The Case for the Christian Sabbath— Part Seven

Constantine bashing has become an art form since Dan Brown’s The da Vinci Code, so much so that some Christian theologians have taken to defending the man (see now Leithart’s  Defending Constantine).   Sigve Tonstad must be clearly placed in the category of the bash brothers when it comes to Constantine, seen as the instigator of the downward spiral that led to an imperial church, not merely a Christianized Empire.

On p. 446  Tonstad says  an emperor is a ruler answerable to none. “The emperor rules by decree, not by persuasion, he governs by command, not by consent; he relies on force, not on consensus or popular acclaim.  The relationship between the emperor and his subjects is that of master and subject, the former issuing orders and the latter obeying them. There is no built-in mechanism of accountability in the imperial system of government except for riots and assassinations.” (p. 446).

Constantine said ‘What higher duty have I in virtue of my imperial office and policy than to dissipate errors and repress rash indiscretions and so to cause all to offer to Almighty God true religion, honest concord and due worship?”   (p. 448).  The church in turn adopted the imperial structure of the empire right down to the pontifex maximus term while the empire was busy making Christianity its official religion and imposing it on all.   What Tonstad is most concerned with is the effect of this marriage on theology— God began to be portrayed as the ultimate despot the ultimate Emperor, whom the human emperor modeled himself on.   The church assigned to God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar  (pp. 450-51). Is this where Augustinianism came from?  (my question).

p. 434–Sabbath observance is when man renounces his control over time and cedes it back to God.

p. 480—“the Sabbath conveys the message of God’s enduring and faithful participation in human reality.”

p. 486-87. In a tour de force argument, Tonstad tries to argue that Satan is the acting force in the 3 sets of sevens, not God or Christ.  The acting force in the trumpet sequence is clearly demonic. If God is punishing in these series he is punishing by what he permits (p. 488).  It is the dragon’s story, not the Christ’s story that is played out in these 3 sets of sevens.  Christ and the saints conquer by dying,  Satan by the use of brute force. So e.g. Rev. 14.10 takes place in the sight of the Lamb and his angels, but not by their agency.  The victims of the dragon have no rest, either by day or by night (14.11).  fear and apprehension are everywhere and rest is nowhere to be found in the dragon’s story (p. 491).   What God is doing is not sitting on the sidelines watching.  God in Christ has modeled how the saints are to behave, namely perseverance even if enduring violence and martyrdom. Faithfulness to the end  (14.12).  The sign the faithful are to uphold is the most enduring Biblical sign— that of the seventh day.

p. 502— Tonstad says only those who have experienced Sabbath have the ability to articulate its meaning and worth and spirit.  “They welcome and urge a return to the Sabbath rest as an antidote to human self-importance, overwork, and conspicuous consumption, highlighting the practical and spiritual benefits of the Sabbath concept.”  (p. 503).

He argues that Rev. 14.7 invokes a call to worship the creator God in a sabbitarian way.  But to speak of the creator God who made us all is not the same thing as to speak of the Sabbath observance.  (p. 505).   “The need for belonging, the necessity of rest, and the encounter with something larger than oneself all find expression in the blessing of the seventh day.”    I would say the call of the seventh day is ‘remember what God did and how he rejoiced’   But the call of the eighth day is look forward to what God will do, and has already begun to do in the resurrection of Jesus.   He tries to claim that the Sabbath observance is hopeful and forward looking to the final Sabbath.

“the reason why God rested on the seventh day does not need to be argued because the reason is not hard to find. The seventh day was consecrated for the exquisite blessing and benefits of human beings (Mark. 2.27)”  (p. 514) and God wanted to participate in that.   Tonstad reminds that God’s first word to humankind was a word of blessing.   “The Sabbath brings a message of togetherness instead of separation, permanence instead of transience, God’s presence instead of God’s absence, freedom instead of subjugation, continuity instead of discontinuity, wholeness instead of disintegration, other-centeredness instead of arbitrariness, and divine narrative more than divine imperative.’  (p. 515).

At the very beginning of this fine book a personal story is told, a story of Sigve Tonstad growing up in Norway and of how the one day of the week which was special in terms of food and fellowship in an otherwise rather Spartan week, was the Sabbath.   In some ways, this very revealing story reminded me of the beginning of Citizen Kane, and the ‘rosebud’ story.  It explains a good deal of why Tonstad has so vigorously and zealously defended the Sabbath at such great length in this well-written book.  It is of course because he does not want to give up on something so precious, so vital, so valuable, so meaningful to him ever since his childhood.   He is to be commended for such loyalty to a Biblical principle, as it is all too rare these days.  But the good, and Sabbath is a good,  can get in the way of seeing and embracing the best, the summum bonum, and that is what has happened in this wide-ranging defense of the Sabbath.

What eclipses the seventh day, according to NT theology, is the eighth day, and its observance.  The day of the week God began the first creation (Sunday) is the day he began it again, began the new creation in the resurrection of Jesus.  And what God’s people need far more than rest or even restoration is resurrection for when one rises from the dead, one finally shakes off the weariness of the old fallen mortal flesh and needs, and studies Sabbath no more.   Thus, while we live in this veil of tears and will continue to need rest, there is something we need far more, which is far better— resurrection.  Christians are an Easter people, a people called to live out of, into and toward our own resurrection, grounded in the resurrection of Jesus. Christian worship praxis should be based not on the Mosaic Sabbath praxis, not even on the old creation seventh day praxis, but on the new creation praxis, which signals where God and his people is going, not merely where he has been (see my We Have Seen his Glory).  In the already and not-yet of Kingdom come, celebrating the Lord’s Day is the way Christians live into a future which will one day come when the Kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our Lord. It is the way we affirm the future is as bright as the promises of God.  The old creation rest was good, but it was but a foretaste of glory divine, like Melchizedek, it foreshadowed something greater that was to come.  The Lord’s Day is the flag Jesus planted in the ground one April morning in A.D. 30.  It is the one Christians should wave and cheer now and ever more for it is the ensign of our own future—‘for we shall be made like him’, even in our flesh.   The attributes of Sabbath were not transferred to the Lord’s Day, they were transcended by the Lord’s Day.

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  • Chad

    Ben, if you’ve addressed it somewhere in this excellent series, perhaps I missed it, and therefore apologize, but … how does Tonstad deal with Mark 2:27, in which Jesus declared, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath?”

  • ben witherington

    He takes that to mean that we have an obligation to keep the sabbath as it continues to do us good.


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  • Gavin

    I am extremely curious about your conclusion. John in Revelation 10:1 gives the term “the Lord’s day”. However, Jesus himself declared he was Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8; Luke 6:5) which is clearly in the context of the seventh day of the week. There does not appear to be any biblical evidence that suggests that the Lord’s day suddenly jumped to Sunday, except perhaps in the traditions of the early Christians—but then we are leaving sola scriptura…and building our arguments on tradition?

  • Benw333

    Hi Gavin: You’re wrong about that. There is reason Paul says set money aside on the first day of the week in 1 Cor. 16, and the Lord’s day both in Revelation and in early Christian literature always refers to Sunday. Always. The fact that Jesus is Lord over the Sabbath does not in any way imply he is endorsing the sabbath as the day of worship for his followers. To the contrary, he tells his critics that his Lordship over the sabbath allows him to redefine the rules about rest etc.

  • Gavin

    Thanks Ben. If we look only at biblical evidence, rather than tradition, I am wondering how you come to the conclusion the the Lord’s day in Revelation is “always” referring to Sunday?

    It appears tenuous reasoning to suggest that just because Paul is asking his members to save up at the beginning of the week, then the seventh day Sabbath has suddenly disappeared. Particularly when the week is the only unit of time that comes directly from God’s words (rather than the movement of the sun, moon etc), and he calls it holy in the context of an unfallen world (i.e. it’s not a Jewish concept). In Genesis, Jesus (Colossians 1:16) creates everything — including the time of the seventh-day, and he calls himself the Lord of the Sabbath when he walks the earth.

    Moreover, at the heart of the moral law given by God (Jesus?) on Sinai, it states that the observance of the Sabbath is linked to their freedom from Egypt (Deut 5:15). So the Sabbath is the first day in the Bible dedicated to celebrating coming into new life—not Sunday. So when Jesus comes to give freedom to people at the incarnation, it seems strange on the simple reading of Scripture to suggest that his creation of the Sabbath, and his designation that it is about freedom, and that he calls himself the Lord of the Sabbath, is now about sunday? And just because Paul asks for a collection on Sunday and some Christians kept Sunday as a celebration of the resurrection (in the context of hostile treatment from the Jews), then we can all forget what has gone before?

    For sure, the celebration of the resurrection is significant for us as Christians, but I am not sure that the day to celebrate freedom in Christ has been left up to us to choose when God has been so specific himself?

    Indeed, I would be tempted to argue that whereas Jesus could have stayed in the tomb for as long or short as he wanted, his resurrection on Sunday was actually to emphasis the significance of the seventh-day rest, because the Sabbath was the only full day he rested in the tomb, having utter his final words, “it is finished”. In that completed work of Christ, he, and we, a called to rest.

  • Benw333

    Hi Gavin: Since you have read this series, I think you know some of the problems with the notion that the church continued to be sabbatarian. The truth is, all the second century evidence we have, including the evidence from the Roman governor Pliny is clear enough that the worship day for Christians was Sunday. I do think that groups like the Ebionites continued to observe sabbath, but sabbath was linked for them to the Mosaic covenant, and frankly there is nothing in the first few chapters of Genesis that dictates a sabbatarian worship practice. My next Eerdmans book is entitled The Rest of Life and talks about the difference between sabbatarianism and a proper theology of rest.

  • Gavin

    Hi Ben, yes, I agree with you that for the early Christians the worship day was Sunday. I just don’t see how the sacredness that God places on the Sabbath in Genesis can be discarded because we feel like doing something different. The reality is that there is no internal NT evidence to support the change of the sacredness of the Sabbath to another day.

    I think your next book should be interesting because I think that there is a need for a more fully developed theology of rest, rather than the discussion being stuck in merely what is the right day. At the same time, I still don’t see that the lack of a theology of rest can discount the significance of the biblical evidence concerning what God has said, and repeated with his own voice. Thanks for the chat!