I greet you once again in the Name of Jesus!
We are continuing this time our study on, “God’s Plan for the Ages – Dispensations”, with our look at the Dispensation of Law. This time I want to take a look at the issue of the Sabbath and the Church.
Believers seem to divide up into various “camps” with regard to what day we should be gathering for corporate worship. Some, like my Seventh-Day Adventist, and Hebrew Roots brethren for example, are very staunch about keeping the seventh-day Sabbath, which begins at sundown on Friday, and goes to sundown on Saturday. The vast majority of Evangelical Christians of course gather on Sunday referred to as, “The Lord’s Day”, in commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection. [See Mark 16:2, 9; Luke 24:1; John 20:1, 19; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2] It seems very early in the history of the Church, believers gathered on the “first day of the week”, or Sunday, for fellowship and worship.
Many want to make the day of worship an issue that believers divide over, and this just should not be. My Seventh-Day Adventist friends charge that it was originally the Pope who changed Christian worship from Saturday (the Sabbath), to Sunday. This idea is derived not from studying the scriptures, but from the writings of their “Prophet”, Mrs. Ellen G. White. It was Mrs. White, for example, who wrote,
“The holy Sabbath looked glorious- a halo of glory was all around it. I saw that the Sabbath commandment was not nailed to the cross. If it was, the other nine commandments were; and we are at liberty to break them all as well as to break the fourth. I saw that God had not changed the Sabbath, for he never changes. But the pope had changed it from the seventh day to the first day of the week; for he was to change times and laws.” (Early Writings of Ellen G. White, page 33, official Adventist publication) Again on page 65 of the same book Mrs. White says, “The pope has changed the day of rest from the seventy to the first day.”
Now, I believe that Ellen G. White was sincere. I believe she no doubt loved God. But she was sincerely wrong. The first Pope didn’t officially come on the scene until A.D. 606 (a full 500 years after the Advent of the Christian Church). Christians had been gathering on Sunday, the first day of the week, since the first Century, following the resurrection of our Lord.
Still others charge that it was Roman Emperor Constantine, who changed the Sabbath from the seventh day (Saturday), to the first day of the week (Sunday). We know from history that in A.D. 313 Constantine and Licinius issued the, Edict of Milan, decriminalizing Christianity. He effectively stopped Christian persecution. Constantine’s reign in many respects has been labeled the, “Triumph of the Church.” By A.D. 380 Christianity became the official Church of the Roman Empire by a declared edict. I want to go on record as stating that Constantine was not a blessing to the Church as we look at the big picture. There is a debate among historians as to what brand of Christianity Constantine actually subscribed to. Others question whether or not he was ever truly converted. We know that he delayed his baptism until just before his death, believing that the waters of baptism washed away the sins of the soul. I personally believe that Constantine did far more to damage the Christian Church from within, than the severe persecution of believers ever did from without. The reign of Constantine sent the Christian Church into a downward spiral that in many respects it has never fully recovered from.
Even though all of this is true, did Constantine change the day of Christian worship from Saturday to Sunday? Did the Roman Emperor change the Sabbath? Some say he did so by decree on March 7, A.D. 321. The decree read (in English), “On the venerable Day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed.” (Constantine, March 7, 321. Codex Justinianus lib. 3, tit. 12, 3; trans. in Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 3, p. 380, note 1) I submit to you that Constantine did not change the Sabbath, but rather he created the first, “Sunday Closure Law”, and merely recognized Sunday as a day Christian believers had already been observing since the first century, from the earliest days of the Church. I in fact am old enough to remember the time when most businesses were closed on Sunday, alcohol wasn’t sold (with stores covering up their beer displays with large blue tarps on Sunday, and bars were closed).
So which is it? Did the Pope change the Sabbath, or did Constantine, or some group of Christians in Rome? The answer is, none of the above. The Sabbath was and is Saturday, the seventh day. Sunday is the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day. That was the case since the early days of the Church. Believers who refer to Sunday as, “The Christian Sabbath” are mistaken. Sunday is not the Sabbath. Sabbath, or shabbat, simply means, “rest.” So if a person observes a day of rest, and cessation from normal activities on Sunday, which most believers do, in that sense we are keeping the Sabbath. The Sabbath as it was originally instituted by God was not a day of worship or fellowship, but of resting from your labors.
Are Christian believers commanded to keep a certain day of worship? I submit to you, we are not. The Apostle Paul dealt with this very issue in Romans 14. He wrote,
“One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks.” [Romans 14:5, 6]
John on Patmos wrote, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day…” [Rev. 1:10a]. Now, there is some debate as to whether or not John is actually referring to Sunday, the first day of the week, the “Lord’s Day”, or not. I personally lean to viewing this as referring to the prophetic period of time known as, “The Day of the Lord.” However, it seems clear that John was indeed in a time of worship when he entered into a new level of the Holy Spirit’s control over him. Is it possible he was worshiping the Lord on the day of Christian worship, the first day of the week, Sunday? I believe this is a plausible scenario.
There are various reasons why the early Christians chose Sunday as their day of worship. It was a celebration of the Resurrection of Christ which occurred on the first day of the week (Matthew 28:1 – 7; Mark 16:1 – 7; Luke 24:1 – 7; John 20:1 – 9). Following His Resurrection, Christ appeared to the Disciples several times on the first day of the week (John 20:19, 26). God chose to pour out His Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, which occurred on Sunday (Acts 2:1 – 4). Concerning this, Irenaeus, one of the Early Church fathers, wrote in A.D. 178:
“The mystery of the Lord’s Resurrection may not be celebrated on any other day than the Lord’s Day…Pentecost fell on the first day of the week, and was therefore associated with the Lord’s Day.”
It is possible, as mentioned above, that it was on the first day of the week that God gave the Apostle John the book of Revelation (Rev. 1:10) There are other scriptures that clearly teach that the early Christians met together on Sunday to worship the Lord:
“Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight.” [Acts 20:7 emphasis added]
“On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come.” [1 Cor. 16:2 emphasis added]
No example is found in history and no apostolic command in scripture is given that commands that Christians should gather for worship on the seventh day, the Jewish Sabbath. A careful study of the matter reveals a striking contrast between the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian Lord’s Day.
- The Sabbath is the seventh day of the week; the Lord’s Day is the first day of the week.
- During the Dispensation of Law compulsory obedience of the Sabbath was demanded; during the Dispensation of Grace voluntary worship and service is expected on the Lord’s Day.
- The Sabbath was part of the Old Covenant; the Lord’s Day is part of the New Covenant.
- The Sabbath was given to Israel under the Law; the Lord’s Day is given to the Christian under grace.
- The Sabbath was a day of rest for the Jew; the Lord’s Day is a day of worship for the Christian.
My brethren who adhere to the seventh day as their day of worship do not fully observe the Sabbath as God commanded. For example, the Law limited travel on the Sabbath to 2,000 cubits, about two-thirds of a mile (Acts 1:12). It also prohibited cooking (Ex. 16:23), working (Ex. 20:8 – 10), gathering wood (Num. 15:32 – 36), and kindling a fire (Ex. 35:2,3). All were forbidden on the Sabbath under the penalty of death (Ex. 31:13 – 15).
Now, we should note right here that the scriptures teach that Sabbaths are to be observed in the Millennium and the New Earth, so that all flesh can come before God to worship (Isa. 66:22 – 24; Ezek. 44:24; 45:17; 46:3). Again, however I must say that “Sabbath”, or “Shabbat” simply means “rest or cessation from labor” and may denote a time span of one day (Ex. 20:8 – 11), one year (Lev. 25), or an eternity (Heb. 4:9). No scripture reveals which particular day will be observed as the Sabbath during this future time, but it is certain that keeping the seventh day as the Sabbath is not binding upon the Christian during the Dispensation of Grace.
I know this post is a bit lengthy this time, however I would like to finish our teaching on the Dispensation of Law this time.
There are also contrasts between the Law of Moses during the Dispensation of Law and the Grace of God during the Dispensation of Grace.
- The Law demanded Holiness, but Grace gives holiness.
- Under the Law the sheep died for the shepherd, but under Grace the shepherd died for the sheep.
- The Law condemned the best man, but Grace saves the worst sinner.
- The Law of Moses revealed man’s sin, but the Grace of God covers man’s sin.
- The Law of Moses cursed the sinner, but the Grace of God blesses the believer.
- The Law placed man under bondage, but Grace sets the prisoner free!
It goes without saying of course that man failed God under the Dispensation of Law as he had in every preceding Dispensation. Because man failed, God sent His judgment. The Nation of Israel was judged because of their long rebellion against God, which culminated in their rejection and Crucifixion of the Messiah God had sent to liberate them. In A.D. 70 Jerusalem once again was destroyed by the armies of General Titus, and one million people were killed. Israel has continued to suffer judgment and oppression down through the centuries. The words that the Jews shouted at the trial of Christ before Pilate, have become sadly a prophecy fulfilled:
“And all the people answered and said, “His blood be on us and on our children.” [Matt. 27:25]
The judgment of the whole world of every age was borne by Jesus Christ at Calvary. He suffered for our sins, so that we could go free! He died as our substitute! His stripes purchased our healing! The sacrifice of Christ on the Cross – paid it all!
Next time we will begin our examination of the Dispensation of Grace. Plan to join us.
Until next time,
Pastor Kevin E. Johnson