Sabbath Keeping

Ten Commandments

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). This command was given to the children of Israel as part of the Ten Commandments – the foundation of the Law of Moses. In remembering the Sabbath, the Israelites were to rest (Exodus 20:10). Whatever work they had to do was to be done during the other six days of the week (Exodus 20:9). The basis for this command went back to creation: “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth…and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:11). The Jewish people under the Mosaic Law were to “remember the sabbath day,” but is this a day that Christians are to observe? Are we required to keep the Sabbath? Some believe that we are. What do the Scriptures say?

The Law has Changed

First we need to notice that the command to keep the Sabbath is contained in the old law. By God’s design, the old law was temporary. Its purpose was to “lead us to Christ” (Galatians 3:24). The Lord spoke of the temporary nature of the Law of Moses through the prophet Jeremiah: “‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord. ‘But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,’ declares the Lord, ‘I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people’” (Jeremiah 31:31-33). There was going to be a “new covenant,” different from the old one, and better in that it made forgiveness available (Jeremiah 31:34). This new covenant was going to be God’s new law. In other words, the law would change.

This prophecy in Jeremiah is quoted in Hebrews 8:8-12. The Hebrew writer stated that Jesus Christ was “the mediator of a better covenant” (Hebrews 8:6) and then used this prophecy to show that the Old Testament pointed to this happening. This new covenant was the gospel. It was the message Jesus commissioned His apostles to preach (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16). Since the gospel had come and was being preached, the old law was now “obsolete” (Hebrews 8:13).

The fact that the old law is “obsolete” does not mean that it is of no value to us. The Old Testament is useful in showing principles and examples for us to see God’s attitude toward righteousness and unrighteousness. And as we noticed, the Old Testament was in place to lead men to Christ. The old law talks about Christ and helps prove that Jesus was who He claimed to be. However, the Old Testament does not constitute law for us today. The old law was nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:14).

Many people have the idea that the Ten Commandments are the bedrock of Christianity. As I said earlier, the Ten Commandments were the backbone of the Law of Moses; but they were given to the nation of Israel, not Christians. Does that mean we should not keep the Ten Commandments? We should keep most of them because they are repeated in Christ’s new law. However, the command about keeping the Sabbath was never repeated. Therefore, it remains as part of the old covenant that is now obsolete. For one to seek to be justified by doing things that were left in the old law causes him to fall from grace (Galatians 5:3-4). The law has changed and the Sabbath is not part of the new law.

The Sabbath Was Between God and the Jews

The Ten Commandments, including the command to keep the Sabbath, are recorded in Exodus 20. Later in the book, further instructions are given regarding the Sabbath (Exodus 31:12-17). Here we see the penalty for failing to keep the Sabbath – death (Exodus 31:14). We even find where one man was put to death for gathering wood on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36). Do those who advocate Christians keeping the Sabbath enforce this punishment on those who fail to observe it? If not, why not?

The instructions in Exodus 31 also explain who is to observe the Sabbath: “So the sons of Israel shall observe the sabbath, to celebrate the sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant” (Exodus 31:16). The next verse explains further: “It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever” (Exodus 31:17). The Israelites were to observe the Sabbath. The earlier command included those who dwelt among the Israelites (Exodus 20:10). But the Law of Moses stated that this was a sign between God and the Jewish people. It was not designed to be observed by Gentiles.

Despite this fact, those who advocate Christians keeping the Sabbath today impose this rule upon Gentiles. Most Christians are Gentiles. The Sabbath law was God’s law during the days of the Old Testament. But since it was not brought over into the new law – the law of Christ – it is no longer God’s law for us today. Therefore, those who promote it today are not teaching the commandment of God, but the precept of men. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for this very thing. Their worship was “vain” because they were “teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (Matthew 15:9).

We see an example in the New Testament that is similar to the idea of Sabbath keeping among Christians. As some today are teaching that Christians should keep the Sabbath – a sign between God and Israel – some in the first century were teaching that Christians needed to be circumcised – also a sign between God and Israel (Genesis 17:10-11). Circumcision, like the Sabbath law, was not carried over into the new covenant. Paul wrote about this to the churches of Galatia. He told them, “If you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:2-4). Paul said that those who want to go back and hold onto one part of the old law (in this case, circumcision), must keep the whole law. In going back to that, they are severed from Christ and, therefore, have no means of forgiveness for their failing to keep the whole law. The same consequence exists for those who want to bring the Sabbath into the new covenant. If they want to go back to that, they must keep the whole law and lose the means of forgiveness (Christ). We should leave God’s covenants and laws for the Jewish nation in the old law where they belong and focus on serving God according to His new covenant.

The New Testament Church Did Not Observe the Sabbath

In addition to the fact that we do not find the Sabbath law being brought over into the new covenant of Christ, we also see no example or indication that the early church observed the Sabbath. Yes, it is true that men like Paul went to the synagogues on the Sabbath to teach. Paul did this when he came to Thessalonica: “And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.’ And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas” (Acts 17:2-4). But notice that Paul did not assemble with the saints on the Sabbath to observe the Sabbath. He went to the synagogue to teach the Jews. The Jews assembled there on the Sabbath, so that was the day that Paul went. He was merely looking for an audience. Nowhere do we read of Christians observing the Sabbath.

Instead, we see the early church meeting on the first day of the week. Acts 20:7 tells us it was “on the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread.” In writing to the Corinthians, Paul instructed them to take up “the collection for the saints…on the first day of every week” (1 Corinthians 16:1-2). While the first day of the week was certainly not the only day Christians could assemble and worship, it is the day in which they were instructed to assemble regularly.

So is Sunday the “Christian Sabbath”? Some call it that. But really it is not. That terminology (“Christian Sabbath”) is not used in the Bible. In addition, the concept is not supported by Scripture. Christians are to assemble to worship on the first day of the week. But other “Sabbath” regulations such as keeping it as a day of rest are not mentioned. We need to strive to follow the pattern for the church contained in the New Testament and leave out the doctrines of men.


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