The Church and the Sabbath
The Church's Relationship to the Law · The Church's Relationship to the Sabbath · For Israel Only--The Purpose of the Sabbath · The Law is a Unitary Corpus · God Did Not Create the Sabbath · Jesus Broke the Sabbath · God Will Cause the Sabbaths to Cease · NT Examples Demonstrating the Sabbath Has Been Abrogated · Objections · The Patriarchs Were Given the Ten Commandments · Hebrews 4:1-11 · What Commandments? · Isaiah 66:23 · Sabbath of the Jews or of the Lord? · Did Constantine Change the Sabbath · Remember the Sabbath · Conclusion
There is much talk concerning the Sabbath. Is the Sabbath for the Christian church today? Is Sunday the Christian Sabbath? These and many other questions are being asked and brought to the attention of the people of God by those who are advocating that the church is to observe the Sabbath. While Sabbath observance used to be limited primarily to groups such as the Seventh Day Adventists, Sabbath observance is now popping up within many non-Sabbath-keeping denominations including Oneness Pentecostals.
The question of the Sabbath is intrinsically connected with the question of the church's relationship to the Law of Moses. In order to answer the question of the church's relationship to the Sabbath, we must first answer the question of the church's relationship to the Law.
The Church's Relationship to the Law
While the relationship of the church to the Law of Moses is foundational to the Sabbath question, I do not wish to explore the full depths of this facet of the discussion because (1) I have explored this issue in depth in other articles and do not wish to repeat myself here, and (2) the focus of this article is not on the church's relationship to the Law, but rather on the role and/or meaning of the Sabbath for the church today. The following, therefore, will only offer a brief summary arguing that Law of Moses was nullified in toto with the death of Christ, and replaced by the New Covenant. For further reading in this area please refer to the articles titled "The Law: The Misunderstood Covenant," "The Inferiority of the Law to the New Covenant in Galatians," and "Hebrews 7:12—Changed or Abolished?"
The Mosaic Covenant was a covenant given to the children of Israel who were delivered from Egypt (Exodus 19:3-6). The covenant was made exclusively with the nation of Israel (Psalm 147:19-20; Romans 9:4; Ephesians 2:12). It was never intended to be a perpetual covenant, for the OT predicted its replacement by a superior covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-33; See also Ezekiel 36:24-28). The Mosaic Covenant served as a schoolmaster to lead the children of Israel to find faith in the Messiah. Once the Messiah had come, however, they were no longer under the schoolmaster of the Law (Galatians 3:21-25).
The New Testament is clear in its insistence that the Mosaic Covenant was superseded by the New Covenant. According to the Apostle Paul, Gentiles had been separated from the citizenship of Israel, and were foreigners to their covenants of promise (which includes the Mosaic Covenant; Ephesians 3:12). Because of the exclusive nature of the Mosaic Covenant between God and the Jewish nation Gentiles could not partake of its benefits. This created a division between Jew and Gentile as between those with covenant promises and those without covenant promises. In order to reconcile Gentiles to God, that which separated the Gentiles from the promises of God needed to be abolished. Christ abolished this separation when He abolished the Mosaic Law. Paul declared that Christ "has broken down the middle wall of partition...; having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances... (Ephesians 2:14-15). Now that the Law has been abolished Jew and Gentile have been brought into one new body, so making peace (Ephesians 2:15b-16). This union of Jew and Gentile into one new body, accomplished by the abolition of the dividing wall of the Law, has brought Gentiles into the status of citizenship in the kingdom of God, enjoying access to the Father through the same Spirit as that of the Jews (Ephesians 2:18-19).
In an earlier epistle Paul explained how the Jews had attempted to gain righteousness by obedience to the Mosaic Law, rather than by faith, and thus failed to attain to the righteousness of God (Romans 9:31—10:3). But "Christ is the end of the law, with the result that there is righteousness for everyone who believes" (Romans 10:4 NET Bible). With the advent of Christ the Law has ended, and righteousness is being obtained apart from the law covenant (Romans 3:20-22).
While arguing that Christians should not continue to sin Paul told the Romans, "We are not under law, but under grace..." (Romans 6:14b). This verse is very significant in light of what Paul had said previously concerning the nature and purpose of the Law. The Law defined what sin was (Romans 3:20; 7:7; I John 3:4). When the Law was given, and sin was defined, those who were under the Law were now held accountable for their actions, and the wrath of God would be executed against it (Romans 4:15; 5:13). The Law, then, made sin appear as sin (Romans 7:13; Romans 5:20; Galatians 3:19). The Law of Moses, because it defined sin, actually incited man's inherent sinfulness to be increasingly sinful, thereby strengthening sin's power over man (Romans 5:20; 7:5, 14-25; I Corinthians 15:56). This does not make the law evil (Romans 7:12, 14a), but it does show the weakness of the Law to bring righteousness to depraved human beings (Romans 8:3-4; Hebrews 8:6-9). Only through the New Covenant—the covenant of grace—can this weakness of the Law be overcome.
While the Mosaic Covenant incited man's sinfulness to be increasingly sinful, and did not offer him any way to overcome this sinfulness, the New Covenant does. That is why Paul argued in Romans 7 that we have become dead to the Law so that we might serve Christ in the newness of the Spirit (Romans 7:1-6). It was precisely because the Law brought the knowledge of sin, and increased man's inherent sinfulness that those under the Mosaic Covenant were in continual bondage to sin with no hope of freedom (Romans 7:7-24). The first step to freedom from this predicament was to be freed from the Law.
Paul's statement in Romans 6:14 is so powerful because it not only declares that we are no longer under the law as an obligation, but demonstrates that the Mosaic Covenant is in and of itself a barrier to righteousness and holiness. It is only because the church has been freed from the Law and brought under the power of New Covenant grace that we are able to live above sin's dominion in our lives. If the church were to remain under the Mosaic Law it would necessarily be subject to the same sin-problem faced by the OT saints subject to the Law.
While freedom from the Law is the first step to freedom from sin's dominion, the second step is obedience to the New Covenant doctrine, namely baptism (Romans 6:17-18). Through baptism into Christ the dominion of sin is broken, allowing us to overcome its rule in our lives (Romans 6:1-13). Having died to sin through the abrogation of the Law and through baptism into Christ we are now alive to righteousness and free from sin's dominon (Romans 6:13, 22; I Peter 2:24).
The author of Hebrews was explicit in his teaching that the Law has been superseded by the New Covenant. The Law has been abolished because it was weak and ultimately unprofitable for the salvation of mankind. It could not make anything perfect, but the New Covenant did (Hebrews 7:18-19; 8:6-13; 9:9-11; 10:1-12, 14; 12:22-24). The author is clear that the Law is over, being superseded by the New Covenant, the latter being more than a mere supplement to the former.
The Church's Relationship to the Sabbath
For Israel Only--The Purpose of the Sabbath
According to Deuteronomy 5:3 the Mosaic Covenant was not made with anyone except the generation which journeyed to Sinai with Moses. According to Nehemiah 9:13-14, the Sabbath was not made known until the giving of the law at Sinai. God gave Israel "right judgments, and true laws, good statutes and commandments: And made known to them your holy Sabbath, and commanded them precepts, statutes, and laws, by the hand of Moses your servant." The Lord said through Ezekiel, "Moreover also I gave them [Israel] my Sabbaths, to be a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord that sanctifies them" (Ezekiel 20:12).
Notice that the Sabbaths were only given to Israel, and they served as a sign between Yahweh and Israel. Exodus 31:12-17 also emphasizes that the Sabbath was a sign between Yahweh and Israel only.
Speak also to the children of Israel, saying: "Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you. You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.. Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed." (NKJV)
The Sabbath was a visible sign to test Israel’s obedience to the Mosaic Covenant (Ex 16:4-5). The only way the Sabbath could be a sign is if it was unique to Israel, and unique to the Mosaic Covenant. If it was universal, or predated the Mosaic Covenant, it was not unique, and could hardly be classified as a unique sign between Yahweh and Israel.1
The Sabbath is a sign of the Mosaic Covenant, just like the rainbow was a sign of the Noahic Covenant and circumcision was the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant (Exodus 31:13, 17; Ezekiel 20:12, 20). The Sabbath as a sign of the covenant explains why the penalty for profaning the Sabbath—death—was so severe (Exodus 31:14; Numbers 15:32-36; Jeremiah 17:19-27). Israel's observance of the Sabbath indicated her loyalty to Yahweh, while her breaking of the Sabbath indicated her treachery against Yahweh and His covenant.
Once the Mosaic Covenant was abolished, the sign of the covenant was also abolished with it. The NT is quite clear that we no longer need to keep the Sabbath because it was only a shadow of the rest we were to receive in Christ (Romans 14:5-6; Gal 4:10-11; Colossians 2:11-17).
Another purpose behind the Sabbath command was to remind the children of Israel that they were delivered from the slavery of Egypt by Yahweh. Deuteronomy 5:15 declares: "And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day." (NKJV) Deuteronomy connects the Sabbath with the deliverance from Egypt described in Exodus. Whereas in Egypt the Israelites were forced to work everyday with no rest, each Sabbath the Israelites would now be able to rest. Every Sabbath of rest would remind Israel that God is an emancipator, a liberator, bringing rest to His people.
We must ask if the Sabbath command predated the Law of Moses, being a universal and perpetual command from creation, how could the Sabbath be given to remind Israel of the Exodus? It could only do so if the Sabbath was something new and unique, originating after the Israeli enslavement in Egypt.
The Law is a Unitary Corpus
While it has been demonstrated previously that the church is no longer under the Mosaic Covenant, but under the New Covenant, it does not necessarily answer the question of the church's relationship to the Sabbath. While it would appear logical that since the Law is over in which the command to keep the Sabbath appears, that the Sabbath command has also been abolished, some argue otherwise by splitting up the Law into various parts, arguing that only certain parts have been abolished while others remain binding. The most prevalent view of the Law is that it is divided up into three categories: moral law, civil law, and ceremonial law. Although this way of viewing the Law may be beneficial for facilitating our mental categorization of the many laws, the concept is foreign to the Scripture.
The Law of Moses was never fragmented into various parts, but was always viewed as one cohesive, unified whole. One had to keep all 613 commandments of the Law to receive of its benefits (Galatians 3:10-12). Moses said, "Cursed be he that does not confirm all the words of this law to do them" (Deuteronomy 27:26) The Lord said through Jeremiah, "Cursed be the man that obeys not the words of this covenant, ...Obey my voice, and do them, according to all which I command you" (Jeremiah 11:3-4; See also Galatians 3:10). James summed it up best when he said, "For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all" (James 2:10; See also v. 11). To keep 612 commandments, and yet fail to keep the 613th, is to break all 613. To break a "ceremonial" law was viewed in the same manner as a "moral" law. Perfect obedience was demanded to all the commands of the covenant, because it was a unified whole.
This understanding of the Law is very important to our understanding of the relationship of the Mosaic Covenant to the New Covenant because it is commonly taught that Jesus only abolished the ceremonial and civil laws of the Mosaic Covenant when he established the New Covenant, leaving the moral law still effective. However, because the Scripture depicts the Law as a single, unified-whole we must conclude that Jesus abolished the entire Mosaic Covenant, including its moral laws (James 2:10-11). This does not mean that God no longer has laws concerning morality today. God's moral nature demands that He will always have a moral law for mankind. Before the Law He instructed men through their conscience and through oral laws passed down from generation to generation (Romans 2:12-16). This was necessary because no written revelation existed before the Law of Moses that could define right and wrong. Abraham never had a Scripture to tell him about God's laws, yet we read that Abraham obeyed God's voice, kept His charge, His commandments, His statutes, and His laws (Genesis 26:5). The laws of God that have to do with His moral nature predated the Law of Moses and were added to what we think of as the ceremonial and civil aspects of the Law, but when Jesus abolished the Law at His death (Hebrews 9:16-17) even what we would call the moral aspects of the Law were abolished.
God did not abolish His own moral laws when He eradicated the Law, but He did eradicate the legality of the covenant in its entirety. He could not abolish some parts of the Law and not others because it stood as a single unit. After abolishing the entire covenant God reiterated His eternal moral commandments to the church via the New Testament Scriptures. Whatever God's moral laws were before the Mosaic Covenant were also contained in the Mosaic Law, and continue to be applicable for us in the church age, written for us in the New Testament Scriptures. These moral laws were contained in the Law of Moses, but we have little means of judging whether or not they were part of God's eternal moral law except for the fact that the command is reiterated in the New Testament Scriptures. If a Mosaic command does not reappear in the New Testament it can be concluded that it was not part of God's eternal moral law, for the identity of God's moral law is found in the expression of revelatory commandments in His Word (Romans 7:7-13).
How does such an understanding of the Law affect our understanding of the Ten Commandments? Most believers would affirm that Christians should keep the Ten Commandments because nine of the Ten Commandments also appear in the New Testament in one form or another. The command to observe the Sabbath, however, does not reappear. The New Testament is clear that the church is not under obligation to the Sabbath law (Romans 14:5; Galatians 4:9-11; Colossians 2:14-17). To argue, then, that the church is to keep the Ten Commandments as set forth in the OT would necessitate the inclusion of keeping the Sabbath commandment also. This contradicts New Covenant theology (as will be demonstrated later), and the Biblical view of the Law of Moses as one integral unit.. Seeing that the Ten Commandments are part of the 613 commandments of the Mosaic Law (and arguably the very heart of the Mosaic Covenant), they too were abolished at Calvary. Nine of them were "reintroduced" in the New Covenant due to the fact that they are part of God's "moral law," emanating forth from His holy nature.
It is noteworthy to examine Paul's treatment of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) in his writings. In Romans 7:4-7 Paul told his readers that they were delivered from the Law through its termination, so that they might be able to serve Christ. They were "dead to the law" through Christ (v.4). The Law actually stirred up their sinfulness, culminating in their spiritual death (v.5). Now that the Romans had been delivered from the Law, however, they could serve God in the newness of the Spirit (v.7). To exemplify how the Law stands in opposition to the power of grace to overcome sin, Paul quoted the tenth commandment that prohibited covetousness.
Had the Ten Commandments of the Mosaic Covenant still been legally binding on the church as the Ten Commandments of the Law, Paul would not have made such a statement because in this context the Law (oldness of the letter) was being contrasted with the New Covenant (newness of the Spirit). Paul argued that the Law brings death, but Christ brings life. Part of the Law that brings death is the tenth commandment in the Decalogue, which stands in opposition to the New Covenant, and binds us in sin rather than liberating us from it. This does not mean that Paul thought covetousness was no longer sin, for the New Testament condemns it in several places. What it demonstrates is that Paul considered the Decalogue to be part of the old Mosaic Covenant which has been done away with in Christ, no longer binding on the church. It was part and parcel of the Mosaic Covenant, standing within its overarching unity as a covenant. The Law from which the child of God is delivered includes the Ten Commandments as a unit of the Mosaic Covenant, but this does not mean that we are no longer obliged to obey all of the commandments, for nine of them are repeated in principle in the New Covenant.
Paul also referred to the doing away of the Ten Commandments in II Corinthians 3:6-11.
But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away: How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious? For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory. For even that which was make glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth.. For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious.
The only commandments the OT records as being written and engraven in stones were the Ten Commandments. They were written on the stones of Mount Sinai. It would be safe to conclude, then, that Paul at least has the Ten Commandments in mind here. Those commands resulted in condemnation, and have been superseded by the New Covenant characterized by the life of the Spirit. According to the Apostle Paul, then, we are not under the Decalogue. We are under the commandments of the New Covenant, which does, however, happen to contain similarities to nine of the Ten Commandments.
Some may argue that it is mere hair-splitting to declare that the Ten Commandments have been abolished with the rest of the Law only to "reinstate" nine of the commands again. If the commands of the New Covenant so closely parallel the commands of the Old Covenant, why make such a distinction? An analogy might be helpful.
It can be compared to a real estate contract. A real estate agent makes two contracts for two men who are buying two different houses. Although both contracts will contain similar elements and language, they are indeed two different contracts. The two contracts will also have many differences between them. They may both include information such as payment, lot space, or time of purchase, but they will have differences. The one man is not subject to the other's contract, neither vice-versa. The Mosaic Covenant is not the church's covenant. It contains many similar elements, but it has many differences. We are not to obey a commandment from the Law simply because there is a similar command in our covenant. We are only subject to the terms of our own covenant, i.e. the New Covenant.
God Did Not Create the Sabbath
While the Sabbath command is only found in the Mosaic Covenant, some argue that the Sabbath command predated the Mosaic Covenant, and therefore, should be observed by all men regardless of the covenant they participate in. Those under the Noahic Covenant, Mosaic Covenant, or New Covenant are all bound to the Sabbath command because the Sabbath did not originate in any particular covenant, but rather in the very creation itself. To give further backing to this argument it is often pointed out that the Sabbath was instituted before sin entered the world, thus making the Sabbath as holy and enduring an institution as marriage.
Those who advocate such a position base their teaching on Genesis 2:3 which says, "And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made." (NKJV) The context is speaking of the creation of the universe. There are seven days in the creation narrative, and the author gives account of all God's activities on each day. On the seventh day, however, it is said that God rested, or more accurately, ceased from His creating endeavors. This seventh day is then said to have been blessed and sanctified by God.
While at first glance this does seem to give credence to the claims of Sabbath observers, there are many assumptions being made in their interpretation. Yes, God sanctified the seventh day, but the text does not say that He sanctified every seventh day, and neither does it say that the seventh day was a Sabbath. The Hebrew word for "seven" and "Sabbath" are two different words. There is no contextual or grammatical basis to argue from Genesis 2:3 that the Sabbath existed before the Law, or that God sanctified the seventh day of every week to be observed as the Sabbath for all time.
While God did command the Israelites to observe the seventh day of each week as the Sabbath, this does not mean that the seventh day of Genesis 2:1-3 was a Sabbath. We cannot confuse the seventh day with the Sabbath day. Having said this, Exodus 31:17 does cite Genesis 2:1-3 as a precedent for the rest that the Israelites were to observe on the Sabbath: "It [Sabbath] is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever: for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed."
Again, this verse seems to support the contention that the Israelites were to observe the Sabbath because it was part of creation. Notice, however, what this verse does not say. It does not say that God’s cessation from His work on the seventh day was a Sabbath. It would be mere assumption to claim that this is Moses' point. It seems better to understand the author's point in referencing God's rest on the seventh day of creation as to supply a basis and pattern for Israel to cease from working on every seventh day, which would become a Sabbath day for them.2 God's rest from His labors was being referred to as the principle behind the institution of the Sabbath observance for Israel. This is further witnessed in Exodus 20:11 where it is said that God has blessed and hollowed the Sabbath day because it was on the seventh day that He Himself had ceased from His own labors.
Seeing that Genesis was penned by Moses after having received the Law, it is very probably that the emphasis on God's ceasing from his labors on the seventh day was emphasized for polemical reasons; i.e. to give Israel a precedence for Sabbath observance.
As stated earlier, the Sabbath was a sign of the Israelite's obedience to the covenant. For a sign to mean anything, the sign must be unique, not universal. If, however, Exodus 31:17 or Exodus 20:11 teach that the seventh day of creation, and every seventh day thereafter are Sabbath days for all to observe, then the Sabbath is not a unique sign to specifically test Israel's obedience to the Mosaic Covenant. Nehemiah 9:13-14 states that God made known the Sabbath to Israel through Moses. If the Sabbath was universal, why did they not know it before? The most reasonable answer is because it was not commanded until the inception of the Law.
Finally, if Genesis 2:3 means that every seventh day since creation has been a Sabbath day wherein even God Himself rests, we will have difficulty understanding Jesus' statement in John 5:17. Jesus healed an impotent man on the Sabbath day, commanding the man to take up his bed and walk. When the Jews saw Jesus healing on the Sabbath they accused Him of breaking the Sabbath. Jesus responded, "My Father has been working until now, and I have been working" (John 5:17b). Notice that Jesus did not deny the charge that He was working on the Sabbath, and He even included the Father in the work. Had Jesus and the Father not been working, it would have been the perfect opportunity for Jesus to clarify the fact. Instead He openly admitted that he and the Father had been working until that point, and was working on that particular Sabbath in the healing of the impotent man. How could God rest on every Sabbath day and at the same time be working? He cannot.
Jesus Broke the Sabbath
If the Sabbath is to be kept by all men, then modern Sabbath-keepers must be able to explain why Jesus did not always keep the Sabbath. Yes, Jesus most often did observe the Sabbath because He still lived under the dispensation of the Law, but the Scripture is clear that He also broke the Sabbath because He was the Lord of the Sabbath. John 5:17 is one such example, as explained above. Jesus did not say that the Jews only thought He was working, but He really was not. He plainly said that He and the Father were working on the Sabbath. If it was just a matter of the Jews thinking that the healing was not work, then Jesus could have clarified their misunderstanding. Instead, He said He was working.
Not only did Jesus break the Sabbath, He also commanded another man to break the Sabbath. After healing the impotent man in the pericope noted above (John 5:4-18), Jesus told him to take up his bed and walk (John 5:8). Jesus’ action was an outrage to the Jews. They accused Him of breaking the Sabbath. Why? Was Jesus just breaking a Sabbath tradition? No. Jeremiah 17:19-22 clearly commanded that nobody was to carry any burden (load) on the Sabbath. What did Jesus tell the man to do?—to carry his bed on the Sabbath. Jesus commanded somebody to break the Sabbath, a direct commandment of God found in the Law. Clearly, Jesus broke the Sabbath and caused someone else to break the Sabbath.
On another occasion Jesus' disciples were picking grain on the Sabbath because they were hungry. The Jews were angry at Jesus for allowing the disciples to "do that which is unlawful to do on the Sabbath day" (Matthew 12:2). To justify His allowance of the picking of grain Jesus gave two examples found within the OT which demonstrated that at times the Sabbath could be broken. The first example was that of David and his men during David's flight from Saul. David and his men went into the house of God and ate the shewbread, which according to the Law could only be eaten by the priests. Jesus plainly declared that David's actions were unlawful according to the Law (Matthew 12:4), but David was considered blameless.
The second example concerns the priesthood. Every Sabbath the priests are said to have profaned the Sabbath in their offering of sacrifices, yet are blameless (Matthew 12:5; Numbers 28:9-10, 18-19). While there was to be no work on the Sabbath, the priests were allowed to work on the Sabbath to circumcise a child because every child had to be circumcised the eighth day after birth, no matter what day this fell on (Leviticus 12:3). This shows that the Sabbath could be broken even during the Law, and the breaker be blameless in the transgression.
God Will Cause the Sabbaths to Cease
If the Sabbath is a perpetual commandment of God, why does God declare that He will cause the Sabbaths to cease? In Hosea 2:11 God spoke to the Israelites saying, "I will also cause all her mirth to cease, her feast days, her new moons, and her Sabbaths, and all her solemn feasts." If Sabbath-keeping was an end in itself, why would the originator of the Sabbath stop the Sabbath? At best He would only punish man for failing to keep His eternal command, not take the command away.
Isaiah 1:10-20 is similar to the above passage. In this passage God communicated His disgust for Israel's failure to obey Him, all the while they continue to make sacrifices, observe the new moons, Sabbaths, and festivals. Verses 13-14 demonstrate God's anger at this hypocrisy: "Bring no more futile sacrifices; Incense is an abomination to Me. The New Moons, the Sabbaths, and the calling of assemblies -- I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting. Your New Moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates; They are a trouble to Me, I am weary of bearing them." (NKJV) If the Sabbath was an eternal decree of God, surely God could not be weary with the Israelites' continued observance of it. God would only display His displeasure over their failure to observe the Sabbath, yet Sabbath keeping was not the real issue that God had with the Israelites. There were other weightier matters of the Law that the Israelites were not obeying, which made the Sabbath observance a mere formality, and empty.
Also puzzling is Lamentations 2:6c where it is said that "the LORD has caused the solemn feasts and Sabbaths to be forgotten in Zion." If Sabbath-keeping was an end in itself, why would the Lord cause it to be forgotten? If observing the Sabbath was so important to God He would never cause it to be forgotten, just as He would never cause it to be forgotten to have no other gods before Him. If the Sabbath was part of God's eternal law, most assuredly He would have caused Israel to remember the Sabbath rather than forget it.3
NT Examples Demonstrating the Sabbath Has Been Abrogated
There are three primary NT texts which teach that the church is no longer bound by the Mosaic Sabbath laws: Romans 14:5-6; Galatians 4:9-11; Colossians 2:14-16.
In Romans 14:5-6a Paul declared, "One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord." While Paul does not specifically use the word "Sabbath," the fact remains that the Sabbath is a day that some would consider more important than other days, so it does qualify for what Paul is speaking about, even if the Sabbath is not specifically named. Paul taught that it does not matter if one considers one day as more sacred than another, or if one considers every day the same. There is no requirement under the New Covenant that there be a special day of the week to observe as special or holy. If one does not regard any day, to the Lord they do not regard it, and this is acceptable in God’s sight. The Sabbath by definition is a special day of the week, and sacred according to the Law. According to Paul, while one may keep it if they so desire, it is not necessary. While I believe Paul was addressing the Sabbath along with the other sacred days of Judaism, one thing for sure is that the principles Paul advocated most surely can be applied to the Sabbath, which demonstrates that under the New Covenant the church is not bound to observe the Sabbath day.
The second passage declaring that the church is not bound by the Sabbath laws is Galatians 4:9-11. The overarching message of Galatians is that the Christian church is no longer under the Law of Moses, but under the New Covenant. To appreciate Paul's words in the aforementioned passage it would help to better understand the occasion and purpose of Paul's letter to the Galatians.
Apparently a group of believers had infiltrated Galatia after Paul left the area, bringing with them a gospel which taught justification by the Law of Moses. They were probably Jewish Christians as is evidenced by their doctrine of circumcision and the Law. These Jesus-confessing Jewish believers seem to have attacked Paul's apostleship and doctrine as is evidenced by Paul's defense of both in the first two chapters of Galatians.
The troublers emphasized circumcision and the keeping of the Law (3:2; 4:9, 21; 5:3, 18; 6:13). They were probably selective in what parts of the Law they taught as binding as is evidenced by Paul's pleading tone to the Galatians when he said that "every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law" (5:3). Had they been taught that the whole Law was binding it would not seem necessary for Paul to warn the Galatians of this. Whatever the Judaizers did emphasize, at the least it included the keeping of Sabbaths, new moons, festivals, jubilees, and circumcision (4:10; 5:12). The Galatians had been convinced of their teachings against Paul and converted to this new "faith" (1:6). The Law was not being kept as some cultural identity issue, but as a means of justification before God (2:16; 3:11; 5:4). Paul counters this teaching throughout the epistle.
In arguing against the Judaistic heresy of law keeping as a means of justification before God, Paul said, "But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years" (Galatians 4:9-10). What are these days, months, seasons, and years? Seeing that the Galatian heresy pertained to Law observance, it is most reasonable to assume that they refer to certain commandments of the Law. "Days" are none other than Sabbath days; "months" are none other than the new moon festivals; seasons probably refer to the annual festivals including Pentecost, the festival of harvest; "years" refers to the Sabbath years and jubilee years at which point possessions were restored and slaves released (Leviticus 25, 27).
The final reference, Colossians 2:14-16, is most explicit concerning the abrogation of the Sabbath laws for the church. Here Paul declared that Christ has "wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. … So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ." It is precisely because Christ had abolished the Law that no one can judge another in regards to whether they eat or drink certain things, keep festivals, or observe new moons and Sabbaths. Why are we not to judge those who do not observe these requirements of the Law? It is because they were mere shadows of the spiritual truths now revealed clearly to us in the New Covenant. Now that we have the substance of the truth, the shadow is no longer needed.
Some argue that Paul's reference to "Sabbaths" only refers to the four festival Sabbath days; however, there is no contextual reason to believe that Paul is limiting his reference to only four specific Sabbath days, but not all other weekly Sabbaths. Such a distinction is artificial and foreign to the text. The whole context indicates that Paul is talking in generalities: what we eat, what we drink, religious festivals, new moons, Sabbath days. Why should we believe that all of these are general categories except for the last one? There is no reason, and thus it should be taken to refer to all Sabbath days. Besides, Paul distinguishes "religious festivals" from "Sabbath days." Seeing that the Sabbaths were intricate parts of the religious festivals, it would be quite hard to imagine that Paul was making reference to the festivals, but not to their Sabbaths, and that he had to add the phrase about festival Sabbaths later. The festival Sabbaths were part of the festivals, and therefore we can be sure that Paul’s further mention of the "Sabbaths" includes all Sabbaths.
Those who contend that "Sabbaths" only refer to the festival Sabbaths must also explain how it is that only the festival Sabbaths are against us, but not the other Sabbaths? The Scripture never makes a distinction between different levels of Sabbaths. Sabbaths in general were against us as part of the Law—part of the written code that has been abolished.
While the above passages have demonstrated that the Sabbath commandments need not be obeyed by the church because they have been abolished with the Law, and were mere shadows, this is not the only evidence which argues against the position that the church ought to keep the Sabbath. If the Sabbath is for the NT church, and it is so important that we observe it, why is there no positive command to do so in the NT? The Mosaic Law is full of commandments to observe the Sabbath. Is it not interesting that the commandment to observe the Sabbath is only found in the Mosaic Covenant?
The fact that the NT nowhere commands the church to observe the Sabbath is especially telling when one considers the fact that most of the NT was written to a primarily Gentile audience, who would not have been accustomed to keeping a Sabbath. It would seem that Paul and others would have to be commanding or encouraging them to keep the Sabbath. Instead, we find statements that tell the church not to judge anyone based on their lack of Sabbath observance, holy day observance, or new moon observance, calling them mere shadows which have been fulfilled in Christ.
The Jerusalem council of Acts 15 concluded that Gentile Christians were not obliged to keep the Law. They only required that they observe four commandments, seemingly all of which were connected to idolatrous worship. Significantly, of the commands given, the Sabbath was not one of them.
The Patriarchs Were Given the Ten Commandments
Some argue that there are implications that the patriarchs, who lived before the giving of the Law, were given the Ten Commandments, sometimes using Genesis 26:5 for their justification that Abraham knew the Ten Commandments. The following is a list of the Ten Commandments followed by the Scripture reference that supposedly confirms this claim:
Although certain laws contained in the Mosaic Covenant were known prior to the Law, and given again in the New Covenant, this does not mean that the patriarchs followed the Law of Moses, nor does it mean that the Lord divinely revealed the Ten Commandments to anyone prior to the Law. How were the patriarchs aware of some of the same laws contained in the Ten Commandments? Nowhere does the text say that the Lord revealed these laws to these men. It could have very well come from the general revelation of the conscience (Romans 2:14-16).
It is assumed by those who advocate Law obedience that each of the different patriarchs were aware of all Ten Commandments. Unfortunately the text does not indicate anything remotely near this assumption. It may be that while each patriarch was aware of certain laws of God, no one patriarch was aware of all ten commandments contained later in the Ten Commandments (and I would argue that they could have only been aware of nine of the ten because we do not read of any patriarch having any knowledge of keeping or breaking any Sabbath day).
It is also assumed that in each of the references given that it is the patriarch who is aware of the sinfulness of their actions; however, the Scriptures used above do not indicate such. It is the author of Genesis who indicates or implies the sinfulness of their actions. Assuming that the author of Genesis is Moses, it is only natural for Moses to conclude that the patriarchs' actions were sin if they transgressed the commandments given in the Law Moses received at Sinai. It does not indicate, however, that the patriarchs were aware of the sinfulness of their actions, although most assuredly they were often aware of such through their conscience, or possibly oral laws passed down to them from their forefathers. But to assume that the patriarchs themselves knew the sinfulness of their actions is only an assumption.
Because of space constraints I will not examine each of the examples given from Genesis of people supposedly being aware of the Ten Commandments, but I will make a few relevant comments concerning some of the examples cited.
Genesis 2:3 is not evidence that the patriarchs knew to keep the Sabbath. This verse speaks of God resting on the seventh day of creation, not man resting on any particular Sabbath day. Thus there is no evidence of man keeping the Sabbath before the Mosaic Covenant.
The verses cited in favor of knowledge of the adultery command are simply records of those who committed adultery (with the exception of Joseph). This does not argue that anybody knew this was wrong. Again, those who read these stories, and could see that the actions were being condemned as sinful, were those who were already under the Law of Moses and had knowledge of the sinfulness of such acts because the Law defined adultery as sin already.
Genesis 27 does not show that anyone was aware of the ninth commandment. First of all, the command to not bear false witness was not really a command against lying in general, but lying in a court testimony. While I believe the principle goes beyond that, this is all the command is speaking about.
Secondly, nowhere is it indicated that Jacob was aware that his lying and deception were sinful.
Thirdly, Genesis 27 does not condemn Jacob for his lying, and the NT actually commends Jacob for his desire for the birthright which caused him to lie and cheat Esau.
Genesis 12:13-19 demonstrates that Abraham believed it permissible to lie, not that he refrained from lying, yet this is the same Abraham that God said had kept His commandments (Genesis 26:5).
The Scriptures cited in reference to covetousness only indicate that Isaac had many possessions and his neighbors envied him for it. It does not say that Isaac’s possessions were immoral, or that the fact that the Philistines envied him was wrong. It simply states a fact.
While it is said in Genesis 26:5 that Abraham kept God's commandments, charges, and laws, it does not indicate which commandments, charges, and laws he kept. We find no reference to Abraham keeping a Sabbath, or following the priestly laws of the Mosaic Covenant. Abraham had a knowledge of some of God’s moral laws via direct revelation, oral tradition, and conscience, but we do not know to what extent that knowledge was. God has always had a moral law because of His holy nature, even before the Mosaic Covenant, but to assume that later revelation (Ten Commandments) was given to Abraham is to assume something the Bible never indicates. The Ten Commandments surely contained some of the same laws known by Abraham, but they were not given to Abraham as part of a covenant like the Ten Commandments were given to Israel.
Hebrews 4:1-11 is often cited in favor of Sabbath keeping because the author repeatedly speaks of a "rest" for the people of God (eight references), and then includes a reference to God's rest on the seventh day of creation. As has been pointed out earlier, Genesis 2:2-3 is believed to be evidence that the Sabbath is part of creation itself; therefore, it is believed that the message of Hebrews 4:1-11 serves to exhort the church to Sabbath observance. A simple look at the context of Hebrew 4:1-11 will demonstrate how erroneous this interpretation is.
The first mention of "rest" is actually found in Hebrews 3:11. The context in which the author speaks of this rest is in his exhortation to New Covenant obedience, and against defection from the New Covenant to the Mosaic Covenant. He reminded his readers of the day wherein the Israelites provoked the Lord to anger when they believed the evil report of the ten spies, which in turn caused them to lose faith in Yahweh's ability to give them the land of Canaan as He had promised (Hebrews 3:7-9; Numbers 13-14). As a result of their lack of faith in the promises of God they were condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years, not able to enter into the rest intended for them by God (Hebrews 3:10-11, 17-19).
The rest spoken of was not the rest of the Sabbath day, but entrance into the Promised Land (Hebrews 3:18-19). If "rest" speaks of the Sabbath rest Israel would have most assuredly experienced it because they did observe the Sabbath in the wilderness.4 Such a conclusion, however, is in stark contrast to the author's assertion that Israel did not enter into rest. The Israelites could not enter the Promised Land because of a lack of faith, not because of a lack of Sabbath observance.
Using the above story as an exhortation to maintain faith in Christ, the author continued to speak of the rest God has for His people; but the rest he speaks of is a rest provided for under the New Covenant. The church has a promise of entering into the rest provided for us by God, but we too, just as Israel, can come short of entering into that rest (Hebrews 4:1). The way to avoid coming short of the rest God has provided for the church is by believing the message of the gospel (Hebrews 3:2). The author clearly identified how believers enter into rest: "For we which have believed do enter into rest…" (Hebrews 4:3a). We enter the rest of God by placing our faith in Christ, not by Sabbath observance. Up to this point there has been no mention or inference that the rest being spoken of involves the Sabbath.
The author continued to say, "For we who have believed do enter that rest, as He has said: 'So I swore in My wrath, 'They shall not enter My rest,' ' although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. For He has spoken in a certain place of the seventh day in this way: 'And God rested on the seventh day from all His works' " (Hebrews 4:3-4 NKJV). The reference to the works of God being finished from the foundation of the world is a reference to the fact that God has already provided all that is necessary for His people to enter into the rest He has prepared for them.5 Just as God had made every provision and preparation for Israel to conquer the land of Canaan after their miraculous exodus from Egypt, thereby entering the rest provided for them by God, He has also made every provision for the church to enter into the rest He has provided for it. All the church must do to appropriate God's promise of rest in their lives is to mix their faith with the New Covenant promises. Had Israel done the same they would have entered into rest.
To assure the Hebrew Christians that God has made all the necessary provisions to provide them rest, having finished His works from the foundation of the world, the author quoted Genesis 2:2 where it is said that God finished His works, and rested (ceased) after having created the world. The literary point of the Genesis citation is to demonstrate that if there was anything more that needed to be done to secure the promises of God to His people, most assuredly God could not have ceased from His works. The fact that God ceased from His works on the seventh day of creation gives credence to the author's contention that He has already provided all that is necessary for us to enter into His rest.
Notice that in citing Genesis 2:2 there is no mention made of a Sabbath. It is not said that God kept the Sabbath, or instituted the Sabbath at creation. Such a notion could not possibly fit the literary argument of the author. Genesis 2:2 was referenced to demonstrate that God has finished His works from the foundation of the world (v. 3c), having provided all that is necessary for us to enter into the rest He has provided for us (salvation in the New Covenant). If, however, the author was citing Genesis to teach Sabbath observance, it would only demonstrate that God rested one time, or possibly once a week, but is working at other times. Such is contradictory to the very point being made by the author. The author's point is that God's work has been finished since creation. To argue that the reference to Genesis is a reference to the Sabbath would radically violate the flow of context, reducing the author's argument to nonsense.
The author continued to say, "And again in this place: 'They shall not enter My rest' " (Hebrews 4:5). This is a reference to Psalm 95:7-11 (which was also referenced previously in Hebrews 3:10-11, 15; 4:3), serving to reiterate what has already been stated earlier: Israel did not enter into God's rest (Hebrews 3:11, 18-19). Seeing that God has a rest for His people, but the Israelites did not enter into that rest, it follows that there yet remains a rest for God's people to enter into. The author argues that this rest is provided in the New Covenant, but must be obtained by faith.
Further proof that there is still a rest for God's people is once again found in Psalm 95. The author of Hebrews continued: "Again He designates a certain day, saying in David, 'Today,' after such a long time, as it has been said: 'Today, if you will hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts.' " (Hebrews 4:7). Psalm 95 was penned by David long after Israel finally did conquer and inherit the Promised Land, which was the rest promised to them. The fact that the Lord would speak through David, long after Israel had occupied the Promised Land, saying, "Today…do not harden your hearts" in reference to the rest promised by God, indicates that the settling of the land of Canaan was not the ultimate rest God intended for His people. There was yet a greater rest to come. If Joshua had given them the ultimate rest intended by God when he led the conquering of the land, then there would be no reason for God to speak of another rest to be received in David's day (Hebrews 4:8).6 This is ample proof that there still remains a rest for the church to enter into (Hebrews 4:9).
The church enters into this remaining rest when we cease from our own works (the context indicates that the works being referenced are those prescribed by the Mosaic Law) as God ceased from His works on the seventh day of creation (Hebrews 4:10). Again, this reference to Genesis 2:2 does not speak of God keeping the Sabbath. Rather the author is going back to his previous argument in 4:3-4 that God finished all His works by the seventh day of creation, nothing more needing to be done to provide for our salvation.. When we enter into the New Covenant rest provided for us by God in the person of Christ, we can cease from the labors (works) prescribed by the Law, and from our labors to merit salvation and/or favor from God. The only labor needed to enter into God's rest is the labor of faith (Hebrews 4:11).7
In conclusion, the rest the author of Hebrews refers to is the rest that comes by faith. It is the rest when one ceases working for their own salvation and accepts God’s salvation-rest by faith in the message of the New Covenant. One does not enter into God's rest by observing the Sabbath, but by believing the gospel (Hebrews 4:1-2, 11).
Often those who advocate Sabbath-keeping will accuse those who claim the Mosaic Covenant and its Sabbath laws have ceased with the advent of the New Covenant that they do not keep God's commandments, citing verses such as John 14:15 and I John 5:3 in their favor. Such an argument is a smoke-screen to obscure the real issue. It is obvious that not all commandments found in Scripture apply to all people. Even those who advocate the keeping of the Law are selective in what parts they keep. I do not know of anyone who observes the sacrificial and priestly laws. The real issue is what commandments we are to keep.
Jesus said that if we loved Him we would keep His commandments. I believe in keeping Jesus’ commandments, and the commandments of His apostles contained in the New Covenant. The question is What commandments are those? Do they include every commandment in the Bible? No. As discussed earlier, the NT teaches that the Mosaic Covenant in its entirety has been replaced by the New Covenant. The church is part of a different covenant, with different commandments. Some commandments may be repeated in various forms because they are part of God’s eternal nature, but the Sabbath command is not one of them.
We cannot interpret Jesus' statement to "keep my commandments" to mean any commandment ever found in the Scripture. If we did, then we must build an ark, and leave our homeland and travel to a foreign land. Not every command in the Bible has application to us. While God and His Word do not change, certain of His commandments do change. Some commandments only pertain to a particular people or time period, often contained in the form of covenants. What God speaks as a command to one people at one particular time may not be binding on another people of another particular time. The covenant and promises God made to the Jews who were delivered from Egyptian bondage are not the same promises made to the church.
"For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, says the LORD, so shall your seed and your name remain. And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the LORD. And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh" (Isaiah 66:22-24)
This passage is most assuredly a perplexing passage. The setting speaks of the new heavens and new earth, which is prophetic of a future event at the end of the age which we have yet to see occur. If the Sabbath command was abolished with the Mosaic Covenant as the rest of Scripture seems to indicate, it is quite strange that Isaiah would speak of the Sabbath in connection with the future new heavens and new earth.
I believe the best solution to this dilemma is to understand Isaiah 66:22-24 as speaking of both the far future, and the immediate future. Isaiah 66 seems to be oscillating between events which were to be shortly fulfilled in Israel’s history, and events far off in the future (Millennium and new earth). It could be, as so often is the case with prophecy, that some of Isaiah 66:22-24 has a double-fulfillment: one immediate prefillment in the days of the original audience, and a future fulfillment.
While Isaiah's words clearly indicate that a far future is in view, the context also indicates that Isaiah's words were describing a time coming soon in Isaiah’s day. The references to Sabbaths and new moons were directed to Isaiah’s immediate audience; i.e. Jews who were still under the Mosaic Law. Notice verse 21 speaks of the LORD setting up people as priests and Levites. If this passage is only referring to the time of the Millennium, or only to the time of the new earth, while we may be able to account for the survival of the Sabbath, how would we account for the reinstitution of the priesthood? Now that Christ has come there is no more need for a priesthood to intercede before God on the behalf of man. Christ is our High Priest and His sacrifice alone has put away sin once for all. There is no more need for sacrifices (Hebrews 7-10). The reference to priests and Levites must be a reference to Isaiah’s day, and therefore, it is highly probably that the reference to the Sabbath also concerns Isaiah's day.
One other possibility sees the mention of the Sabbath and new moons as simple references to measurements of time. "Sabbath" means "cease," and signified the day the week of work ceased: the seventh day. The Sabbath day of rest, which occurred every seventh day, was used to distinguish one week from the next. The phrase "and from one Sabbath to another" could easily be understood to mean from one seventh to another seventh, or one week to another week. This is a time-reference. The reference to new moon is also a time reference. The Jewish calendar was based on the cycles of the moon, not the sun as is ours. Isaiah's point would be that from week to week, month to month, the nations will come to bow down before the Lord, which suggests the perpetual reign of the Messiah.
Sabbath of the Jews or of the Lord?
Some have pointed out that the Scripture never says the Sabbath is only for the Jews. Rather it is said to be "the Sabbath of the Lord," (Exodus 20:10) or it is said that the "Sabbath was made for man" (Mark 2:27), "man" being used in a generic sense of mankind, not the Jewish nation in particular.
The fact that the Scripture never says "the Sabbath of the Jews" is irrelevant. It is an argument from silence, and thus holds little weight in isolation from all other evidence. It still remains that the Law itself identified the Sabbath as a sign between Israel and Yahweh alone. It was not a sign given to all nations, but specifically to the nation of Israel to signify their willingness to keep the Mosaic Covenant, which covenant was only given to Israel. While it may be an argument from silence, we do not find the Scripture commanding anybody but the Jews to keep the Sabbath. If such is the case, it is only a presumption to assume that the command applied to any other nation, yet alone all of creation.
The fact that Mark 2:27 says the Sabbath was made for "man" does not mean that Jesus had all mankind in mind. Jesus did not say the Sabbath was made for "all" men. To argue that because Jesus did not say the Sabbath was made for the Jews, but rather for man, means that Jesus taught that all of mankind must keep the Sabbath is faulty reasoning. It assumes that a reference to a general category (man) means that everyone who fits the description of that category is necessarily implied/included, and it cannot refer to a specific sub-group within the larger group. It would be like concluding that when I say, "I like to eat fish," that it means I like to eat every kind of fish that exists. While "man" most assuredly can refer to every human being on the face of the earth, it can also be used to refer to a particular group of humans. No one would mistake what I mean when I say, "Man has landed on the moon" to mean that all of humanity has landed on the moon. Naturally we understand the general category of "man" to mean that certain individuals within the mankind have landed on the moon. "Man" is being used as a reference to a sub-group of the whole of mankind. Likewise, there is no grammatical or linguistic reason to demand that Jesus' use of "man" means Jesus meant that the Sabbath was made for every human being.
Some also make a point out of the fact that Jesus said the Sabbath was made for man. It is argued that the Sabbath was made at creation. The text, however, does not state this. Yes the Sabbath was made, but the text does not tell us when. Based on what has been discussed already, the logical inference is that the Sabbath was made, or began, with Israel at the Exodus and the giving of the Law.
Jesus' point in saying that "the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath" was to correct the Jews' faulty perception of the Sabbath’s importance and purpose. The Jews had wrongly assumed that man's purpose was to observe the Sabbath, rather than it being the Sabbath's purpose to care for man. Ultimately this view brought man into slavery to the Sabbath. Whereas the Sabbath was intended to give the Israelites rest each week, and remind them of their deliverance from bondage, the view the Jews came to have of Sabbath observance actually brought them back into captivity—this time not to Egypt, but to the Sabbath itself. Because man's purpose was seen as observance of the Sabbath, the Jews neglected human needs on the Sabbath. They condemned Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, which healing would actually give rest to the child of God intended by the Sabbath. The Sabbath was made for man's good. It was to serve man's needs, not for man to serve the Sabbath's demands to the ultimate detriment of humanity.
Jesus went on to say, "Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath" (Mark 2:28). A popular argument based on this verse is to see Jesus' statement to refer to the institution of the Sabbath at creation. It is argued that Jesus is the creator and Lord, and claimed to be the Lord of the Sabbath because it was He who created the Sabbath on the seventh day of the creation week. This makes the Sabbath day the personal day of God.
Such an interpretation is faulty. "Lord" comes from the Greek kurios which means "master," expressing the concept of ownership and/or legal authority. Jesus’ point was that He was the master over the Sabbath, having legal authority to do with it what He would. He was greater than the Sabbath and, therefore, could do whatever He wanted to do with it. If He wanted to heal on the Sabbath He could do so because He had the legal authority to do so seeing that He was the one who instituted the Sabbath for Israel in the first place. It was Jesus' allowance of the disciples picking corn on the Sabbath that occasioned the Jews accusation that Jesus was approving of His disciples' breaking of the Sabbath. How did Jesus respond? In common vernacular He said, "I made the Sabbath so I can do whatever I want with it, including breaking it" (as He did). Jesus, because He was God, was not subject to the Sabbath laws; the Sabbath laws were subject to Him. He was Lord over the Sabbath. He was not claiming that the Sabbath was the Lord’s personal day.
Did Constantine Change the Sabbath?
One other objection leveled at those who argue Sabbath keeping is not for the church today is that the early church did observe the Sabbath, but such a practice was changed by Constantine when he legalized Christianity early in the fourth century.
Such an argument is not historically informed. While it is true that many Jewish Christians continued to meet on the Sabbath as they had done while following Judaism, slowly this practice was left off as (1) the Christians began to separate themselves from Judaism; (2) more Gentiles gained fellowship into the church; (3) after the edict was delivered to banish all Christians from the synagogue; (4) after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
It was only natural that the early Christians would continue to observe the Sabbath as they had done all their life. There was much confusion as to the church's relationship to the Law of Moses, and thus many Christians had faith in Christ in addition to keeping the Law. It was these Christians, mostly from Jerusalem and Judea, which gave Paul so many doctrinal problems in the Gentile churches he established because they insisted that Gentile Christians keep the Law of Moses in addition to faith in Christ to be saved. It was not until the Acts 15 Council that it was determined that the Law of Moses was not a necessary part of the Christian faith. Evidences of the church's struggle with this issue can be seen in Acts 10:9-17, 28; Galatians 2:11-17; Colossians 2:14-17; the majority of the content of the epistles to the Galatians and Hebrews. Naturally, as the Jewish part of the church came to understand the relationship of the New Covenant to the Mosaic Covenant, it began to forsake Sabbath observance along with the other ritualistic observances of the Law.
This is not to say that the earliest Christians did not meet on Sundays. It is historically evident that the early church did meet on Sundays in commemoration of the Lord's resurrection. In the NT we find them meeting, taking up offerings, or being in the Spirit on the "first day of the week," or "Lord's day," which was the resurrection day (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2, 9; Acts 20:6-8; I Corinthians 16:1-3; Revelation 1:10). They met on Sunday, the first day of the week, not the Sabbath, which was the last day of the week. We find John being in the Spirit on the "Lord’s day" (Rev 1:10). We know from history that the early church celebrated their weekly meetings on the Lord’s day, which was identified as the first day of the week. It was celebrated then because that is when the Lord rose from the dead. This was very early in church history, centuries before Constantine. It was the church who changed worship from the Sabbath to Sunday, not Constantine.
In the Roman Empire Sunday was a workday, so Christians met early in the morning and/or late at night. It was only after Constantine legalized Christianity and declared Sunday an official Christian holiday that the empire was allowed to cease from their labors and dedicate the entire day to the worship of their Lord. Constantine "did not originate Sunday worship but merely legalized and facilitated the existing practice."8
Because of this long-standing tradition many have believed Sunday to be the Christian Sabbath. The truth of the matter is that the Christian Sabbath is not found on a particular day of the week, but is enjoyed everyday of the week because the Sabbath has been fulfilled in Christ. When we receive Christ we receive the spiritual rest of salvation that the Sabbath typified (Colossians 2:14-16; Hebrews 4:1-11). What day(s) the Christian church sets aside to worship their Lord is not the issue. It could have just as easily been made Monday with no spiritual significance. As stated earlier, the early church chose Sunday for their gatherings because it was the day on which the Lord was resurrected from the dead. This, however, does not mean that the church must always meet on Sundays. If it was more convenient for our culture to meet on Saturday, Monday, or Tuesday, so be it. The day on which we meet has no significance under the New Covenant (Romans 14:5-6). It is what we do during these times of gathering that carry the most importance.
Remember the Sabbath
In Exodus 20:8-11 Yahweh told the Israelites to "remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy." It is argued that if the Sabbath was first instituted with the Israelites at the giving of the Law, then the Israelites could not possibly have any past remembrance of the Sabbath. Only if the Sabbath was created in the beginning of time could the Jews remember the Sabbath.
Such an argument fails in that the semantic range of the Hebrew word zakar, translated "remember," includes both the remembering of a past event, and the connotation of "pay attention to."9 When the Lord declared that the Israelites were to remember the Sabbath, He was most likely calling them to pay attention to the Sabbath command. It would be similar to a parent telling their children, "Remember to look both ways before crossing the street." Such a statement does not call upon the children to remember past times when they looked both ways before crossing the street, but a call to pay attention to heed the parent's command to look both ways before crossing the street.
A second option, although less likely, is that the command to remember the Sabbath refers back to the Sabbath kept by Israel earlier in the book (Exodus 16:22-29). No matter which interpretation one opts for, Exodus 20:8 cannot be used to teach that the Sabbath existed prior to the Exodus and giving of the Law to the Jewish nation.
While the Sabbath command was part of Yahweh's covenant with Israel, it was not reincorporated into Yahweh's covenant with the church. The Mosaic Covenant has been superseded by the New Covenant, the latter fulfilling the Law's many types and shadows in the person of Christ. The Sabbath was one such shadow, typifying the rest Israel would find in the salvation provided by the death and resurrection of the Messiah. Now that we have Christ (the substance) there is no more need to observe the shadow. That the church is no longer under the Sabbath command is evident from (1) the OT teaching that the Sabbath served as a sign to test Israel's obedience to the Mosaic Covenant, (2) the clear message of the NT that the Mosaic Law in its entirety as a covenant has been abolished, (3) direct statements found in the NT declaring that Sabbath observance or the lack thereof cannot be used as grounds for judging one another, (4) the fact that the Sabbath is said to be a type to which we now have the reality of in Christ and the salvation provided by Him, (5) the absence of any positive command in the New Covenant to observe the Sabbath, (6) and the fact that Jesus both broke the Sabbath. The believer can be confident that he/she is no longer under the OT Sabbath commands, but is now able to enjoy the res= foreshadowed by the Sabbath in their salvation through Jesus Christ, and the New Covenant inaugurated with His blood.
1. Daniel Segraves, Hebrews: Better Things, vol. 1 (Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 1996), 113 <back>
2. Ibid., 120. <back>
3. Ibid., 118. <back>
4. Ibid., 111. <back>
5. Ibid., 106-107. <back>
6. The KJV says "Jesus," but clearly the reference is to Joshua. The reason for such a translation is due to the fact that the spelling of the names 'Jesus' and 'Joshua' is the same in both the Hebrew and Greek language. It is only in our English spelling and pronunciation of the names of the two individuals whereby we make the distinction between the two individuals. The context here demands that the historical figure, Joshua son of Nun, is being referenced, and not Jesus of Nazareth. <back>
7. The word "labor" (KJV) does not mean that we must work in order to enter into God's rest, as the text indicates that faith is all that is necessary to obtain this rest. The word translated "labor" comes from the Greek spoudasomen which refers to making every effort to do something, or diligence to do something. The point the author is trying to make is that the Hebrew Christians must give diligence to their faith lest they fail to enter into the rest provided them by God through faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. <back>
8. David Bernard, "Should Christians Keep the Sabbath"; available from http://apostolic-voice.org/sabbath.htm; Internet; accessed 8 September 2001. <back>
9. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Bruce K. Waltke, et al, The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), as found in BibleWorks Version 4.0, LLC, 1998. <back>
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