Those who know me well will appreciate that I don’t relish controversy. So, if I’m honest, my heart sank as I started to prepare my sermon on Isaiah 56 a couple of week ago. I was eager to talk about the inclusion of the foreigner and the eunuch in the people of God but I also spotted three references to the Sabbath. I have no objection to the Sabbath but I know that the question of how the Sabbath applies today has long been a source of disagreement amongst Christians (here is John Stevens writing on the subject and here is the homepage of Day One– formerly the Lord’s Day Observance Society) and that there are differing perspectives in Woody Road. Subsequently I’m aware that I didn’t really tackle the subject fully in my sermon and so wanted to go into more detail here. My plan over the next week is to post three brief reflections- this first post giving a basic framework, the second examining specific passages and the third offering some pastoral observations. If you find the theological argument too dense then the last post should offer a summary.
The line I took in my sermon was that to keep the Sabbath today is to find rest in Christ and to endeavour to enter the final rest with God in a new creation. I expressed the view that the Bible does not equate Sunday with the Sabbath.
Let me say right at the outset that I am not particularly concerned as to whether or not you agree with me. I am very mindful of what Paul says in Romans 14:5
“One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.” (NIV, 2011).
If you are convinced that the Sabbath laws apply to Sunday then you must follow your conscience- and those of us who don’t take that line have a responsibility to respect that and not put you in a difficult position. Equally, if you do regard Sunday as the Sabbath then I would respectfully add that, according to Romans 14, you should not judge those who have a different perspective. That is God’s job (v.8).
I should also acknowledge that I may well be wrong. This side of the new creation, all of us are prone to theological error. I have differing degrees of certainty on theological issues- and this would be some way down my list of certainty. I’ll indicate in the next post where I have some sympathy with a Sabbatarian argument.
However, each of us has to come to a conclusion even if expressed with some uncertainty. But how do we decide? There are two introductory points that I want to make:
1. The New Testament is the inspired means by which we understand how the Old Testament applies today.
That is not particularly controversial. Whenever I preach from an Old Testament passage one of the first questions I ask is “How does the New Testament understand this?” It is an obvious thing to do because in the New Testament we find the Old Testament applied in a new covenant context infallibly. That means that when we examine the question of the Sabbath we cannot just look at the Old Testament texts: we must examine how the New Testament uses and applies them if we are to understand their abiding relevance.
2. Jesus is the fulfilment of the whole law.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says,
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.” (Matthew 5:17).
The Law does not disappear- rather it is fulfilled or completed in Christ (Romans 10:3). That means that we cannot translate the Old Testament Law straight across to us without first asking the question how it is fulfilled or completed in Christ.
Many Reformed Christians would, at this point, refer to the three fold division of the law. The so called civil law (for instance the property laws and the punishments for sin) is no longer binding on Christians because it was only applicable to God’s people when they were a nation state. The ceremonial law (animal sacrifices etc) was fulfilled in the work of Christ on the cross. The so called moral law (seen most clearly in the Ten Commandments which include the command to honour the Sabbath) is seen as ongoingly binding on Christians. From a quick glance at their website that would appear to be the position of Day One- hence why they talk of Sabbath breaking as immoral.
The problem that I, and others, have with this view is that it isn’t seen clearly in Scripture. There is no civil/ceremonial/moral division- rather the law is seen as a whole. All of it (including the Ten Commandments) has been fulfilled by Christ. Christ was born under the law (which is why he kept the Sabbath commandment himself) in order to redeem those under the law (Gal 4:4). Through our union with Jesus in his death we have now died to the law so that we might belong to Him (Rom 7:4). Christian living is not about keeping the law but about living out our union with Christ who has kept the law and satisfied its demands for us. That is why Paul speaks in 1 Cor 9 about not being under law but about being under Christ’s law. The law points forward to Christ and we now live in obedience to and union with Him.
Let me add a personal anecdote at this point. The question about the ongoing role of the Old Testament Law in the life of the Christian has been one with which I have wrestled over the years. I spoke to Christians who had differing perspectives and read various authors but made little progress in coming to a conclusion. Eventually I simply read through Romans and Galatians at one sitting- and came to a position of clarity. Christ has kept the law and Christians are not under it. We are though to live for him and obey him- and this will involve obeying the commandments that he taught.
Therefore the question we have to ask of all the law including the Ten Commandments is this: How is it fulfilled in Christ? We find for instance that the commandment not to commit adultery is fulfilled by Christ in that he obeyed this commandment perfectly yet took the law’s penalty for adulterers through his death on the cross (as our substitute) and then called his followers to lives of sexual fidelity including in their thought life.
But what of the Sabbath? How is the Sabbath fulfilled in Christ? That is the critical question- which I will seek to address in the next post.