Are Christians Required To Keep The Sabbath?
This post is designed to answer the question addressed in the title, “Are Christians required to keep the Sabbath?” In general, there are 3 views when it comes to Christians and the Sabbath, which means a day of rest.
View # 1. The Sabbatarian View. According to this view, Christians are to worship on the Sabbath—day, which is Saturday. 7th Day Adventists typically fall in this camp.
Folks who subscribe to this view are right in saying that Saturday is the Sabbath but wrong in saying that Christians are commanded to worship on Saturdays.
View # 2. The Sunday Sabbath View. According to this view, just as Saturday was the Sabbath in the Old Testament, Sunday, the Lord’s Day, is the Sabbath for the Christian and, therefore, should be kept by all Christians. This is the view generally held by Catholics and many Protestants too. This view was mainly adopted from the time of the Puritans in the 16th century.
While it is right to worship on Sundays, it is wrong to call Sunday the Christian Sabbath day because nowhere in the Bible is the Saturday Sabbath of the Old Testament transferred to Sunday Sabbath in the New Testament.
View # 3. The Biblical View. According to this view, Saturday is the Sabbath. However, absolutely nowhere in the New Testament are Christians commanded to keep it. This view is held by those who respect the Biblical record as found in the Old and New Testaments.
We keep the Lord’s Day not because there is a specific command but because this was the pattern of the early church as recorded in the New Testament as well as in church history.
This post will go forth to show support for this 3rd view by providing a quick survey through the Bible.
Sabbath in the Old Testament.
1. Creation Week
Genesis 2:2 states, “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.” The word “rested” comes from the Hebrew word “Shabath,” which means to rest or cease from activity. Please note that the text only says God rested. It wasn’t that God rested because he was tired. Isaiah 40:28 dispels such a wrong notion, “The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.” God rested because all creation activities were complete. It was a rest resulting from completion.
Nowhere else in Genesis do we find any reference to either God or humans resting on the 7th day. From Adam to Moses (Genesis 3 to Exodus 15), there is no mention of the Sabbath. Godly folks like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph were not commanded to rest on the 7th day, and there is no record of them resting on the 7th day either. Yet, they were commended for their faith!
2. Sabbath Day
After Genesis 2:2, the next mention of the Sabbath is in Exodus in the context of the Jews gathering manna in the wilderness after they were brought out of Egypt [Ex 16:11-15]. The Jews were commanded to gather only on six days, and specifically not on the seventh day. Exodus 16:23 says, “This is what the Lord commanded: ‘Tomorrow is to be a day of sabbath rest, a holy sabbath to the Lord. So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning.'”
The Sabbath command was given to the nation of Israel, and Moses, as guided by God, later made it part of the 10 commandments.
Exodus 20:8-11 “8 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.”
One important point to note is this: God gave this command only to the nation Israel and no other nation—except if a foreigner were to live in Israel, then that person should observe the Sabbath [Exod 20:10]. The Sabbath was instituted for Israel as a day of rest, refreshment for the body, and of blessing to the soul.
Exodus 31:12-17 teaches us more truths concerning the Sabbath. Verse 13 tells us that just like circumcision, the Sabbath was a sign between God and Israel, “This will be a sign between me and you.” Verse 14 makes it clear that violation of the Sabbath day was punishable by death, “Anyone who desecrates it is to be put to death.” Verses 16-17 teach us that the Sabbath day command was binding only upon the Israelites living under the Mosaic law, “16 The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath…17 It will be a sign between me and the Israelites.”
Deuteronomy 5:15 says that Israel was to keep the Sabbath because God delivered them from slavery, “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”
Some of the things the Israelites were prohibited from doing on the Sabbath day were these: kindling a fire [Ex 35:3]; gathering manna [Ex 16:23-29]; selling goods [Neh 10:31; 13:15-22], and bearing burdens [Jer 17:19-27].
Later Jews during Jesus’s time even followed a distance rule which meant no travel on the Sabbath day exceeding ¾ of a mile. According to one commentator, this distance was calculated by interpreting Exodus 16:29 [“stay where he is”] with Numbers 35:5, which measures the limits of a city at 2,000 cubits [less than ¾ of a mile]. One could thus not leave his “place” (city), i.e., go beyond its limits.
3. Sabbatical Year and Year of Jubilee
Every seventh year, the land had to remain uncultivated, “10 For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, 11 but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what is left. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.” [Exod 23:10-11; also see Leviticus 25:1-7].
Every 50th year also called the Year of Jubilee, the land had to remain uncultivated, “10 Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan.11 The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. 12 For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields” [Lev 25:10-12].
So, to summarize, the Jews, under the Mosaic covenant, were to keep the weekly Sabbath, the Sabbatical year, which was every 7th year, and the year of Jubilee, which was every 50th year.
Judgment for Violating the Sabbath.
Leviticus 26:33-35 gives a warning about God’s judgment on failure to keep the Sabbaths. “33 I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you. Your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins. 34 Then the land will enjoy its sabbath years all the time that it lies desolate and you are in the country of your enemies; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths. 35 All the time that it lies desolate, the land will have the rest it did not have during the sabbaths you lived in it.”
Unfortunately, the Jews rebelled against God and desecrated the Sabbaths amidst other sins. So, God kept his word by bringing judgment through the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. 2 Chronicles 36:17, 20-21 states, “17 He brought up against them the king of the Babylonians, who killed their young men with the sword in the sanctuary, and did not spare young men or young women, the elderly or the infirm. God gave them all into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar…20 He carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his successors until the kingdom of Persia came to power. 21 The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah.” [See also Jeremiah 17:19-27; 25:11].
Sadly, the Jews did not learn their lesson even after returning from captivity, as they were buying and selling on the Sabbath. During Nehemiah’s time, the Jews were engaged in buying and selling goods on the Sabbath day, which led to Nehemiah rebuking them, “16 People from Tyre who lived in Jerusalem were bringing in fish and all kinds of merchandise and selling them in Jerusalem on the Sabbath to the people of Judah. 17 I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this wicked thing you are doing—desecrating the Sabbath day? 18 Didn’t your ancestors do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity on us and on this city? Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath…22 Then I commanded the Levites to purify themselves and go and guard the gates in order to keep the Sabbath day holy” [Neh 13:16-18, 22].
So, we see the Sabbath command was binding even after the return from exile. Having seen an overview of the Sabbath in the Old Testament, let’s move on to the New Testament.
Sabbath in the New Testament.
1. The Teaching of Jesus
By Jesus’s time, the Jews added regulations to the Sabbath—more than what God had given. Thus, they made it a burden rather than a blessing. Jesus confronted these teachings in his ministry and was often in conflict for doing what the Jewish leaders thought was a violation of the Sabbath—mainly, his healing on the Sabbath was considered work. However, Jesus repeatedly healed people to show that the Sabbath was a day to do good to one’s neighbor.
Matthew 12:9-14 “9 Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, 10 and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” 11 He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.”
Mark 2:23-27 “23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” 25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” 27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.””
Legalism always brings harm to God’s commands, including the command to love your neighbor. That’s why Jesus confronted it head-on! Jesus fulfilled all the requirements of the Law in order to be a perfect substitute for us—this meant keeping the Sabbath as well—the way God intended it, not the way the Pharisees had perverted it.
2. The Teaching of Paul
Paul often used the Sabbath days in the Synagogue to preach the gospel. He did this not because he felt the need to keep the Sabbath but because he knew the Jews were in one place, and that gave him a platform to proclaim the gospel. However, when it came to the issue if we are still under the law, Paul gave a clear answer: We are no longer under the law and hence are not required to keep the Sabbath, which was part of the law.
Galatians 5:1 “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
Romans 7:6 “…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.”
Colossians 2:16-17 “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 [or “substance”], however, is found in Christ.”
Nothing could be clearer than these verses in Colossians 2, which states Christians are no longer under the Sabbath regulations. The observances of the Mosaic Law, including the Sabbath, were only shadows of things to come. The substance is Christ. The Sabbath was looking forward to a greater reality found in Christ and lost its value once Christ, the substance, came. We no longer need to focus on the shadows—namely the Sabbath, other religious holidays, and dietary laws. We are not obligated to keep it.
3. The Teaching of the Writer of Hebrews
The writer of Hebrews makes the same point as Paul does.
Hebrews 4:8-11 “8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. 9 There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; 10 for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. 11 Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.”
The “rest” that the writer of Hebrews is referring to in 4:8-12 is not the weekly Sabbath rest, nor the Canaan rest provided by Joshua, but the heavenly rest—the rest of salvation given by Jesus to all who believe in him. So, that is the rest we are commanded to enter, not the 7th day Sabbath rest.
Sabbath in the Future Millennial Kingdom.
In the coming 1000-year kingdom, which Jesus will set up during his second coming [Rev 20:4-6], we will keep the Sabbaths. Ezekiel 46:3 in the context of the future temple [yet to be built] and when Israel experiences full blessings as a result of their turning to the Messiah, Jesus states, “On the Sabbaths and New Moons the people of the land are to worship in the presence of the Lord at the entrance of that gateway.”
However, since the millennial kingdom is yet to happen, and the fact that we are still living between the first and second coming of Jesus, we are not obligated to keep the Sabbath or any holy days for that matter.
While it is good to have a day to rest and be rejuvenated, we are not under the obligation to keep the Sabbath commandment which was only for Israel under the Old Covenant. Christians are no longer under the Old Covenant. As a result, we are no longer obligated to keep the Sabbath day. Sabbath is still Saturday for those who are under the Old Covenant. It has not changed to Sunday. In addition, nowhere in the Bible is it stated that the Lord’s Day is the Sabbath for the Christian—absolutely nowhere! That is the clear teaching of the New Testament.
Though some Christians term the Lord’s Day as the Sabbath Day for the believer, I don’t prefer such a term because it’s not a biblical term. It’s always good to pursue biblical precision when referring to biblical issues.
In the subsequent post, we will see the Christian’s relationship to the Lord’s Day.