furthermore identifies himself as the Lord of the Sabbath, indicative of the fact that the Sabbath was a divine institution rather than a time-bound Old Covenant practice (Matt 2:28). Considering this alongside the Sabbath’s consecration at creation, it is hard to simply dismiss the on-going validity of the Sabbath law (Genesis 2:2-3).
A proper Christological hermeneutic does not assert something arbitrary. NC Theologians need to indicate to us why the Sabbath has been abolished when the emphatic teaching of the New Testament implies something else (Matt 5:17-20). The Decalogue by necessity stands, as Christ demonstrated. The conclusion of NCT theologians is one that therefore leads to a precarious and dubious premise, the premise of Genesis proclaims a Sabbath rest before the Mosaic covenant, and Christ does not seem to water this down in his own declaration,
Sunday or Saturday?
I do not intend to go into lengthy discussions and proposals as to why the Reformed church has historically held to a first-day observance/administration of the Sabbath. But I will point a few things out:
Firstly, the Sabbath is a creation ordinance (Genesis 2:2-3). The consecration of the Sabbath at the creation did not have specific stipulations. The Mosaic stipulations came after the giving of the Law, before that the rationale or stipulations for the Sabbath were not positive spelled out as is here found (Exodus 20:8-10; 35:2). These Mosaic stipulations are bound to the Mosaic covenant, therefore the New Covenant administration of the Sabbath need not be seen as the necessity of the seventh day (Waldron 2017:22-25). At the same time, I concede Waldron’s other point, “It is possible to argue for a Christian Sabbath without necessarily presupposing the creation ordinance. One need only see that as the Sabbath memorialized the redemption of Israel from Egypt to rest in Canaan, so the Lord’s Day memorializes the redemption of the Church in Christ to the resurrection-rest of the Eternal Sabbath.” (2017:60) No matter how someone is able to spin it, the Sabbath stands on both the fact that it was consecrated at creation, and at the same time the covenantal unity between Old and New covenants. The NCT hermeneutic unnecessarily over spiritualizes the clear practice of Sabbath-keeping, something which is not warranted by the text. A proposition that supposes that the Sabbath has been abolished in Christ is as valid as saying that we no longer keep the rest of the commandments, simply because they have been fulfilled. It is altogether dubious.
Secondly, the Sabbath is natural as marriage. Marriage just like the Sabbath, was instituted at creation, yet in the same sense and the same (or similar) way, marriage did not have specific stipulations, expect the essential stipulations given at Genesis (Genesis 2:24). Christ when correcting a faulty understanding of marriage did not point to the Mosaic administration, he rather alluded to natural/moral law, as it was in the beginning (Mark 10:6). When NCT and dispensationalist theologians propose their understanding of the Sabbath, we have only to point to the way it has always been – that from beginning, there has always been one day in seven that had to be kept as holy.
Third, the church gathered on the first day of the week rather than the seventh (Rev. 1:10; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2). At least, this is what we know historically and it is found upon the premise that Christ was risen on the first not the seventh day (Matt 28:1; Mark 16:2-9; Luke 24:1; John 20:1-19). The apostolic/ecclesiastical pattern shows that the first day, was the day of corporate worship and rest for the church. Historically also, the term “Lord’s Day,” “κυριακη ημερα” (Rev 1:10) coincides with the “the Lord’s Supper,” “κυριακον δειπνον” (1 Cor 11:20) in the original Greek. Here then we view the Lord’s Supper as a Sunday institution of the church. It needs to be rightly pointed out that the term “Lord” in both are adjectives not nouns. It is the “Lord’s-day” and the “Lord’s-Supper,” not merely the day and supper of the Lord. Herein, there is a separation between the eschatological day of the Lord and the Lord’s Day (2 Peter 3:10). Remember the Lord’s Supper; namely “the breaking of bread” was the practice for the first day of the week (Acts 20:7) “They are marked by the only two occurrences of the strong possessive form of “Lord” in the New Testament, κυριακος. In 1 Corinthians 11:20, we read of the Lord’s Supper, and in Revelation 1:10 of the Lord’s Day—both memorialize the redeeming work of Christ. Just as the Passover memorialized the sacrifice that secured the redemption, so also the Lord’s Supper recalls the great sacrifice that finished redemption. As the Sabbath memorializes the blessing purchased in the Exodus, so also the Lord’s Day reminds us of Christ’s resurrection as the first fruits of redemption.” (Waldron 2017:58) In the mind of the Jew, what Christians were doing, was in fact, functionally, a Christian Sabbath, “and make my Sabbaths holy; and they shall be a sign between me and you, that you may know that I am Yahweh your God.” (Ezekiel 20:20)
Important also is Waldron’s other comment, “Jews, like the disciples of Christ, were prepared to see the significance of Christ’s resurrection on the first day of the week by the peculiar significance of first and eighth days in the Old Testament economy. These days were not necessarily, of course, the first (or eighth) day of the week—but that is not the point. Despite this, the fact remains that, in a pervasive way, the Old Testament economy was fitted to give the impression of a special religious significance associated with first and eighth days in succession. It is this general impression that prepared the Jewish disciples of Christ to give more than passing interest to the fact of Christ’s first-day resurrection. With reference to the first day, a number of considerations are significant. The first day of Passover was a holy assembly (Exo 12:15-16; Lev 23:7; Num 28:18). The first day of the Feast of Booths was a holy assembly (Lev 23:35, 39).” (2017:72)
Explicit Sabbatarian Expectations in the New Testament
Finally, there are positive commands in the New Testament which indicate that principle of Sabbath-keeping stands for Christians.
Hebrews 4:9, “There remains therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God.”
Hebrews 10:25, “not forsaking our own assembling together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as you see the Day approaching.”
The explicit teaching here is that there remains a “Sabbath-keeping” for the people of God (the new covenant church – 4:9), paralleled by “not forsaking our own assembling together.” (10:25) Waldron remarks, “In fact, precisely because it is fulfilled in Christ, it is continued in the Lord’s Day. We have to do here with the peculiar effect that the overlapping of the ages (the old and new creations) have upon the typical institutions of the Old Covenant. Notice how the following diagram of the relations of Sabbath and Lord’s Day parallels that of Passover and Lord’s Supper.” (2017:59) Hebrews 4 notes that the people of God (in the Old Testament) needed faith to enter into the rest, this is comparable to us who need to enter into the rest as well. Hebrew’s point is that there remains a Sabbath-keeping for the people of God, as we wait for the Day (the eschatological Sabbath coming in the future) – Hebrews 10:25. The term for “sabbath-keeping” (4:9) is “sabbatismos,” Richard Barcellos, graciously making a snippet of his book available on the Confession Baptist site remarks,
“That which “remains” is “a Sabbath rest.” The noun “a Sabbath rest” (σαββατισμὸς [sabbatismos]) is used only here in the Bible. Various cognate forms of it are used in the Septuagint (LXX) in at least four places (Exod. 16:30; Lev. 23:32; 26:34; 2 Chron. 36:21). Each use in the LXX, when referring to men, refers to Sabbath-keeping in terms of an activity in the (then) here and now… Something interesting occurs in the LXX version of Leviticus 23:32a. The LXX text reads as follows: σάββατα σαββάτων ἔσται ὑμῖν (sabbata sabbatōn estai hymin). The NASB translates this verse: “It is to be a sabbath of complete rest to you.” The word σάββατα in the LXX compliments the verb “to be” (ἔσται). The word σαββάτων (“of complete rest”) modifies σάββατα. Both nouns clearly refer to an activity, a Sabbath-keeping to be rendered by those addressed in the passage. In Leviticus 23:32b of the LXX a verb is followed by its direct object as follows: σαββατιεῖτε τὰ σάββατα ὑμῶν (sabbatieite ta sabbata hymōn [“you shall keep your sabbath”]). Here a Sabbath for the people of God to keep is pressed upon them, explicitly by verbs and implicitly by nouns. Also, in each case the word “Sabbath” is the same used by Moses in Genesis 2:2, “and He rested on the seventh day” (emphasis added). Pertinent to our discussion as well is the fact that God’s creational rest in the LXX of Exodus 20:11 is referred to with the verb κατέπαυσεν (katepausen), the same word translated “rest” in Hebrews 3 and 4. In the LXX, what for the Creator is “rest” implies a Sabbath day to be kept for creatures. Hebrews 3 and 4 seem to follow this septuagintal pattern” (Barcellos 2016:n.p.).
Just as the Sabbath of the old covenant looks back to the Sabbath at the old creation, the New Covenant’s Lord’s day looks forward to the eschatological Sabbath in eternity.
Furthermore, my final consideration is based on the Decalogue itself. On what premise do we base that the law of the Decalogue has been superseded by a new law? The transcovenantal nature of the Decalogue is clearly seen in the Messiah’s own point, which namely the Law will always stand (Matthew: 17-20). It is interesting that Christ never once really attacks the Mosaic Law; he rather puts the erring application of the Law in his time on trial. He has an issue with “what is said,” (Matthew 5:38; 42) but not what “what is written”. These Matthew 5 points which Christ speaks about is emphatically not Christ criticizing the Law as I have heard, but rather the erring application of the Law, probably the currently Rabbinic interpretations or some erringly Jewish understandings. Christ hereby interprets what the Law is really about, and interprets it giving it a better understanding. I propose that this is what is meant by “the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). The Law of Christ is not some kind of ethereal kind of commandment floating in the air applied by some kind of subjective feeling of love, nor is it utterly distinct from the Decalogue (2 Cor 3:3).
It is hard to fight a theological position which is propagated ad nauseam in Christian book stores. Dispensationalism and her daughter NCT continue to influence theological academia. As for those of us in the Reformed tradition, we propose a strong antidote to a theological position which hinges upon a faulty assumption. The Sabbath, the Lord’s Day stands. The Decalogue has not been abolished, and I find no basis to conclude that NCT can legitimately present itself without some drastic error. I would rather do what God commands, than build a theology of the Sabbath on silence.
Soli Deo Gloria!
Waldron S 2017. The Lord’s Day: Its Presuppositions, Proofs, Precedents, and Practice. Chapel Library. Pensacola, Florida
Barcellos R 2016. Getting the Garden Wrong: A Critique of New Covenant Theology on the Covenant of Works and the Sabbath. Founders Press, from a forthcoming book. (http://confessingbaptist.com/upcoming-book-snippet-on-the-remaining-sabbatismos-for-the-people-of-god-heb-49-richard-barcellos/)