The Sabbath and the New Covenant
Among those who have launched attacks against the Christian observance of the seventh-day Sabbath are some who develop their arguments in the context of so-called New Covenant Theology (NCT).
Several Seventh-day Adventist scholars have written recently on the subject of the covenants in general and the Sabbath-covenant relationship in particular. They include: Samuele Bacchiocchi, Roy Gane and Skip MacCarty. These three authors offer three different approaches, and each one is a valuable resource.1
This brief article is not a technical study of the Sabbath and the New Covenant. Instead it will paint a broad-stroke portrait of NCT; it will briefly discuss the New Covenant Sabbath; it will look at the relationship of the Sabbath to Christ’s law of love; and it will spotlight the historical evidence for Sabbath observance as part of the New Covenant experience of the early Christians.
New Covenant Theology (NCT): A Brief Introduction
Trying to define NCT is a bit like trying to hit a moving target. As a relative newcomer to the complicated world of Protestant theology, it has not fully matured. There is no New Covenant denomination per se.
At the unified core of NCT is the belief that those who are in Christ live under the terms of the New Covenant – a covenant of grace that offers unconditional salvation to those who accept it. According to NCT, this New Covenant is the antithesis of the Old (Mosaic) Covenant that offered salvation only on condition of obedience; the New Covenant was necessary because the Old Covenant was a failure.
NCT does not leave obedience completely out of the picture, but Old Covenant law in general and the Ten Commandments in particular do not apply. Instead there are the commandments of Christ that make up the new “law of love.” People who are in Christ, who are in submission to Him, have this law written in their hearts. They are motivated to be obedient as a natural result of their love for Him, and their obedience is empowered by the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
According to NCT, the law of love encompasses and intensifies all the principles of the Ten Commandments except the fourth – the Sabbath Commandment. Advocates of NCT maintain that the Sabbath has lost its significance as a weekly holy day. They suggest that the Sabbath is now a continuous experience of rest from a life of sin, an ever-present realization of peace with God.
You can see that NCT includes wonderful spiritual principles that contribute to the very essence of the Christian life: salvation by grace, obedience motivated by love, law written on hearts, rest in Christ, etc. Yet those who teach and preach NCT exclude obedience to the very commandment that most clearly actualizes spiritual rest – the commandment that directs the heart of man to the heart of the Creator.
New Covenant Sabbath Rest
Rest in Christ is the key element in the experience of the true Christian. This rest comes when we abandon our own efforts to earn our salvation. It is the result of complete dependence upon Christ – the One who calls to us, "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
This offer of divine rest is not a New Testament innovation. While it may be part of the New Covenant experience, it is not limited to Christians. The Israelites who escaped toil and bondage in Egypt could have had it, but they forfeited the promised rest because of their hard-hearted rejection of God’s plan for them; the offer of spiritual rest was renewed centuries later in the words of David (Psalm 95:8-11; Hebrews 4:7). The inspired writer of Hebrews extended the same offer to his Christian readers, recalling the words of David and the experience of Israel (Hebrews 3:7 – 4:11).
How many Christians today truly experience the rest that God offers – the confident assurance of Christ’s all-sufficiency in the face of their own inadequacy? Is there something within us – some foolish pride or misplaced self-confidence – that feeds our spiritual rebellion and makes it hard for us to give up our conviction that we can somehow improve on God’s plan for our salvation?
The Holy Spirit speaks to our hearts through the message of Hebrews 3 and 4, warning against hardening our hearts through unbelief, and calling for us to accept the rest God offers. This rest is available to us just as it was to Israel back in David’s day and long before that.
In very specific terms, the epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that the weekly day of rest, established by God at the end of Creation week, is for us as well as for the Jews of the Old Testament period.
There remains therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His (Hebrews 4:9, 10).
In the Sabbath we have the clearest picture of true rest – rest that can only come when work is done. It speaks to us of God’s creative work, finished and perfect. It also points to His completed work of salvation, accomplished without our help and offered to us freely as a gift of grace.
Blessed and sanctified by God as both the symbol and the reality of rest, it is the purest expression of the New Covenant experience.
The Sabbath and the Law of Love
NCT says that Jesus established His law of love as the standard for Christian living, and He did this, at least in part, by affirming the principles of nine of the Ten Commandments. The Sabbath, according to NCT, is ceremonial rather than moral – and is therefore irrelevant for the Christian; that, so the argument goes, is why Jesus did not affirm the Sabbath for Christians.
So here are two questions for us to think about:
- Is the Sabbath ceremonial rather than moral?
- Is it true that Jesus did not affirm the Sabbath for Christians?
An easy answer to that first question is this: The Sabbath commandment was engraved in stone by the very hand of God. Not so the ceremonial law. God Himself put the Sabbath in the same category as the rest of the Ten Commandments. If the other nine are moral in nature, so is the fourth.
But this answer may be too simplistic. Some would argue that in spite of being written in stone, the Sabbath commandment was clearly ceremonial in nature. After all, the law prescribed specific rituals for the Sabbath: extra animal sacrifices and renewal of the “bread of the Presence” on the table of showbread, for example (Numbers 28:9, 10; Leviticus 24:8).
In order to determine whether the Sabbath is moral or ceremonial we should look beyond stone tablets and temple rituals to the essential nature of the Sabbath itself. That view takes us back to the beginning, back to Genesis 2:2, 3.
And by the seventh day God completed 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 (Genesis 2:2, 3).
There we get the day of rest, direct from the Creator’s expressed will, called into existence and blessed and sanctified. There we see the Sabbath transcending our finite classifications (ceremonial, moral), established by God in the natural order of this created world. This suggests that the Sabbath is “natural.”
If the Sabbath is part of the natural order, established by God at Creation, then it cannot be thought of as merely ceremonial. True, there were rituals – ceremonies – connected with its observance, but they did not affect the essential nature of the day. But labeling the Sabbath as moral is not entirely accurate either. True, the Sabbath commandment is part of the moral law. But the Sabbath does not originate with that law; instead, it was woven into the fabric of time at the end of Creation week.
This brings us to our second question: Did Jesus affirm the Sabbath for Christians, or not?
The gospel record shows that Jesus taught proper Sabbath keeping by word and deed. That this was a priority with Him is clearly demonstrated by His seven Sabbath miracles.2 These were all headline events in the life of Jesus, and His lessons on Sabbath keeping became a major point of controversy between Him and His opponents.
Jesus sometimes confronted false ideas about the Sabbath head on, without benefit of miraculous healings. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all report the “grain field” controversy, with Jesus defending His disciples after they had “harvested” a few heads of grain on Sabbath to assuage their hunger.3 All three versions include Jesus’ claim of lordship over the Sabbath. Mark goes beyond Matthew and Luke, preserving Jesus’ reference to the Sabbath-Creation connection:
"The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
By clarifying the nature of the Sabbath and by demonstrating its observance, Jesus affirmed the Sabbath both in principle and in practice. In publishing terms, the four gospels devote far more column inches to the Sabbath than to any other specific commandment-related rule of life. Why would Jesus give the Sabbath so much space in His ministry if He did not intend for it to be an important part of Christian life and experience?
Jesus clearly addressed the Sabbath issues of His day, thereby affirming the validity of the weekly day of rest and worship. After all, why would He omit from His own law of love the one commandment that – above all others – provides a temporal context for nurturing the believer’s relationship with his Lord?
The Sabbath among the Early Christians
The Bible of the first-century Christians was what we know today as the Old Testament. That was what Paul referred to when he wrote that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim. 3:16), upholding it as the source of doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction. The Old Testament provided the authoritative foundation for the sermons of Jesus, Paul, Peter, and Stephen – as well as for all of the epistles of our New Testament.
According to conservative scholars, the four gospels were all written during the second half of the first century. The books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John contain the major body of New Testament Sabbath teachings. The prominence of the Sabbath in the gospels is hard to explain unless the Sabbath had special meaning among those to whom the gospel accounts were originally addressed.
Anti-Sabbath commentators credit Paul with teaching the abrogation of the Sabbath as a literal weekly day of rest and worship. But Paul’s own practice proves his loyalty to the Sabbath (Acts 13:14; 13:42, 44; 16:13; 18:4). (For a closer look at Paul’s so-called “problem texts” see our companion articles on Romans 14, Galatians 4 and Colossians 2.)
Did the early Christians reject the Sabbath as part of the Old Testament’s Old Covenant? Certainly not. Did Sabbath observance die out in the apostolic era? Certainly not. Did the New Testament writers paint the Sabbath out of their picture of the early church? Certainly not.
The documented evidence of history supports the view that the Sabbath remained a part of Christian belief and practice throughout the apostolic era. The earliest unambiguous evidence of Christians rejecting the weekly Sabbath comes from the fraudulently named Epistle of Barnabas, written by an unknown author in Alexandria no earlier than about 130 AD.
The New Testament record and extra-biblical documents of history support the conclusion that the first-century church – the first “New Covenant church” – was a Sabbath-keeping church. Its most prominent literature – and its apostolic leaders – promoted a faith-based relationship with the Savior. There, in the primitive Christian church, Sabbath keeping was modeled for us in the context of New Covenant Theology.
1 Samuele Bacchiocchi, The Sabbath under Crossfire (Berrien Springs: Biblical Perspectives, 1998); Roy Gane, “The Role of God’s Moral Law, Including Sabbath, in the ‘New Covenant’,” available from the Biblical Research Institute, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 12501 Old Columbia Pike, Silver Spring, MD 20904, also available online at http://www.adventistbiblicalresearch.org; Skip MacCarty, In Granite or Ingrained? (Berrien Springs: Andrews University Press, 2006).
2 The demoniac in the synagogue at Capurnaum (Mark 1:21-27; Luke 4:31-36); Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:30, 31); man with the withered hand (Matthew 12:9-14; Mark 3:1-5; Luke 6:6-11); bent-over woman (Luke 13:10-16); man with dropsy (Luke 14:1-6); crippled man at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-18); man born blind (John 9:1-14).
3 Matthew 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5)