Are Christians Still Required to Keep the Sabbath?
Many may answer this question with a resounding YES without taking the time think twice before answering. Some
would balk at the idea that Christians are no longer under the Sabbath command, but what does the Bible have to say about the matter? As with many topics in the Bible there are differing views on the Sabbath and whether or not it is to be observed by Christians today or whether the need to keep the Sabbath was fulfilled in Jesus. Answering the question of whether to keep or not to keep the Sabbath is only part of the difficulty. Another major consideration is deciding what day of the week the Sabbath actually falls on? Before we try to answer the first question let us first try to answer the second.
WHAT DAY OF THE WEEK IS THE SABBATH?
The Sabbath as described to us in scripture is the seventh or last day of the week. The most notable example of this is found in Exodus 20:8-11, 8 Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy: 9 You are to labor six days and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. You must not do any work — you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the foreigner who is within your gates. 11 For the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days; then He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and declared it holy. This command is part of the 10 commandments and the pattern for which the Lord calls Israel to follow is that of the creation account, God created everything in six days and rested on the seventh or last day of the week since a week only contains seven days. History shows us that our seven day week has not changed much. The names of the days may have changed, but what was regarded as the first day of the week and the last day of the week has not. Our calendars have been made following this system with the first day of the week being Sunday and the last day of the week being Saturday. In many languages the word Sabbath is the root word for what we call Saturday. In Spanish for instance the word for Saturday is Sabado which is also the same word used for Sabbath. While some may disagree, I see no good arguments to prove that the Sabbath day or the last day of the week, is not the same day we call Saturday or that Saturday’s placement at the end of the week has changed. I believe it is correct to say that what we call Saturday is and always has been the Sabbath day.
One thing that may be different for modern readers of the Bible as opposed to the people living during the time of the events of the Bible is the time of a days beginning and end. In the modern world a day begins at midnight and concludes 24 hours later when midnight rolls around again. During the time of the Sabbath command it is widely agreed upon by scholars that a day began at sundown and lasted until sundown the next day. A quick search on the topic will yield lots of material to consider should you wish to study this in more detail. Regardless of what time of day the Sabbath begins Friday at sundown or Friday at midnight we are still left with the fact that the Sabbath is Saturday. This of course poses a dilemma in the mind of some. Many would be quick to say that they “keep” the Sabbath, but I would venture to say the vast majority of Christians today “keep” a Sunday Sabbath. I say “keep” here because some would consider attending church as “keeping the Sabbath”. God’s command however was not to go to church or for the people of Israel to gather for organized worship, it was for rest. God did command the Israelites to keep the Sabbath Holy, but to be Holy simply means to be set apart. The Sabbath day was to be set apart by the Israelites to be different than the other days of the week, but perhaps this is a topic for another time. If the Sabbath is Saturday and one observes Sunday then by the letter of the law they are not keeping the Sabbath. So then we must ask the question, why did Christians start meeting on Sunday? Is Sunday now the Sabbath? If so when did the change from a Saturday Sabbath to a Sunday Sabbath occur?
WAS THE SABBATH CHANGED FROM SATURDAY TO SUNDAY?
For many it is so ingrained that Sunday is the Sabbath that it may be difficult to accept the idea of Saturday as the Sabbath. Let us consider the death and resurrection of Jesus, the most significant event in Christianity and in all the world. John 19:31 says “Since it was the preparation day, the Jews did not want the bodies to remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a special day)…” The death and resurrection was at the time of Passover. As we see in John 19:31 Jesus’ death took place the day before the Sabbath and the people didn’t want any dead bodies hanging on the cross when the Sabbath began so they had them removed. The Sabbath was Saturday so the day before was Friday. This is a day still celebrated by Christians each year to remember the crucifixion of Jesus. We call it Good Friday. Following the event of Jesus’ crucifixion was an even greater event, His resurrection. This occurred on the first day of the week as described in John 20:1 “On the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark. She saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.” Sunday, the first day of the week, became celebrated by Christians because it was the day Jesus had risen. We see further scripture of early Christians meeting on the first day of the week in Acts 20:7 and 1 Corinthians 16:2.
It is important to note at this point that there are Christians with differing views on the day of the week on which Jesus death and resurrection occurred. There are scriptures that can be used in support of multiple views, but we should be careful not to become too consumed with debating such topics. While we do want to study God’s Word and understand as much as we can, I do not consider the time of the event to be as important as the event itself. It is easy to get wrapped up in topics such as this that we miss the big picture. In this case the greatest truth of the Bible, Jesus died and was resurrected! While Christians may debate the timing of the event we cannot we cannot debate the event itself. The topic of the timing of the death and resurrection of Jesus is not necessarily relevant to the question at hand, but as you study further the Sabbath and what day of the week it falls you may encounter some discussion of the aforementioned topic and the days of the week surrounding it. It is good to be aware that there are different views out there, but the real question we are concerned with here is not which day Jesus was crucified, but rather which day was and is the Sabbath.
It is widely accepted that Saturday is the Sabbath and while you may find some Christians who will argue for Sunday as being the 7th day of the week, I don’t believe there is much evidence scripturally or otherwise to support the claim. For those seeking to argue that Saturday is not the Sabbath the burden of proof falls on them. The majority of scholars and the historical evidence would agree that the day we refer to as Saturday is indeed the day that the Sabbath of scripture fell on. With that said I don’t know of any strong arguments in the scripture to suggest that the Sabbath day has changed from Saturday to Sunday. There are some who will point to the time of Constantine starting in 313 A.D as the time the change occurred when he decreed Sunday as a day of rest and it was soon thereafter stated by the Roman Catholic church that Sunday should be honored by Christians. The Council of Laodicea in A.D. 364 decreed, “Christians shall not Judaize and be idle on Saturday but shall work on that day; but the Lord’s day they shall especially honour, and, as being Christians, shall, if possible, do no work on that day. If, however, they are found Judaizing, they shall be shut out from Christ” (Charles J. Hefele, A History of the Councils of the Church, 2 [Edinburgh, 1876] 316). The Lord’s day being referred to here is Sunday. While the changes by Constantine and the Council of Laodicea did take place, I see no reason we should accept those changes making Sunday the day of rest as opposed to Saturday as being a command instituted by God that would make the old Sabbath command obsolete. Those events may have been what popularized a Sunday day of rest for the rest of the world, but if we are looking for evidence that Sunday should be celebrated as the Sabbath instead of Saturday then I don’t find that to be sufficient evidence. If we want to attempt to make a case that Sunday is now the Sabbath the strongest argument that could be made is that which comes from scripture. On several occasions in the New Testament Christians are mentioned preaching, baptizing, and eating on the first day of the week (Sunday). Even though I would consider that to be the strongest argument in favor of the Sabbath being changed I still do not consider it to be strong enough evidence when taken in the context of all other scripture. They met on the first day of the week because it is “the Lord’s day” (Revelation 1:10), that is the day of the week that Jesus was resurrected.
All of the questions mentioned up to this point have been addressed. What day of the week was and is the Sabbath? Saturday. Why did early Christians often meet on the “first day of the week” a.k.a Sunday? Because that was the day of the Lord, the day in which Jesus was raised from the dead. Was the Sabbath command changed by God from Saturday to Sunday, either in scripture or afterwards? No. If you read scripture and are deeply convicted that you are to keep the Sabbath then it seems that Saturday should be the day you should observe. If you believe there is sufficient scriptural evidence to support that Sunday is the day Christians should observe as the Sabbath then by all means live by your convictions! Whatever your conviction may be though should be founded on what scriptures says and not simply on tradition or misinterpretation of scripture. The above mentioned views are only two of the most popularly held views, that we Christians are to observe a Saturday Sabbath or that the Sabbath is now Sunday. There is however one more main view yet to be discusses and we are still left with one final question and that is the one we started with, are Christians today still required to keep the Sabbath? Make sure you are holding on tight for what I am about to say in 3…2…1… NO! Now before you right me off as a heretic and quit reading this article lets first consider what scripture has to say on the matter.
A SABBATH REST IN JESUS
Some may accuse Christians today who don’t observe the Sabbath as neglecting to follow a clear command of God, but that may not be a fair accusation. The Bible seems cleat that there is something or should I say someone better than the law of the Old Testament, who has come. That of course is Jesus. The law of Moses in the Old Testament was good for a time until something better came along. When Jesus came along that was indeed something better. One critical failure for many people of Jesus’ day was that they were more concerned with keeping the law than listening to Him. It is very clear in scripture that the law cannot save us. Let’s look at Galatians 2:16: know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. And we have believed in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified. This passage seems clear that we do not receive salvation by following the law, but by following Jesus. Jesus is greater than the law and we should seek to follow Him and His teachings. Scripture spells this out for us pretty clearly. The law was never meant to save us, only to keep us in check until Jesus came. The best evidence of this is found in Galatians 3:24-26 which reads 24 The law, then, was our guardian until Christ, so that we could be justified by faith. 25 But since that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. We were once under the law which was our guardian, but through faith in Jesus we are longer under the law the way it was spelled out for us in the Old Testament. The Old Testament law and priesthood have passed away because a new High Priest has come onto the scene, that High Priest being Jesus. Look at what Hebrews 7:12 says For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must be a change of law as well. If you read through the New Testament you will probably be able to pick up on what is taking place. There is a shift from living by the law to living for Jesus. Some of the people during Jesus’ ministry were obsessed with the letter of the law, but never understanding what God really wanted His people to learn from it. There are many occasions in Jesus’ ministry in which He is trying to correct peoples misunderstanding of the law. Jesus explains the law in practical terms we can all understand. It is not as much about our actions as it is about the heart with which we do them. The sermon on the mount in Matthew 5-7 is a good example of this. Its possible to do many things, even good things, things that were part of the law, but if we don’t do them out of love then we are still guilty of breaking the law. Listen to what Jesus said in Matthew 22:37-40 when asked which command in the law was the greatest 37 He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the greatest and most important command. 39 The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. 40 All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” How beautiful is it that Jesus sums up the whole law in two simple commands, love God and love others. If anyone does these two things then they will fulfill the law. If we love God we won’t worship idols or false god’s. If we loves others we won’t steal from them, kill them, lie to them, or covet what they have. Jesus repeats several Old Testament commands in His ministry but He doesn’t really have much to say about the Sabbath. Some would say it is so obvious that His followers are to continue following the Sabbath He had no need to teach of this command. Others will say that His omission of commanding His followers to observe the Sabbath is evidence that those who follow Him are freed from the Sabbath command. When making a decision on what we are going to live by it should be obvious that we are to follow Jesus and not the law of Moses. If we do not we risk falling into the same legalism that the Scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees did. Anything Jesus has said trumps what was said in the law because Jesus perfected it. There are many things from the law that Jesus repeated and expounded on so we could understand them better and in those cases we follow what He said not because it was from the law of Moses, but because it was an instruction of Jesus. Most Christians see clearly that we are not bound to the law today. There are many areas in which we no longer live by the law. Areas such as our diets, animal sacrifices, and areas dealing with being clean and unclean just to name a few. Admitting that Christians do not uphold all aspects of the law today is obvious. The real issue is how do we decide which laws apply to us and which ones do not? We can’t just arbitrarily decide which laws we want to follow and which ones we do not. There needs to be some biblical basis in coming to a conclusion. I believe the New Testament should be our guide for this. There are many areas in the NT that either stress the importance or unimportance of something from the law as well as reiterating aspects of things in the law and how they are applicable in Jesus’ priesthood.
There is much more to consider about this topic and for the sake of time we have only scratched the surface. You will find Christians who will tell you we are still under the Sabbath and give you scriptures which they believe support that claim and you will find other Christians like myself who will tell you we are freed from the Sabbath command in Jesus also providing scriptural support for that view. You will find some Christinas who will tell you the Sabbath is Saturday, some who say it was changed to Sunday, and others who will say that everyday is a day of rest in Jesus. Paul addresses such differences of opinion in Romans 14:5 when he said “One person considers one day to be above another day. Someone else considers every day to be the same. Each one must be fully convinced in his own mind.” He spoke similarly in Colossians 2:16-17 “16 Therefore, don’t let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is the Messiah.” All things of the law were foreshadowing the coming of Jesus and that included keeping the Sabbath. It was a day of rest and a sign between God and Israel (Exodus 31:12-17). A better covenant with a better sign and a better rest has come through Jesus. Hebrews 4:1-11 speaks of Jesus as being the perfect rest we are to enter into. A rest not found in one day of the week, but one we should be fully resting in each and every day. The law containing the Sabbath command was part of the old covenant, but a better covenant has come through Jesus and He has fulfilled the law and its requirements. As Christians we should not follow the law, we should follow Jesus. Hebrews 8:7-13 says “7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second one. 8 But finding fault with His people, He says: Look, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah— 9 not like the covenant that I made with their ancestors on the day I took them by their hands to lead them out of the land of Egypt. I disregarded them, says the Lord, because they did not continue in My covenant. 10 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws into their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people. 11 And each person will not teach his fellow citizen, and each his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” because they will all know Me, from the least to the greatest of them. 12 For I will be merciful to their wrongdoing, and I will never again remember their sins. 13 By saying, a new covenant, He has declared that the first is old. And what is old and aging is about to disappear.”
You must study the scriptures for yourself and come to your own conclusion. Should you feel convicted and believe the Bible teaches that Christians should continue to observe the Sabbath then by all means do your best to decide which day of the week you believe the Bible teaches the Sabbath to be and try to observe it. I believe however that scripture teaches we are freed from the law in Jesus and the law is fulfilled by loving God and loving others. As Paul says in Romans 6:14 we are “not under law but under grace” a grace that comes through Jesus. Paul has much to say about the matter in the book of Romans, but sums things up nicely in Romans 13:8-10 “8 Do not owe anyone anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments: Do not commit adultery; do not murder; do not steal; do not covet; and whatever other commandment — all are summed up by this: Love your neighbor as yourself. 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Love, therefore, is the fulfillment of the law.” and in Romans 10:4 he said “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”
For Christians I believe it is important to know that we are freed from the law and its requirements in Jesus. We are free from a weekly ritual meeting that could lead to legalism. We are free to serve God with our whole heart everyday and free to rest in the work of Jesus on the cross and what He has done for us. We are free to worship God by ourselves or with others daily, weekly, or otherwise. When we meet and worship collectively it should be because of the grace we have received through Jesus’ death and resurrection, and because we love God and love each other, not because it’s a requirement. When we live in that way we are truly fulfilling everything the law has required.