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Why Observing the Sabbath is Not Applicable to the Christian

There is a great deal of confusion in the Church (not Christ Community Church, but the church in general) regarding the Sabbath. Questions that must be asked include: What should the Christian position be regarding the 4th Commandment? Should the Christian observe the Sabbath? Should the Sabbath be on Sunday or Saturday? How should the Sabbath be observed in practice? Is Saturday the Jewish Sabbath and Sunday the Christian Sabbath?

The commandment reads as follows:

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11)

It took many years of being a Christian before I understood the answers to these questions. There is a great deal of misunderstanding regarding the Sabbath. I once belonged to a church that taught doing any work whatsoever is sinful. I remember having a time in my life when I didn’t purchase gasoline on Sunday or mow my lawn. There are times I told others they needed to observe Sunday as the Sabbath and to keep it holy. I’ve been a member of a church where Sunday was like any other day (except we attended church). I’ve also lived in the middle of the two extremes. I’ve been confused, and I am sure many people have shared my confusion.

Summary Answer

The bottom line is this: observance of the Sabbath is not a requirement of Christianity. Keeping the Sabbath, along with all the other sacrificial laws, are not necessary for those who live under the New Covenant. We don’t keep the Sabbath for the same reason that we don’t sacrifice lambs for the remission of sin. We enter God’s rest when we put our faith in the person and work of Christ. The entire Law of Moses (which includes the Ten Commandments), is obsolete because Jesus Christ fulfills the Law of Moses. Jesus institutes the New Covenant. Jesus death on the cross is fully sufficient for our salvation and our sanctification.

There are two very good reasons to understand this truth (and for this blog post to be shared with our church body).

The first reason is that teaching observance of the Sabbath law diminishes the completed work of Jesus Christ. There is no greater truth which we may place our faith than the truth that Christ’s work on the cross is completely sufficient. Our Savior is our Sabbath rest. Our Savior makes us holy. Observance of a day, or any aspect of the Law, will not gain us the righteousness we so sorely need. We embrace Christ alone through faith alone.

The second reason we need to understand this truth is that we are not to bind another person’s conscience with commands that are not applicable to the Christian life. There are two commands we may find joy in observing so our Savior gets the glory. Let’s keep our eyes on our pursuit of loving God and loving our neighbor.

Reasons

Telling people that there is no need to observe the Sabbath usually raises more questions than answers. To help address the questions, I’ve put together a list of reasons why the Sabbath (4th command) is not applicable to the New Covenant in Christ. I hope this helps.

  1. The Laws of the Mosaic Covenant are fulfilled in Christ – The Law and the Sabbath were pointing to Christ, it was a shadow of what was to come, and not the substance (Colossians 2:16-17). Jesus said that He came not to abolish the law but to fulfill the law (Matthew 5:17). In fulfilling the law, He completed the law. How did He do this? Jesus fulfilled the Law by obeying the law perfectly and by completing the sacrificial system. Jesus saves to the uttermost! In what way can we offer one more sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins? Jesus pronouncement, “It is finished,” signified the completion and fulfillment of the law.
  2. The Mosaic Covenant is made with Israel and not with the church – The Mosaic Covenant is a conditional covenant and not an unconditional covenant (Exodus 24:1-11). Because it is conditional, it can be broken and annulled. Unconditional covenants, in comparison, are not broken. God makes them and fulfilled by God without condition. The Mosaic Covenant is a conditional covenant made with Israel and not with the church. The Mosaic Covenant involves the 613 ‘Mitzvoth’ laws (blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience). The law of commandments and ordinances served as a wall (Ephesians 2:14-15) to separate the Israelites from the Gentiles. The Gentiles did not participate in the covenants of promise but were separated. Hebrews 8:13 renders the Mosaic Covenant as obsolete (the word for obsolete is the same Greek word used by Jesus in Mark 2:20-21 when He says not to sew old cloth on new).
  3. The Law of Moses is in obsolescence – Paul states that Christ is the end of the Law (for righteousness) in Romans 10:4. Galatians 3 shows that the law came 430 years after, and it was added to Abrahamic Covenant of circumcision. The law was given until the ‘seed should come.’ Christ, the seed has come. Hebrews teaches that the Mosaic Law provides the basis for the Levitical priesthood, but for the new priesthood to take place, the order of Melchizedek, a change of the law is required (Hebrews 7:18-22). Again, we learn this from Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:4-11. In this passage, Paul specifically refers to the Decalogue by saying the commandments written in stone have come to an end (v. 11).
  4. The Mosaic Covenant is replaced with the New Covenant – Under the old covenant, sin is removed through the rituals of sacrifices; in particular, the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:1-34). God told His people that a new covenant would be made (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 36:22-27).  The New Covenant is made possible by our Mediator, Jesus Christ (Hebrews 8:6-13). Our Bibles are divided in two, the Old Testament and the New Testament. A more accurate way of describing the division in the Bible is to have the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.
  5. The Christian lives by the Law of Christ (Law of the Spirit) – We are not under the Mosaic Covenant; therefore, we are not obligated to keep the laws of the Mosaic Covenant. Insofar as we love God and love our neighbor, we keep the law of God in the New Covenant. We uphold the law by faith (Romans 3:31) and by love (Romans 13:8). We are under the Law of Christ (Galatians 6:2) and the Law of the Spirit of Life (Romans 8:2). There is confusion with the Law of Christ and the Law of Moses because they have similar commandments. But, because nine of the Ten Commandments can be found in the New Testament, it does not mean that the Law of Moses is still in effect. If a Christian steals, they break the law of Christ, not the Law of Moses. If we choose to keep part of the law (for example, dietary laws), we are free to do so, but keeping the Law of Moses is neither commanded or expected. To keep part of the Mosaic Law out of the belief that we are obligated to do so is to not have trust in the perfect and complete work of Christ.
  6. The Ten Commandments are integral to the Mosaic Covenant and are called the “tablets of the Mosaic Covenant” – Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 4:13 and Hebrews 9:4 refer to the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments, the Decalogue, as representing the covenant God made with Moses for the people of Israel. The Ten Commandments are synonymous to the Mosaic Covenant. There is no New Testament reference to establish the tablets of the Mosaic Covenant as part of the New Covenant. The Law of the New Covenant is established, not by the Mosaic Covenant, but rather by the Law of Christ.
  7. There is no separation between the Ten Commandments and the other Mosaic Laws – There is no Scriptural justification to separate the ten laws, the Ten Commandments, written on the stone tablets as separate from the 613 laws which make up the totality of the Mosaic Covenant. The Decalogue is representative of the Mosaic Covenant and is considered a summation of the Laws. It is this principle of unity of the law that is referred to in James 2:10. The totality of the law, being all 613 commandments, is taught in the New Testament. When the New Testament refers to the law, it refers to the 613 laws, not the 10. Here are a few of the many examples:
    • The Gospel of John says the Law was given through Moses (John 1:17). In John (John 8:5), we see that the Law of Moses includes stoning those that are caught in adultery (the punishment for stoning is not in the Ten Commandments). In John 7:23, Jesus includes circumcision as part of fulfilling the “Law of Moses.” Based on these three passages, we see that the Apostle John writes of the Law as one entity.
    • Jesus’ parents bring Him to the temple in Luke 2:22-24 for the ‘Law of Moses’ which is also interpreted in the same passage as the ‘Law of the Lord.’ After completing everything according to the ‘Law of the Lord’, the parents return to Galilee. The account teaches that the Law of Moses includes the sacrificial system.
    • Hebrews chapters 7-10 refers to the Law and the sacrificial rites as one entity of the Mosaic covenant (very clearly seen in Hebrews 10:1).
    • When Christ talks about the law in Matthew 5:17, He explains the application to include laws of the Decalogue as well as laws that are not in the Decalogue such as divorce, keeping an oath, retaliation, and loving our enemies.
    • In Matthew 23:23, Christ includes tithing with the Law. When Christ talks of the Law, He speaks of more than just the Decalogue. In this passage, Christ refers to “heavier/weightier” matters of the Law such as justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
    • When Paul speaks of the law in the book of Romans, he refers to circumcision in some areas and laws specific to the Decalogue in others. He makes no distinction of “higher law which continues” and “law which passes away.” Paul refers to all the Law of Moses as singular, one law, not a law with many parts.
  8. The Sabbath is given as a token or sign of the Mosaic Covenant and prophecy of future rest – With God’s Covenants, signs are given as a token or reminder of the covenant. The rainbow, circumcision, and even the Messiah (a Son) are all signs associated with Old Testament covenants.  Old Testament passages tell us that the Sabbath is given as a sign (Exodus 31:12-17; Deuteronomy 5:12-15; and Ezekiel 20:20) to show the Israelites that they were a people separated unto the Lord. The Sabbath is given as a reminder of their deliverance from the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). Those observing the Sabbath are showing that they are living in agreement with the Covenant. Not observing the Sabbath is to reject the Covenant and punishable by death.
  9. The 4th Commandment is a command to cease or desist (to rest from work) – The word Shabbat, which is where we get the word for the Sabbath, is a Hebrew word meaning to cease or desist. Keeping the Sabbath was largely a matter of prohibition from work (e.g., no gathering of manna, no traveling, no kindling of fire, no gathering of wood, no trading, no marketing, no burden bearing) and observed as a day of rest.
  10. The 4th Commandment is a command for a six-day work week. The fourth commandment includes the phrase “six days shall you labor” (Exodus 20:9). To obey the command requires obedience to working six days. Why is the phrase “six days shall you labor” largely ignored (Exodus 20:9) by those propagating a Christian Sabbath? Many (most) Christians only work five days a week. It is inconsistent to enforce and practice keeping a Sabbath (half of the law) while not enforcing a six-day work week (the other half of the law). 
  11. The Sabbath is not a law instituted at creation but under the Mosaic Covenant – Some say that the Sabbath is a command of God given in Genesis. To interpret Genesis 2:1-3 as a law given to humanity is in error. Though sin abounded, God gave no law until Moses. Paul states in Romans 5:13-14 that there was no law given from the time of Adam until the time of Moses. Furthermore, from Adam to Moses, there is no record in Scriptures of anyone keeping the Sabbath (especially during the period of Egyptian slavery captivity). In Genesis 2, it is called the seventh day and not the Sabbath. It is a description of what God did, not what God requires of man. To interpret Genesis 2:1-3 as a law also requires to create light on Sundays and animals on Friday. From the plain reading of the text, there is no reason to conclude that God intends to view every seventh day to be holy. Rather, it is quite possible to interpret that God declares that particular day, the actual seventh day, as holy. Interpretations which add (such as saying that God rested on the seventh day to establish the Sabbath) an underlying reason why God declares the day holy, is adding to the text. 
  12. To disobey the Sabbath is punishable by death. Exodus 35:1-3 says: Moses assembled all the congregation of the people of Israel and said to them, “These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do.  Six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day, you shall have a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.” If we are to prescribe obedience to the Sabbath fully, we need to consider obedience to carrying out punishment to those who disobey.
  13. The Sabbath is a religious observance for the benefit of man and not a reflection of the moral holiness of God – This principle is the reason Jesus could say to the Pharisees, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). God’s righteousness is reflected by a man when a man keeps the law. In the parallel account of this event in Matthew 12:1-8, Jesus indicates that it is lawful for the priests to labor on the Sabbath. If the Sabbath observance reflects the holiness of God, then it is wrong to allow God’s holiness to be thwarted in the observance of religion. In other words, if not keeping the Sabbath is a direct attack against the holiness of God, then why would God allow unholy men to be guiltless in their temple practices of working on the Sabbath?
  14. Unlike the other laws of the Decalogue, the Sabbath law is not written on the conscience of the unregenerate man – Romans 2:14-15 teaches that the things of the Law are written on the hearts of man and mankind instinctively knows the law of God by nature. However, as we examine civilization, we see a universal instinct that murder and theft are wrong but, we do not see a natural tendency for the observation of a Sabbath as a religious observance.
  15. Sabbath keeping is replaced with Communion and Baptism, the tokens and signs of the Covenant with Christ – As Christians, the signs of the New Covenant are baptism and communion. The token we have received from God as part of our covenant is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We view the Old Testament Sabbath as a New Testament prophecy fulfilled as we rest from our works of salvation in this age and as a prophecy of future rest for the Christian in the age to come as we spend eternity in glory with Christ.
  16. The Sabbath Law is not changed from Saturday to Sunday – The tradition of the Christian church is to meet together on Sunday, the first day of the week. Some interpret this day of meeting as the day in which the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, was changed to be fulfilled on the first day of the week (hence the term, Christian Sabbath). In support of this view, three Scripture references are given to show that Sunday is now the Sabbath day for Christians (Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:2, Revelation 1:10). However, within the context of these passages, there is no reference to the Sabbath nor is there any element of the Sabbath law. It is certainly possible to construe from these passages that indeed the New Testament church carries on the tradition of gathering together for fellowship, breaking of bread, teaching, and worship, However, it is not possible to interpret from these passages that the New Testament church gathers on Sunday to fulfill the Sabbath law. Any interpretation of this as being a Sabbath for the New Testament church requires a large amount of eisegesis. Scripture is absent of any direction or commandment is given by God that advocates the changing of the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday. If indeed we are to fulfill the Sabbath law of the Decalogue today, as some would suggest, it takes a lot of gall and outright rebellion to change what God called holy, the seventh day, to the first day of the week without having distinct direction from God.  After all, what were the Apostles thinking to blatantly omit any instructions of the Sabbath observance? Unless, of course, they believed the Mosaic Covenant and the Sabbath obvservance to be obsolete.
  17. Jesus teaches for more strict application, not less strict – When it comes to the teachings of Jesus Christ, we find that He gives a stricter application to the Law. For example, regarding murder and adultery, Christ says that those who commit the crime in their heart are already guilty. With this in mind, it is plausible to say that under the teachings of Christ, if anything, there should be a stricter application of the Sabbath law, not a lessening. However, we don’t find the stricter application in the realm of the Christian church with our practice of keeping the Sabbath. In practice, we find that people will say we should ‘avoid’ going to the store or work, but if it is necessary, we should be allowed to do so.  Others, for example, say it is okay to buy a newspaper, watch a football game, or buy petrol, and some say it is okay to go to church on Monday. With Christ, anger in the heart is murder. Couldn’t we thus say, just thinking about working on the Sabbath is a sin? The relative interpretation of the Law of God that has been applied to the Christian Sabbath has no Scripture precedent.  

Conclusions

We are to rest in the work of Christ – Jesus Christ finished the work on the cross. We are to rest and enjoy the completion of work which God has done for us. We are no longer under the curse of the garden, but Christ has become a curse for us. Attempts to sanctify by the observance of the Law is forbidden in the New Covenant since it diminishes the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross.

We should go to church on Sunday – Not observing the OT Sabbath (on Saturday or Sunday) is not to say that we should forsake the assembling of ourselves. We must gather together for corporate worship with other believers on a consistent basis. We do this, not as a fulfillment of the Sabbath law as stated in the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament, but for all the reasons given in the New Testament. The very essence and meaning for the Sabbath is the worship of God wherein we find true rest for our soul (Isaiah 58:13-14).

Observing a day of rest is healthy and right – It is right and good to rest. It is a good principle and helps us keep the right balance in life. Those that do not take the effort to rest and work continually usually are displaying a lack of right priorities in their life. Rest regularly every week, but not for religious sake.

We should inform others that there is no Christian Sabbath – There are some that desire to keep a Christian Sabbath out of the conviction that it represents a more Christian viewpoint. There are some that may argue that this person is the weaker brother described in Romans 14, and therefore, should not be judged. We should not judge the weaker brother. At the same time, we should come alongside this brother and teach them according to the Scriptures how they are in error. For example, if this same brother desired to be circumcised (as a religious observation and not medical/health reasons)? What if a brother desired to offer a lamb sacrifice in the church parking lot as a religious observation? What if a couple that just had a child desired to bring two turtledoves to church next Sunday as an offering (Lev 12:8; Luke 2:24)? What if all these people said they were doing all this in faith? Of course, what we should do is take these Christians to the Scripture and teach them how they are in error. The Sabbath observance is just as integral and part of the Mosaic Law as these other examples. So, just as we would teach the weaker brother in these areas, we should lovingly teach them regarding the Sabbath.

About Allen Burns

Allen serves as an elder and is the Staff Pastor-Teacher at Christ Community Church