Law,  Old Testament

The Sabbath for Today

It is a fitting time (coming on the heals of Labor Day) to talk about the Sabbath and its relationship to Christians. The issue of whether or not Christians should work on the Sabbath (usually applied to Sunday) is alive and well in our churches. How are we, as New Testament Christians, to think of the Sabbath?


The Sabbath as a day of rest.

The Sabbath was to be a day of rest, on which “you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant or your ox or your donkey or any of your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you, so that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you” (Deut 5:14).

This is not a prohibition against the necessities of life (eating, preparing food, etc.). However, it is a prohibition against anything that is not a necessity. The main intent was for Israel to make the Sabbath unlike any other day, cutting out anything that would distract one from the ultimate priority.

What was the purpose of the Sabbath?

Some have thought that the main purpose of the Sabbath was for the rest and recuperation of Israelites and their animals. However, Exodus 20:11 describes God resting on the seventh day—and it is apparent that it was not for need of recuperation for God (more on this in the next section).

By observing the Sabbath and taking a day off of normal labors, Israel demonstrated their relationship with God. Keeping the Sabbath was the hallmark of the Mosaic Covenant (Exod 31:13). By keeping it, Israel demonstrated their special relationship to God, their dependence upon Him, and their allegiance to His commands.

The place of the fourth commandment in the Decalogue is also instructive. The first commandment prohibits raising anything to the place that God alone must have. The second commandment, as a complement to the first, commands that one must not treat God like anything else (He must be left in His unique place). The third commandment is the natural result of the previous two commandments, a prohibition against treating God lightly or insignificantly. These three commandments teach that God alone is supreme and deserves complete adoration and obedience. In light of this, the fourth commandment teaches that God  is Lord over our resources (time, effort, product, etc.). Because God is who He is, one must recognize God has authority over everything.

When Israel obeyed the Sabbath (albeit rarely in their existence), they proclaimed the message to the watching nations that they submitted everything to God.

What was the motivation for keeping the Sabbath?

In Exodus 20:11 the motivation given for keeping the Sabbath is God’s example in creation. Deuteronomy 5:15 gives the motivation of God redeeming Israel from Egypt. The common denominator is creation (and re-creation). In Exodus 20, Israel was told to keep the Sabbath because they were to point to God as creator. In Deuteronomy 5, Israel was told to keep the Sabbath because they were to point to God as redeemer (re-creator). In other words, God is the author of creation, and he also holds the power to redeem mankind and bring them back to paradise. Israel’s relationship with God was to exemplify this wondrous reality before the watching nations.

What is the relationship to the Sabbath for Christians?

The purpose of Israel’s existence as a nation, per the Mosaic Covenant, was to be a light to the other nations (Exod 19:5-6). The Sabbath was the sign of the Mosaic Covenant. It pointed Israel and the nations back to God’s rest which God prepared for the human race. However, since the Mosaic Covenant has been rendered inoperative, the sign of the covenant has also been rendered inoperative.

Note Colossians 2:16-17:

Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day— things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.

Believers are no longer obligated to observe the Sabbath day. However, this does not mean it is wrong to observe the Sabbath day. Note what Paul says in Romans 14:5-7:

One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself.

The point Paul is making is that it is wrong to tell others they must or must not observe one day above another. Each person is making that choice out of a desire to please God, and thus fellow believers are not to force their convictions on this matter on one another.

Although the New Testament states the Sabbath is no longer obligatory for the Christian, the principle behind the Sabbath is still very much in play. The Christian is to operate his or her life to demonstrate that God is Lord over one’s life. How one uses their time, their money, their talents—all of these decisions either demonstrate to the watching world whether or not the Christian believes God is Lord over all things.

A well known saying goes, “Show me your checkbook and your calendar and I will be able to tell you where your priorities are.” If someone were to examine your checkbook and day-planner, whom would they say is Lord of your life?

photo credit: Mary Brack ~ www.mewithmyheadintheclouds.blogspot. via photopin cc

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.


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