A two-hour, live-streamed debate titled “Should Christians Keep the Sabbath?” was billed by WND founder and debate moderator Joseph Farah as provocative and historic.
It didn’t disappoint.
Debaters Jim Staley and Chris Rosebrough dug deep into the issue of whether Christians should obey the fourth commandment – and if so, how?
Staley and Rosebrough traded barbs early and often in their quest to shed light on a question that has dogged Christian scholars for centuries. Staley is pastor of Passion for Truth Fellowship in St. Charles, Mo., while Rosebrough is a Christian apologist and pastor of Kongsvinger Lutheran Church in Oslo, Minn. Both men also have radio ministries.
Staley, whose teaching videos are available through the WND Superstore, had the home-field advantage as the debate took place at his church during the final hours of the traditional biblical day of rest – Saturday. He took the position that Christians today should continue to keep the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week, just as Jesus and His early followers did.
Rosebrough countered that the Sabbath laws were designed by God for the Israelites living under the Mosaic Covenant, and they no longer apply to believers in Jesus after he died on a cross and rose from the dead.
Staley wasted no time going on the offensive, throwing out a litany of Scripture references on the Sabbath. He cited from Genesis, Isaiah, Zachariah and Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, and Mark, 1 John, Matthew and Romans in the New Testament.
“There are many people who say it (Sabbath) was given for Israel,” Staley said. “God, actually, from the very beginning, He never intended for all days to be the same. He put from the very beginning the sun and the moon in the sky to set so that he could have those special times and appointments and we wouldn’t miss them. So if the debate is going to be that we can choose the day (of rest) then we’re obliterating the day He put the sun and the moon and the stars in the sky.”
Read WND’s classic in-depth news report on the Sabbath controversy: ‘Deception’: Christians war over worship day
He said the Sabbath laws predated the Israelites, as they were alluded to in the Garden of Eden and in the days of Noah in the book of Genesis.
Staley sees the fourth commandment as no different than the other nine commandments in which believers are required to refrain from stealing, lying, coveting, murdering and committing adultery.
Keeping Sabbath is “all over the New Testament,” he said, citing Matthew 5:17, in which Jesus said, “I did not come to destroy the law but to fulfill the law.”
1 John 5:2 says “for this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.”
“If my children keep nine of my commandments but not one, which one am I going to remember?” Staley asked.
“In the tribulation (book of Revelation) we see God’s people defined by two things, not just that you love God but that you prove your love for God by, what? Keeping his commandments.”
Perhaps most important to Staley’s view was that Jesus “kept the Sabbath, as well as all the first Christians.”
See the full debate:
It was only after the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem that Gentile Christians began to be detached from the Jewish roots of their faith and forget the importance of the Sabbath, Staley said.
“It was man’s ideas … and anti-Semitism that changed man from his biblical roots.”
In A.D. 321 , the Roman Emperor Constantine required that all of Rome’s workshops be closed on the first day of the week, Sunday, which was the traditional day of observance to the pagan sun god.
“In that day you were no way going to go against the state, because if you did, you were going to die,” Staley said.
“We see this debate raging on through the centuries.”
The church officially banned Christians from keeping the Jewish Sabbath at the Council of Laodicea in A.D. 363, replacing it with Sunday or “The Lord’s Day.”
“Why did it do that? Because Christ, they thought, was raised on a Sunday.”
He said while Jesus probably was crucified on a Thursday, and rose during the predawn hours of Sunday, “History proves, ladies and gentlemen, that the Sabbath was everywhere,” he said. “Who ended up ruling the world? Rome. And whoever rules ends up making the rules.”
He said the Bible shows the Sabbath “was for all men and for all time.”
“My opponent will have to prove the Sabbath was not given to man in the garden and in the millennium and was not given as a day of rest and blessing.”
Staley said God’s laws about the Sabbath were corrupted by “a history of pagan, polytheistic Gentiles using Greek interpretations.”
“It’s a formula for disaster from the very beginning,” he said. “If the intent of Christ was to abolish the Sabbath, why is there not a single, straight-forward instruction in the Bible?
“If keeping the Sabbath on the day the Bible says is bondage, why are so many people being healed and being blessed by keeping it?
“I believe the burden of proof lies with my opponent that God did not mean what He said and that what He meant as a blessing has become a curse. I suggest we go back and grab hold of the blessings that we don’t even know that we’re missing.”
Rosebrough argued that Staley was misreading the text and missing the point of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
“The (fourth) commandment does not stand alone but is part of Torah,” he said. “This question cannot be answered solely by looking at the covenant. You cannot look just at the law. The early church fathers rightly understood this.”
To correctly interpret such Old Testament proclamations as “The children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath forever,” one must dig a little deeper, he said.
“When you pay closer attention to the text, it is not saying the Sabbath will be observed for eternity,” Rosebrough said.
The Hebrew word “olam” does not always mean eternity but “for a time,’” he argued.
“As Old Testament scholar Harold Dressler said, it is not designed for all time but was a specific institution for Israel; it is not a covenant forever,” he said.
Rosebrough cited Hebrews 7, which says: “For when there is a change in the priesthood there is necessarily a change in the law as well.”
Also, Galatians 3:19, says the purpose of the law was to highlight transgressions “until the seed to whom the promise referred had come.”
“The law was our guardian so that we might be justified by faith,” Rosebrough said. “All of these clear passages that Christians are not under the law, and the law was but a shadow of good things to come, and therefore the idea that the earth and heaven shall pass away before the law is abolished does not mean it will never pass away. It’s an idiomatic statement, similar to our statement, ‘Until hell freezes over.’
“It is not saying the law will be in effect to the end of the world, but until all is fulfilled.”
In Hebrews 8, Rosebrough said the author communicates that “not only did Christ usher in a new covenant, but he makes the old one obsolete.”
He then read Ephesians 2:14-15, which says Jesus “destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.”
For the same reason, Christians don’t have to keep a kosher diet or celebrate the new moons and Jewish festivals, nor do they have to keep Sabbath, according to Rosebrough.
“Those were all types and shadows of things to come,” he said. “The law, according to the New Testament, is the shadow. Jesus is the substance.
“Paul specifically says in Colossians not to let anyone condemn you for not keeping the Sabbath. Why? Because these are the shadows!”
The idea that Constantine is responsible for replacing the Jewish Sabbath with a pagan observation “plays well if you’re into ‘Da Vinci Code’ conspiracies but doesn’t hold water if you look at Scripture.”
He then cited Acts 2, which says that on “the first day of the week” the apostles gathered to break bread.
“There’s not a single commandment in the New Testament regarding keeping Sabbath,” Rosebrough concluded.
“Because it was clear all the ordinances of the Torah, they were all canceled, giving way to the substance of the new covenant. And we are no longer under Torah and its ordinances, and its sabbaths and its new moons and its feasts.
“By the second century, Christians were observing the first day, the Lord’s Day and not the Sabbath.”
Pointing to reality
Staley rebutted Rosebrough’s conclusions, saying that while much of the Torah uses types and shadows, those symbols also “pointed to reality.”
He again hammered away at the anti-Semitism displayed by the early church fathers. He said the first Christians were described in Acts as meeting on the “first day because they were meeting every day.”
“I can see my opponent’s strategy is to bog me down by chasing all these Scriptures,” Staley said.
“If my opponent is correct, ladies and gentlemen, we can commit adultery, we can murder, because … if he is right we don’t have a single other definition of sin in the Bible.”
Staley noted the millions of dollars spent on overseas missions.
“If the law is done away with, there is no reason to tell them they need Jesus. For what? To save them from something that doesn’t exist?
“He came to remove the penalty, not the law,” Staley said. “Everyone of the verses my opponent has brought up has been misunderstood.”
“We’ve got massive amounts of Scriptures of disciples telling us to keep the law of God.
“We are not to live by the flesh but of the spirit. You did not receive the spirit of bondage but the spirit of God, and those who have the spirit of God actually keep the law of God. Those who do not have the spirit of God, cannot!”
Rosebrough hit hard on the difference between the two covenants of God.
“The reason they did not keep the Sabbath is because the Mosaic covenant is no longer in effect. Can we then commit adultery? Of course not.”
He cited the Epistle of Barnabas, saying early Christians kept the Sunday Sabbath “with joyfulness which is also the day Jesus rose from the dead.”
He cited Justin Martyr’s “Dialogue with Trypho the Jew,” written about 60 years after the death of the Apostle John, as evidence that the Jewish Sabbath was no longer required to be kept by Christians.
“He is very kind to the Jew he is talking to and lays all this out,” Rosebrough said.
“This is 60 years after the death of John, and he’s saying those who don’t keep the Sabbath assuredly will inherit the things of God. Justin notes that Adam did not keep the Sabbath and Noah didn’t. It was Moses who enjoined the children of Israel to keep it.
“Early in the second century, Justin takes the time to explain to us what sounds exactly like a church service, with a call to worship, time to take the Lord’s Supper, to take up an offering for widows and orphans, and to hear the word of God,” said Rosebrough.
“All the church fathers acknowledged that the Sabbath had been done away with. And they commemorate the creation on the eighth day. And the reason is that they remember they were no longer under the old Mosaic covenant. It’s given way to the new covenant. Not some conspiracy theory.”
Staley criticized Rosebrough’s reliance on Justin Martyr to justify his position.
He then rattled off quotes from early church fathers that showed their disdain for all things Jewish, including one from Justin that said, “God imposed upon you (Jews) the Sabbath as a mark for your sins.”
St. John Chrysostom, also known as “Golden Mouth,” said the synagogue was “worse than a brothel” and “a temple of demons and a refuge of brigands and assassins of Christ, a den of iniquity.”
Staley said St. John Chrysostom hated the synagogue and hated the Jews for the same reason.
St. Augustine was not much better, he said.
“And on and on it goes where they are heavily slanted against the Jews, because they did not speak Hebrew, they did not understand the Hebrew roots. These were Greek philosophers.”
He agreed that the Jewish feasts are shadows of things to come but concluded: “The shadows are there to lead you to reality. The reason you might want to observe the feast days is that it would lead you to the foot of the cross. It’s a straw man argument my opponent has put up.”
Rosebrough was not swayed.
“How is it anti-Semitic for a church father to quote Galatians 3:19? Pointing that out to his Jewish dialogue partner does not make him anti-Semitic.”
Regarding the moral laws, Rosebrough said the question comes down to what function Torah serves.
“It’s important to know that the commandments all get rolled up in the New Testament, but none of the commandments about the Sabbath and feast days, none of those get rolled up in the New Testament. But the first Christians did not observe those yet they had extremely high morals. In fact, I would argue that the morals of the New Testament are greater than those in the Torah.
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love is the fulfilling of the law,” said Rosebrough.
“Christ has not called his church to lawlessness, so the idea that without the Torah we cannot be moral? No, you haven’t read your Scriptures.”
At one point in the debate, Rosebrough turned to his opponent and asked: “Am I an apostate if I don’t keep the Sabbath?”
"It is a transgression against the law. That's different than being apostate. Torahlessness is lawlessness," Staley answered. "There’s only one law, my friend."
"No, actually, there is the law of Christ," Rosebrough responded.
Rosebrough's closing statement
"We see the Mosaic covenant has come to an end, and this is why we see Christians of the late second century no longer observed" the Hebrew Sabbath, Rosebrough concluded, t
He then cited Hebrews 4, saying, "For we who have believed entered into his rest."
Rosebrough said the reality "that's being pointed to was salvation through faith alone."
"When we are in Christ we are in the true Sabbath rest. And to add works to what the Lord has already done is to put yourself outside the Sabbath that Christ has created for you. It's a free gift, a Sabbath rest, and if you do not have it you are not truly in him."
Staley's closing statement
Staley said those who believe God meant for the Sabbath to remain find themselves in "a win-win situation, because there is no proof anywhere in the Bible that the day He set apart and called holy would suddenly be suspended or canceled."
"There is no commandment saying we are not to keep it. Only assumptions and quotes from anti-Semitic church fathers," he said.
"Chris, if you are right and I'm wrong I have nothing to lose. But if I am right, and you are wrong, you will have to answer to God as to why you listened to church fathers and not him.
"The Bible says fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.
"Every one of us has two choices of who we can follow: You can choose to follow the church fathers if you'd like, but as for me and my house, we will follow the father of the church!"
Read WND's classic in-depth news report on the Sabbath controversy: 'Deception': Christians war over worship day