THE AUTHORITY BY WHICH THE SABBATH WAS CHANGED TO THE FIRST DAY OF THE WEEK

Joseph D. McPherson
THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 2. FAll 2016. Volume 34.
Date Posted June, 2016

The Lord's Day or first day of the week is recognized by most in the Christian community as being the New Testament Sabbath. This is admittedly a departure from the Jewish Sabbath established by the moral Law of Moses. A legitimate question is then heard. How did such a change take place and by what authority within the New Testament church is the Sabbath moved from the seventh day of the week to the first? William Burt Pope, considered to be the "prince of Methodist theologians," and Richard Watson, author of the first systematic theology for early Methodism, offer scripturally based answers to these questions.

"Amongst the permanent Divine ordinances of worship," writes Pope, "must be reckoned THE SABBATH as its chief and representative season. This institution was an appointment of God from the beginning of time to the end.... Christianity has retained the institution as belonging to Divine worship; but, by the same authority which gave the original law, has modified it." By way of explanation, he says: "Its connection with the Jewish sabbatical cycle ended, and therefore its place as a covenant sign between Jehovah and the peculiar people." He assures us that "Its original purpose to commemorate the creation and bear witness to the government of the One God was retained, but, as the new creation of mankind in Christ Jesus had more fully revealed the Triune God, the day of the Lord's resurrection, the first day of the week, became the Christian Sabbath, or the Lord's Day" (Compendium,3:290).

Pope then assures us of the true source of authority for the present and modified existence of the Christian Sabbath and our obligatory adherence to it.

The new ordinance of the Sabbath in the Gospel was given by Christ Himself, the Lord also of the Sabbath. Before His passion He dealt with it as with all His Institutions, by preliminary indications of His future will. He condemned false interpretation, while He included it in the law which He did not come to destroy.... With His resurrection began a formal appointment of the First day, and with the Pentecost He finally ratified it.... Hence we find the first day, as the Lord's Day, hallowed throughout the New Testament; the last tribute uniting the Resurrection and the Pentecost: I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day. To use St. Paul's word on another occasion, the law of the Christian Sabbath is not of man, neither by man, not of the Church nor by the Church, but by Jesus Christ (3:291).

Richard Watson, in a part of his lengthy discourse on this subject, assures us that "the observance of the Sabbath is a part of the moral law." This is clear, he assures us, "from its being found in the decalogue, the doctrine of which our Lord sums up in the moral duties of loving God and our neighbor." Watson reminds us that "its observance is connected throughout the prophetic age with the highest promises, its violations with the severest maledictions; it was among the Jews in our Lord's time a day of solemn religious assembling, and was so observed by him; when changed to the first day of the week, it was," says he, "the day on which the first Christians assembled; it was called, by way of eminence, 'the Lord's day;' and we have inspired authority to say, that both under the Old and New Testament dispensations, it is used as an expressive type of the heavenly and eternal rest."

Now, though there is not on record any Divine command issued to the apostles, to change the Sabbath from the day on which it was held by the Jews, to the first day of the week; yet, when we see that this was done in the apostolic age, and that St. Paul speaks of the Jewish Sabbaths as not being obligatory upon Christians, while he yet contends that the whole moral law is obligatory upon them, the fair inference is, that this change of the day was made by Divine direction. It is at least more than inference, that the change was made under the sanction of inspired men; and those men, the appointed rulers in the Church of Christ; whose business it was to "set all things in order," which pertained to its worship and moral government. We may rest well enough, therefore, satisfied with this, -that as a Sabbath is obligatory upon us, we act under apostolic authority for observing it on the first day of the week, and thus commemorate at once the creation and the redemption of the world.

Thus, even if it were conceded, that the change of the day was made by the agreement of the apostles, without express direction from Christ, (which is not probable,) it is certain that it was not done without express authority confided to them by Christ (Theological Institutes, 2:509; 511-512).

It is recognized by all that the weekly and daylight hours of the Lord's Day cannot be the same in all time zones around the earth. It is furthermore recognized that the commandment expressly states that "after six days of labor" the seventh is to be reverenced as the Sabbath. Thus we see that the Christian practice is found to conform exactly to the Jewish. "It is not, however, left to every individual to determine which day should be his Sabbath," warns Watson, "though he should fulfil the law so far as to abstract the seventh part of his time from labor. It was ordained for worship, for public worship; and it is therefore necessary that the Sabbath should be uniformly observed by a whole community at the same time." Watson, with emphasis, assures us that it was "By apostolic authority, [the Christian Sabbath] is now fixed to be held on the first day of the week; and thus one of the great ends for which it was established, that it should be a day of 'holy convocation,' is secured" (2:51314).

It has been argued by some that such a narrow view of the Christian Sabbath is overturned by St. Paul's letter to the Romans in which he writes: "One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it" (Rom. 14:56).

It is a mistake to suppose that the Apostle has the Sabbath in mind when writing these words. Such an erroneous supposition would be a wrenching of his words and meaning out of context. It must first be remembered that he is writing to a church whose members are made up of both Jewish and Gentile converts. Reliable Bible expositors, such as Adam Clarke, agree that "Reference is being made here to the Jewish institutions, and especially their festivals; such as the passover, pentecost, feast of tabernacles, new moons, jubilee, &c." Jewish Christians continued to think of these special days and festivals to be of moral obligation. In contrast, the Gentile Christians had never been trained to observe these special days related to the Jewish ceremonial law and therefore had no inclination nor desire to observe them. Furthermore, those who had been instrumental in their conversion enforced no such requirement upon them. In consequence, they paid no religious regard to these special days of the Jewish institution.

"The converted Gentile," writes Clarke, "esteemeth every day - considers that all time is the Lord's and that each day should be devoted to the glory of God; and that those festivals are not binding on him." Accordingly, it is concluded that "With respect to the propriety or nonpropriety of keeping the [Jewish special days and] festivals, 'Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind;' there is sufficient latitude allowed: all may be fully satisfied."

Our translators have added the word "alike" in verse 5. This word, according to Clarke, "should not be added; nor is it acknowledged by any [manuscript] or ancient version." By adding the word "alike," they "make the text say what [we can be] sure was never intended, viz. that there is no distinction of days, not even of the Sabbath: and that every Christian is at liberty to consider even this day to be holy or not holy, as he happens to be persuaded in his own mind."

"That the Sabbath is of lasting obligation," writes Clarke, "may be reasonably concluded from its institution and from its typical references. All allow that the Sabbath is a type of that rest in glory which remains for the people of God. Now, all types are intended to continue in full force till the antitype, or thing signified, take place; consequently, the Sabbath will continue in force till the consummation of all things" (Commentary, 6:151).