by George Gunn

– A key distinction between Israel and the Church involves Sabbath observance. Neglect in distinguishing between Israel and the Church has caused great confusion over the significance of the Sabbath. Traditional supersessionist thinking has caused many Christians view Sunday as the “Christian Sabbath,” and that by going to church on Sunday, one is obeying the Third Commandment (as, for example, the Westminster Confession of Faith, ch. XXI). Others, taking a more literal interpretation of the Sabbath commandment, think that they must keep Saturday as the appropriate day of worship (Seventh Day Adventists, Seventh Day Baptists, and some Messianic congregations). Both of these positions have problems, and observance of proper dispensational distinctions helps us to think correctly about the Sabbath.

The very first reference in Scripture to the Sabbath is in connection with the creation week when God rested from His work of creation (Genesis 2:2-3). We are told that God rested on the seventh day (Saturday), but there is no indication from the text that Adam was ever told to rest on the seventh day. In fact, there is no indication anywhere that anyone other than God from Adam until Moses rested on the Sabbath Day. One may search the Scriptures in vain to find any reference to Sabbath observance by Seth, Methuselah, Enoch, Noah, Shem, Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob. The next reference to the Sabbath is in Exodus 16:26-30 where Israel was commanded not to collect manna on the Sabbath, because it was to be considered a day of rest for them. One might reasonably ask, Had God previously given Sabbath observance as a commandment to men? Apparently not. Ezekiel 20:12 says that God gave His Sabbaths to Israel as a sign of His covenant with them. Note throughout the twentieth chapter of Ezekiel the expression “My Sabbaths” in verses 13, 20, 21, and 24. Likewise, Exodus 31:12-17 states that God had given His Sabbaths to Israel as a sign of His covenant relationship with that nation. Violation of Sabbath observance was punishable by death. And Nehemiah 9:13, 14 implies that Sabbath observance was unknown to men until it was revealed to Israel through Moses.

Those who do insist on Sabbath observance for the Church often use a sort of substitute definition. The Biblical definition of the Sabbath is a day of rest (Exodus 31:12-17). But often a substitute definition is used, calling it a day of worship. This is a failure to understand the nature of worship in the Old Testament. Israel’s worship revolved around the feasts and sacrifices, not a public meeting on the Sabbath. Sabbath as a day of worship only arose after the destruction of the temple in connection with the institution of the synagogue. But this was not how God had constituted public worship for Israel. The fact is, for most Christians, the day of worship (whether Sunday, Saturday, or any other day) is anything but a day of rest! Much work is involved in getting ready for church, going to church, possibly setting up and taking down of equipment for the church service, etc. God’s instructions to Israel for the Sabbath simply involved staying home and resting.

The New Testament is clear in teaching that the Mosaic Covenant ceased at the cross (Galatians 3:24–25; Colossians 2:14; Ephesians 2:15; see Lesson 4); since the Sabbath served as a sign for that covenant, there can be no significance for Sabbath observance today. Besides, the Church not related to God by covenant, the way Israel was. Apparently, some false teachers were trying to impose Sabbath observance on the church in Colosse, to which the apostle Paul replied, “Therefore 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” (Colossians 2:16). It appears that the early church made a practice of congregating on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7), probably to commemorate the resurrection of Christ, but this was never laid down as a law. The Church is free to meet publicly for worship on any day it so chooses.