Many people have questions about the Sabbath. While it’s clearly something that was commanded under the Old Testament, do Christians have a Sabbath that they need to observe? Is Sunday the Christian Sabbath?
First, we need to learn a little bit about the Sabbath that was given to Israel in the Old Testament. I am a firm believer that God doesn’t do things without reason; our God is a God of purpose. When we look at the Old Testament, we can not only see what God tells Israel about the Sabbath, but we will also be able to see why he commanded it.
The Commandment of the Sabbath
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
– Exodus 20.1, 8-11
Notice that the commandments here were given to physical Israel. They were the ones brought out of the land of Egypt, and they were the ones given the Promised Land. These commandments were given to them so that they might dwell long in the land that God was giving to them. If they broke the commandments of God, the land would “vomit them out” (Leviticus 20.22). Right away, we should notice that most people who are Christians today are not Hebrews but Gentiles. The Gentiles nations were never commanded to have a Sabbath Day. It was strictly an Israelite issue.
This has significant ramifications for our understanding of the Sabbath. If only Israel was bound to follow the Sabbath, then it can’t be a part of the moral expectations for all people. In other words, there is nothing morally wrong with not observing the Sabbath. Lying has always been wrong; God cannot lie and is not pleased when his children lie. Gentiles sinned when they lied just the same as Hebrews sinned when they lied. Murder has always been and will always be morally wrong; it is a universal moral expectation that God’s children will not murder one another.
The Sabbath Was Made for Man
One of the mistakes that the Jews made in the first century was assuming the Sabbath was more important than it really was. This certainly doesn’t mean that it’s not important, only that they misunderstood why it was given to them. Rather than using the Sabbath to provide a quiet time for peaceful reflection on the grace and mercy of God, they turned it into a religious burden. The effects of their misunderstandings still reverberate today.
For example, they began to create rules and laws that God didn’t give them. On the Sabbath, the Jews considered it against the law to move anything more than four cubits, to tie something, to untie something, to write something down, to erase something that had been written, to tear something, to sew something, to walk more than ~1.7 miles, and many other similar rules. The Jews had constructed a system that actually made the Sabbath more difficult than the rest of the week; instead of providing the intended day of rest and reflection, they turned into a religious observance that was not pleasing to the Lord.
Jesus attempts to correct their misunderstanding by doing things they considered work, but God didn’t. He healed people on the Sabbath. He helped people on the Sabbath. He told people to carry bed mats more than four cubits. When he was confronted by the Scribes and Pharisees about these things, he gives his famous explanation: “The Sabbath was created for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” (cf Mark 2.27-28).
The Gentiles and the Sabbath
There are some today who insist that the Sabbath was taught to Christians throughout time. However, as previously mentioned, the commandment for a physical Sabbath was only given to the Israelites while there was a physical covenant with a physical people. When Israel rejected the Son of God, God carried out his promises in Deuteronomy 28 (and other places in the prophets) and cut off the physical nation. This doesn’t mean that the Hebrews cannot become Christians, but it does mean that the physical covenant, the Old Testament, has come to an end (cf Hebrews 8.7,13; Jeremiah 31.31-34).
The idea that Gentiles Christians observed the Sabbath fails on at least three different points. First, there is never a commandment anywhere recorded in the New Testament for the saints to meet on the Sabbath (Saturday). We see Christians meetings at various times throughout the New Testament. In Jerusalem, they were meeting every day before the persecution began (Acts 2.46). They also met on the first day of the week (Acts 20.7). There were times when Gentiles are meeting together with the Jews at the Synagogues on the Sabbath, too, before they hear the preaching of the gospel (Acts 18.1-11). While it’s clear that both Jews and Gentiles were meeting together in the Synagogue before they were converted to Christ, the text isn’t clear what they started doing afterward. In all likely hood, the Hebrews continued to observe the Sabbath while the Gentiles, as more and more of them entered the church, didn’t. This would lead to problems that Paul would talk about extensively in other places, like Romans 14.5-12.
Slaves and the Day of Rest (Sabbath)
In the Hebrew culture, everyone had the Sabbath off from work. It was unlawful to make your servants and slaves work on the Sabbath; that pretty much ensured the day off for everyone. In our modern culture where we have an established weekend, we tend to forget that the ancient world didn’t. If you were a Gentile convert to Christ, you didn’t automatically get any special days off from your work. You were more than likely forced to violate the Sabbath.
While this doesn’t out-of-hand dismiss the issue, it is a very powerful point. How come there were no commandments for the saints to observe the Sabbath in any of the New Testament writings? How come this issue of being forced to work on the Sabbath is never addressed? Likely because it wasn’t an issue; Christians are not commanded to observe the Sabbath like the Hebrew people were.
What is the Christian Sabbath?
Many things in the Old Testament no longer apply to Christians living under the new, spiritual way of Jesus. When Jeremiah prophesied of a new covenant, he necessarily meant that the old would pass away. Jesus clarified that this didn’t indicate merely the removal of the Old Testament, but the fulfillment of all it’s promises (including promises of punishment on Israel for rejecting Jesus).
The Christian Sabbath is a Spiritual Sabbath
We’ve already mentioned that the physical Sabbath only applied to the Hebrews (or servant/slave of the Hebrews). It was a physical commandment for a physical people living under a physical covenant. We are now a spiritual people, the Spiritual Israel of God, and we live with spiritual commandments under a spiritual covenant. Many of the Old Testament laws have spiritual parallels that are clearly drawn for us in the text of the New Testament. The Sabbath is one such law.
Our Spiritual Sabbath is Heaven
The apostle Paul clearly indicates that the Sabbath rest that Christians should be looking for is spiritual in nature. He writes in the Hebrews 4 that “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Hebrews 4.9-10). The rest that we enter into is our salvation in heaven; there is no rest from the good work that we must do for God here on Earth. There is no rest from the suffering and persecution that we must endure while living faithfully to God. There is no rest for us until we go to our true, heavenly home to be with our Father forever. The Spirit testifies of this when he says, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. Blessed indeed, says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” (Revelation 14.13).
Let us strive then to use every day that we have here to live for the Lord. Let us be those people who work diligently for the glory of our God and Father. Let us be those who are striving always to follow Jesus, the way, the truth and the life, and our only hope of finding our Father in heaven. Let us be those who enter into the spiritual Sabbath.