The Old Testament law and Sunday sport today
The Old Testament law and Sunday sport today

Following the release of one of our recent blogs about the ongoing cultural issue of sport on a Sunday, we received this great letter from a Christian cyclist.

Knowing it is a question and issue that many people are grappling with, he has kindly allowed his letter and it’s response to be published to help others.

So - have you been wondering how the Old Testament passages about the Sabbath affect our understanding of Sunday sport today?

Hi Guys,
I have been cycling competitively for three years and became a Christian two years ago.
Most “Masters” races are on a Sunday, so after searching the internet I could find no conclusive biblical guidance. After due consideration, I concluded that providing I wasn’t putting cycling ahead of God, that God wouldn’t mind me cycling on a Sunday morning and going to an evening church service.
Yesterday though, I thought about the issue again and researched it on the internet once more. Today in my daily “Bible in one year” reading, Isaiah 58:13 jumped off the page at me.
“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honourable, and if you honour it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words”
I would welcome your opinion on how this might apply to Sunday sport.

Dear C,

Thank you for your email and for getting in touch about this issue. It is wonderful to hear that the Lord has called you to compete in the Masters cycling races and what an arena to live for him and witness for him. Like so many sports today it is challenging to have the races on Sundays, though I am pleased to hear that you have been able to do both by also going to church in the evenings. At my church one of the reasons we offer an afternoon service is that it opens up this possibility for some of our sports players and parents of children who play sport on Sunday mornings.

I can see how the quote from Isaiah might make you concerned that you are disobeying God and so thank you for asking about that verse. There are in fact a number of verses like this in the Old Testament, where the Lord refers to Israel's disobedience in keeping the fourth commandment "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy" and calls them to repent.

As with any Old Testament passage it is important to understand it in it’s context in case we misapply it today. In the Old Testament keeping the Sabbath was a key aspect of obedience to God's covenant and so covenant faithfulness was shown by keeping it. Part of the question is how is covenant faithfulness (that means trusting God and obeying him as a response to his grace) shown today after the coming of Jesus Christ and the sending of his Spirit.

Pretty much all Christians happily accept that there are many aspects of the Old Testament law which are not markers of faithfulness today e.g. the food laws (Mark 7:19), the requirements to dress in a certain way, the temple sacrificial system (Hebrews 10:1-7) etc.

The question is whether the Sabbath commandment carries over to the New Testament in the same way. There are a few really important verses in the New Testament on this. One is Colossians 2:16-17 where Paul writes,

"Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ."

Paul seems to be clearly saying here that keeping a Sabbath is not something that is a matter of obedience to God now any more than what we eat is. Why? Because 'these' things are pointing towards the spiritual reality we enjoy in Christ.

Similarly in Romans 14:5 Paul is clearly referring to the Sabbath (though perhaps not only the Sabbath) as a day 'special to the Lord' when he writes

"One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord.. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”

He is saying here that the issue of keeping the Sabbath is no longer an issue of covenant faithfulness and obedience but is a 'disputable matter' (Romans 14:1) - in other words an area of legitimate disagreement between Christians.

The point is that the Old Testament prophets would never have treated Sabbath keeping in such a way because before Christ it was a command from the Lord, but since Christ has come it has become like the food laws, not something we are required to keep anymore but something that some people (usually from a Jewish background) still want to keep. Consequently Christians can be flexible about it but the key thing in both Colossians 2 and Romans 14 is not to be 'judgemental' when others have different opinions on it one to the other.

So ‘yes’, written back then Isaiah 58 was calling the people to keep the Sabbath but ‘no’ today the verse does not apply in the same way because the Sabbath is no longer a command we have to obey (just as we don't have to obey the food laws).

To be clear we need to be careful not to swing to an opposite extreme because we are still commanded to not neglect the gathering of God's people (Hebrews 10:24-25) and the principle of having one day a week to rest from our work and to gather to worship God was a blessing long before it was ever a command (see Genesis 2:3) but there is flexibility in how that blessing is pursued.

Hope this helps and thanks again for asking. Every blessing in him who gives us our true Sabbath rest - Jesus Christ,

Pete Nicholas

Minister in Charge, Inspire Saint James Clerkenwell, London

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