James Bannerman: The Christian Sabbath


WE have now brought to a close our argument on the subject of Church power in reference to public worship viewed generally. Following out the order of discussion already indicated, we have next to consider the question of when and how often public worship is statedly to be celebrated. If public worship be a standing ordinance in the Church, and a perpetual duty binding on its members, it necessarily follows that a certain proportion of time must be specially set apart and employed in the observance of it. Apart altogether from any positive appointment in the matter, it is the office of natural reason, when it teaches men the duty of worship, to teach them at the same time to give a certain portion of their time to the discharge of the duty. What proportion of time is to be so employed, and when the season for the duty is to recur, are questions which natural reason may be unable distinctly to answer. But the light of nature itself dictates the necessity of setting apart a certain proportion of time for the worship of God,—founded as the duty of worship is in the necessary relation subsisting between the creature and the Creator.

But while natural reason dictates the duty of employing a certain proportion of our time in the worship of God, the question of when and how often the duty is to be discharged is one that belongs to God to determine. The length of time to be set apart for the duty, and the frequency of its return, are matters of positive appointment connected with His own worship, which, like other positive provisions for it, remain for God and not for man to dictate. We believe that the precise length of time to be set apart for ordinary worship, and also the interval between the recurrence of such seasons, have been fixed by God in that septenary division of time which He instituted for man in the beginning, and in the arbitrary singling out of one whole day in seven to be a holy Sabbath unto Himself. In the institution of the Sabbath there was an arbitrary appointment of God grafted upon a natural duty; and hence the ordinance itself partakes of the character both of a moral and of a positive duty. It is of considerable importance in the argument, to distinguish clearly what belongs to it in the one character, and what belongs to it in the other. In so far as it recognises and embodies the obligation of devoting our time, more or less in amount, and at more or less frequent intervals, to the worship of God, it is a duty which the law of nature, apart from any positive appointment, enjoins. In so far as it defines this obligation as the duty to devote one whole day in seven, and a particular day in the week as the Sabbath, to the purposes of devotion, it must be regarded as a positive institution superinduced upon a natural one. The duty of setting apart some portion or other of our time to the worship of God, is a duty founded in the relation of a creature to his Creator, as much as the obligation of worship itself, and not to be set aside or changed any more than you could set aside or change that relation. The duty, on the other hand, of setting apart a seventh and not a sixth portion of the week, and fixing its return on the first or last day of the seven, rather than any other, is an appointment of a positive kind, determined by God on good and sufficient principles connected with the circumstances of man, but yet principles which, in so far as we know, might in other circumstances have led to another determination. In so far as it is a moral duty, founded on the very nature of man as God’s creature, and demanding some proportion of his time to be employed in worship, it could not be altered. In so far as it is a positive duty, founded in the circumstances of man, and demanding the seventh portion of the week, and the first or last day of it to be so employed, it might, in so far as we can understand, have been different from what it is.

The time, then, to be specially dedicated to Divine service, like some of the other provisions for worship, has something in it of a natural institution; and, like all the other provisions of worship, it has something in it also of a positive ordinance. Is the time thus set apart by arbitrary appointment of God for His worship designed to be a standing and perpetual institution in His Church—an ordinance of permanent and universal obligation? Is the Sabbath the exclusive appointment made by God as to the times and seasons of worship; or are there other days also binding on the conscience and obedience of the members of the Church? What is the office of the Church in the exercise of the power committed to it in regard to the time for public worship? These questions it is deeply important for us to be enabled to answer; and to the consideration of them we are naturally brought at this point in the order of our discussions. We have found public worship to be a permanent ordinance of God in His Church. Is the Sabbath, or the time for public worship, no less an ordinance of Divine and permanent obligation? To this subject we shall direct our attention in the first place. Is the Sabbath the only day set apart by God for His ordinary worship, and the only day which the Church has a right to ordain the observance of for that end? or are there other days also holy, and also to be set apart by the Church as stated and ordinary seasons for worship? To the consideration of this further subject we shall address ourselves in the second place.

In proceeding to consider the question of the Divine and permanent obligation of the Sabbath as the season set apart for worship, it is impossible for us to do more than state in the briefest possible manner the heads of argument in the discussion. To attempt to go further in such a wide and varied field, would be utterly inconsistent with the limits prescribed to us. All that we can do is, to lay down a few leading principles of a general nature applicable to the subject.

I. That the institution of the Sabbath had no reference to any temporary purpose or any special people, but was founded on a reason or ground of permanent and universal obligation, is manifest from the nature and circumstances of its appointment at first.

The Sabbath, as at first enjoined on man, was no part of a temporary or local economy. It was on man in the catholic and unalterable character of God’s creature, and not on man as Jew or Gentile, as the subject of a limited and transient dispensation, that the day of weekly rest was enjoined. Time, as forming a portion of the existence of the Eternal God, was all equally and alike holy to Him; time, as forming a portion of the days of the lifetime of unfallen man, was all equally and alike good to him for the purpose of worshipping His Creator. And when one particular day in the week, viewing it as a brief part of the everlasting existence of God, was singled out by God Himself that He might bless and sanctify it, and Himself rest on that day from His work of creation; when the same day, viewing it as a season in the earthly existence of man, was made in this manner holy and blessed to him; it was an ordinance in which not the Jews only, but all mankind, are equally interested,—an ordinance to man as the rational and moral creature of God, and not as the subject of any local or temporary obligation. A Sabbath so instituted had no connection with any peculiar economy, under which a portion of the human race afterwards came to be placed; but plainly belonged to that relationship into which man, as the creature of God, fresh from His almighty hand, entered in the hour of his creation. There were, indeed, two great laws given to man at first, fundamental and appropriate to the twofold relation into which at his creation he was introduced; the first bearing on his relation to God, the second on his relation to his fellows of the same race. At the creation man entered into relation with God as his Maker,—the relation of creatureship, to endure unaltered throughout every generation of the creature; and as fundamental and appropriate to that connection, God appointed the ordinance of the seventh day of worship as the very condition on which it was to subsist and be maintained. At the creation also man entered for the first time into relationship with his fellow-creature of the same race,—a relationship also destined to endure throughout all the changes and dispensations appointed for man as a social being; and as fundamental and appropriate to this connection, God ordained the law of marriage as the basis of all the subsequent intercourse of man with man. The one as lying at the foundation of all his relations with God, and the other as lying at the foundation of all his relations with his fellow-men, were alike laws appointed for him as man, and appropriate and essential to him in his twofold capacity as destined to hold intercourse with God, and as destined to hold intercourse with his fellow-men. The law of the Sabbath not less than the law of marriage was given to man, and not to any race or period of men; and coeval with man’s entrance into being, they are destined to endure and be binding while he has his existence on the earth.

There is no possibility of getting rid of this argument for the Divine and permanent obligation of the Sabbath, except either by denying the credibility and authenticity of the narrative of its institution in Genesis, or else by interpreting it so as to warrant the conclusion that it was appointed not at the creation, but subsequently to the Israelites in the wilderness. With those who deny the historical veracity of the book of Genesis this is not the place to enter into any argument. With those, again, who, like Paley, hold that the narrative of Genesis, admitted to be authentic and credible, is not to be interpreted as if it recorded the first institution of the Sabbath, but only as speaking of it by anticipation; and that the first appointment of the law of the Sabbath is really recorded in Exodus, in connection with the gathering of the manna by the Israelites in the desert; with this second class of objectors a very brief argument is all that is necessary. In the first place, unless extreme violence is to be done to the express statements of Genesis, it must be admitted that it is not in the way of anticipating an event to take place two thousand years afterwards, but in the way of recording an event occurring at the moment, that it speaks of God blessing and sanctifying and resting on the seventh day after the six previous days of creation. In the second place, the narrative in Exodus which speaks of the Israelites gathering a double portion of the manna on the sixth day, and none on the seventh, cannot, on any sound or sober principles of interpretation, be regarded in any other light than as a reference to the Sabbath, not as an institution then for the first time appointed, but rather as an ordinance well known and familiar. In the third place, the promulgation of the law at Sinai, embodying as it did the sabbatical ordinance, seems to imply the previous acquaintance of the Israelites with the appointment. And in the fourth place, the division of time into weeks of seven days, prevalent long before among the patriarchs, seems no less to point to the previous existence of the Sabbath as the seventh day rest. Such considerations as these seem distinctly to demonstrate that the narrative of Genesis as to the appointment of the Sabbath is not the history of an event which did not take place until hundreds of years afterwards, but the history of an event which took place at the creation. And if so, there is no way of escape from the conclusion, that the Sabbath appointed to man in the beginning had no connection with any temporary or local dispensation, but was given to man as the creature of God, to be the fundamental law of his worship; and that as such it is an ordinance binding upon men in every age, and under all the circumstances and changes of their being on earth.

II. That the ordinance of the Sabbath is one of universal and everlasting obligation, may be evinced from the place assigned to that ordinance in the moral law, reasserted and promulgated afresh at Sinai.

That the moral law embodied in the Ten Commandments was totally distinct from the political and ceremonial law appointed for the Israelites, is abundantly obvious. The one, as the law of right and wrong—as the expression of that unchangeable obligation which lies upon every human creature at all times—had been in force from the beginning, and was destined to continue in force to the end; the other, as embodying the political and ritual observances characteristic of Israel as a nation or Church, and intended to serve a temporary purpose until a better dispensation was brought in, had not previously any authority, and was designed to give place to the Gospel. Between these two laws there was a broad and indelible line of distinction, marking out the one as of local and temporary, the other as of universal and permanent obligation. There are four marks that may be mentioned as separating between the moral law of the Ten Commandments, of universal and perpetual authority, and the ceremonial and political law of the Israelites, of limited and local obligation.

1st. The manner of the promulgation of the Ten Commandments at Sinai indicated a difference between them and the ceremonial appointments of Israel. They were uttered by the voice of God Himself amid the most sublime indications of the presence and supremacy of Jehovah, in the hearing of all Israel, who trembled exceedingly as God spake to them all the words of His law. They were addressed directly to the people, not conveyed to them indirectly through Moses. They were graven by the finger of God Himself on the tables of stone. “These words,” said Moses to the people, after solemnly rehearsing to them the Ten Commandments shortly before his death, “these words the Lord spake unto all your assembly in the mount, out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness, with a great voice; and He added no more: and He wrote them in two tables of stone, and delivered them unto me.” None of these things can be said of any of the ceremonial or political commandments given to Israel. These latter were communicated to Moses personally, and written by him in a book. It cannot be doubted that, in an age when truth was so much taught by signs and significant actions, the striking difference in the manner of their promulgation was designed by God to call the attention of the Israelites to the still more striking difference between the laws themselves: the one being of everlasting and universal authority; the other being only local and temporary in its obligation.

2d. The manner of the preservation of the Ten Commandments, no less than that of their promulgation, indicated the marked and solemn difference put between them and the ceremonial and political laws of the Israelites. They were deposited, as the only possession it held, in the ark of the covenant; that ark with its contents was placed within the veil, in the holiest of all; to look into the ark where the law was contained, was, as the men of Bethshemesh found, visited with death; day by day the mercy-seat over the ark was wet and sprinkled with the blood of the sacrifices; and above the mercy-seat, guarding the law beneath, was the cloud of Divine glory that indicated the presence of Jehovah. In all these jealous and peculiar precautions employed about the preservation of the law of the Ten Commandments, it is not difficult to read the lesson of the deep and indelible distinction drawn between it and the ceremonial commandments of the Jews. Was it, after having been once broken at the hands of man and written afresh by the finger of God, withdrawn from human eye, shut up in the ark of the covenant under the peril of death to him who should look upon it, and placed within the most holy place, to which none but the high priest once a year found entrance? This was indeed the high and holy law of God, which men had once broken; which never was again to be intrusted to sinners as a means of life, but to be withdrawn from their sight because they were unworthy to look upon it, and reserved only until a better man might be found to keep it and make it honourable. Were the ark and the mercy-seat over the law day by day moistened and sprinkled with the shed blood of the sacrifices offered continually? It was the law of God, whose inviolable holiness and unsullied justice still demanded blood because of the transgression of it, and waited until the hour when more than mortal blood, so long typically shed, was actually to be poured out in vindication of its claims. Did the living and burning glory of Jehovah keep watch above the spot where that law was deposited? It was the law of the Lord, whose unalterable and everlasting authority was guarded and sanctioned by all His perfections. In the significant circumstances that marked its preservation, we read the truth of the wide and essential distinction between the law of the Ten Commandments and the political and ceremonial commandments of Israel.

3d. The manner of the vindication of the law contained in the Ten Commandments demonstrates the difference between that law and the ceremonial ordinances of the Jews. Christ came in the fulness of time to abolish the one, and to evince their utter vanity; Christ came in the fulness of time to obey and confirm and vindicate the other. The very same revelation of the Son of God in the flesh to set up a kingdom and a Church that cannot be moved, which demonstrated that the one set of laws were temporary and limited in their force, and neither designed nor fitted to be permanent or universal, served at the same time to demonstrate that the other set of laws were of perpetual and unalterable obligation, eternally binding in their substance on all moral and intelligent beings. The ceremonial laws of the Jews were promulgated, observed, and obeyed throughout the nation; serving, until the manifestation of Christ, the local and temporary purpose of types pointing to the introduction of a future and higher economy by which they were to be displaced. The moral law, embodied in the Ten Commandments, was laid up in hiding within the ark, as no longer to be promulgated for man to keep as the means of life to his soul, but waiting there until the day came when their hiding-place was to be laid open, and the veil that concealed them rent in twain, and when they themselves should be brought forth to be fulfilled and vindicated and honoured by the obedience and death of the Son of God. That death did virtually abolish and put dishonour upon the ritual and carnal commandments of a worn-out and bygone dispensation. It no less confirmed and magnified the law of the Ten Commandments, as a law that could not be altered or abolished, even although the Son of God should die to fulfil it.

4th. The very nature of the law of the Ten Commandments, and the reasons out of which that law originated, demonstrate the difference between it and the ceremonial and temporary commandments given to Israel. This is not less obviously the case with the reasons given for the law of the Sabbath as in the case of the rest; and it is with the Sabbath ordinance that we have at present to do. The reasons rising out of the nature of the institution, by which its obligation is enforced, are such as to be in no respect peculiar to any one time or any one nation, but, on the contrary, reasons adapted to all times and all nations. The threefold reason given for the observance of the seventh day’s rest in the fourth commandment is the very same as was given at the creation, and is adapted to man as man, the creature of God, wherever found, and under whatever dispensation. The example of God, or the Divine rest,—the “blessing the Sabbath,” or making it a blessing to His creature,—the “hallowing it,” or setting it apart to man for sacred purposes,—these are no limited and temporary reasons rendering the Sabbath-day binding on one nation, and not other branches of the human race, or making it of authority at one time and not at another. They plainly point to a universal permanent obligation, such as the nature or reasons of the ceremonial observance of Israel could not indicate. Such marks of distinction as these between the institution of the Ten Commandments and the institution of Judaical observances, sufficiently demonstrate that the moral law of the former is of general and permanent authority, while the ceremonial law of the latter was meant to be local and temporary in its obligation.

III. That the ordinance of the Sabbath was designed to be of perpetual obligation is demonstrated by statements of Scripture, which expressly intimate the continuance of the ordinance after the Jewish Sabbath was abolished.

In the fifty-sixth chapter of Isaiah, for example, the prophet is prophesying of Gospel times, when the merely Jewish Sabbath should be no longer in force; and yet he speaks with marked and repeated emphasis of the blessing upon the man who should “keep the Sabbath from polluting it,”—language which can have no meaning at all except in reference to the Christian Sabbath which was to succeed the Jewish. In like manner, our Lord speaks of the observance of the Sabbath as still to be kept up at a time when all mere Jewish institutions were abrogated and no longer binding. “Pray ye,” says He in speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem, which was to take place forty years after the rites of the Jewish Church were done away with; “pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, nor on the Sabbath day.” The language of our Lord in this passage very obviously implies, that just as certainly as there would be winter, so certainly there would be a Sabbath at that time; and that it was a blessing to be entreated for, that the Christians might not be forced to flee during the inclemency of the one season or during the sacredness of the other.

IV. The weekly Sabbath, or season for worship, has, since the resurrection of Christ, been transferred from the last to the first day of the week.

There are two sources of evidence from which the argument for this change is drawn:—1. There are very significant indications in the Old Testament Scriptures of such a change being intended. The Jewish Sabbath was the seventh day from the beginning of the work of creation by God; and the Christian Sabbath, now substituted in its place, is the following day, or the eighth, counting from the same commencement. Now it is a very striking and interesting fact, illustrated by a vast variety of different passages in the Old Testament Scriptures, that there are distinct intimations of the intention of God to exalt the eighth day above the seventh, and to transfer the honour which the seventh had attained among the days of the week to the eighth, or the following day. It is impossible, without a very ample quotation of passages, to give anything like an adequate idea of the force of the evidence for the change of the Sabbath from the last to the first day of the week, derived from those typical and prophetic intimations of the intention of God in Gospel days to prefer the eighth day above the seventh, and to signalize the day of Christ’s resurrection, when He entered into rest, above the day of His own finishing of the work of creation, when He Himself entered into rest. The evidence is given in much detail, and with great effect, in the late Mr. Robert Haldane’s Dissertation on the Sanctification of the Sabbath. One or two examples taken from his work may suffice. The rite of circumcision was to be administered to children only on the eighth day. This was a standing ordinance in the Jewish Church. But we know that circumcision was “the seal of the righteousness of faith,”—the everlasting righteousness to be accomplished and brought in by Christ. That righteousness was actually brought in on the eighth day, or the day of Christ’s resurrection; and the sign of circumcision in the Jewish Church long pointed out the very day when the type was to be fulfilled. Again, on the eighth day of their age animals were to be accepted in sacrifice,—plainly pointing to that day, honoured above all the rest, when in His resurrection Christ was publicly accepted as the sacrifice of His people. Yet, again, on the eighth day the consecration of the High Priest in the Jewish Church was completed,—another token of the honour to be put on that day when the High Priest of His people arose from the dead, and was consecrated for evermore. Still further, it was on the eighth day the cleansing of the leprosy took place,—another sign still, pointing to the preference to be given to the day when Christ finished His atoning work, and cleansed His people from their sin. Once more, it was not until the eighth day that the first-born of cattle which belonged to the Lord were given to Him,—another indication of the mysterious honour awaiting that day of the week when “the first-born from the dead” was received by His Father.

In short, through the whole typical system and the prophetical Scriptures, the recurrence of the number eight, in connection with some mysterious preference to be given to it in that coming dispensation, in which all the types and prophecies were to find their fulfilment, is most frequent and marked. It is hardly possible to adopt any kind of interpretation which will not refer this to the day of Christ’s resurrection, and which does not see in it a foreshadowing of the superior honour about to be put in Gospel days on the eighth day above the seventh. That this could refer to nothing except the honour which the seventh had so long enjoyed as the Sabbath of the Lord, seems to be very obvious; and the conclusion appears to be unavoidable, that there is a studied exhibition in type and prophecy throughout the whole of the ancient economy of the great truth that the seventh day, in the fulness of time, was to yield its place and its honours to the eighth, and that the Sabbath was to be transferred from the one to the other. They all point to the introduction on earth of a more glorious exhibition of the Divine character in connection with redemption than any connected with creation; and they indicate that the seventh day, so long linked to the remembrance of creation, was to yield its honours to the eighth day, as linked with the memory of redemption.

2. The change of the Sabbath from the last to the first day of the week is demonstrated by Scripture examples. That there is no precept expressly appointing the change, and enjoining the observance of the first day of the week as the Christian Sabbath, is freely admitted. But it is a general principle, which cannot be denied, that Scripture example in regard to any duty, when it is the example of inspired men, and not referable to their extraordinary office or character, is as binding as Scripture precept. And that we have such examples in the New Testament, sufficient to demonstrate the authoritative change of the Sabbath from the last to the first day of the week, must be apparent to every attentive reader of it. We have the example of Christ, in His repeated and solemn appearances to His assembled disciples after His resurrection on the first day of the week; we have the stated meeting of the Churches under inspired and apostolic direction on the same day; we have the weekly contributions made by the congregations assembled on the first day of the week; we have the distinguishing name given to it of the Lord’s day. All this is sufficient to establish a Scripture precedent for the change of the day, of equal authority with an express injunction.

V. The permanent and perpetual obligation of the Sabbatic ordinance is not affected by the change of the day on which it is observed.

Were we not able to prove that a change in the particular day for the observance of the Sabbath was intended and authorized, the only effect of this want of proof would be, not to exempt us from the keeping of a Sabbath, but to throw us back on the last day of the week as the season for its observance. But there is abundant proof, from inspired and authoritative example, for the change; and that change does not in the least affect the perpetuity of the ordinance. It is a change in what belongs to the Sabbath as a positive ordinance, and not in what belongs to it as a moral duty. That a certain portion of our time, more or less, is to be set apart for the worship of God, is one of those duties dictated by a consideration of the very relation in which as creatures we stand to God; and in this respect we could not conceive of the ordinance being changed. But that the last day of the week instead of any other day should be appointed for worship, is a matter of positive institution not affecting the essence of the ordinance any more than the positive law which at one time made death the penalty of a breach of the fourth commandment in Israel, and which “the Lord of the Sabbath” may alter for sufficient reason, without affecting the permanence or the perpetual obligation of the institution. That such a sufficient reason has occurred in the superior glory of the finished work of Christ over that of creation to justify and require the change, few men who understand what that work is will be disposed to deny.

There are three Sabbaths referred to in Scripture, each excelling the other in glory as they occur in their order, because each one as it occurs comprehends, as it were, all the former. There is the Sabbath of creation, when God the Father rested from His work of power, and called upon man to enter with Him into rest, and to rejoice with Him in that finished work, because it was good. There is the Sabbath of redemption,—not superseding but embracing the former,—when God the Son rested from His work of grace, and once more invited man to enter with Him into rest, and rejoice with Him in the finished work, that, in a higher sense than in the former case, because it was creation restored, was also very good. And there is the Sabbath of glory yet to come, not superseding the former two, but embracing and comprehending both, when, creation restored and redemption completed, and both continued in glory, God the Spirit shall enter into His rest, and shall call upon His saints to rest with Him also, rejoicing together through eternity in the last and highest Sabbath of God.

(Bannerman, J. (1868). The Church of Christ: a treatise on the nature, powers, ordinances, discipline, and government of the Christian Church (Vol. 1, pp. 392–405). Edinburgh: T&T Clark.)

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