THE MOST IMPORTANT PASSAGES
Let’s turn now to the most important passages for answering the question we are asking in this article. The following three texts are especially relevant.
In Romans 14:5-6 Paul tells the Christians in
“5 One person considers one day to be above another day. Someone else considers every day to be the same. Each one must be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 Whoever observes the day, observes it for the honor of the Lord. . . .” (Holman Christian Standard Bible)
This passage forms part of Paul’s teaching in chapter 14 about what to do when there are differences of opinion among Christians.
Note how he refers here to believers who consider one day to be above another day, and to others who consider every day to be the same. It is highly likely that he is referring to days of the seven-day week, for two reasons.
First, if this wasn’t what Paul was talking about, what else could it be? At the time he wrote this letter, the only other situation I can think of when Christians would have differed in their approach to a certain day would have involved Jewish feast days. But if this is what Paul had in mind, it is very surprising that he didn’t just say something like:
“One Christian observes a Jewish feast day, but another chooses not to.”
Instead, Paul makes explicit references to one day being above another and to all days being the same. This sounds much more naturally as if he is talking about days of the seven-day week.
Second, it is highly plausible that differences in attitudes to days of the seven-day week was a topic of discussion among Christians at this time in the late 50s, when Paul wrote Romans.
We saw above that there is good evidence that at this time many (mainly Gentile) Christians were treating Sunday as a special day. And it is extremely implausible that by this time all Jewish Christians had ceased to observe the Sabbath. Furthermore, we know that many churches had a mixture of Gentile and Jewish believers.
So it makes perfect sense to think that disputes on this issue often arose.
For two reasons, therefore, it is highly probable that Paul is talking in this verse about days of the seven-day week. He apparently has in mind some Christians who treat a day of the week as special and others who don’t.
And he says that each should be convinced in their own mind, which clearly implies that those who take different views on this issue should not be forced to change their practices.
This passage, then, stands as a strong piece of biblical evidence for two things. First, it is not compulsory for Christians to treat a day of the week as special. And second, it is not wrong for Christians to treat a day as special.
In Colossians 2:16-17 Paul instructs the church in
“16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”
Note how Paul tells the Colossians not to let anyone judge them in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are all Jewish days that were observed in various ways. And “Sabbath” here is certainly a reference to the Jewish Sabbath.
Paul is clearly implying that the Colossians are under no obligation to observe any of these days. We can’t reconcile his description of the days as a shadow of the things to come, with the idea that Christians have to observe any of them.
When Paul tells his readers not to let anyone judge them, then, he doesn’t mean simply that they shouldn’t let people judge them for the way they observe these days. Part of his meaning is that they shouldn’t let people judge them for not observing the days at all.
Because Paul refers to Jewish days as a shadow of the substance in Jesus, we might at first sight think he is implying that it is wrong for Christians to treat these days as special. That, however, would be to read too much out of what he says. We know, for example, that Paul regarded circumcision as unnecessary in Christ (Galatians ), yet he didn’t insist that Jewish Christians cease to circumcise their sons. In fact, we are even told that Paul himself circumcised Timothy when he thought it would be helpful (Acts 16:1-3)! This passage, then, is not saying that it is wrong for Christians to treat the Jewish Sabbath as a special day.
Although Paul’s focus here is on Jewish special days, what he says fits poorly with the idea that Christians have to treat Sunday as special. When he refers to Jewish special days as a shadow of what was to come, he seems to be making two points. First, as I have said, he clearly implies that Christians don’t have to observe these Jewish days. And second, he most naturally seems to imply too that things like what days we choose to observe are not that important in the Christian era.
We can say several things about this passage, then. First, it clearly teaches that Christians are not under obligation to observe the Jewish Sabbath. Second, it fits poorly with the view that Christians must treat Sunday as a special day. Third, there is no significant evidence here that it is wrong for Christians to treat a day of the week as special.
In Galatians 4:9-11 Paul says to the churches in
“9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.”
Here Paul criticises the Galatians for observing “days and months and seasons and years.”
In this letter Paul’s main concern is to persuade his Gentile Christian readers that they don’t need to obey the law of Moses. Given this context, the reference to “days” almost certainly includes a reference to the Jewish Sabbath.
At first sight, Paul’s attitude to observing the Sabbath in this passage seems very different from his attitude in Romans. In Romans, as we have seen, Paul says that Christians should follow their consciences as to whether or not they treat a day as special. But here in Galatians he is far more critical of Sabbath observance.
This difference can probably be explained by the different contexts. False Christians had been telling the Galatians that keeping the law of Moses, including its Sabbath regulations, was necessary for salvation, and they were in serious danger of believing this. Paul therefore strongly warns them against going down this road.
There seems to be no evidence, however, that the Roman Christians were in danger of thinking that keeping any special day was necessary for salvation. So Paul was apparently willing to take a much more relaxed approach to the matter in his letter to
I noted above that Colossians 2:16-17 is no significant evidence that it is wrong for Christians to observe the Sabbath, even though that text describes special Jewish days as a shadow. Galatians 4:9-11 is similar. Even though Paul is so critical of observing Jewish days in this passage, there is no strong evidence here that it is actually wrong for Christians to keep the Jewish Sabbath. As I have said, Paul’s tone can be explained by the particular context he was writing in.
Although Paul’s focus in Galatians 4:9-11 is on Jewish special days, what he says fits poorly with the view that Christians have to treat Sunday as special. It is difficult to imagine him critically saying to the Galatians, “You observe days and months and seasons and years,” and at the same time believing that any Christians were obliged to observe another special day, i.e., Sunday.
There are several things, then, that we can say about this passage. First, it strongly implies that Christians are not under obligation to keep the Jewish Sabbath. Second, it fits poorly with the idea that Christians must treat Sunday as a special day. And third, it provides no strong evidence that it is wrong for Christians to treat a day of the week as special.
Let’s sum up what we have found in the above three passages.
First, all three texts strongly imply that Christians are not obliged to keep the Jewish Sabbath.
Second, the Romans passage strongly implies that Christians are not obliged to treat Sunday as a special day, and the Colossians and Galatians passages point less strongly in the same direction.
Third, the Romans passage strongly implies that it is not wrong for Christians to treat a day of the week as a special day, and the Colossians and Galatians passages don’t count as any significant evidence against this.
Now let’s make an overall conclusion that takes account of all the passages we have looked at.
This conclusion can be given in three points:
(1) Christians are not under obligation to keep the Jewish Sabbath.
(2) Christians are not under obligation to treat Sunday as a special day.
(3) It is not wrong for Christians to treat a day of the week as special, whether the Jewish Sabbath, Sunday, or even another day.
WHAT WE DO TODAY
In view of these points, it is wrong for Christians who do or don’t treat a day of the week as special to demand that others follow suit. Instead, those who choose to observe a day and those who choose not to should respect each other.
Of course, it is extremely common today for Christians and churches to treat Sunday as special. And as we have seen, there are good reasons for thinking that many first century believers did this. It therefore makes perfect sense that most churches choose to have their main gatherings on Sundays.
Something remarkable that is happening in our day, however, is that large numbers of Jews are becoming Christians. More Jews are coming to faith in Jesus now than has ever been the case. A conservative estimate for the number of Jewish Christians worldwide today is 100,000.
Many of these believers are keen not to lose their Jewish culture, and they often choose to keep the Jewish Sabbath. This is not something that we should oppose. When someone becomes a Christian, they should not be pressed to give up morally acceptable aspects of their culture. And this applies to Jews as much as anyone else.
POTENTIAL DANGERS OF TREATING A DAY AS SPECIAL
Although it is not wrong to treat a day of the week as special, there are potential dangers of doing this.
First, those who observe a day need to make sure that their dedication to following Jesus as Lord is not any less on the other six days of the week. As Christians, our lives are to be living sacrifices to God (Romans 12:1), twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Prayer, praise and studying Scripture should be major parts of our lives throughout the week, along with everything else that counts as love for God and people.
Second, those who treat a day of the week as special also need to avoid getting weighed down by lots of rules about what they allow themselves to do on that day. In the Gospels we often find Jesus speaking out against legalistic religion, especially regarding the Sabbath (e.g., in Matthew 12:1-14; Mark 2:23-3:6; Luke 6:1-11; 11:46; 13:10-17; 14:1-6). And Paul teaches that being a Christian is about freedom, not about being a slave to lots of rules (Galatians 5:1).
POTENTIAL DANGERS OF NOT TREATING A DAY AS SPECIAL
There are also potential dangers of choosing not to regard a day of the week as special.
Christians who take this position need to carefully consider what the consequences might be.
For example, at present in Western countries most people don’t go to work on Sundays. This means that at a church’s main Sunday worship service most of the members are easily able to be present. However, in the West there is an increasing trend towards working on Sundays. If this trend continues, it will surely become more difficult for us to gather together.
In my own life, because I am concerned about this issue, I have made a decision to generally avoid shopping on Sundays. I think the more that Sunday becomes just like any other day, the more unhelpful this will be for the church in the
where I live. So I
want to do my bit to discourage this. However, I don’t make a strict rule of not
shopping on Sundays, because I believe that would be to go too far. UK
Christians who choose not to treat any day as special need to think through issues like the one I have just mentioned, to see what the consequences are likely to be.
RESTING ONE DAY IN
The discussion in this article has been simply about whether or not Christians should treat a certain day of the week as special. I have not meant to imply that anyone should choose not to rest one day in seven when possible.
Human beings are designed to need rest, both in the form of sleep and in taking days off. When Christians are deprived of enough rest over a long period of time, it can have serious consequences on their lives, including spiritually.
The principle of having a rest day every week is an excellent one that we should all try hard to follow.