Christ and the Sabbath

Stephen Terry


Commentary for the May 3, 2014 Sabbath School Lesson

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” Exodus 20:8-11, NIV

The Seventh-day Sabbath, a day commonly referred to as Saturday by non-sabbatarians is a foundational dogma of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.[i] This is in spite of the historical evidence that William Miller’s advent movement from which the denomination arose was not sabbatarian. Not until approximately five years after the Great Disappointment of 1844 did the doctrine find enough acceptance among a group of former Millerites to be published in their official church paper, “The Present Truth,” predecessor to the “Advent Review” of today. The original impetus brought to bear on the fledgling flock by Joseph Bates appears to have originated from the Seventh Day Baptists, a denomination founded approximately two centuries earlier,[ii]  in the person of Rachel Oakes, who convinced a Millerite Methodist preacher named Frederick Wheeler. Wheeler in turn shared that message with Mr Bates.

That the doctrine should become deeply imbedded within denominational theology perhaps should not be surprising since this was 14 years before the denomination officially organized in 1863. By then it had overcome any dissent to become common practice. During this interlude, such issues as when the Sabbath commences were ironed out. Some, Joseph Bates among them, advocated that Sabbath should be from 6 PM to 6 PM. Others took the Seventh Day Baptist position that it went from sundown to sundown. Ellen and James White apparently sided with Bates initially and then by 1847 came to support the other position.[iii] The seventh-day Sabbath became so integrated with Adventist belief that references to it in Ellen White’s published works run to several pages in the index to those writings.

So why, if it is such a fundamental teaching, do so many denominations attend church on Sunday as opposed to Saturday. Adventists have developed a rather involved theology to explain this. Like some other Christians they see a spiritual battle raging between Christ and Satan for the hearts and minds of men. However, they see that battle as focusing on a vast conspiracy to replace the true seventh-day Sabbath with a spurious substitute. This is so strongly felt that it is at times identified as THE true mark of who will and who will not be saved when Jesus returns, with the Sabbath being God’s seal, and the alternate day being the Mark of the Beast referred to in Revelation, chapter thirteen. Perhaps it is because of this conspiratorial tone that often permeates the evangelism of Adventism that so many parishioners seem to be caught up in one conspiracy theory after another, as though it were a matter of faith to constantly be seeking conspiracies to expose.

As part of the conspiracy, Constantine’s fourth century decree establishing the “venerable day of the Sun”[iv] as a holy day is often cited as evidence of collusion between the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church to supplant the proper day of worship. This became a fundamental part of Seventh-day Adventism. Over the decades it grew to become an eventual belief in a vast involved conspiracy headed by the Roman Catholic Church which was held to be the embodiment of much of the evil of the Roman Empire. As a result, the denomination has been felt to be anti-Catholic in much the same hostile way that some people are anti-Semitic. To be sure, there are some within the denomination that are perhaps rabidly so, seeing Jesuits behind every tree and bush. While the majority of Seventh-day Adventists do not engage in anti-Catholic vitriol, denominational publications like “The Great Controversy,” by Ellen White continue to be published. However, some see the book as so anti-Catholic that versions made available to the wider public are sometimes edited to tone down such rhetoric.

It has not helped diffuse the conspiracy theorists when older Catholic catechisms for converts asserted that the Catholic Church arbitrarily changed the day of worship from Saturday to Sunday.[v] Is this true? Did the Roman Catholic Church seek to subvert a biblical day of worship? Perhaps not, in spite of what the Catholics themselves have said. Maybe the impetus for change occurred much earlier and the decree of Constantine was merely the political recognition and accommodation of a status quo already pretty much accomplished.

Some feel that the earliest challenges to Sabbath observance happened during the late first century, CE, only decades after Christ’s resurrection. Ignatius, the third bishop of Antioch wrote against the keeping of the Sabbath.[vi] In part, he wrote "If, therefore, those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord’s Day, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death—whom some deny, by which mystery we have obtained faith, and therefore endure, that we may be found the disciples of Jesus Christ, our only Master..." Possibly the latest date for his death is 117 CE. His birth shortly after Christ’s death makes it possible and even likely that he personally met one or more of the Apostles. As might be expected, apologists for sabbatarianism dispute that interpretation of his Koine Greek epistle. However, the nature of apologetics is not to search for truth but rather to assume truth is already found and defend it. Theologians on the other hand are more like Mulder on the television series “The X Files” and believe the full truth is still out there awaiting discovery.

A Seventh Day Baptist apologist, Bob Thiel, PhD, advances a typical explanation of why what Ignatius wrote does not challenge sabbatarianism.[vii] Because the epistle does not use the Greek word for “day,” Dr Thiel maintains it could not be referring to an alternate day of worship. He maintains that the insertion of the word “day” by the translators is inappropriate and that it alters the meaning. However, he is left to explain the clear writing against Sabbath observance in the passage. He does so by committing the sin he so vehemently condemns in the translators by inserting his own word into the text, “judaically.” In doing so he argues that Ignatius was not against the seventh-day Sabbath. He was only against keeping it like the Jews did. This may be a means to ignore early Christian anti-sabbatarianism, but it is a slim thread to cling to when considering the historical context.

First century Christianity was split between the Jewish Christians and the Hellenic Christians. Both competed for authority within Judaism and the sect of Jesus within that religious system. After the first revolt, the Jewish state was placed under the jurisdiction of Syria. The Jews naturally chafed at losing control of their country and eventually revolted again. While Jewish Christians may have been sympathetic to this antipathy toward Rome and its Syrian proxy, the Hellenic Christians may have felt differently with a more accommodating attitude toward their Syrian overlords. During this time, Antioch in Syria became an important Christian center for missionary activity. Paul, Silas, Barnabus, and Peter all worked in Antioch.

As hostility toward Rome grew in Jerusalem and Judea, perhaps those more aligned with the church in Antioch sought to distance themselves from that activity. By the time of Bar Kochba’s revolt, the fissures of that separation had become deep and was no doubt made even deeper by Kochba’s claim to be the Messiah, something unacceptable to the Christians, especially those who had no common religious tie to Bar Kochba as the Jews might have.[viii] Perhaps after the first revolt in 70 CE and certainly after the second one in 132 CE when all Jews were banned from Jerusalem, Christians sought to avoid anything that would identify them as Jews. Sabbatarianism is arguably one of the more obvious practices of Jewish worshippers. Rather than being an evil conspiracy, abandonment of Sabbath observance may have simply been a practical matter. Theological justification for doing so may have been found in Paul’s argument for abandoning circumcision. After all if one everlasting covenant was done away with at the cross, why not another?

So does the Sabbath have any significance today? It depends on how far one is on the continuum of biblical literalism. Those who see more metaphor and principles of intent in the Bible may not feel that it is relevant. Those who see the Bible as a set of rules to follow to be saved will perhaps feel that it is extremely relevant. However, even among such literalists there is a certain amount of picking and choosing as to which rules to follow. For instance, some will follow the rules regarding food purity in Leviticus, chapter eleven, but ignore the purity laws surrounding birth and menses.[ix] Others will ignore circumcision but advocate keeping the required religious feasts.

Nonetheless, if one is to be biblically literal, the Sabbath is more to be seen as a command than the observance of Sunday might be. Will it be THE marker that separates the saved from the lost? If so we might have to admit that secular Jews who observe Sabbath would have an edge over Christians who do not. That may not be the case. However, there is also little likelihood that observing Sunday will save us either. Those who observe it with understanding will say that it is about the deeper relationship to the resurrection that makes it important. But the Seventh-day Sabbath also offers a deeper relationship to the Creation that many may be missing by ignoring its observance. Maybe we should be open to both perspectives and the unique richness they each offer.


[i] “Seventh-day Adventist Church,”

[ii] “Seventh Day Baptists,”

[iii] Anderson, Dirk; “The Sabbath Confusion,”

[iv] dies Solis,  March 7, 321, CE

[v] Geiermann, Rev. Peter, C.SS.R.; “Convert’s Catechism of Catholic Doctrine,” pg 50, (1946)

[vi] Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Magnesians, 9:1-3

[vii] Thiel, Bob PhD; “The Didache, Ignatius, and the Sabbath,”

[viii] Encyclopedia Britannica, p. 167, Vol. 13, 14th ed.

[ix] Leviticus 12:2



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