I had the great honor of asking Dr. Jon C. Laansma (Professor of Classical Languages and New Testament, Gerald F. Hawthorne Chair of New Testament Greek and Exegesis, Wheaton) a few questions about Christians and the Sabbath.
As Christians not under the old covenant, there are many commandments we don’t keep: circumcision, refraining from eating pork or shellfish, etc. Why is the commandment to observe the Sabbath any different than the above-mentioned commandments?
Laansma: My view is that this commandment is not in fact different than the others; I am not Sabbatarian. This conclusion emerges both from a general understanding of Moses’ covenant in relation to the new covenant, and from a closer exegetical and theological examination of the Sabbath and Lord’s Day in the NT. Lord’s Day observance on the “first day of the week” (Sunday) emerged as an increasingly revered custom, in commemoration of the resurrection. It was not grounded in the Sabbath commandment(s) of Moses’ law; it was customary, not mandatory; and it was not thought of as a Sabbath. In the earliest years it probably existed alongside on-going (Saturday) Sabbath observance by some Christians, and for many Christians it was probably not the only day they met week-to-week; other customs connected with it probably varied from location to location. My own summary of arguments for this are in the IVP Dictionary of New Testament Background and (much more briefly) in the Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception.
I am of the view that the earliest Christians did not operate with a “one in seven” version of Sabbath observance, either. Nor did they—at least those who respected Matthew’s record of Jesus’ words in 5:17-20—view that OT command, or any OT command whatsoever, as “abolished” by Jesus. Rather, the Sabbath was fulfilled in the manner of circumcision, not through a one-to-one replacement of rites (I do not correlate circumcision and baptism as a one-to-one trade off, either, though they obviously do correlate more generally), but through recognition of its claim on the totality of one’s life-in-Christ. This of course leaves liberty to observe a weekly “Sabbath,” through which one worships God faithfully.
Is it important what day our Sabbath falls on? Does the Bible give any indication of a specific day of the week?
Laansma: Given the answer to #1, in the strict sense the answer to this question is no. There is no Christian “Sabbath” (as the observance of a day) in the first place, so no day on which to place it. Liberty allows those who wish to or feel bound to observe a (24 hr) Sabbath to do so on any of the seven days. The designation of “Lord’s Day” probably arose in connection with “the first day of the week” (Sunday), and so is most naturally (properly?) aligned with that day, though it should not be confused with a new version of Moses’ Sabbath. Yet it remains that the Lord’s Day (Sunday) is the long-honored tradition of most of the church, broadly accommodated in many societies, and should not be abandoned without good reason. Certainly, the “gathering” is at the heart of Christian faith and practice, which, if not daily, has never been practiced less than weekly.
What does a typical Sabbath day look like for you and your family? Are there certain practices you participate in? Are there certain things you refrain from?
Laansma: Given the above understandings, our Sundays (Lord’s Days) are probably fairly typical. It is and is not a “Sabbath” in all the ways expressed elsewhere in these answers. There is a general if not total disruption of the patterns of other days of the week, centered in active involvement in the fellowship of the church’s gathering and a more formal/intentional/explicit “turning to God” in gratitude, quietness, and faith. It is less the observance of a command—unless we’re speaking of the general command of the gospel itself—and more the desire to proclaim—to myself, my family, and others—what is fitting and true at all times.
Some who grew up in the church did so with a certain view of Sabbath as being a somber day; a day in which sports or watching television were not allowed (the Sabbath basically being a list of don’ts). Is this the biblical picture of Sabbath?
Laansma: Such customs fall within the scope of Christian liberty and can certainly be faithful, healthy, and life-giving. They can certainly do no more harm than a careless assimilation to cultural merriment and amusements. They can also represent an unfaithful, unwise, self-centered, inward focused ascetism, legalism, and more, just as participation in amusements can represent Christian joy, witness, and more. There is probably no one set of practices that can capture the full celebration and cultivation of our new-creation-life-in-the-context-of-old-creation-darkness. Let whatever is done be a work of faith (the faith that is true in Christ). Since the whole of the Christian life is a life of imitation of Christ, the most fitting manner of living on that day would be the embodiment of his missional love in all or any of its possible forms.
Isaiah 58 points in this direction, as do certain of Christ’s sayings in relation to the Sabbath; if the whole of one’s life is a fulfillment of Sabbath, then certainly this weekly observance would be a crystallization of that life, and in that way most certainly a “Sabbath day.” It would differ from other days only in its being more formal, intentional, and explicit. When we celebrate someone’s birthday we are not saying that they only matter on that day, but that we take that day to express more deliberately and intentionally that and how they matter. Hopefully, such a celebration is not a mere pause in a routine of disrespect and neglect, but an opportunity to express in a more concentrated way what is always true and a stimulation to a higher, sustained level of love in keeping with what was expressed on that day.
In your experience, what are some of the most common objections to Sabbath observance?
Laansma: Likely many objections to Sunday-Sabbath are objections to Christianity as a whole, perhaps its perceived hypocrisy and other perceived evils. Many objections are probably straw-man types of arguments, perhaps lumping all traditional Sunday prescriptions (e.g., church attendance, enforced rest, etc.) in with a pernicious Greek dualism and asceticism (or some other non-Christian element); since the latter are justifiably rejected, the former are for these people justifiably rejected with them, and perhaps the day as such. Many objections are probably grounded in ill-considered appeals to Scripture; e.g., since there is no express command to observe Sunday, it is not binding.
No doubt many view traditional Sunday-Sabbath observance as bound to cultural or theological hang-ups which are rightly jettisoned, or simply as failing to represent positively the joyful freedom, bridge-building missional love, or social justice and outward focused vision of Christ. From what I have said already it is clear that I do not believe that Sabbath is commanded as many other Christians believe it is, but that does not mean that I sympathize with bad arguments against the principle and practice, and it does not mean that I reject Lord’s Day observance or even a “Sabbath-shaped” understanding of what Lord’s Day should be. In the end, my view is that the claim of the Sabbath on our lives is more total, not less, than what was true within the Old Covenant.
For those who want to take the first steps and intentionally practice Sabbath, what advice would you give them? Are there any pitfalls to avoid, or things they could learn from your own experience?
Laansma: I am hesitant to prescribe particulars, given all the above. Soak (baptize) yourself in the gospel of Christ and make this a day more intentionally, openly, and bodily to honor his person, work, and will, particularly the family that he has formed around himself. The place to start is with your own church’s traditions, honoring them and taking sufficient time to understand and sympathize with them before entering into critical appraisal and possibly adaptation or departure.
Thank you for your time!
An editor of the forthcoming publication So Great a Salvation: A Dialogue on the Atonement in Hebrews (along with George Guthrie and Cynthia Westfall), Dr. Jon Laansma is author of the 2017 release The Letter to the Hebrews: A Commentary for Preaching, Teaching, and Bible Study and I Will Give You Rest (Wipf & Stock, 2015). Contributing regularly to a great number of respected academic resources on the Bible, Laansma’s areas of expertise include I Corinthians, Linguistics, The Old Testament in The New Testament, New Testament Exegesis, Hermeneutics, The Pastoral Epistles, and the study of Hebrews.