Sunday or Sabbath: What’s the Difference?

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy." Exo 20:8“I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day...” Rev 1:10a

Let’s start with some questions.

Is Sunday the equivalent of the Sabbath in the Mosaic Law, and if so, does it need to be legalistically observed exactly as the Israelites did in the days of Moses? But hold on, that wouldn’t make much sense, because Christians are no longer under the Law. And seriously, do we want to bring back corporal punishment for offenses like stacking firewood after watching a football game on a fall Sunday afternoon?

Could it be that due to the New Covenant in Jesus Christ, Sunday has replaced the Old Covenant Sabbath as a “holy day,” bringing with it a different [man-made] set of rules to observe? That would make sense but for the fact that the New Testament is completely silent when it comes to the exchange of one day (the Sabbath) for the other (Sunday).

Are the Jewish Sabbath and Christian Sunday two completely different days to be honored and observed? Are Christians to observe the Jewish Sabbath of rest (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown) AND our Sunday day of worship (whenever one wakes up on Sunday until whenever one goes to bed)? If that’s the case, then the entire weekend is consumed with a tsunami of religious observance and activity – with little time to do anything else, like mowing the lawn.

Dare we believe that maybe, just maybe, John Calvin, the Puritans, and the Westminster Confession of 1646 really did get it right; that Sunday truly holds the natural and moral essence of the original Sabbath for all of mankind, therefore to observe it correctly, one must devote oneself to worship, refrain from any work at all, and avoid any type of frivolous recreational activity? Oh no, does that mean that can’t watch or participate in any and all sporting activities on Sundays? Funny though, there’s no teaching to be found in the New Testament that supports, infers, or implies that “Sunday Sabbatarianism” is the regulated and God-ordained new “law” for Christians. Flat out, it has no biblical merit; and yet, that very dated, strangely confusing, and prone to laying-on-guilt position still ripples through churches to this very day.

As the Scriptures record, the majority of the early believers came from a Jewish upbringing; they understood the background and theological underpinnings of the Sabbath and could easily distinguish it from what Sunday was all about; unfortunately many Christians today do not have that same perspective, appreciation, or understanding of the Jewish Sabbath, and as a result, tend to mix various Sabbath regulations into Sunday, their chosen and traditional day of worship. This error inevitably led to man-made rules and regulations for what is [supposed] to happen (or not) on Sundays that are neither biblical nor curiously, written down anywhere, causing confusion within and without the church.

To help answer the above four questions and clear up the difference between the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian Sunday, let’s take a close look at the biblical basis of and teaching on the Sabbath.

Biblical Considerations of the Sabbath

CONTRACT

The Sabbath was a sign and a covenant between the chosen people of Israel and the LORD God. It’s important to keep in mind that the covenant of the Sabbath was essentially an agreed upon and binding contract. As with any legal contract, it was between two or more persons (in this case, between God and the nation of Israel) and contained a promise to do something (Israel would treat it as holy and do no work, and in consideration, God would bless them for so doing).

The key here is that the Sabbath was not a covenant between God and all of mankind or between God and Christians, but rather a covenant between two specific parties, God and Israel. In the same way that God gave the Israelites (and no other nation) strict dietary laws (Lev 11; Dt 14:1-22) as a sign and proof that they were his chosen people, the Sabbath was a sign of a covenant between God and Israel. The reality is that even though Jesus declared himself the Lord of the Sabbath (Mk 2:28), Christians are not one of the [two] parties of the original Sabbath covenant; therefore, they are under no binding obligation to observe it.

“See! The Lord has given you the Sabbath.” Exo 16:29

"And the Lord said to Moses, “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you." Exo 31:12-13

"Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel."

 

 

Exo 31:16-17

"Moses assembled all the congregation of the people of Israel and said to them, “These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do. Six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord." Exo 35:1-2

COMMANDMENT

The Sabbath was not only a covenant between God and Israel, but it was also a commandment that God gave them. The keeping of the Sabbath wasn’t a suggestion, good idea, or optional practice for the Israelites, rather a firm command by God to be kept throughout their generations forever. Since this command was given exclusively to the Israelites, only Jews are required to keep it.

"On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, but they found none. And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws?"

 

Exo16:27-28

"Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy." 

Exo 20:8-11

"Moses assembled all the congregation of the people of Israel and said to them, “These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do. Six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord." Exo 35:1-2

HOLY

The Sabbath was declared by God to be a holy day, a day that would distinguish the Israelites from all other nations. It was to be a special day of rest, refreshment, and restoration (sorry, no mention at all of corporate worship on that day), set apart by the Most Holy God to the benefit of his holy and chosen people, the Israelites. Since Christians are not Israel (or a new version of it), we are not obligated to treat the Jewish Sabbath as a special holy day.

"Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy." Exo 20:8

"Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy." Exo 20:11b

"You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you." Exo 31:14

REST

The Sabbath was intended to be a day of [solemn] rest and refreshment for the Israelites. The foundational basis for the Sabbath was the rest day that God had taken after spending six days creating the world. In honor of that day of rest, man, who was made in the image of God, was to mirror the inactivity of God by inserting and observing a complete day of rest into his weekly work cycle. By not working on the Sabbath, man would be showing his reverence and relationship to God and in return, receive the blessings of being refreshed by God. However, while taking a day of rest and relaxation once a week is a great idea based on a fantastic principle, it is not something to which Christians are biblically bound.

"So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation." Gen 2:3

“This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord’” Exo 16:23

“'Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day.' So the people rested on the seventh day." Ex 16:29-30

“Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed."

 

Exo 23:12

"It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.” Exo 31:17

"Six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord." Exo 35:2

WORK

Since the Sabbath was intended to be a day for rest; all work was strictly prohibited for the Israelites. Among numerous other things, the Israelites believed they had to refrain from starting a fire, gathering firewood, searching for food, treading grapes in their winepresses, participating in harvesting, and/or selling or buying goods. As it turned out, since there was no specific biblical definition of what work was, their rabbis rose to the occasion and came up with lengthy lists of what constituted work and what did not.

Keeping with that tradition, some modern observant Jews have come up with novel ways to make sure they don’t do any work on Shabbat (the Sabbath). Among other things, they make sure they put a piece of tape over their light switches so they don’t “work” by turning on a light (they also unscrew the light in their refrigerators so they don’t accidently turn on that light either), they double-check their thermostats so as to not have to work by “kindling a fire” in their furnaces, and they cook their food beforehand in crockpots so that their food will be warm throughout the day so as to prevent them from being found guilty of the work of cooking food.

Not to be outdone by a long line of Jewish rabbis, various Christian and political leaders throughout history have chimed in with their own [often times stern] views of what properly constitutes work and rest. Of note is that in the year 1617, and in classic Puritan style, King James the 1st of England issued the “Declaration of Sports” that outlined what was acceptable and non-acceptable to do on the Sabbath. Archery, dancing, leaping, and vaulting were okay (provided that one had already been to a church service beforehand); however, bear and bull baiting (whatever that was), “interludes,” and bowling were strictly banned. These rules were read in pulpits in every church and weren’t rescinded (at least in London) until 1845.

Interesting enough, there are plenty of churches, denominations, and pastors today that have bought into Sunday Sabbatarianism and have come up with all sorts of rules and regulations of what should and should not be done on Sundays. However, according to the Scriptures, since Sunday is a chosen day of worship and not the Sabbath, Christians are actually free to work or rest as they so chose.

“You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.” Exo 35:1-3

“Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day.” 

Exo 16:29

 

"While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day." Num 15:32

In those days I saw in Judah people treading winepresses on the Sabbath, and bringing in heaps of grain and loading them on donkeys, and also wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of loads, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. And I warned them on the day when they sold food. Tyrians also, who lived in the city, brought in fish and all kinds of goods and sold them on the Sabbath to the people of Judah, in Jerusalem itself! Then I confronted the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing that you are doing, profaning the Sabbath day? Did not your fathers act in this way, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Now you are bringing more wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath.” Neh 13:15-18

As soon as it began to grow dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and gave orders that they should not be opened until after the Sabbath. And I stationed some of my servants at the gates, that no load might be brought in on the Sabbath day. Neh 13:19

CONSEQUENCES

The breaking of the commandment to observe the Sabbath had serious and sometimes lethal consequences for the Sabbath lawbreaker. For example, one time in the days of Moses when a man was caught gathering firewood on a Sabbath, God sentenced the man to be put to death; within a short time the congregation obediently stoned him to death. Now, if there were definite consequences for Sabbath breaking, and we consider Sunday to be the new Christian Sabbath, what should be the consequences for those who break it?

You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Exo 31:14

Six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. Exo 35:2

While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day…And the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the Lord commanded Moses. Num 15:32, 35-36

Biblical Considerations of Sunday Worship

FREEDOM

The command to keep the Sabbath is one of approximately 613 laws in the Mosaic Law from which Jesus has set us free. Simply put, we are no longer under the law but under grace. Though Christians are free to recognize and observe the Sabbath and other Jewish festivals and holidays like Hanukah or Purim as special days, there is no biblical requirement for them to do so. Since Christians have been set free from the Law, they are not obligated to keep its many commandments – including the keeping of the Sabbath.

"For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace." 

 

Rom 6:14

"For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death."

 

Rom 8:2

"Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for 'The righteous shall live by faith.' But the law is not of faith, rather 'The one who does them shall live by them.' Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.'” Gal 3:11-13

RULING

When many Gentiles were coming to faith in the days of the early church, there was a strong movement by some believers of “the party of the Pharisees” to make sure that all the Gentile believers in Christ were circumcised according to the Law in order to ensure that they would be saved (Acts 15:1-5). After much debate and discussion, the apostles and elders who made up the Council of Jerusalem ruled that the newly saved Gentiles didn’t have to observe the full Mosaic Law but rather only a small handful of the laws so that their burden would not be too great (Acts 15:28). Of note is that one specific law – that of keeping the Sabbath – was not to be found on that “required” list. Therefore, while Christians are free to observe the Sabbath (or any form of it) as they so choose, they are not under obligation to do so.

"We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” Acts 15:27-29 (see also Acts 15:19-20)

CONSCIENCE

Though the Sabbath was declared a holy day set apart for the Lord, Sunday never was. The Apostle Paul was quite clear in his teaching that one day should not be esteemed better than another. Attending a worship service (on any day of the week) should not be a “check-the-box” experience to fulfill a biblical obligation, but rather a heartfelt matter of free will, conscience, and choice. However, though it is true that we have a choice in regards to which day to observe as a day of worship, we do not have the choice to refrain from corporate worship.

"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. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord." Rom 14:5-6

"Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ." Col 2:16-17

"And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near." Heb 10:24-25

Conclusion

When the church was first formed, the believers didn’t immediately elevate one day as a day of worship; they thought every day was a day of worship. Their passion for Jesus drove them to meet together “day by day” in the temple so they could devote themselves “to the apostle’s teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42).” Beyond that, they even met in homes to share meals on a daily basis (Acts 2:46). Admittedly, though they met together often, it seems clear that in due time they also began to meet together for corporate worship on “the first day of the week.”

The biblical evidence of believers meeting for corporate worship on Sunday (the first day of the week) is limited to the Apostle Paul instructing the members of the church in Corinth to take a collection on that day, (1 Cor 16:2), Eutychus falling out of a window a bit after midnight while Paul was preaching on that day (Acts 20:7), and the Apostle John sharing that he was “in the Spirit” on the Lord’s Day (Rev 1:10). Though the Apostle Paul gave instructions on orderly worship, communion, and the taking of offerings when the believers came “together as a church” (1 Cor 11:17-34, 14:26-40), he never indicated the day they actually came together as that church. In fact, it was the Apostle Paul who noted that no day was more special than any another (Rom 14:5-6).

The historical evidence of the early church suggests that the early Christians selected Sunday, the day that Jesus rose from the grave, as their day for corporate worship. For them, it was a day, or perhaps a portion of a day (or night), to gather together and “do church.” They saw Sunday as a day to worship and praise God and not as a replacement for the Sabbath day of rest or a special holy day set aside or required for worship by God. By the end of the first century, Sunday, the first day of the week, had became the regular and accepted day for Christians to gather together, first before dawn and then again at night. (Which of course makes sense, since many of the early believers were slaves and therefore didn’t have the luxury of taking Sunday off from work “for religious reasons.”)

In conclusion, though Sunday is in fact the traditional day of Christian worship, it is not the God-required day of worship. Having understood that Sunday is not a replacement for the Sabbath, and as a matter of freedom, ruling, and conscience, local communities of Christians are free to gather for worship on Sunday and/or any other day of the week they so choose. Perhaps in time, the church will revert back to the pattern of the early church and decide to meet, not just on Sundays (or Saturdays), but “day by day” to the praise and glory of God.

The Reverend Pastor Keith Mlyniec
The Harbor Church
2017 A.D.