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Evaluating the Strength of Arguments in the Sabbath/Lord’s Day Controversy, Part 2a: What are the Questions?

Was the Sabbath replaced with the Lord’s Day? Was the Sabbath transferred to the Lord’s Day? Is the Lord’s Day the Sabbath or is the Sabbath the Lord’s Day? Are the Sabbath and Lord’s Day two separate institutions for two disparate groups? These and other questions plague those who attempt to answer the question about the relationship between the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day. The number of possible questions is an indication of the complexity of this foundational enquiry. As such, it is not enough to simply restate your church’s official declaration on the matter. They may have landed on a particular answer, but you, as a noble Berean, must settle the matter for yourself after a thorough examination of the evidence. Whatever position you hold to, it must answer these questions with consistency, accuracy, rationality, and biblicity without self-contradiction.

Swartley noted that the Sabbath/Lord’s Day controversy is affected by the following considerations:[i]

  1. Whether Genesis 2:2-3 was written at the time of Moses or was known before through oral tradition.
  2. Whether the Sabbath was instituted at the time of Moses.
  3. Whether the creation Sabbath was given prior to the fall of Adam.
  4. Whether the Sabbath was moved from Saturday to Sunday following Christ’s resurrection.
  5. Whether Col 2:16, Gal 4:10, or Rom 14:5ff are critical texts and to what do they refer.
  6. Whether the practice of the church is more authoritative than the Scripture.
  7. Whether earlier church practices are more authoritative than later church practices.
  8. Whether the teachings of the church fathers contribute to a rational understanding of the topic.
  9. Whether the religious culture affects the interpreter.
  10. Whether the interpreter uses a method that frees Scripture from bias; i.e., the historical-critical method.
  11. How the interpreter understands the relationship between the two testaments.
  12. How to interpret opposing verses that on one hand seem to command Sabbath observance and others that do not.
  13. How to understand the teachings and practice of Jesus with respect to the Sabbath.

Swartley properly observes that interpreters diverge at least on these points. While the above list may seem nearly exhaustive, there are certainly many more that could be amassed.

The basic enquiry all positions attempt to answer has to do with the extent the fourth commandment informs the Christian’s day to gather for worship as the Lord commanded (Heb 10:24-25). It is not enough to simply read and take at face value the fourth commandment as presented in the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:8-11 (and the OT in general) and order your whole life around that verse and whatever it happens to mean to you. This should not be a “make-it-up-as-you-go” doctrine.

If you believe that the Sabbath is a moral commandment, then you should observe the Sabbath on Saturday as the Jews have done for millennia, by resting from all work from Friday evening to Saturday evening, taking care to avoid starting fires, traveling from your home, ensuring no animal or household relation or guest works, and cooking your meals the day before; not to mention having a priesthood that sacrifices two lambs in the evening, presents a grain and drink offering, and bakes showbread for the holy of holies. Perhaps you should also petition for civil laws that prohibit commerce on Saturday and Sunday (not to offend those who worship on the wrong day) and enforce capital punishment for egregious breaches of this moral commandment. However, since NO Christian advocates this, it is obvious that NO Christian really believes that the Sabbath as described and defined by the OT is fully and totally a moral commandment that must be obeyed with the same fortitude as the other nine. Even the Jews are not fully compliant with Sabbath law because they do not offer the requisite sacrifices and offerings. Instead, each position interprets the fourth commandment and other related passages through the glasses of larger hermeneutical structures. Are we not all agreed on this so far?

Whether your position is LD, CS, or SS,[ii] there are certain biblical texts that all positions must deal with (all quotes in NKJV). Your sabbatology must take into account and give a proper interpretation of all of the texts of Scripture before a plausible systematic doctrine is presented. The following verses (with their context) are among the most important in the debate.

Ge 2:2-3 And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.

Ex 16:23 Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Tomorrow is a Sabbath rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord. Bake what you will bake today, and boil what you will boil; and lay up for yourselves all that remains, to be kept until morning.'”

Ex 20:8-11 Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.

Ex 31:14-17 You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.'”

Dt 5:12-15 ‘Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.

Lev 23:2-3 “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘The feasts of the Lord, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, these are My feasts. ‘Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work on it; it is the Sabbath of the Lord in all your dwellings.”

Nu 28:9-10 ‘And on the Sabbath day two lambs in their first year, without blemish, and two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour as a grain offering, mixed with oil, with its drink offering—this is the burnt offering for every Sabbath, besides the regular burnt offering with its drink offering.

Ne 9:13-14 “You came down also on Mount Sinai, And spoke with them from heaven, And gave them just ordinances and true laws, Good statutes and commandments. You made known to them Your holy Sabbath, And commanded them precepts, statutes and laws, By the hand of Moses Your servant.

Isa 58:13-14 “If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, From doing your pleasure on My holy day, And call the Sabbath a delight, The holy day of the Lord honorable, And shall honor Him, not doing your own ways, Nor finding your own pleasure, Nor speaking your own words, Then you shall delight yourself in the Lord; And I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth, And feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father. The mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Hos 2:11 I will also cause all her mirth to cease, Her feast days, Her New Moons, Her Sabbaths — All her appointed feasts.

Mt 11:28-30 Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

Mk 2:24-28 And the Pharisees said to Him, “Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” But He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him: how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?” And He said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.”

Lk 13:14-16 But the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath; and he said to the crowd, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day.” The Lord then answered him and said, “Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it? So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound — think of it — for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?”

Jn 5:10 The Jews therefore said to him who was cured, “It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed.”

Ac 20:7 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.

Col 2:16-17 So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.

Heb 4:3 For we who have believed do enter that rest, as He has said: “So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest,'” although the works were finished from the foundation of the world.

Heb 4:9 There remains therefore a rest for the people of God.

Rv 1:10 I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, and I heard behind me a loud voice, as of a trumpet…

Of course, there are more texts to consider, but these verses alone bring up an astonishing number of questions.

  • Was the creation week comprised of seven actual days?
  • What is the significance of God’s rest on the seventh day of creation, as opposed to the completion of each day’s work?
  • Why did God “rest” on the seventh day when He had no need to do so? And why six days of work as opposed to five or eight or ten?
  • How long did God’s rest last? Was it interrupted? Was His rest affected by Adam’s fall?
  • When did Adam’s fall occur?
  • What did God do on the eighth day that was different than what He did on the seventh day?
  • Why is the Sabbath not actually mentioned in Genesis? Why didn’t Moses call that seventh day a Sabbath?
  • What is the first mention of the Sabbath in the Bible? Is it plausible that this first mention of the Sabbath is when the Sabbath was first instituted?
  • What is the significance of this as it relates to the giving of manna?
  • Why is there a difference between the Exodic and Deuteronomic record of the fourth commandment? Is this a problem? How do you explain the difference?
  • What is the relationship between the Sabbath and the seventh day of creation?
  • What is the relationship between the Sabbath and Israel’s redemption from Egypt?
  • Does the mention of the creation week in Exodus establish a “creation ordinance” or is there some other plausible explanation?
  • What is the significance of the fourth commandment within the Decalogue?
  • What is the significance of its position within the Decalogue?
  • Is it really true that the Ten Commandments are all moral laws? How is that demonstrated?
  • What is a moral law? What are the characteristics of moral law?
  • How does the Sabbath stand up as a moral law?
  • Is it possible that the Ten Commandments contain a ceremonial law? If so, why would the Lord place a ceremonial law within the Ten Commandments?
  • Why were the priests required to work on the Sabbath?
  • Why did the Lord require that two lambs be sacrificed on the Sabbath?
  • Why did the Lord require that twelve loaves be cooked on the Sabbath?
  • Why was circumcision allowed to take place on the Sabbath?
  • Why did the Jewish Sabbath start on Friday evening instead of Saturday morning?
  • Why did the Lord specifically outlaw kindling a fire on the Sabbath, as opposed to many other possible works?
  • Why did the Lord require capital punishment for gathering sticks on the Sabbath?
  • Why does Sabbath justice require the life of the profane person?
  • Did the Sabbath require a congregational worship meeting? Where did it take place? Was that true for all of Israel’s history?
  • Why were animals required to rest on the Sabbath?
  • What is the significance of eighth-day ceremonies in the Law?
  • Why did the Lord end the ceremonial calendar with an eighth-day Sabbath?
  • What do the Sabbath, the Jewish calendar, the Temple, and Canaan have in common?
  • On this theme, what do Noah, Joshua and David have in common?
  • Why is the Sabbath included among the feasts of Israel, which are clearly ceremonial laws?
  • Why is the Sabbath called a sign? Are any other moral laws called signs? What other ceremonial commands are called signs?
  • What is/was the purpose of the ceremonial calendar laws?
  • How can it be demonstrated that any calendar law was abrogated?
  • Is it true that other nations observed the Sabbath? Can it be shown that other ANE societies observed a Sabbath?
  • Is the Sabbath going to be observed in the millennium or the future kingdom?
  • Are we going to observe the Sabbath in heaven? If so, how will it be observed? Will there be new rules?
  • Did Jesus provoke Sabbath controversies to restore its proper observance or to say something about Himself? Or both?
  • What was the significance of the Sabbath conflicts between the Pharisees and Jesus?
  • Does Jesus’ example of Sabbath keeping imply a duty of Christians to keep the Sabbath? Can the same be said of His obedience to all other Mosaic laws?
  • What is the significance of Christ being buried during the Sabbath and resurrected on the first day of the week?
  • What bearing do the Pastoral Epistles have with regard to understanding the Sabbath or the Lord’s Day?
  • What is a shadow-law and how are Christians to relate to them?
  • May Jewish and Gentile Christians relate to them in different ways?
  • What is the full range of legalism as presented in the NT? Is legalism only with respect to the theory that one can earn salvation by good works?
  • What term best describes requiring circumcision, not for salvation, but as a matter of Christian obedience? Or penance? Or two services on Sunday?
  • Did Paul teach that the church should observe the Sabbath? Did he allow certain Christians to observe the Sabbath? What were the guidelines and overriding principles with regard to Sabbath observance?
  • Was Paul referring to the weekly Sabbath in his letter to the Colossians?
  • What was the normative practice of the apostles?
  • How do we best explain the references in Acts to Sabbath preaching and first-day meetings?
  • How was the early church deceived on such a grand scale over what is believed to be a critical moral commandment?
  • Does the book of Hebrews state we are supposed to observe the Sabbath?
  • How do we tell whether an OT law is moral or ceremonial?
  • Did the Sabbath get transferred to the first day of the week?
  • What did John mean by the Lord’s Day? Is it Sunday, the Day of the Lord, or something else? Is there historical research that can shed light on this?

Even this list of questions could be dwarfed as other passages and verses are added to the discussion. And when it comes to actually applying the Sabbath on Sunday or Saturday, the following questions also come into the fray.

  • If the Sabbath was made for pre-fall Adam and his posterity, just what would mankind be resting from?
  • Similarly, do angels rest from their God-ordained labors?
  • If the Sabbath was instituted at creation, how is the Lord’s creation work different than His maintenance work, and how is man’s work apparently more similar to God’s creation work?
  • Where can it be shown that the Sabbath was moved or transferred to Sunday?
  • If the Sabbath is a moral command, how can the Sabbath be moved to the first day of the week?
  • On what basis are any OT laws considered abrogated?
  • How does one determine whether a Mosaic law is moral or ceremonial, or otherwise?
  • Define the relationship between the OT and NT in terms of their differences and similarities?
  • Is it helpful to understand the Law as comprised of moral, judicial (civil), and ceremonial laws? Is there a better understanding?
  • To what extent is the Sabbath to be applied to Christians? Or to non-Christians?
  • Is there a danger in prescribing certain behaviors that perhaps are not truly desired by God?
  • Is there a danger in underestimating the importance of gathering with believers on a day that God has set apart?
  • Are the Sabbath and Lord’s Day different in any way? If there is a difference, why?
  • What is the origin of the term “Christian Sabbath” and how is it to be understood?
  • What if it could be demonstrated that each facet of Sabbath law foreshadowed Christ’s redemptive work?
  • What did the early church teach about the Lord’s Day and the Sabbath? Can the changing views of this relationship be rationally understood in terms of the historical milieu? Or better as an early apostasy from the true religion?
  • Is there any significance to the “first day of the week” that connects the OT and NT?
  • Explain the authority of the apostles?
  • Where did the paradigm for the Christian assembly come from?
  • How closely did synagogal Sabbath meetings conform to Mosaic Sabbath laws?
  • Is the Lord’s Day a holy day, similar to Mosaic holy days, or is it different? If different, how so?
  • Is there a difference between the NT and OT concerning holy things?
  • How can a Christian tell if he is being urged to obey a man-made law?
  • When did the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day get confused with each other?
  • Why do Sabbatarians differ about what can and cannot be done on the Christian Sabbath?
  • May we buy on Monday what was labored over on Sunday?
  • Must machines or other objects be given a seventh-day rest?
  • How far can we drive on the Sabbath, if we can drive at all?
  • Why don’t Sabbatarians advocate capital punishment for breaking the Sabbath?
  • How can it be demonstrated with clarity that capital punishment is abrogated by the NT?
  • Why do Sabbatarians allow cooking on the Christian Sabbath?
  • How can it be demonstrated that some elements of OT sabbatic laws are abrogated while other elements are not?
  • Define the term “Sabbath principle.”
  • Was the Puritan’s effort to obey the Sabbath legalistic? If so, in what way(s)?
  • Why do Sabbatarians and non-Sabbatarians quote Calvin as their authority?
  • What did Calvin actually teach about the Sabbath and was he correct?
  • Is the correct spiritual meaning of rest that we are to rest from our sins?
  • When did seventh-day Sabbatarianism develop and why?
  • If the Sabbath command morally directs a pattern of six days work and one day rest, what authority do Christians have to take a vacation?
  • If it is a sin to work on the Sabbath, is it also a sin to rest on a work day?
  • May Christians rest more than one day per week if they complete all their work in the space of five days or less?
  • How true to God’s word are the Reformed standards with regard to their exposition of the fourth commandment?
  • Are Christians being offended by man-made laws in the name of Sabbatarianism? If so, what are the implications of this for the church?
  • Are non-Sabbatarian Christians sinning when they allow what a Sabbatarian denies?
  • Is recreation sinful on the Sabbath? Are there light, medium, and heavy recreations? Where does one draw the line for appropriate Sabbath behavior?
  • Do Christians have as much difficulty understanding and agreeing on the meaning and application of the other nine moral commandments? If not, why?
  • How did the apostles decide on first-day worship? Was first-day worship an empirical decision or a divine command?
  • Are two services required on the Lord’s Day? If so, on what Scriptural basis?
  • What is Christian worship most like: the OT Sabbath or the tradition of the synagogue?
  • May Christians really worship in corporate fashion on any day of the week?
  • Is it proper to observe the Lord’s Supper on Saturday night? How often should the Lord’s Supper be observed?
  • Is the Passover meal a sufficient basis for determining whether children may partake in communion?
  • Is the Lord’s Supper a “Christian Passover”? If so, what specific Paschal laws are still obeyed by Christians?
  • Can the institution of the Lord’s Day stand apart from the historical Sabbath?
  • What is the Christian’s relationship to circumcision? Is it literally obeyed or spiritually applied? Is it partially applied? Is there a moral component to it that still informs Christian morality?
  • Is the Sabbath a command given to Israel, a command for the whole world, or a tradition derived from earlier ANE cultures?
  • Do we view the Genesis record of creation as an historical account?
  • Is it possible that there is symbolism or typology within actual history?
  • Is God in control of history?
  • If ceremonial laws are “extensions of moral law”, then how can a ceremonial be abrogated?
  • What is your view of typology?
  • Are there any rules to making typological associations?
  • On what basis does the LD camp justify weekly church attendance if not on the Sabbath? Does Hebrews 10:24-25 form a sufficient basis for encouraging regular attendance at church?
  • How long did the church exist before some theologian suggested a moral impetus for church attendance with the Sabbath commandment?
  • How did the church come to abandon the Sabbath and to elevate in its place Sunday as the day of rest and worship?
  • Can the change from the Sabbath to Sunday be justified on really valid grounds?
  • Was the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Sunday a sufficient reason for abandoning the Sabbath and replacing it by Sunday as the day of rest and worship?

I am not the only one asking questions. Ratzlaff (LD-Evangelical) begins his book with these questions:[iii]

  • Why not do a thorough study of the Sabbath?
  • Why not keep the fourth commandment?
  • Is the Sabbath moral or ceremonial?
  • How should one observe the Sabbath?
  • How did Jesus relate to the Mosaic Laws?
  • Does Sabbath unity bring Christian unity?
  • Does the Sabbath promote gospel clarity?
  • How is a study of the Sabbath to be approached

The last question in particular is what this series hopes to answer by providing a framework for negotiating though the myriad voices competing for your countenance. As mentioned in Part 1b, Ray’s (CS-Puritan) Celebrating the Sabbath is a study book replete with questions, too numerous to repeat here. However, these are a representative offering:

  • Why do friendly discussions of the fourth commandment often become heated?
  • How do misinformation and a lack of information about the Sabbath fuel controversy within many churches and families?
  • What is legalism and what is lawlessness?
  • How does Jesus’ resurrection from the dead advance and improve our understanding of the Sabbath?
  • How is the Sabbath a picture of redemption in the Old Testament?
  • What categories of activities are appropriate to do on the Sabbath?
  • Does the fourth command require New Covenant believers to keep the Sabbath in the same way as believers who live under the Old Covenant? Why or why not?
  • What is recreation? Can any kind of recreation be appropriate to the Sabbath? Why or why not?

Everyone has their reasons for making their application of Sabbath law more or less stringent than what the OT texts obviously say. Begin answering the above questions and then you will begin your path toward understanding the relationship between the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day. Please endeavor to be consistent in your treatment of OT law and intellectually honest with your hermeneutics. It is not as simple as it may seem. Regardless, keep those questions coming.


[i] Swartly, Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women, p. 65-95.
[ii] For sake of brevity, the following abbreviations stand for the three main views: Lord’s Day (LD), Christian Sabbath (CS), and Saturday Sabbath (SS).
[iii] Ratzlaff, Sabbath in Christ, p. 16-18.