“Should Christians observe the Sabbath day?”
Please note that we are not trying to answer whether Christians should still follow a regular pattern of sabbath rest, as a principle. The quick and easy answer to that is yes, we should observe a regular pattern of sabbath rest, as a helpful principle deriving from God’s created order and Jesus as our rest from work, whereby we worship and rest as preparation for ongoing work. In other words, we need rest that disengages from work and the world and that engages God and His people in a way that rejuvenates us. (See “Summary Thought” in the last bullet point.)
Here we are trying to answer whether Christians are meant to follow a Saturday/Sabbath day of rest as the Israelites did and as some modern Christians still believe we must in order to remain faithful to God’s command. So, another way of asking this question is, “Does God’s Old Testament command to observe Saturday as the Sabbath day of rest still hold for us today?”
Some Christians (“Sabbatarians” who hold to a Saturday-only day of rest/worship) claim that God established the Sabbath as a permanent pattern for all His people to follow.
- Exodus 20:11 – The 4th Commandment in Exodus 20:8-10 was established by God because He rested on the 7th day, blessed it, and made it holy (Genesis 2:2-3). (Also cf. Exodus 23:12; 31:15; Deuteronomy 5:12; Leviticus 26:2, for generic reaffirmations of the 4th Commandment.)
- Exodus 31:15; Numbers 15:32-36 – Breaking Sabbath was considered so serious it was punishable by death. (Cf. Exodus 16:29; 35:3; Deuteronomy 5:14 for requirements for keeping the Sabbath.)
- Exodus 31:16-17 – The word “forever” is used twice here, showing it is to be observed forever.
- Matthew 12:12; 24:20; Mark 1:21; 6:2; Luke 4:16; 23:55-56; Acts 13:14; 17:1-2 – Even Jesus and His disciples carried on the tradition of keeping the Sabbath.
There are a number of good reasons why Sabbath-keeping, as a particular day, was never intended to be a permanent pattern for Christians, is no longer needed after Jesus’ finished work on our behalf, and was replaced by the “Lord’s Day” as an acceptable pattern for rest and worship.
- Every single one of the 10 Commandments was upheld in the New Testament except for Sabbath (Matthew 4:10; 6:4; Luke 4:8: 1st 2 Commandments re worshiping God only/properly; Matthew 5:33-34; 1 Timothy 6:1: taking name of Lord in vain/blasphemy; Matthew 19:18: murder, adultery, stealing, false witness, honor parents; Romans 13:9: coveting.) The mere presence of Sabbath-keeping by Jesus and His disciples (point 4 above), as a practice, does not constitute being upheld in the New Testament as a teaching or command, especially given the New Testament’s clear teaching that undoes the Sabbath day command (as in points 4, 6, 9, and 10 below).
- Exodus 31:16-17 make clear, not that the Sabbath was intended for all of God’s people forever, but that it was only intended to be kept as a covenant sign between God and Israel. Christians are given no such command (and no, Hebrews 4:9 does not teach that Christians should observe a Sabbath day but a Sabbath rest, which is very different.) In other words, it was a sign, for a specific time and people, that accompanied the Mosaic covenant, which is a “conditional” covenant of “works” where the agreement between God and His people is that He either blesses or curses them based on their obedience. (There’s a lot we could say here about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments/Covenants, but we need to keep things simple, for now.) But we are no longer living under that Old Covenant and are living in what most theologians call the New Covenant of Grace where God blesses us unto salvation because of the grace given to us in the work of Jesus. (Jeremiah 31:31-34; cf. Ezekiel 36:26-27; Matthew 5:17; Romans 3:20; 6:14-15; 7:4-6; Ephesians 2:8-9; Hebrews 7:22; 8:6; 9:15.) For more on the relationship between the Old and New Testaments/Covenants… (a) See https://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-covenants.html for more about covenants. (b) Btw, “testament”, as in the Old and New “Testaments”, is an old Latin word that means “covenant” that was added by Jerome in the translation of the Latin Vulgate in the late 4th century. In other words, it was added by humans after the canon of Scripture was closed and is not an inspired Bible word. “Testament” is not really a good word to use as it describes something different now, as in a “will and testament”. We would do better to think of them as “covenants”, as different ways to describe the relationship and agreement between God and His people. (c) See https://youtu.be/jm_-BPFVIgc and https://youtu.be/HFAoRtU7n-k for a couple good overviews of the relationship between Old and New Covenant laws.)
- Genesis 2:2-3 offer no command of a Sabbath observance and merely literally speak only of God having “stopped” on the “seventh day”. Genesis 2:2-3 do not logically presuppose a Sabbath day (i.e., Sabbatarians commit an anachronistic fallacy when they read the 4th commandment back into Genesis 2:2-3). In other words, God didn’t actually “rest”, as if He needed it. He merely “ceased” from His work because it was completed as intended. While it is valid to derive a principle for our genuine need for Sabbath rest from God’s created order as communicated in Genesis 2:2-3, Exodus 20:11, and Mark 2:27, there is no logical inference of a specific day for Sabbath rest that we do need from God’s “rest” (actually “stopping”) that He didn’t need!
- Matthew 12:1-8 – When Jesus says “the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath”, He is saying (a) He has the authority to rightly interpret the law (cf. Matthew 12:12), (b) it is okay to do things the Pharisees and traditional interpretations of the Sabbath law had said were not okay (cf Matthew 12:9-12; Mark 3:4), and (c) that the main physical intent of the Sabbath law, like He makes explicit in Mark 2:27-28, was to allow for rest and health.
- Matthew 28:1, 9, 10; Mark 16:9; Luke 24:1, 13, 15; John 20:19, 26 – In the Gospels, every time Jesus appears in resurrection form and the day is mentioned, it is Sunday. In all 4 Gospels, the writers are emphasizing that we are Resurrection Day people. There is much early church evidence that the tradition soon became, after Jesus’ death and because Christians were quickly kicked out of the synagogues, to worship on “the Lord’s day” (point 7 below).
- Acts 15:28-29 – In a monumental moment in the history of the development of the church, because of the influx of non-Jewish Christians, the Jerusalem Council met to decide what Jewish requirements the Gentile Christians were to follow. At the perfect time to make clear that Sabbath-keeping was required of Gentiles, they only prescribed 4 things, and Sabbath-keeping wasn’t one of them. Consider the significance of this. Are Sabbatarians really saying that the apostles themselves–who were best positioned, more well-informed, and more Jewish than all Christians after them–were wrong to forget to include Sabbath-keeping?!
- Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2; 2 Corinthians 9:12 – Scripture never mentions Sabbath/7th day worship gatherings but only “Lord’s Day” observances (cf. Revelation 1:10, “the Lord’s day”.) The early church immediately and almost exclusively adopted Sunday, the “Lord’s Day”, as the “new Sabbath” for Christian rest and worship. (Though there is some evidence of Saturday worship among Christians, the preponderance of historical evidence and the literature of the early church in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, Chapter 14 verse 1 of the Didache, e.g., reinforce the almost immediate adoption of Sunday worship.)
- Acts 13-18; 1 Corinthians 9:20 – After the Gospels, from Acts through Revelation, every time the Sabbath is mentioned, the occasion is Jewish evangelism and the setting is usually a synagogue. When Paul says he will begin to go to the Gentiles in Acts 18:6, in keeping with the trajectory of the decision of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, he doesn’t mention Sabbath again.
- Romans 14:5-6; Galatians 4:9-10; Colossians 2:16-17 – The New Testament makes explicit that Christians are under no obligation to keep the Sabbath in the same way the Israelites did.
- Hebrews 4:3-10 – Though it’s a complicated argument from the Old Testament that is hard to follow, Hebrews 4:3-10 make clear that, because Jesus is our High Priest (cf. Hebrews 4:14-16, where “grace” and “mercy” are meant to incorporate everything implied by “rest’ in Hebrews 4:3-10), those who enjoy rest from striving from the work of salvation because they have Jesus are living in the 7th day of God’s “rest” and need accomplish nothing more.
Even though I firmly believe Sabbatarians are motivated by a love for God and His Word, I think an overemphasis on Sabbath-keeping runs the risk of becoming a legalism that sets up Christians for failure and that misses the depths of a grace that can only be received as the gift of Christ’s finished work on our behalf. They haven’t taken seriously enough Christ’s own words about having fulfilled the law for us, about having established his new law of love, and are overburdening themselves and their people with the yoke of the law they were never meant to carry. To demand a Saturday-only observance of rest and worship is to go beyond what the New Testament demands.