Study Committee Report

Article 21 / Sabbath


Introduction

 

The study committee met several times over the course of the last year to address the following Resolution of the 2011 BFC Conference (Yearbook, p46):

 

Whereas, Article 21 (the Lord's Day) appears to promote a Sabbatarian understanding of how believers should observe the Lord's Day, and

Whereas, it appears many members of the Bible Fellowship Church, including pastors and elders, do not hold to a Sabbatarian view of the Lord's Day, and

Whereas, some men desiring to serve with the Bible Fellowship Church are unable to submit conscientiously to Article 21 in its present form, therefore, be it

Resolved, that the One Hundred and Twenty Eighth Conference of the Bible Fellowship Church appoint a study committee to re-examine Article 21 of the F&O concerning the Lord’s Day and report to BFC Conference in 2012.”

 

Article 21 of the BFC Faith & Order currently reads as follows:

 

Article 21 – The Lord’s Day

21-1 The first day of the week has been recognized by the Church as the Lord’s Day since apostolic times. We believe, therefore, that it ought to be observed by all believers, voluntarily and in love, as a continuation of the sabbath principle, a day of remembrance of the resurrection of our Lord from the dead and a day of worship of God, rest from physical toil, service for the Master, and fellowship of the saints. Christians should engage only in duties of necessity and mercy on the Lord’s Day.

 

            Throughout the past year, the Committee engaged in rigorous and respectful debate, shared and reviewed articles, books and passages related to the assigned topic and discussed the ways in which the Committee might move forward as a result of our work together.

            The Committee arrived at a revision to Article 21 based on our Biblical findings. The proposed article reads:

 

Article 21 – The Lord’s Day

21-1 The first day of the week has been recognized by the Church as the Lord’s Day since apostolic times. We believe, therefore, that it ought to be observed by all believers, voluntarily and in love, as a day set apart as holy to the Lord for the corporate worship of God, remembrance of the resurrection of our Lord from the dead, and fellowship and mutual encouragement of the saints.

 

            The Committee is asking the BFC Conference to adopt a revised Article 21. There is Biblical warrant that would justify this change and openness in the revision of the Article. Also, the revised Article 21 has been worded in such a way as to show respect for the viewpoint reflected by the current Article. The proposed change would also allow for pastors, leaders and laypeople to serve within the denomination who do not embrace a strict Sabbatarian view of the Lord’s Day as a required Biblical tenet. Additionally, the Biblical concept of "Rest" is adequately dealt with in the Biblical Principles for Living (BPLs) and therefore did not have to remain an explicit statement within Article 21.

            Altering the Article is consistent with the evidence of Scripture and allows for a Biblically-based diversity within the denomination. This is born out primarily due to the fact that the Epistles themselves are expressly open to Christian liberty on this specific issue. Paul states that we are to “let no one pass judgment…with regard to a Sabbath” (Col. 2:16). Also, we are encouraged to understand that “one person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5). In the end, we determined that the New Testament evidence calls for Christian Liberty on this issue. It is because of this that the Committee ultimately brings forth this proposal.

 

The Biblical Case

 

            Paul, writing to the Romans concerning Christian Liberty, says that “one person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5). Certainly in Paul's day, as well as today, there are Christians that do not keep the Sabbath. However, Paul’s reaction to this fact is not a lament that some Christian would violate the Fourth Commandment. His response is at the end of verse five: “each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.” Dependence on the Spirit rather than on the “letter of the Law” is a legitimate guide in the Christian life on this issue. The Apostle Paul left it up to the individual to decide whether to honor one day above another.

            Additionally, in Galatians Paul argues against the legitimacy of Christians being compelled to honor special days and times: "Now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain" (Gal. 4:9-11). Furthermore, Paul criticizes Peter in this same epistle for wanting to force the Gentile believers to live like Jews (Gal. 2:14). He goes on in that section to state that he "died to the law so that he might live to God" (Gal 2:19). It is the natural reading of the text to envision the Galatian readers as understanding Paul’s comments regarding these time periods to include the Jewish Sabbath.

            Also, when writing to the Colossian church, Paul states unambiguously, “no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day - things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col. 2:16-17). The clear teaching here is that the Sabbath is a matter of Christian Liberty. According to Paul, no one is to judge if we observe or if we do not observe the Sabbath.

            Consider also the Jerusalem Council as recorded in Acts 15. The purpose of the Council was to answer the very question we are asking now, namely what role does the Torah have on the Gentile followers of Jesus? Judaizers were troubling the church in Antioch casting doubt on the salvation of Gentiles who had not been circumcised according to the custom of Moses (v. 1). In fact, these Judaizers were so bold that they actually said, “unless you are circumcised...you cannot be saved”! While at first glance we may be tempted to see only the issue of circumcision here, verse 5 broadens the issue. “The Pharisees who had believed stood up saying ‘It is necessary to circumcise them, and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.’” So the issue really is broader than just the idea of circumcision. The issue is, 'how much of Moses must we observe in order to follow Jesus?' The answer of the Council is this: “it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood” (vs. 19-20). Later, they say “the Holy Spirit and us [have laid upon you] no greater burden than these essentials” (v. 28). When given the opportunity to add Jewish practice into the Christian life, the Council mentions only three things, and the Sabbath was not included as one of them.

            Having considered the Biblical case for freedom, let us now consider the historical case for these proposed changes.

 

The Historical Case

 

            It might be asked, “Will this not change who we are as a Conference of churches? We have always shared this observance. Will not a change negatively impact our solidarity?” This is, of course, a valid question that some will no doubt have.

            To address this, let us look at the previous rendition of the very Article in question. The 1927 Articles of Faith of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ state:

 

“We believe the Lord’s Day to be of divine origin. The Jewish Sabbath was obligatory upon those living under the Law of Moses until the time of its consummation. We recognize the first day of the week as being the Lord’s Day under the present dispensation, the observance of which we hold obligatory and sacredly binding upon the followers of the Lord Jesus in commemoration of the glorious victory achieved through His resurrection from the dead on that eventful day; it also having been duly and persistently observed by the Apostolic Church, and also being the day upon which the Holy Ghost was poured out on the disciples (John 20:1, 19; Acts 20:7).”

 

            It is noteworthy that the 1927 version of Article 21 saw the Lord’s Day as a separate and distinct day and did not equate it with the Sabbath or the Sabbath principle. It is also important to note that the earlier rendition of the Article did not seek to impose a mandated “rest from physical toil,” nor did it express a prohibition of all activities except for “duties of necessity and mercy.”

            While some would not be entirely comfortable with the earlier Article’s wording, it is important to observe that the previous version of Article 21 did not prevent us from experiencing deep camaraderie while it was in place. The BFC shares a 155-year-history of both solidarity and a “striving together for the faith of the Gospel,” despite no emphasis on Sunday rest.

            Having stated the Biblical and historical case, let us examine the particular changes being proffered and the rationale for those changes.

 

Rationale for Word Changes

 

Drop “as a continuation of the Sabbath principle”

            While there are certainly principles within the Sabbath (and the Sabbath concept) that can and do benefit the Christian, the use of this phrase in our current article is without any definition or parameters. The use of such a vague phrase brings confusion and inconsistency rather than clarity and consistency to this important conversation.

            Additionally, based on the texts mentioned above, we are convinced that the Sabbath itself is not a requirement to which members of the New Covenant Community are bound. By way of reminder “no one is to act as your judge in regard to ... festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day” (Colossians 2:16). To explicitly state in our Articles of Faith that the Sabbath is to be continued (at least in principle) contradicts the Spirit's command to not judge each other on this matter.

            We find the following alternative more helpful than the current reading to express that, although we are not bound to “keep the Sabbath,” it is nevertheless important to “not forsake the assembling of ourselves together" (Heb 10:25).

 

Add “as a day set apart as holy to the Lord”

 

            There is no doubt that Sunday has been a unique day to Christians beginning in the days of the apostles and continuing until today. Jesus defeated death, sin, and Satan on Sunday. The Holy Spirit's permanent indwelling of all believers began on Pentecost, a Sunday. Sunday is the day God began to create and in Christ each of us is a new creation.

            The corporate gathering of the saints is a set apart experience. While, early on, the believers gathered daily (Acts 2:46, 5:42), it seems that they gradually began to set aside one-day-of-seven to gather for regular worship (1 Cor. 16:2). This appears to have been the first day of the week (Sunday). Even if we do not grant that the New Testament-era Christians landed on Sunday as their primary day of worship, it has certainly been the Christian practice for many centuries and continues to this day. Sunday has clearly been established as the normative day for the gathering of God’s people. We believe it is acceptable for the denomination to make Sunday its chosen day to seek corporate worship as a matter of both necessity and convenience.

 

Change "worship of God" to "corporate worship of God"

 

            Adding “corporate” clarifies that the Lord's Day is also the day we worship as a gathered body. The use of the term “corporate” ensures that we are stressing that worship is an important part of the body life of God’s people. It emphasizes that worship cannot be seen as only a private and personal activity.

 

Move “a day of corporate worship of God” to the front of the list

 

            We felt that the principle way in which Sunday is “set apart as holy to the Lord” is in the fact that God's people gather together to praise Him. Moving this to the front emphasizes its preeminence.

 

Drop “rest from physical toil”

 

            Biblical rest is important in the life of the believer, and the life of the church. However, we believe that the subject of rest is adequately addressed in the Biblical Principles of Living, article 104-2. This article illustrates the balance we need to have between work and rest. In removing the phrase “rest from physical toil” from the Articles of Faith, the Church does not assign which day is to be the day of rest for all of God's people. Paul is comfortable teaching that each individual needs to live according to their convictions in regard to honoring one day above another (Rom. 14:5). The BPLs seem to provide the necessary freedom on this matter while still stressing the importance of adequate rest in the life of the believer.

 

Drop “service for the Master”

 

            We have the concern that this phrase unintentionally teaches that ministry done on a Sunday carries more significance than ministry done on another day of the week. The current article reads: “We believe, therefore, that [Sunday] ought to be observed by all believers ... as ... a day of ... service for the Master.” We do not see anywhere in Scripture where service should be limited to one day over another. We do not want to ignore the importance of ministry, just as we do not want to ignore the importance of rest. However, like the idea of rest, we do not see the Scriptures calling Christians to serve the Master on one particular day over another.

 

Change “fellowship of the saints” to “fellowship and mutual encouragement of the saints”

 

            Adding “mutual encouragement” helps define and strengthen what is meant by “fellowship.” The “one another” commands in the New Testament are difficult to practice if we are not gathering together. A large part of assembling is that we give and receive encouragement through the relational interactions which we experience within the church body. This is why the author of Hebrews tells us to “not forsake our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encourage one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Heb 10:25). Assembling is for fellowship and for mutually encouraging each other in our common faith.

 

Drop "Christians should engage only in duties of necessity and mercy on the Lord's Day"

 

            As we stated previously, we are not convinced there is any NT data to enforce a continuation of the Sabbath-keeping requirements of the Old Covenant now that the New Covenant has been inaugurated. This sentence should be dropped from Article 21 because it binds the Christian with restrictions and duties for a specific day that cannot be supported by the New Testament.

 

Conclusion

 

            We have proposed these changes because of the conviction that the New Testament does not command, or even hint at, a Sunday observance of the Sabbath. Rest on Sunday cannot be found in any gospel or letter. Additionally, there is no evidence in Acts that the first Christians rested on Sunday. In all the letters, the apostles are teaching new Christians how to live in a way that will honor their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Still, the authors of the NT do not bring up the Sabbath as a practice Christians are bound to observe. There is no lack of opportunity had they wanted to do so, but the imposition of the Sabbath requirement is not found. In the light of that apostolic silence, where the Scriptures speak, let us speak, and let us be silent where it is silent. Let us be willing to impose whatever God’s holy Word imposes, but likewise, let us be careful not to impose where the Word of God does not impose. Where the Scriptures specifically grant freedom, let us not speak against that freedom.


Current and Proposed Articles

 

PROPOSED NEW ARTICLE 21


Article 21 – The Lord’s Day


21-1 The first day of the week has been recognized by the Church as the Lord’s Day since apostolic times1. We believe, therefore, that it ought to be observed by all believers, voluntarily and in love2, as a day set apart as holy to the Lord for the corporate worship of God3, remembrance of the resurrection of our Lord from the dead, and fellowship and mutual encouragement of the saints.4


1 Mark 16:9; John 20:1, 19; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2

2 Rom. 14:5; Gal 5:13

3 Heb. 10:23-25

4 Acts 2:42; Eph. 5:15-21; Col. 3:16

 

CURRENT ARTICLE 21


Article 21 – The Lord’s Day


21-1 The first day of the week has been recognized by the Church as the Lord’s Day since apostolic times1. We believe, therefore, that it ought to be observed by all believers, voluntarily and in love, as a continuation of the sabbath principle2, a day of remembrance of the resurrection of our Lord from the dead and a day of worship of God, rest from physical toil, service for the Master, and fellowship of the saints. Christians should engage only in duties of necessity and mercy on the Lord’s Day.


1 Mark 16:9; John 20:1, 19; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2

2 Gen. 2:2,3; Mark 2:27,28

 

PROPOSED NEW ARTICLE 21 - EDITS SHOWN

 

Represents Deletions              Represents Additions

 

Article 21 – The Lord’s Day

 

21-1 The first day of the week has been recognized by the Church as the Lord’s Day since apostolic times1. We believe, therefore, that it ought to be observed by all believers, voluntarily and in love2, as a continuation of the sabbath principle as a day set apart as holy to the Lord for a day of the corporate worship of God3, a day of remembrance of the resurrection of our Lord from the dead, rest from physical toil, service for the Master, and fellowship and mutual encouragement of the saints4. Christians should engage only in duties of necessity and mercy on the Lord’s Day.

 

1 Mark 16:9; John 20:1, 19; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2

2 Gen. 2:2,3; Mark 2:27,28

2 Romans 14:5; Gal. 5:13

3 Hebrews 10:23-25

4 Acts 2:42; Eph. 5:15-21; Col 3:16

 

 

Study Committee on Article 21/Sabbath: Steven J. DelDuco, Tony Feliciano, Carl C. Cassel,

Timothy J. Schmoyer, Aaron J. Susek, Daniel L. Williams.


SABBATH STUDY COMMITTEE - REPORT OF THE MINORITY

Respectfully submitted by Carl C. Cassel and Aaron J. Susek

 

             It has been a sincere joy and privilege to work together with our brothers in searching the Scriptures concerning the question of the Sabbath. Sincerely, there is some sadness to see our time together come to a close. We have genuinely grown in our understanding of and deep appreciation for God’s intentions with the Sabbath. And it is in part on account of that searching and growth that we respectfully differ with the majority on the question of whether the BFC should retain its present understanding of the Sabbath in relation to the Lord’s Day.

             Upon a thorough investigation of the Scriptures as well as careful interaction with numerous commentaries and theological arguments, we feel the Sabbath is not only an extremely valuable sign-gift given by God to His people, but also an important means of corporately reflecting both the holiness of God and the good news of His new creation in Jesus Christ. So in what follows, we will be arguing from Scripture the reasons we feel our denomination should cherish its present perspective.

             We did also feel the present article could be somewhat restated so as to present a more balanced presentation of the Lord’s Day. It seems to us the present article overstates the case for Sabbath observance, and in so doing gives the impression Sabbath-resting is the most important aspect of Lord’s Day observance. Since this is an article that presents the Lord’s Day in its fuller sense, we felt this more balanced approach was in order. So, seeking to preserve as much of the original language and intent as possible, we propose slight changes to the present article in effort to prioritize worship of God and present Sabbath-resting alongside the other components in equal fashion.

             In this report, we will first present our proposed rewording. We will then unfold the Biblical case for the Sabbath’s enduring importance. And lastly, we will offer some concluding thoughts and practical implications. And it needs be said, we are deliberately choosing not to interact directly with the majority on the issues below (mainly because we did not have their report at the time of writing). We are advocating our positions on a broader level and interacting more with potential, though somewhat hypothetical opposition (as responsibly as possible).

 

1) PROPOSED CHANGES

 

CURRENT ARTICLE 21 – Article 21 – The Lord’s Day

 

21-1 The first day of the week has been recognized by the Church as the Lord’s Day since apostolic times1. We believe, therefore, that it ought to be observed by all believers, voluntarily and in love, as a continuation of the sabbath principle2, a day of remembrance of the resurrection of our Lord from the dead and a day of worship of God, rest from physical toil, service for the Master, and fellowship of the saints. Christians should engage only in duties of necessity and mercy on the Lord’s Day.

 


 

 

1 Mark 16:9; John 20:1,19; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2

2 Gen. 2:2,3; Mark 2:27,28

 

PROPOSED ARTICLE 21 – Article 21 – The Lord’s Day

 

21-1 The first day of the week has been recognized by the Church as the Lord's Day since apostolic times. We believe, therefore, that it ought to be observed by all believers, voluntarily and in love, as a Sabbath day set apart as holy unto our God wherein the whole time is devoted to corporate and private exercises of worship, remembering the resurrection of our Lord from the dead, rest, fellowship of the saints, and works of necessity and mercy. (same verses in footnotes)


2) A BROAD SURVEY OF THE SABBATH THROUGHOUT SCRIPTURES

 

The Origin of the Sabbath

 

             To gain a proper understanding of the Sabbath, due weight has to be given to Genesis 2:1-4. In our discussions as a committee, we quickly realized part of the problem with handling the Sabbath stems from larger questions about how we should rightly handle the Old Testament law. But as we (the minority) see it, the fourth commandment is not at all where the discussion should start.

             Opening statements belong to Genesis 2:3 wherein God blesses the seventh day and makes it holy. The two verbs here are barak and qadash, both intensive Piel forms, which means they carry constitutive force. In other words, the seventh day is here being set apart as a sacred reflection of God’s own holiness. In this garden sanctuary, both space and time are being arranged with elements that manifest the holiness of its sovereign. Men and women are created as His image in space, and in the structure of time, one day in seven is embossed with the beauty of the divine holiness.

             We have to consider as well what it means that God rested on this seventh day. The narrative seems deliberate in portraying God’s creation project as one without toil or resistance such that rest hardly seems a necessity. Furthermore we do not imagine the seventh day was a personal day, one for taking time away from sovereignly managing the affairs of creation. Footnote As many commentators will point out this is more likely a royal resting – God assuming His reign in creation. Isaiah 66:1-2 draws this out perhaps. There, heaven and earth are described as God’s kingly dwelling, and the immediate question asked is “Where will my resting place be?” Or note 2 Chronicles 6:18 and 41 with its reference to the temple as God’s royal house of rest. Footnote If this seventh day is in fact a royal resting on the heels of transforming the chaotic abyss into a life-nurturing paradise, then it seems just as other gods “built temples as a sign of their victory over the wild forces of chaos…God institutes the Sabbath rest instead.” Footnote And here again, just as man is called to safeguard creation in the glorious reign of God, the seventh day serves as witness within the structure of time that the Lord is creation’s sovereign ruler.

             The writer of Hebrews would have us see there is also an eschatological tone to the rest mentioned (cf. Hebrews 4:4-5,10). On the seventh day, God is not just taking a day off, but is entering the consummate rest held out for all creation to enjoy at some future point (note there is no mention of day or night for day seven as in days one through six). So this sequence of six days work and one day rest is in some way emblematic of creation’s own larger movement from work-begun to work-consummated (more on that in the New Testament sections below).

             It is safely assumed that God’s priest-kings - the men and women called to image God to the creation

 would be expected in their actions to honor the blessedness of the seventh day, preserve its holiness, and give witness on it that life is not something we feverishly produce and secure for ourselves but is gracious gift given from the hands of the creator-king. More than assumption though, the text itself actually leads to this understanding. In the Old Testament, the Piel form of qadash refers most often to the setting apart of items or men and women for cultic use. Occasionally it is used in reference to days (Sabbaths or other festival days), and in every such instance the days are clearly set apart for men and women to observe, even when they are described as days “holy to the Lord.” Footnote So quoting Claus Westerman, G.K. Beale says “one should have an ‘exegetical instinct’ that not only is the seventh day solemn to God, but also the day ‘must in some way or other signify something related to people,’ because of the ‘fact that the verb to sanctify expresses a cultic idea [elsewhere in the OT] and cannot be referred to a day destined [only] for God himself.’” Footnote On these grounds a large number of recent commentators understand Genesis 2:3 to be presenting the seventh day not just as one which God observes in rest, but also as the first of the weekly Sabbaths that those created in His image are expected to keep. Footnote

             This comes through most notably in the impetus behind the fourth commandment. In Exodus 20:811, we note that Israel is called to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy not simply in imitation of God who rested on the seventh day, but even more because He blessed the day and made it holy. In essence, why should Israel rest on the Sabbath? Precisely because the Sabbath is already a blessed and holy day. The day does not become holy for Israel at Sinai. It was blessed for all humanity (cf. Mark 2:27) and constituted as a representation of God’s holiness before all creation on the seventh day of the creation week. And since such is already the case, Israel is called to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy by their actions.

             More will be said on Israel in relation to the Sabbath below. Suffice it to note at this point that Sabbath-resting first happens at creation. Before sin, before the need for redemption, before the Mosaic law, men and women in their capacity as God’s representative rulers were expected to honor the holiness bestowed on the seventh day and receive the blessing God had given it. In so doing, they shared in God’s act of signifying in the structure of time His own holiness and lordship over creation. They served as priests mediating the beauty of holiness to the creation and gathering back the creation in praise and participation in God’s kingdom reign and promised future.

 

Israel’s Sabbath

 

             As we transition to consider the Sabbath within God’s covenant with Israel, it’s striking to note first of all how much creation language permeates the opening scenes of Israel’s story. From their introduction: “The people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them,” (1:7) to the plague narratives - the seeming re-introduction of chaos into the created order, to their redemption (or re-creation) through the separation of the sea, Footnote we find noticeable similarities. The comparisons are most striking though when we get to the tabernacle narrative. There we read instructions broken up into seven units with the heading, “and God said to Moses.” Footnote The first six describe the setting and furnishings of the tabernacle, the seventh provides directive for keeping the Lord’s Sabbaths. Or we notice the ordination of the priests and the consecration of the alter which each take seven days (29:35-37). Or when work on the tabernacle is completed, we hear echoes of Genesis 2. Moshe Weinfeld highlights the parallels:

1) Gen. 1:31 [“And God saw all that He had made, (kăl ’ašer ‘aśah), and found it (wěhinēh) very good”]; Exod. 39:43 [“And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks (kăl hamělā’kāh)—as the LORD had commanded, so they had done (wěhinēh ‘aśû ’ōtāh)”].

2) Gen. 2:1 [“The heaven and the earth were completed (wayěkulû) and all (wěkăl) their array”]; Exod. 39:32 [“Thus was completed all (watēkěl kăl) the work of the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting”].

3) Gen. 2:2 [“God finished the work which He had been doing (wayěkăl ’elōhîm… měla’kěto ’ašer ‘ āśāh)”]; Exod. 40:33 [“When Moses had finished the work (wayěkăl mōšeh ’et hamělā’kāh)”].

4) Gen. 2:3 [“And God blessed…(wayěbārek)”]; Exod. 39:43 (“And Moses blessed (wayěbārek) them”].

5) Gen. 2:3 [“And sanctified it (wayěqadaš)”]; Exod. 40:9 [“…and to sanctify (wěqidašětā) it and all its furnishings”]. Footnote

             This tabernacle project consumes two thirds of the narrative in Exodus. It does so in two installments separated by an episode of rebellion and false worship (the golden calf). And important for our discussion is the fact these installments are connected to the intervening episode by way of Sabbath mandates. The blueprint passages end in chapter 31 with a description of the Sabbath and a solemn admonition to keep it. The construction narrative resumes on the heels of the golden calf debacle and is preluded in 35:1 with regulations regarding the Sabbath. Peter Enns, in his commentary on Exodus concludes, “this is hardly an accident…the references to the Sabbath are intended to con nect the building of the tabernacle to creation. Building the tabernacle, in other words, is an act of re-creation, culminating in the Sabbath command – a new seventh day, as it were. Footnote The point of this brief survey of creation themes in Exodus is to highlight that even as we come to consider the Sabbath commandment in Israel’s law, there is a much broader picture that must remain in view. The law is given in the context of a new beginning: a new humanity with God’s promised blessings of fruitfulness Footnote and authority to rule and subdue,12 commissioned as instruments of God’s gracious blessing to all the nations, Footnote en route to a new Eden Footnote complete with its garden-like sanctuary wherein God resides with them. Footnote And along the way, God’s glory journeys with them in this mobile version not only of the future temple in Jerusalem but also the original garden sanctuary. In the chaotic wilderness, space and time are once again marked with the beauty of the divine holiness.

             The law then, more than just moral code or arbitrary directives of God, re-establishes this new humanity as the image of God before the nations. This comes across clearly in the preamble (of sorts) to the covenant in Exodus 19:3-6.

The LORD called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” (emphasis added)

             The law derives from the holy character of God and, when it is observed faithfully, constitutes His people as reflections of that holiness who radiate its beauty and righteousness out to the rest of creation. This is important when thinking about matters related to the law. When we ask whether or not certain portions of the law are still binding today, what we need to be asking is, are those portions still current expressions of God’s holiness? The question is not so much whether certain laws are binding for salvation or maintaining covenant relationship with God. It is more, should those laws continue to be observed as a way of imaging God to the nations? Or more specific for our discussion, is Sabbath-keeping still a way of corporately manifesting God’s holiness and supreme authority in creation? Is it still intended as a sign, in the structure of time, that life is not defined by what our hands might produce, but rather by the purposes of the creator-God who graciously gives (and redeems) it?

             Sabbath discussions can often feel a bit clouded by two things: the first is, dare we say, a Pauline view of law-keeping in relation to Christ’s redemption. Clearly Paul sees a change in the function of Israel’s law, especially those that uniquely identified Israel as God’s people, such as circumcision and perhaps even their way of Sabbath-keeping. And yes, our covenant membership now is through faith in the true lawkeeper – Jesus Christ. But that doesn’t immediately negate the aspect of law-keeping as a way of representing God’s character to those to whom we are sent on mission. The other concern that tends to cloud the discussion is an overemphasis on the individual, personal benefits of Sabbath-keeping (“our bodies need rest”). Yes, Jesus says the Sabbath is made for man, and yes, our bodies need rest. But we cannot miss the aspect of Sabbath-resting as a practice of corporate representation of God’s holiness, grace, and Lordship. We have to deal with the fact that when we leave resting up to the conscience of the individual, we are also dropping a corporate witness to the beauty and character of God. But before continuing that New Testament discussion, we need to first fill out the role of Sabbath-keeping in Israel.

             Being post-fall and pre-Christ, Israel is given ceremonial practices that uniquely distinguish and maintain it as God’s holy people among the nations. They have a multipart cultus which incorporates numerous sacrifices and burnt offerings, all of which we cannot fully elaborate on here. But it should be observed that in Numbers 28 and 29, these sacrifices and offerings are arranged according to various days and seasons in the Hebrew calendar. There are ones assigned to the first days of the month (which also is the new moon Footnote ), others for their Sabbaths, and still others for various feasts throughout the year. The point to be made here is simply that in this stage of redemptive history, in the corporate life of Israel, the Sabbath day becomes one for performing certain obligations of their unique cultus. As such, the day becomes a sign throughout it’s generations that Yahweh is the one who sanctifies them and sets them apart (Exodus 31:13).

The Sabbath in Israel takes on a relation to the land they are given from God and is also meant to secure a certain social/creational justice in that land. To accomplish this, the day is developed into a fuller Sabbatical system of months and years and extended seasons. So during the Sabbath year, for instance, the land is to receive rest. And during that rest, the poor among Israel are fed from the fields. Not only the poor, but also the beasts of the land are fed (Exod 23:10-11). The Jubilee year (after seven weeks of seven years) was marked for restoring the land to the tribes and families to which it was originally apportioned. Even the actual Sabbath day itself carries tones of justice when it is described as a day of refreshment for personal servants, sojourners, and the working animals (Exod 23:12).

             Again what we are trying to point out is that Sabbath develops as it is incorporated into this new stage in the life of God’s holy people. Or as Geerhardos Vos stresses, “It must be remembered that the Sabbath, though a world-aged observance, has passed through the various phases of development of redemption, remaining the same in essence but modified as to its form, as the new state of affairs at each point (epoch) might require. Footnote This might explain in part why in Exodus, the Sabbath command derives from God sanctifying the day at creation while in Deuteronomy’s version of the ten commandments, as Israel stands poised to enjoy God’s covenant blessings in His land of promise, the day is associated with God’s act of redeeming them out of Egypt.

 

Jesus and the Sabbath

 

             Turning the page to the New Testament, a noticeable thing about Sabbath in the gospels is the level of attention it garners. It receives more treatment from Jesus than any other command in Israel’s law. So in all the words and teaching spent clarifying the Sabbath, if Jesus’ intention was in any way to annul the institution, certainly we should find at least some indication. But that is not at all the case. In all the conflicts with Jesus and His actions on the Sabbath, His defense is never, “that part of the law is no longer binding.” When He is questioned about His disciples’ activity on the Sabbath, we don’t read, “My people have been freed from such external observances now that I have arrived.”

             What we find Him doing is asserting Himself as the correct interpreter of the Sabbath command. In the Second Temple period, Sabbath observance grew considerably in its level of importance. Rising nearly to the significance of circumcision and the dietary restrictions, stringent Sabbath-keeping became a “characteristic marker of Jewish identity.” Footnote The Pharisees and scribes fulfilled the role of safeguarding this Jewish identity by fencing in the law with tighter and tighter regulations. But in so doing, they fenced off the Sabbath from certain of its primary intentions such as reflecting God’s holiness in mercy. Throughout the gospel narratives Jesus chides these misguided interpreters again and again for neglecting social concerns on the Sabbath, as if to say the correct view of Sabbath takes into full consideration its redemptive context and intention of being a day for bringing God’s mercy to bear on those in need. Footnote

             For the question at hand, we simply assert that Jesus can in no way be claimed as an advocate for the notion that Sabbath is no longer a defining feature of the people called to represent God’s holiness. In fact, given (1) there is so much treatment on the Sabbath in the gospels, (2) Jesus’ is claiming Himself to be the correct interpreter of the Scriptures in relation to the Sabbath, and (3), there is no hint of abrogation in any of Christ’s teaching on the Sabbath, there is every reason to conclude that the gospel writers understood Sabbath-keeping as an enduring, even central mark in the life and identity of Christ’s followers, that Sabbath was indeed part of Christ’s reign as Lord (cf. Luke 6:5).

 

• Paul and the Sabbath

 

             So, what about Paul? If you are one to see Sabbath as no longer binding, Paul is your go-to guy. If you are one with a view of Scripture that sees Sabbath as an enduring institution, certain of his passages are difficult to reconcile. How can one practice Sabbath when Paul appears to reprimand the Galatians for observing days, months, seasons, and years (Gal 4:9-11)? Or why should a denomination expect Sabbath observance of its people when he says, “one person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom 14:5), or, these things are “a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance is Christ” (Col 2:17)?

             However, it has to be pointed out there are certain problems with which both sides of the debate have to wrestle. If Galatians is meant to assert we are in some way wrong (“enslaved”) to observe the Sabbath day, then is it okay for us to celebrate the Lord’s Day or observe the seasons of advent or lent (since the admonition, read plainly, concerns days, months and seasons in a broad sense)? If we have to grant liberty when it comes to resting on a particular day (via Romans 14), should we not grant similar liberty with regards to worshipping on a particular day? Once we mandate one or the other, we seemingly are violating a plain sense reading of Romans 14.

             But perhaps, what Paul is doing in these passages is a bit more nuanced than simply tossing aside this central institution. Consider Colossians 2: “no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day - things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ” (v. 16-17). A search of the phrase “festival, new moon, and Sabbath day” would reveal it appears seven times in the Old Testament Footnote . And in every instance, save perhaps one, the phrase is directly related to the system of sacrifices. For instance:

“Behold, I am about to build a house for the name of the LORD my God and dedicate it to him for the burning of incense of sweet spices before him, and for the regular arrangement of the showbread, and for burnt offerings morning and evening, on the Sabbaths and the new moons and the appointed feasts of the LORD our God, as ordained forever for Israel (2 Chron. 2:4).”

             A fair question to ask could be, is the shadow in view here the days and festivals themselves or the sacrifices associated with those days at every point of mention in the Old Testament? Could it be more that Paul is concerned here with those modifications added to Israel’s Sabbath in Numbers 28 and 29 (see above)? It is a valid question especially considering the passage begins by saying, “No one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink.” This is curious because there were no drink regulations in Israel’s law. No one was, as it were, judging another for what they drank. However, there likely was judging going on in relation to ceremonial laws which mandated presenting food and drink offerings in keeping with the Jewish cultus.

             In the midst of Ezekiel’s prophecy concerning Israel’s future temple, we read,

“It shall be the prince's duty to furnish the burnt offerings, grain offerings, and drink offerings, at the feasts, the new moons, and the Sabbaths, all the appointed feasts of the house of Israel: he shall provide the sin offerings, grain offerings, burnt offerings, and peace offerings, to make atonement on behalf of the house of Israel (Ezek 45:17).”

             Here is an instance where food and drink offerings appear alongside the sacrifices of the feasts, new moons, and Sabbaths. Interestingly, as this passage peers forward in redemptive history, it looks to the prince to furnish these offerings and so make atonement on behalf of the house of Israel. So when Paul says in Colossians 2 that we have been forgiven all of our trespasses and have our record of debt nailed to the cross and then goes on to say in the next two verses that no one should pass judgment on us with regards to food and drink, feasts, new moons, and Sabbaths as these are shadows of which Christ is the substance, it is more than reasonable to read Paul as saying Christ is the true prince who fulfills the system of offerings and sacrifices by making atonement in his own flesh. Or, in keeping with Hebrews 10:1, the law – more specifically, the sacrificial system of the law – was but shadow of the good things to come in Christ.

All this to say, it seems to us, more careful investigation is needed before one uses Colossians 2 to suggest the Sabbath is done away with in Christ.

             Similar questions could be asked of the Galatians passage. When Paul reproves them for observing “days and months and seasons and years,” is he doing away with the Sabbath or is he repealing the Sabbatical system added as Israel stood poised to enter the promised land? Or to put it another way, could he be repealing those aspects of the Sabbath that related to the unique circumstances of old covenant Israel? If one understands the main problem in Galatians is that of the Judaizers seeking to make gentile Christians look more Jewish, claiming converts are not officially welcomed into God’s family without the markers of Jewish identity, then the notion Paul is doing away with the modified aspects of Sabbath-keeping under the old covenant makes good sense.

             Paul is tireless in his effort to demonstrate that participation in God’s family is not about wearing Israel’s identity markers (i.e. circumcision), but is all about placing faith in the True Seed of Abraham who grants covenant blessings to those marked by His death. Thus he dispenses harsh words towards those who rely more on the old markers for justification and compels them towards a view of justification that trusts Christ alone, without supplement. And it must be noted Paul is more severe in how he handles this than he is at times elsewhere. For instance, he here cynically wishes those who encourage circumcision would go the full way and emasculate themselves (5:12), yet in Acts, he has Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3).

The point in all this is to suggest Paul clearly views Christ as having fulfilled certain aspects of Jewish life, even certain aspects of the Sabbath. Jesus is our final atoning sacrifice which means the Sabbath is no longer a day for performing certain sanctifying ceremonies. Jesus is the true heir to the promises of Abraham, the one through whom even Israel’s land promises find fulfillment. Footnote And so Jesus rightly fulfills those aspects of the old Sabbatical system related to those promises. In light of this, Paul distils the Sabbath, removing those aspects of Israel’s observance that are fulfilled in Christ. His intent is not necessarily to throw away the Sabbath out of hand. More so, the sense here is that after Christ’s death and resurrection, the Sabbath is now what it was before Israel, before sin and the fall. The added necessities, shadows and types have all dissolved into the promised reality, and we are left once again with the Sabbath as sign of God’s holiness, authority, and consummate rest. Or to again quote Vos, “From all this [the the typology of future developments of redemption] we have been released by the work of Christ, but not from the Sabbath as instituted at Creation.” Footnote

             We are urging those wrestling with the question of Sabbath’s enduing validity to not simply begin and end with Paul. Doing so, one might easily notice the word Sabbath in a negative context and hastily assume Paul supports a non-Sabbatarian viewpoint. Rather, when one aims to see how the full counsel of Scripture unfolds the question of Sabbath and view Paul in relation, then the passages above can comfortably be understood to advance the viewpoint of Sabbath being advocated here. Furthermore, the questions raised such as the legitimacy of setting aside a particular day for worship or celebrating advent together in this perspective reach much more satisfying conclusions.

             We realize we are pushing readers beyond a plain, surface reading of Paul. And we understand the importance of needing good reason to do that. One could fairly ask at this point, do we have any New Testament evidence of the Church approaching Sabbath the way we are here understanding Paul? In other words, do we ever observe a New Covenant community resting together one day in seven in observance of the Sabbath, all the while avoiding sacrifices and other modifications placed on the Sabbath in the old covenant? As it is, the book of Hebrews provides us just such an example.

 

• An Early Church Case Study (Hebrews 3-4)

             Before diving in, it is important to clarify, we are not suggesting Hebrews directly addresses the question of the Sabbath’s enduring validity. Rather, we intend to show it indirectly affirms our understanding of Paul and the New Testament via example. It is an interesting and somewhat complicated passage, so we will tread carefully.

             Throughout the passage, a particular intent of the writer is to clarify the identity of his audience. So in the opening verses, he stresses the continuity of the Church with Old Covenant Israel, saying “Moses was faithful in all God's house as a servant…Christ is faithful over God's house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope (3:5-6).”

             So why must we hold fast? The reason is, because part of sharing Israel’s identity involves sharing a similar wilderness experience. Just as Israel, upon redemption from Egypt set out towards what God held in store for them, so the Church upon redemption from sin’s grip and guilt journeys towards that which He promises them. Footnote And this time of journey (“today”) is one in which the deceitfulness of sin, the threat of hardening and unbelief are very real dangers. It is a present experience with comparison in the Israelite’s experience in the wilderness – their own hardening and lack of faith in God’s promise.

             The next question: what is this hope in which we boast? Or to phrase the question using other passages throughout the book, what is the inheritance held in promise for us who hold fast (cf. 6:12) as the Day approaches (10:24)? Exegeting Psalm 95 to fit the context of his readers, the writer refers to this hope as God’s rest. Where other passages throughout describe it as our promised inheritance or the enduring city yet to come (13:14), it is here referred to as God’s rest.

             By referencing Psalm 95, he makes the point that it is actually the same rest that was held out for the Israelites. The land of Canaan in fact was not their enduing city (11:8-10). The rest God secured for Israel through Joshua in fact was a mere type of the greater, consummate rest that remained in store for Israel (4:8). And this same “rest” is the hope in which the present-day Church boasts as it, like Israel of old, journeys through sin and temptation-ridden lands with no enduring resting place (cf. 13:14).

             What is important to our discussion (strikingly so) is that the writer also equates God’s rest in Psalm 95 with the Sabbath rest God entered in Genesis 2. In this way, Genesis 2:2 is used to clarify and explain the origin and nature of the rest referred to throughout our passage. God’s rest is at the same time the rest He entered at creation and the rest His persevering Church strives toward. Again, the rest that awaited in Canaan for the wilderness generation is in this passage clarified as a type or shadow of the consummation rest that awaited Israel (4:8) and awaits the wilderness Church “as long as it is called ‘today’” (v.13). Footnote

             It needs mentioning at this point that the writer of Hebrews certainly has an already/not yet perspective on eschatology. For instance, in 12:22, believers have already come to the heavenly city even though in 13:14 they have not yet attained to that enduring city that is yet to come. Or in 6:5 we are said to presently taste the powers of the age come. And many see that tension at play here in this passage, perhaps when he says in 4:3, “We who have believed enter that rest.” Footnote Some would go so far as to suggest those who have put their faith in Christ have already entered that rest, such that there is in fact no greater rest yet to come. Here they might site verse 10 of chapter four where he says, “whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” and insist the works mentioned here are dead works from which we rest by faith in Jesus Christ. But there are several fatal problems in this interpretation. First of all, the writer is comparing our works here with the work of God in creation. This interpretation forces a jarring incongruity between God’s good work in creation and the negative “working” of works-righteousness. It also over-spiritualizes rest where the writer seems to talk rest in the sense of locality (as is the case throughout the book with regards to our promised hope).

             Even more than all this, the works the writer has in mind here are most certainly the works he mentions in 10:23 when after a similar call to “hold fast” (v.22) he implores them towards love and good “works”. Or note chapter six wherein he encourages his readers to remain sure of “better things” to come on the grounds that “God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do.” (v.10). Essentially, we feel the rest from work in view in 4:10 is akin to that of Revelation 14:13

And I heard a voice from heaven saying, "Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on." "Blessed indeed," says the Spirit "that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!"

             The view that would insist the rest of God is already attained in full wrongly forces an over-realized eschatology on this passage and in so doing noticeably distorts the narrative arc of the passage. A more consistent interpretation reads 4:10 in the light of its surrounding verses which together serve as a summary statement:

“So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest(4:9-11)”

             Leaving that point and working back to the broader view of the passage, we find a very important twist of sorts to the writer’s terminology in this summary statement. In 4:9, where we might expect the writer to continue with the terms “my rest” or “God’s rest”, he instead uses the term “Sabbathrest” (sabbatismos). This rest of God to which the wilderness Church is striving is called Sabbathrest. We could perhaps go so far as to say our future enjoyment of the consummation is here being described as a sort of Sabbath-keeping.

             The writer is actually coining a term (sabbatismos). And it is important to note, whenever the word Sabbath is used in Scripture, it always refers to the weekly Sabbath observance. So as the writer links the Sabbath with God’s rest in coining this term, he is revealing to us his own theology of the Sabbath - that there is surely a connection between the final rest of God and the weekly remembrance of the Sabbath.

             In light of this, we can say two things about the writer’s Sabbath theology: (1) in drawing the connection between Sabbath resting and the rest God enters in Genesis 2:2 (in almost identical fashion as Exodus 20:8-11), he understands Sabbath-keeping as having its origin in the creation week. In other words, as was argued above, Sabbath-keeping is understood as a creation ordinance before it is ever one of ten commandments given to Israel. And (2), in connecting weekly Sabbath resting with the consummate rest of God held in store for those who “hold fast,” he views the weekly Sabbath as a God-given sign, “a continuing reminder that human beings are not caught up in a meaningless flow of days, one after the other without end. History has a beginning and an ending. We are heading toward final judgment and the consummation of all things.” Footnote

             So to conclude this look at Hebrews 3-4, we again admit weekly Sabbath-resting is not the emphasis in this passage. The writer has little to no interest in directly addressing the question we are looking into. His concern is more the eschatological Sabbath-rest to which he admonishes the church to strive and persevere. What we observe though is an example of a New Testament author, one who undoubtedly understands that the new covenant abolishes certain practices of the old, continuing to observe the Sabbath as a sign - one which transcends Sinai, endures as long as it is “today,” and aides us in our attempts to “hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope.” As such, we have here an example not only of what we understand Paul to be advocating, but one that shows us in practice the full view of the Sabbath being argued for in this paper.

 

3) CONCLUSION

 

             What we have tried to show is that since the advent of Creation, the Sabbath has been a day holy to the Lord. It has been an enduring mark of God’s people throughout redemption’s unfolding narrative and a most important sign accompanying them on their journey from creation to new creation. It aims the structure and routine of our lives toward the beauty of God’s holiness, defines that life as blessing fashioned and sustained not by human productivity but the gracious working of God, provides means of witnessing to God’s holy character before all creation, and marks us as servants of the new creation He unveiled in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Scripture presents it not just as an enduring mandate, but also a blessed sign-gift given to the church to aid in Her mission-filled journey of faith in Christ. As such we have come to treasure the Sabbath’s value, much the way we do the Lord’s Supper and His gracious mark of baptism.

             There are undoubtedly certain questions left unanswered. For instance, we did not here address the change from Saturday to Sunday, (1) because we felt that was beyond the scope of our inquiry, (2) because there is no disagreement between the majority and the minority that the first day of the week, post-resurrection, is the one now holy unto the Lord, but also (3), it seems that is more of an historical (vs. Biblical) argument as Article 21 would indicate. We might surmise the day changed because Christ entered God’s consummate rest (resurrection) as a first fruits on the first day of the week and in so doing also inaugurated the new creation to which the Sabbath points as promissory sign. But again there is no chapter and verse in explicit support. We would remind our readers at this point that our intent was not to give an exhaustive explanation of Sabbath theology and practice. Our task was to test the legitimacy of our doctrinal position against the evidence in God’s Word.

             We understand there are good and Godly individuals who will disagree with our understanding of Scripture on this matter, and we are sympathetic to the concern raised by some that they would remain unable to minister among us on account of this disagreement. Truth be told, we might very well wish permission could be granted for ministers and elders to express reservation on this point of faith. But since we’ve come to view this as a rich and meaningful sign-command marking God’s people throughout the ages, we cannot endorse changing our identity and belief simply because there are different perspectives on the issue.

             So on the basis of Scriptural convictions, we encourage Conference to preserve and cherish our present position on the Sabbath in relation to the Lord’s Day. We humbly propose the wording changes mentioned above to bring clarification and balance to the statement. We find the preamble to the Articles of Faith expresses well our concluding sentiments having gained a renewed appreciation for the Lord’s Sabbath. “Although these standards have been acknowledged to be of lesser importance than the inspired words of the Scriptures, they cannot be neglected without resulting in serious impairment of the life of the church.” We do feel this is more than mere debate on matters of doctrine. There are rich practical implications to be benefitted. Our present position imbues the work and rest of our men and women with a God-ward orientation. It holds before our membership a glorious sign of our gospel hope and assurance. And it encourages our corporate witness to God’s creative glory and His mercy in redemption before a world starved for glory, life, and hope. We urge all toward prayerful consideration of the matter and trust the Lord of the Church to graciously guide and preserve us as we press on in faithful obedience and service to His glory and kingdom’s advance.