Biblical Theology and the Transfer of the Sabbath (Part 1)

Biblical Theology and the Transfer of the Sabbath (Part 1)

It is often objected that there is no direct evidence of Sunday observance in the New Testament, and therefore there must not have been any command to continue any sort of weekly Sabbath observance in continuity with the Old Testament Sabbath.[1] However, this series will demonstrate that there is evidence for the change in day of worship both foreshadowed in the Old Testament and expressly demonstrated in the Lord’s Day (Sunday) worship by the New Testament church. Furthermore, the seemingly universal observance of Sunday in the early church indicates an early apostolic origin to the practice, perhaps even stemming from Jesus’s direct teaching.

Old Testament Shadows of the Day Change

Several institutions and patterns in the Old Testament served as types that foreshadowed the change in Sabbath day. Two of these include: the difference between Sabbath motivations in the two givings of the law and the eighth day references in Mosaic law.[2]

First, the different motivations for Sabbath observance found in the Exodus and Deuteronomy Sabbath commands. The fourth commandment in Exodus 20 states that the Sabbath should be remembered because of God’s rest after creation: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (20:11). However, the Deuteronomic version of the fourth commandment offers a different motivation: “You shall remember that you were a slave[c] in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day (5:15). This additional impetus for Sabbath observance (i.e., redemption) points forward to the great redemption to be found later in the new covenant. Haldane explains:

That God purposed to appoint the day of his resting from the work of this new creation, as the Sabbath which he was afterwards to bless and hallow in remembrance of it, in place of that day which he had formerly consecrated to the memory of his resting form the first creation, appears from his commanding the Israelites to observe the Sabbath in remembrance of their deliverance from Egyptian bondage. That deliverance was an eminent type of the redemption of his people by Christ from the bondage of Satan.[3]

Thus, because the day was a typological pointer to a greater redemptive rest to come, a rest secured by Jesus, then it is fitting that when the antitype is secured by Jesus’s resurrection that the day of commemoration changes. Sunday observance as the Lord’s Day is fitting. Just as the Israelites commemorated their redemption from Egypt on Saturday, so too should Christians commemorate their redemption from slavery on the day that their redemption was secured: Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection.

Eighth Day Theme

A second example of types foreshadowing the change in Sabbath day in the new covenant is the eighth day theme. Again, Haldane explains:

The change of the day of weekly rest, from the last to the first day of the week, that is from the seventh to the EIGHTH day, is indicated in various places throughout the Old Testament Scriptures. The work of creation was finished in six days, and on the seventh day God rested from his work, which completed a week, or the first series of time. The eighth day, then, was the first of a new series, and on this, the day of his resurrection, the Lord Jesus rested from the work of the new creation. The eight day is accordingly signalized in the Old testament, pointing in a manner the most express to the day when Jesus entered into his rest, and when the commemoration thereof, his people are to rest.[4]

Various examples may be given of this eighth day theme in the Old Testament that are fulfilled in the New Testament, such as: circumcision, sacrifices, consecration, cleansing, atonement, the dedication of the temple, and the conclusion of the feast of tabernacles. An examination of just a few will suffice.

First, circumcision was administered to children on the eighth day as a sign of the covenant that God made with Abraham. As a sign of the righteousness that Abraham received by faith, circumcision was impressed Abraham and his posterity on the eighth day: “a day on which that [justifying] righteousness was, by the resurrection of the Messiah, to be ‘brought in.’ As soon as the pledge was thus redeemed, the rite of circumcision ceased. At that early period, then, we find a clear indication of the high distinction which, in a distant age, was to be conferred on the eighth day.”[5] The final circumcision, Christ’s, and His triumph over the “rulers and authorities” is commemorated every Sunday, the day to which every previous eighth day pointed.

Other aspects of the old covenant likewise point toward the eighth day fulfillment in the new covenant. The firstborn of cattle, which belonged to God, were not offered or received by Him until the eighth day (Ex 22:30). Not until the eighth day were animals accepted in sacrifice (Lev 22:27). Aaron’s consecration was not completed until the eighth day (Lev 9:1). On the eighth day of cleansing, lepers were pronounced clean, typical of the cleansing from sin that Jesus would procure (Lev 14:10; cf. Lev 15:14, 29). On the eighth day too was atonement made for the defiled Nazarite (Num 6:10). These all point forward to the fulfillment of the eighth day:

The eighth day corresponds with the first day of the week, on which, according to all these typical appointments, Jesus was received as the first-born from the dead, his sacrifice was accepted, and on which, as the great High Priest, he was “consecrated for evermore,” and when he made atonement for his people, by which they are cleansed from sin.[6]

Thus, the difference in motivations between the two Sabbath commands, circumcision, and the ceremonial types found around the eighth day in the old covenant all point forward to a greater reality which has its antitype on the Lord’s Day. Therefore, the change of day was typological foreshadowed in the old covenant.

The next post in the series will look at the New Testament evidence of Lord’s Day observance.

[1] Bauckham, Richard, “The Lord’s Day,” in From Sabbath To Lord’s Day, ed. D. A. Carson (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1999), 236.

[2] These points on the foreshadowing of the change of day are drawn principally from: Robert Haldane, Sanctification of the Sabbath: The Permanent Obligation to Observe the Sabbath Or Lord’s Day (Edinburgh: William Whyte & Co., 1842), 380–87.

[3] Ibid., 379.

[4] Ibid., 381.

[5] Ibid., 381–82.

[6] Ibid., 382 Emphasis original.

Jon English serves as a Pastor of Morningview Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He has earned an undergraduate degree in Microbiology from Auburn University Montgomery, a Masters of Divinity from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a PhD in Systematic and Historical Theology from SBTS. Jon English is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and a fellow for the Center for Pastor Theologians.
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