Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University
The latest issue of SUNDAY, the official publication of the Lord's Day Alliance of the US (LDA), carries an article entitled "WHY THE LORD'S DAY MATTERS TO ME." The article caught my attention because it is written by Rodney Nelson, who identifies himself in the opening statement as a former Seventh-day Adventist. His familiary with Greek suggests that he was an Adventist pastor or possibly a Bible teacher. Frankly, I did not anticipate to find a former Adventist promoting Sundaykeeping in the official publication of the LDA.
In the ongoing Sabbath discussion with Dale Ratzlaff, I mentioned that the Sabbath is attacked today, not only by Sundaykeeping scholars who have written numerous dissertations against it, but also by former Sabbatarians, including Adventist pastors who are embracing the New Covenant theology. This article provides an added example of this trend which reminds me of Ellen White warning that "the most bitter enemies" will be those "who once rejoiced in the truth" (GC 608).
Before sharing my ractions to the article, I wish to state that I respect the LDA, an ecumenical organization that is committed to promote the observance of Sundaykeeping in our materialistic society where many Christians ignore the Lord even on the day they call the Lord's Day. This trend is of great concern to many church leaders, including the Pope himself, who has just released a Pastoral Letter DIES DOMINI. My analysis of this important papal document will be released later this week. The reason for the renewed concern over the prevailing profanation of what Catholic and many Protestants regard as the Lord's Day, is the realization that this trend, if not checked, could eventually spell the doom of Christianity itself. Social analysts speak of Europe as living in the post-Christian era, because less than 10% of Christians go to church. The many beautiful empty cathedrals that dot the European landscape, have become silent monuments to the age of faith that is long past.
It was a privilege for our family to host in our home for a special Sabbath celebration, Dr. James Wesberry, the former Executive Director of the Lord's Day Alliance of the US. Truly, he was one of the most kind and gracious Christian gentleman I have ever met in my life. We spent a delightful Sabbath together here at Andrews University. He graciously invited me to deliver the keynote address at the annual board meeting of the LDA. In fact, before he passed away he wrote me a lovely letter, asking me to explore the possibility to establish an endowed chair for Sabbath Studies possibly here at Andrews University. When I informed him of the financial involvement, he told me that the amount was far more than he could handle. I mentioned these facts, simply to reassure the reader that my critique of the article should not be interpreted as an attack against the LDA, an organization that I respect, though I do not share its view of Sunday as the Lord's Day.
Nelson's article is divided in two parts. In the first part he explains why he abandoned the Sabbath and in the second he presents six reasons why he accepted Sundaykeeping. I will endeavor to offer a brief critique of his major arguments.
Nelson states simply and unequivocally that he changed his attitude toward Sundaykeepers "because Paul considered the one who esteemed one day above another as the 'weak' brother (Romans 14:4-6). This was completely opposite of my attitude toward those who worshipped on Sunday" (p. 9). He continues saying, "Furthermore, Colossians 2:16 said that I should not be condemned for observing the Sabbath. This freed me. First, I was free to accept Christian worshipping on the Lord's Day, and second, I was free to observe the Sabbath without condemnation" (p. 9).
ROMANS 14:4-6: WEAK BROTHER ESTEEMS SABBATH BETTER THAN SUNDAY
Nelson presume that the "weak" believers in Romans 14 esteemed the Sabbath better than other days while "the strong" treated the Sabbath like the rest of the week-days. But, can the Sabbath be legitimately read into this passage? In my view this is impossible for at least two reasons. First, the conflict between the "weak" and the "strong" over diet and days can hardly be traced back to the Mosaic law, because nowhere does the Mosaic law prescribe strict vegetarianism, total abstinence from all kinds of wine, or a preference over days presumably for fasting.
That the Mosaic law is not at stake in Romans 14 is also indicated by the term "koinos-common" which is used in v. 14 to designate "unclean" food. This term is radically different from the word "akathartos-impure" used in Leviticus 11 (Septuagint) to designate unlawful foods.
Apparently the dispute was over meat which per se was lawful to eat but because of its association with idol worship (cf. 1 Cor 8:1-13) was regarded by some as "koinos-common," that is, unfit for human consumption. The whole discussion in Romans 14 is not about freedom to observe the law versus freedom from its observance, but concerns "unessential" scruples of conscience dictated not by divine precepts but by human conventions and superstitions. Since these differing convictions and practices did not undermine the essence of the Gospel, Paul advises mutual tolerance and respect in this matter.
Second, if as Nelson presumes, it was the "weak" believer who observed the Sabbath, Paul would classify himself with the "weak" since he observed the Sabbath and other Jewish feasts (Acts 18:4, 19; 17:1, 10, 17; 20:16). Paul, however, views himself as "strong" ("we who are strong"-15:1); thus, he could hardly have been thinking of Sabbathkeeping when he speaks of the preference over days.
Support for this conclusion is provided also by Paul's advice: "Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind" (14:5). It is difficult to see how Paul could reduce the observance of holy days such as the Sabbath, Passover, and Pentecost to a matter of personal conviction, without ever explaining the reasons for it. This is all the more surprising since he labors at great length to explain why circumcision was not binding upon the Gentiles.
If Paul had taught his Gentile converts to regard Sabbathkeeping as a personal matter, Jewish Christians would readily have attacked his temerity in setting aside the Sabbath law, as they did regarding circumcision (Acts 21:21). The fact that there is no hint of any such controversy in the New Testament indicates that Paul never discouraged Sabbathkeeping or encouraged Sundaykeeping instead.
The preference over days in Romans presumably had to do with fast-days rather than feast-days, since the context deals with abstinence from meat and wine (Rom 14:2, 6, 21). Support for this view is provided by the Didache (ch. 8) which enjoins Christians to fast on Wednesday and Friday rather than on Monday and Thursday like the Jews.
Paul refuses to deliberate on such private matters such as fasting, because he recognizes that spiritual exercises can be performed in different ways by different people. The important thing for Paul is to "pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding" (Rom 14:19). If the conflict in the Roman Church had been over the observance of holy days, the problem would have been even more manifest than the one over diet. After all, eating habits are a private matter, but Sabbathkeeping is a public, religious exercise of the whole community. Any disagreement on the latter would have been not only noticeable but also inflammatory.
The fact that Paul devotes 21 verses to the discussion of food and less than two verses (Rom 14:5-6) to that of days suggests that the latter was a very limited problem for the Roman Church, presumably because it had to do with private conviction on the merit or demerit of doing certain spiritual exercises such as fasting on some specific days.
In the Roman world there was a superstitious belief that certain days were more favorable than others for undertaking some specific projects. The Fathers frequently rebuked Christians for adopting such a superstitious mentality. It is possible that Paul alludes to this kind of problem, which at his time, however, was still too small to deserve much attention. In the light of the above consideration, we conclude that it is hardly probable that the Sabbath is included in the "days" of Romans 14:5.
COLOSSIANS 2:16: FREEDOM TO ACCEPT SUNDAYKEEPERS
Nelson claims that Colossians 2:16 taught him that he should not be condemned for Sabbathkeeping. This in turn, he adds, freed him "to accept Christian worshipping on the Lord's Day." I have great difficulty in understanding how Nelson can reach these contradictory conclusions. If the text does not condemn Sabbathkeeping, does that free a person to accept Sundaykeepers, especially since Sundaykeeping is not an issue in this passage nor in the rest of the NT.
A careful analysis of the context by Sundaykeeping scholars, has shown that the statement "Therefore, let no one pass judgment on you . . ." refers not to Paul but to Colossian false teachers who imposed "regulations" (2:20) on how to observe the annual, monthly, and weekly holy days in order to achieve "rigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body" (2:23). Presumably the "judge" wanted the community to observe these practices in a more ascetic way ("severity to the body"-2:23, 21), to put it crudely, he wanted the Colossian believers to do less feasting and more fasting.
Thus the issue in this passage is not whether Sabbathkeeping should be condemned or approved, but whether the false teachers had the right to "judge" or condemn the way the Colossians were observing the Holy Days. The answer of Paul is "NO." By warning against the right of the false teachers to "pass judgment" on how to observe festivals, Paul is challenging not the validity of the festivals as such but the authority of the false teachers to legislate on the manner of their observance. The obvious implication then is that Paul in this text is expressing not a condemnation but an approbation of the mentioned practices, which include Sabbathkeeping. The implicit Pauline approval of Sabbathkeeping can hardly justify Nelson's conclusion that the text frees him "to accept Christians worshipping on the Lord's Day" (p.9). The latter is a foreign issue not contemplated by the text.
The above observations illustrate how easy it is for a person to develop unBiblical convinctions by misinterpreting some problem texts. To avoid falling into such a trap, it is important to examine carefully "problem" texts, interpreting them in the light of their immediate context, larger context, and the teaching of the Bible as a whole.
After stating his reasons for rejecting the Sabbath, Nelson proceeds to present six reasons for his acceptance of Sunday as the Lord's Day. Let us briefly look at each of them.
(1) "IT IS THE DAY OF THE LORD'S RESURRECTION" (p. 10). Nelson writes: "The resurrection occurring on the first day of the week was no coincidence. It is a day suitable for Christians worship because Christ was raised triumphant over sin and death having purchased salvation for mankind" (p. 10).
In the third chpater of my dissertation FROM SABBATH TO SUNDAY, published by the Pontifical Gregorian University with the official Catholic imprimatur-approval, I have shown that there is no Biblical or historical support for the alleged role of the resurrection in the adoption of Sunday observance. I would be glad to make a copy of the book available to anyone interested. Just contact me at: email@example.com In this context I will limit myself to mention briefly six significant considerations.
First, the New Testament contains no command or suggestion by Christ or the Apostles enjoining or hinting at a weekly or annual Sunday celebration of the resurrection. This is all the more surprising in view of the explicit instructions which are given regarding other practices such as baptism, the Lord's Supper, or footwashing.
Second, in the New Testament Sunday is never called "day of the resurrection" but consistently "first day of the week." It is not until the fourth century that the designation of Sunday as "day of the resurrection" first occurs in Christian literature. The absence of such a designation indicates that during the first three centuries Sunday was not seen as the weekly memorial celebration of Christ's resurrection.
Third, the words uttered by Christ on the day of His resurrection are an invitation to work rather than to rest and worship. Note that divine institutions such as the Sabbath, Baptism, the Lord's Supper, all trace their origin to a divine act that established them. Had Christ wanted to make the first day of the week the memorial of His resurrection, would He not have capitalized on the day of His resurrection to make such a day the fitting memorial of that event? But, on the day of His resurrection, the Savior did not say "Come apart and worship . . . Let us take time today to celebrate My resurrection." On the contrary, He told the women, "Go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee" (Matt 28:10) and later to His disciples "Go . . . make disciples, teach, baptize" (Matt 28:19-20). These utterances bespeak of work and not of rest and worship.
Fourth, the Lord's Supper, which many Christians view as the core of their Sunday celebration of Christ's resurrection, was initially celebrated at night on different days of the week (1 Cor 11:18, 20, 33) and was seen as the commemoration of Christ's sacrifice and Second Advent, rather than of His resurrection. Paul explains that by partaking of the bread and wine, believers "proclaim the Lord's death until He comes" (1 Cor 11:26).
Fifth, the Passover, which many Christians today observe on Easter Sunday as a celebration of the resurrection, for at least a century after Jesus' death was observed not on a Sunday but on any day of the week on which the date of Nisan 14 fell. This implies that no special significance was attached to the actual day of the week in which Passover was celebrated. Moreover the earliest documents indicate that Passover was a celebration of the Passion-death, rather than of Christ's resurrection. (These questions are discussed at great length in FROM SABBATH TO SUNDAY).
Sixth, the earliest explicit references to the Christian observance of Sunday, which are found in the writings of Barnabas (about 135) and Justin Martyr (about 150), mention the resurrection but only as the second of two reasons for Sundaykeeping, important but not predominant. The first theological reason given by Barnabas for Sunday observance is the eschatological significance of the "eighth day" which, he claims, represents "the beginning of another world." Justin's first reason is the commemoration of the inauguration of creation: "because it is the first day on which God, transforming the darkness and prime matter, created the world." These testimonies indicate that Christ's resurrection was not seen initially as the predominant justification for Sunday observance.
(2) THE LORD'S DAY HAS BEEN THE DAY OF WORSHIP "THROUGHOUT CHRISTIAN HISTORY" (p. 10). "By worshipping on the Lord's Day every Christian stands with all the believers throughout history in confessing the event that occured on that day, the resurrection" (. 10).
This argument ignores two important facts. First, there has been a significant minority throughout Christian history who have stood for the Biblical Sabbath. In his two volumes bibliographic survey SUNDAY, ITS ORIGIN, HISTORY AND PRESENT OBLIGATIONS, J. A. Hessey lists over 1000 Sabbath/Sunday polemic studies produced between the Reformation and 1860. Truly the Sabbath has had no rest; it has been hotly debated throughout the centuries.
Second, Biblical truth cannot be established by majority vote or practice. As a church historian by training and profession, I am saddened by the fact that the mystery of iniquity was already at work during apostolic times (2 Thess 2:7) and manifested itself in the early introduction of a host of heresies that have plagued Christianity through the centuries. A good example is the adoption of the Platonic dualistic view of human nature, with it mortal body and immortal soul. Most Christians have held this heresy throughout the centuries. This widespread deception of conscious life after death, has fostered such heresies as spiritualism, the communication with the spirits of the dead, the praying for the dead in purgatory, eternal hellfire, the intercession of the saints, indulgences, and the ethereal view of heaven where glorified souls spend eternity in everlasting adoration.
In my latest book IMMORTALITY OR RESURRECTION? I am quoting hundreds of Catholic and Protestant scholars who in recent times have rejected the Platonic dualistic view and accepted the Biblical wholistic view of human nature. But, no amount of sound Biblical research will cause mainline churches to change their beliefs, because of the destabilizing effect such changes would cause. Had the Reformers heeded to the majority view or antiquity of prevailing beliefs, they would have never dared to challenge the status quo.
(3) "THE LORD'S DAY IS A DAY WHICH BELONGS TO THE LORD" (p. 10). Nelson appeals to Revelation 1:10 to argue that Sunday is the Lord's Day (p. 10-11). This interpretation is based not on internal evidences of the book of Revelation but on three second-century patristic testimonies, namely, Didache 14:1, Ignatius' Epistle to the Magnesians 9:1 and the Gospel of Peter 35 and 50. Of these, only in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter, which is dated in the latter half of the second century, is Sunday unmistakably designated by the technical term "Lord's-kuriake."
The designation of Sunday as "Lord's day" which unmistakably appears before the end of the second century cannot necessarily be read back into Revelation 1:10. A major reason is that if Sunday had already received the new appellation "Lord's day" by the end of the first century, when both the Gospel of John and the book of Revelation were written, we would expect this new name for Sunday to be used consistently in both works, especially since they were apparently produced by the same author at approximately the same time and in the same geographical area.
If a new term prevails and is more readily understood, a writer does not confuse his readers with archaic time designations. Moreover, if the new designation "Lord's day" already existed and expressed the meaning and nature of Christian worship, the Gospel writers would hardly have had reasons to use the Jewish phrase "first day of the week." Therefore, the fact that the expression "Lord's day" occurs in John's apocalyptic book but not in his Gospel-where the first day is explicitly mentioned in conjunction with the resurrection (John 20:1) and the appearances of Jesus (John 20:19, 26)-suggests that the "Lord's day" of Revelation 1:10 can hardly refer to Sunday. (For a discussion of this text, see my dissertation FROM SABBATH TO SUNDAY, pp. 111-131).
(4) "THE LORD'S DAY REMINDS US TO TAKE GOD SERIOUSLY. A Christian's time of worship is a very serious occasion " (p. 11).
The fundamental weakness of this argument is that nowhere the Scripture enjoins us to take the Lord seriously on Sunday. By contrast, the Bible reminds us to keep the Sabbath "holy" (Ex 20:11; Deut 5:12). The recognition of the fact that Sunday was never sanctified, that is, set aside for holy use, has contributed to the prevailing view of Sunday as a holiday rather than a Holy Day. Inspite of the efforts of Constantine in 321, church councils, popes, Puritans, and even the latest Pastoral Letter DIES DOMINI of Pope John Paul II, the fact remains that Sunday has began and has remained an HOUR of worship, rather than a DAY of rest and worship unto the Lord.
The recognition of this historical reality has led the Catholic church 30 years ago to anticipate the Sunday Mass to Saturday night, to accommodae those who cannot make it to church on Sunday. According to an article on SUNDAY magazine, over 4000 Protestant churches have already adopted the same practice. All of this goes to show that the notion of Sunday as Holy time consecrated to God, is foreign to most Catholic and Protestant today. The reason is simple. Sunday lacks Biblical meaning, authority, and experience.
(5) 'THE LORD'S DAY ALLOWS CHRISTIANS THE FREEDOM TO WORSHIP GOD" (p. 11). Nelson writes, "Work on the Lord's Day is not wrong, but if it interferes with worship then it becomes a problem" (p. 11).
One wonders how the Lord's Day offers Christians the freedom to worship God while allowing for regular work. I am reminded of the fact that in the Bible belt sometimes businesses close on Sunday morning long enough to allow for the church services, but reopen as soon as the church services are over. In view of the historical and practical reality of our times, Christopher Kiesling suggests in his book THE FUTURE OF THE CHRISTIAN SUNDAY, to dispense altogether with the notion of a Holy Day, since Sunday has been historically viewed as a holiday, rather than Holy Day. What he proposes instead is the introduction of a fluctuating hour of worship at a convenient time of the week.
Contrary to Sundaykeeping which has been historically been observed as an hour of worship, which today is even anticipated to Saturday evening, the essence of Sabbathkeeping is the consecration of time. Why is God asking for our Sabbath time? Simply because time is the essence of our life. The way we use our time is indicative of our priorities. By giving priority to God in our thinking and living on the Sabbath day, we show in a concrete and tangible that God really counts in our lives.
(6) "THE LORD'S DAY MEANS THAT WE TAKE SCRIPTURE SERIOUSLY. The model for the Lord's Day is in the Bible. In it we find Christians Christians worshipping, having fellowship, giving, and receiving instruction (Acts 20:7-11; 1 Cor 16:1-3)" (p. 11).
This last argument is the weakest of them all, because the two texts cited hardly suggest that NT Christians spent Sunday "worshipping, having fellowship, giving, and receiving instruction." The time and manner of the Troas meeting reported in Acts 20:7-11 indicates a special gathering and not of a regular Sunday worship custom. The simplest way to explain the passage is that Luke mentions the day of the meeting not because it was Sunday. In fact the meeting began on the evening of the first day, which according to Jewish reckoning it was our Saturday night, and continued until early Sunday morning when Paul departed. In other words the Troas meeting occured on what we would call Saturday night, which is hardly reflective of regular Sundaykeeping. The reason for the time reference is most likely because (1) Paul was "ready to depart" (20 :7), (2) of the extraordinary experience and miracle of Eutychus, and (3) it provides an additional significant chonological reference to describe the unfolding of Paul's journey.
Regarding Paul's a first-day deposit plan mentioned in 1 Corinthians 16:1-3, the Apostle clearly states the purpose of his advice, namely, "so that contributions need not be made when I come" (1 Cor. 16:2). The plan then is proposed not to enhance Sunday worship by the offering of gifts but to ensure a substantial and efficient collection upon his arrival. Four characteristics can be identified in the plan. The offering was to be laid aside periodically ("on the first day of every week"-v. 2), personally ("each of you"-v. 2), privately ("by himself in store"-v. 2) and proportionately ("as he may prosper"-v. 2). Why would Paul advice to lay aside the money privately at home if the church had met for worship on Sunday?
Paul's mention of the first day could be motivated more by practical than theological reasons. To wait until the end of the week or of the month to set aside one's contributions or savings is contrary to sound budgetary practices, since by then one finds himself to be with empty pockets and empty hands. On the other hand, if on the first day of the week, before planning any expenditures, one sets aside what he plans to give, the remaining funds will be so distributed as to meet all the basic necessities. The text therefore proposes a valuable weekly plan to ensure a substantial and orderly contribution on behalf of the poor brethren of Jerusalem, but to extract more meaning from the text would distort it.
The foregoing analysis of Nelson's article raises serious questions about the faulty methodology he used to try to give a Biblical origin, meaning, and experience to Sundaykeeping. What is most distressing to me is the fact Nelson is a former Seventh-day Adventist who most likely was trained in an Adventist educational institution. His method of Biblical interpretation is essentially the same one used by Dale Ratzlaff, who is also a former Adventist pastor and Bible teacher. This consistent pattern, supported by other similar studies of former Adventist pastors to be examined soon, suggests to me that we as college and seminary Professors need to do a better job in teaching our future ministers and Bible teachers, how to rightly divide the Word of Truth.
The Sabbath is under attack but not in crisis, because it is a divine institution, and God's institutions are never in crisis. May this open discussion of the Sabbath/Sunday question help many to discover the Sabbath as a weekly divine invitation to stop our work on His Holy Day so that we can experience more fully and freely His presence, peace and rest in our lives.
Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D.,
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