What is the relationship between the Jewish Sabbath and the Lord’s Day (Sunday)?
THERE is considerable consensus among scholars of Ancient Near East civilisation that the division of the week into seven days was not the invention of the people of Israel. The origins can be traced to Babylonian religion in which each day of the week is devoted to each of the seven gods or the spirits of the seven planets.
Although the Israelites did not device this scheme for dividing the week but inherited it when they entered Canaan, they were responsible for creating the Sabbath and exalting it as the holiest day of the week. “Sabbath” comes from the Hebrew word sabat, which simply means “to cease” or “to desist”. The Sabbath, which is the seventh day of the week, is to be a day of rest, kept holy to God, just as God Himself ceased from His creative activity and rested.
The relationship between the Sabbath and the seventh day of creation is profoundly established in the number of texts from the Old Testament, but chiefly in the fourth commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God … For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, but He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8, 11). Although the Genesis creation narrative itself does not use the term “Sabbath”, the fourth commandment makes the connection between the Sabbath day and the original creation itself.
For the Israelites, the Sabbath was a day of rest, a day set apart to remember God and worship him. It was seen as a gift from God, as Exodus 16:21-30 makes clear when the Sabbath is seen in connection with the giving of manna. The Sabbath meant reprieve from the toil of work, but in the cessation of work, a new trust in the providential goodness of God is established.
In deliberating the importance of ceasing from work, the people of God were reminded of the fact that it is God – not they – who sustains the world and keeps it going. But as a day set apart, made holy for God, Sabbath also taught the Israelites the sacredness of time. As modern Judaism’s most eloquent expositor, Abraham Joshua Heschel, has put it, “Judaism teaches us to be attached to the holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of the year.”
There is a sense in which the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day are very different days that commemorate different events. The Sabbath is the last day of the week and commemorates God’s rest after He has completed the work of creation. The Lord’s Day is the first day of the week and commemorates the Resurrection of Christ. But in many ways the themes that both these days evoke interlock and overlap.
Both days have to do with redemption: the Sabbath memorialised God’s redemption of His people from slavery in Egypt while the Lord’s Day celebrates redemption in the triumph of Jesus’ resurrection. Both the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day are linked to worship. And both days emphasise the Lordship of God over all creation, including creation’s future.
For Christians, the Sabbath is superseded by Resurrection Day. The relationship between the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian “Day of the Lord” (Sunday) is best understood when we reflect upon the relationship between Jesus and the Law.
In Matthew 5:17, Jesus said that He has come not to abolish the Law but rather to fulfil it. Through the Resurrection of Jesus, the Sabbath has been changed forever. The salvation of God, the eschatological rest symbolised by the Sabbath, is now made a reality through the Resurrection. The Resurrection of Jesus is therefore the fulfilment of the promise of the Sabbath. It marks the new creation, leading theologians to speak of the Day of the Resurrection as the eighth day.
As Bishop William Willimon has shown, the question for the Christian is not how should I keep the Sabbath, but how should I keep the Lord’s Day. Sunday has superseded the Jewish Sabbath (traditionally observed on Saturday). This transition is seen as early as the second century, especially evidenced in the writings of theologians like Justin Martyr (AD 150) and Tertullian (AD 155). The Second Helvetic Confession offers a clear summary regarding the significance of the Lord’s Day:
“In regard hereof, we see that in the ancient churches there were not only certain set hours in the week appointed for meetings, but that also the Lord’s Day itself, ever since the apostles’ time, was consecrated to religious exercises and to a holy rest … we do celebrate and keep the Lord’s Day, and not the Jewish Sabbath … “
So just as God entrusted to Israel the Sabbath so that the world might know God’s intention for the world, so Christians worship God on the day of the Resurrection, signalling not only that this promise of God has gone to all the world, but more profoundly that this new reality has already dawned upon us.
In the Resurrection of Jesus, eternity has already penetrated time, the future has already come, and the promised Sabbath is already a reality (although its fullness still lies in the future).
‘The Sabbath memorialised God’s redemption of His people from slavery in Egypt while the Lord’s Day celebrates redemption in the triumph of Jesus’ resurrection. Both the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day are linked to worship.’
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was originally published in the Methodist Message.