Sabbath — What is it? Should Believers Observe It?
The first question we want to address here is: What is the Sabbath? Then we’ll consider if New Covenant believers are obligated to observe it. And, if so, how?
There are some misconceptions about the Sabbath, so let’s read God’s specific instructions to the Israelites on this issue:
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
The root word for Sabbath is shabath (shaw-BATH), which means to “cease” or “desist from labor.” The Sabbath was a day of rest from one’s labor, that’s it. Although it’s presumed that a person celebrating the Sabbath will naturally worship the LORD there’s nothing in this ceremonial command that says people have to meet on that day to worship together. Yes, Hebrew people have traditionally met to worship on the Sabbath and that’s fitting, but — as you can see from this passage — meeting with other people and worshipping together is not the essence of the command, resting from one’s labors is.
The LORD commanded the Israelites to observe the Sabbath for all generations as a sign of the lasting covenant between God and them (Exodus 31:16-17). It was meant to be a blessing to the Israelites — a day to rest and refresh — but by the time of Christ sourpuss legalists had largely turned it into a burden. These religionists became so technical about defining what “work” was and wasn’t that they came up with myriad rules, like the “Sabbath Day’s journey,” which was less than half-a-mile, the distance Israelites were allowed to travel on the Sabbath without violating it (Acts 1:12).
The Pharisees are the quintessential example of legalism in the Bible and they objected to Jesus’ mere intention of healing a man’s deformed hand on the Sabbath, as shown here:
Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. 2 Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. 3 Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”
4 Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.
5 He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. 6 Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.
The Pharisees were so ridiculously detailed and rigid with their rules concerning “working” on the Sabbath that they objected to Jesus doing any type of healing “work” on that day. Christ was so disgusted by their stubbornness that he shot them all a glance of anger, as shown in verse 5. This was righteous anger, of course, but anger nevertheless. He then proceeded to heal the man despite their legalistic objections. This was a wordless reprimand to the legalists; and they were so offended that they decided to murder him!
Can you imagine people being so blinded by legalistic zeal that they object to an incredible healing? Make no mistake, this is what the poison of legalism does when people are seriously infected. Those who are not contaminated, by contrast, are ever ready to praise God when people are miraculously healed and set free. Take, for instance, the occasion when blind Bartimaeus received his sight through faith and he immediately glorified God. The passage goes on to say, “And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God” (Luke 18:43 NKJV). This is how normal people react to incredible healings and life-changing miracles. Not so with legalists. They’re so corrupted by rule-ism they can’t see the forest for the trees!
On another occasion Jesus and his disciples were walking through the fields on the Sabbath and picked some heads of grain to quell their hunger. Since it was the Sabbath the Pharisees argued that the disciples were guilty of working because they plucked the grain and rubbed it in their hands before eating. To their legalistic way of thinking this was equal to reaping and threshing. God’s law did forbid working on the Sabbath but it was intended to be a blessing, not a burden. The Sabbath was supposed to be a welcomed rest and celebration of God after a 6-day work week, not a joyless ritual observing man-made technicalities. Jesus’ simple-yet-brilliant response says it all:
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
NOTE: You can compare the three accounts of this occasion as shown in Matthew 12:1-8, Mark 2:23-28 and Luke 6:1-5.
God’s Commands are NOT Burdensome
God is always interested in blessing people by setting them free while religionists are intent on burdening others and putting them into spiritual bondage. Notice what Jesus said of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees: “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4). By contrast, the Bible says:
This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.
1 John 5:3-4
All of God’s moral laws in the Old Testament can be condensed into two basic commands with three applications: Love God and love people as you love yourself. That’s it. And these commands are not burdensome because believers are born of God and have the spiritual nature to fulfill them with joy. The only believers who can’t do this are those who fail to put off the flesh and are therefore flesh-ruled. As such, the “law of sin and death” is at work in their lives and this is no fun because sin’s reward is death. But those who walk in the Spirit are spirit-controlled and therefore the “law of the Spirit of life” is in motion, which is a higher law than the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2).
Did you ever marvel at how huge aircrafts are able to defy the law of gravity and soar above the landscape? How do they do this? It’s simple: They activate a higher law, the law of lift and propulsion, which neutralizes the law of gravity. As long as the higher law is in motion the lower law is rendered powerless. Just as the physical law of lift and propulsion enables people to conquer gravity and fly, so the law of the Spirit of life deactivates the law of sin and death when it is in motion. This is “walking in the spirit” or “participating in the divine nature.” Such a law is not burdensome, but man-made religion is. See the video How to Walk FREE of the Flesh for details.
Observe what Jesus said about God’s commands not being burdensome in the kingdom of God:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Yes, there is a yoke and burden to serving the Lord, but unlike the yoke of the flesh or the burden of religion Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden is light. How so? Because that’s the nature of the law of love, and love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:8-10).
The Sabbath and the Believer’s Freedom
Getting back to the issue of the Sabbath, someone might argue, “If loving God is to obey God’s commands according to 1 John 5:3, then we should love God by obeying his Sabbath command.” Answer: The ten commandments were just ten of over 600 Old Testament laws and a lot of important moral commands are missing from the ten commandments, like do not fornicate, do not commit homosexuality, do not attempt to contact the dead, do not be a drunkard, do not engage in witchcraft, and so on. God’s instruction to rest on the seventh day wasn’t a moral command, but rather a ceremonial one, and believer’s are not required to follow the ceremonial & dietary laws of the Old Testament. Notice what the New Testament says about this:
Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.
The Sabbath was a shadow of what was to come — Jesus Christ! The dietary laws, feast days and holy days that God commanded in the Old Testament – including the Sabbath — pictured the person and work of the coming Messiah. Jesus carried out all these types through his ministry. Thus the need to observe them has ceased.
For the believer there is freedom on the issue, notice:
One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. 6 Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord.
Paul goes on to say: “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister” (Romans 14:13) and earlier he said, “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall” (Romans 14:4). As you can see, believers have freedom on the issue, but some are more conscious of their freedom than others and, as such, we need to be sensitive and respectful so as not to harm our brother and sister in the Lord.
In the early days of the church believers were predominantly Jewish. Antioch was nearly 500 miles north of Jerusalem (in what is now Turkey) and was the location of the first non-Jewish church, which included some Hebrew believers; there were more Gentile fellowships in Syria and Cilicia. The Jerusalem church faced a dilemma, what aspects of the Mosaic law would the Jewish believers impose on the Gentile believers? Notice what they decided:
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.”
Notice that there was no instruction for the Gentiles to keep the Sabbath or follow the Jewish festivals or celebrate the New Moon, nor to follow the Old Testament dietary laws. These Messianic Jewish leaders decided it wasn’t right to impose Old Testament ceremonial & dietary laws on Gentile believers.
It should be emphasized that this four-item list had nothing to do with God’s grace of salvation, which the council had already settled came through faith alone (Acts 15:6-11). However, the list had everything to do with how the Gentile believers could live and worship with Jewish believers who were particularly offended by these four types of behaviors and, as such, were intended to maintain peace and unity in the Gentile churches. Because the Greek and Roman world was filled with pagan religions the council’s instructions were focused on helping the Gentile believers to break from their pagan past and ease the consciences of sensitive Hebrew believers in their midst. Hence, the instructions were about the Gentiles cutting themselves off from anything related to pagan worship. They were therefore encouraged not to eat food sacrificed to idols or to participate in pagan festivals, which were marked by all-around sensual revelry, including sexual immorality. Antioch was located in a pagan nation where sexual immorality was rampant.
Several years after this occasion Paul declared eating meat sacrificed to idols acceptable for believers with strong consciences — i.e. mature believers — but he stressed that such believers should remain sensitive to their brothers and sisters with weak consciences who felt eating such meat was intrinsically wrong (1 Corinthians 8). This instruction revealed both the believer’s freedom and responsibility. Believers have the liberty to eat such meat but they were also responsible to make sure that the practice of their freedom didn’t harm someone with a weak conscience. This is true today with many issues, like drinking alcohol (which is different than being a drunkard) or watching movies. Paul stressed, “Be careful… that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Corinthians 8:9).
The point is that the Jerusalem council did not require Gentile churches to keep the Sabbath.
So when did early Christians meet and worship together? Read what the Bible says:
Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
They met together every day at the temple courts and in their homes. If there was a day that Christians met regularly it was the first day of the week, which is our Sunday (Acts 20:7 & 1 Corinthians 16:2). This was in honor of Christ’s resurrection on Sunday and should not be viewed as a “Christian Sabbath” but simply as a day to especially worship Jesus Christ. Notice what the Bible instructs about New Testament believers meeting together:
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Notice that nothing is said about meeting and worshipping on a certain day. Why? Because it’s not important. What was important was that they met together. True worship is a lifestyle and a heart attitude; Jesus said we must worship “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). As such, we should practice the presence of Christ 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Not only is there no correct day to worship the Lord, we should worship every day!
Again, Sabbath means “rest” or to “cease from labor.” In the New Testament age of grace we are to cease from working for righteousness. Jesus said that we are to come to him because he is our rest, our Sabbath (Matthew 11:28-30). Through Christ we are born righteous in our spirits and, as such, we are already righteous and in-right-standing with God. Of course genuine faith produces works (James 2:14-16), but these works are a result of being righteous and not an attempt to become righteous. Are you following?
The Church is to Rest in Christ’s Already Accomplished Work of Salvation
Why did New Testament believers — the church (literally the “called-out ones”) — gather on the first day of the week as shown in Acts 20:7 and 1 Corinthians 16:2? Because the body of Christ is a new creation, and it’s very existence was birthed via resting in Christ’s already accomplished work of salvation:
for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his.
New Covenant believers cease performing our own works and the works of the Law, including the ten commandments. Instead of working toward victory we work from Christ’s already accomplished victory. Let’s revisit a key passage with the addition of the preceding two verses:
14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
16Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.
“A shadow” means a foreshadow, testifying to the reality to come. The real thing, however, is not the shadow. Notice what verse 18 goes on to say:
Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind.
Those who walk in the shadow of things to come rather than the reality of Christ have an “unspiritual mind,” which means fleshly. This includes strict Sabbath-keepers. They’re still trying to serve God from the perspective of the flesh no matter what staunch religious airs they put on.
The Physical Principle of the Sabbath
Although the Sabbath was a shadow that was fulfilled in Christ, the purely physical principle of the Sabbath — a day to cease from labor — remains true and applicable, but the believer has the freedom to pick that day or time slot. What I mean is that God set the example of working six days and resting one full day — completely taking a break from work, both mentally and naturally. This principle is necessary and healthy and is a wise principle to live by. For example, I’m one of those people Paul spoke of who “considers every day alike” (Romans 14:5) and am not moved by national or religious holidays, which doesn’t mean I won’t celebrate them to some degree. But, whether I do or not, I’m free. It’s the believer’s choice, as led of the Holy Spirit. In regards to the Sabbath — a day to cease from physical and mental toil — I celebrate Sabbaths once a week or as the need arises, as led of the Holy Spirit. For instance, just the other day I had finished a string of days of voluminous ministry work and I suddenly realized I was tired and needed a break. So I took a day off where I rested and didn’t think of ministry work — or any other type of work — at all. Once refreshed, I was inspired and psyched to finish the current project and tackle the next.
Are there examples of this in the New Testament? Yes. When Jesus sent out the twelve disciples to minister from village to village in Israel they drove out demons, cured diseases, preached the truths of God’s kingdom and healed the sick (wouldn’t it be awesome if more Christians did this today?). When they returned and gave a good report of their activities they all “withdrew by themselves” to the town of Bethsaida (Luke 9:10). Why is this significant? Because Jesus recognized the need for ministers to retreat for rest and refreshing after significant ministry endeavors, which naturally protects ministers from burnout.
This, of course applies to any type of work and not just ministry. It’s the principle of the Sabbath — to rest from one’s work and refresh. And this doesn’t have to be a full day either; you can (and should) have mini-Sabbaths every day. As Solomon said, there’s “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:4). Even work can become an idol — and unhealthy — if it’s done without moderation.
New Covenant Believers are Free of the Ceremonial and Dietary Laws of the Old Covenant
I’d like to close by stressing that the New Testament believer is free of the ceremonial and dietary laws of the old covenant and are only obligated to fulfill the moral law, which they do by walking in the spirit — i.e. “participating in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) — and not by putting themselves under the law. Believers are not under the Law:
But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.
…we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.
That believers are required to fulfill the moral law but not the ceremonial & dietary laws can be observed by the fact that Old Testament moral laws are cited in the New Testament (e.g. Luke 4:8 & Acts 23:5), but never the ceremonial or dietary laws, including Sabbath-keeping. As a matter of fact, notice (again) what the Word of God blatantly says on the matter:
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.
Christ came to fulfill the righteous requirements of the Law on our behalf (Matthew 5:17) and, in fact, he is the “culmination of the law” — the “end of the law” – “so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). “Everyone who believes” attain righteousness through spiritual rebirth (2 Corinthians 5:21) and learning to live out of his or her spirit with the help of the Holy Spirit. The reason this works is because the believer’s born-again spirit is the “new self,” which is “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24). As such, learning to put off the flesh — the sin nature — and put on the new self — our godly nature — is the key to fulfilling the moral law. Those who are led of the Spirit in this manner “are not under the law” (Galatians 5:18).
This material is mandatory for believers to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4). Master this material and you will walk free of the flesh and legal-ism; you’ll soar in the spirit!
Notice again what God’s Word says:
Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.
The passage is addressing the dietary and ceremonial laws of the Old Testament: “what you eat or drink” refers to dietary laws and the others refer to ceremonial laws. We are not to allow legalists — like people from the Hebrew Roots Movement — to judge us negatively by these things. In fact, all of them — dietary laws, the Jewish festivals, the New Moon celebration and the Sabbath day — are a mere shadow of what was to come, meaning Jesus Christ, the Anointed One. “The reality is found in Christ” and if you’re a believer YOU are “in Christ.” Are you following? Everything in the law and prophets from Genesis to Malachi were types and shadows of the true reality, which is Christ and the spiritual rebirth that comes through his seed (sperm) and the power of the Holy Spirit. More than 600 laws were given to the Hebrews in the Old Testament and Jesus fulfilled every one of them; he completed or stopped every one of them, including the Sabbath.
Answering Various Questions/Arguments on the Sabbath
Let’s wrap-up by considering various questions or arguments concerning the Sabbath…
‘Is Sunday the “Christian Sabbath”?’
No, the first day of the week — Sunday — was referred to by early Christians as “the Lord’s day” (Revelation 1:10) and they gathered, ate and worshipped together on Sunday for two scriptural reasons:
- Sunday was the day it was discovered that Christ’s tomb was empty and he had risen from the dead (Matthew 28:1-7, Mark 16:1-16 & Luke 24:1-7). All three of these passages plainly state that these events occurred on “the first day of the week.”
- There are seven references in Scripture of the Lord appearing to the disciples before his ascension and five of these times God’s Word indicates that Jesus met them on the first day of the week (e.g. John 20:19). The other two times the specific day is not noted. During these encounters Christ was honored and he taught from the Scriptures, ate with the disciples, breathed the Holy Spirit on them and commissioned them (see, for example, Luke 24:13-49 and John 20:19-29). These items sure sounds like a Christian service to me!
As far as extra-biblical testimony goes, Ignatius of Antioch (circa 35-107 AD) was a disciple of the apostle John and he referred to the “the Lord’s day” as the day that Jesus rose from the dead: “If, therefore, those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord’s Day, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death” (Magnesians 9:1).
‘Didn’t Roman Emperor Constantine the Great issue an edict in 321 AD making Sunday an official day of rest?’
Yes, he did, so what? What politicians did three centuries after Christ had no bearing on the scriptural facts or the beliefs/practices of the early believers, as detailed earlier.
For further proof, the 2nd century Christian apologist, Justin Martyr (100-165), said: “But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead.” * This was over 150 years before Constantine issued his edict.
* 1 Apol. LXVII in Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, Vol. 1, Ed. A. Cleveland Coxe (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 186.
‘Isn’t meeting on Sunday pagan since the name “Sunday” stems from Hellenistic astrology?’
All seven of our days of the week were named after the planets of Hellenistic astrology, including Saturday, which was named after the Roman god Saturn. So, by this line of reasoning, worshipping on any of these days is “pagan.” Needless to say, this argument is silly.
‘The Old Testament says that the Sabbath is a “lasting covenant” and is a sign between God and the Israelites “forever”.’
This argument is based on what is said in Exodus 31:16-17. The root Hebrew word for “lasting” and “forever” in this passage is olam (oh-LAWM), which means “long duration” or “lasting,” but not necessarily never-ending in the absolute sense. So in the context of Exodus 31:16-17 (remember: “Context is king”) it means lasting as long as the Israelite’s covenant was in operation. This turned out to be about 1500 years, which is when Christ came.
In support of this conclusion, olam is also used in reference to circumcision, (Genesis 17:10-14), but we saw in the previous chapter that physical circumcision is not relevant in the New Covenant; it was only relevant to the Abrahamic Covenant and the Mosaic Covenant.
Olam is also used in reference to animal sacrifices (Leviticus 7:36-38) and yet the need to sacrifice animals ceased with the spilling of Christ’s blood (Hebrews 9:23-10:12).
Similarly, the Levitical priesthood was said to be a “lasting” (olam) ordinance in Exodus 29:7-9, but the New Testament clearly shows that it ended with the Mighty Christ, a priest in the order of Melchizedek, not Aaron (Hebrews 7:11-12).
I could go on and on here, but I think you can see that the Hebrew word olam used in reference to Sabbath-observance meant “lasting” only as long as the Mosaic covenant was in operation.
As for the phrase in Exodus 31:16: “The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting (olam) covenant,” this simply means that Sabbath-observance was to be practiced for the many generations to come as long as their olam covenant was in effect. However, this long-lasting covenant is no longer in effect ever since Christ came.
‘Observing the Sabbath appears to be practiced during eternity, so why would it be removed during the Church Age?’
This question is addressed at the end of this article, along with a similar question about the Millennium.
For more details see the article Law (Torah) and the Believer; or, for even more details, pick up a copy of…
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