Christian Living,  Law,  Old Testament

Should Christians Keep the Sabbath?

Historically, many Christians have assumed that it is a Christian obligation to keep the Sabbath. Both the Westminster Confession of Faith and the London Baptist Confession of Faith include language which obligates Christians to observe the Sabbath. Although both of these confessions move the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, they both are adamant that keeping the Sabbath is an obligation on all of humanity. But, is keeping the Sabbath for today? In order to answer that question, we need to discuss what the Sabbath was along with its purpose.

photo of command to keep the Sabbath

What did the Sabbath look like?

The Sabbath was observed each and every Saturday and was to be a day of rest for Israel. They were prohibited from doing extraneous work. A good summary of the prohibition is found in Deuteronomy 5:14: “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.”

Although Sabbath regulations prohibited many activities, it was not a universal prohibition against the necessities of life (eating, preparing food, etc.). However, it was a prohibition against anything that was not a necessity. The main intent was for Israel to make the day special, unlike any other day. Israel was to cut out anything that would distract them from the ultimate priority of devotion and worship of God on that day.

In Thomas Schreiner’s book, 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law, Schreiner includes a chart about what was allowed and disallowed on this weekly holiday. You can actually access his entire section on the Sabbath here. This chart helps us get a feel for what was prohibited and allowed.

Kindling a fireExod 35:3
Gathering mannaExod 16:23–29
Selling goodsNeh 10:31; 13:15–22
Bearing burdensJer 17:19–27
Military campaignsJosh 6:15; 1 Kings 20:29; 2 Kings 3:9
Marriage feastsJudg 14:12–18
Dedication feasts1 Kings 8:65; 2 Chron. 7:8–9
Visiting a man of God2 Kings 4:23
Changing temple guards2 Kings 11:5–9
Preparing showbread and putting it out1 Chron 9:32
Offering sacrifices1 Chron 23:31; Ezek. 46:4–5
Duties of priests and Levites2 Kings 11:5–9; 2 Chron 23:4, 8
Opening the east gateEzek 46:1–3

What was the purpose?

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 because God needed to recuperate (more on this in the next section).

The main purpose of the Sabbath was covenantal. Prior to the Mosaic covenant there was no Sabbath observance recorded in Scripture. The Sabbath was instituted as the hallmark of the Mosaic covenant and intrinsically linked to that covenant (Exod 31:13). By observing the Sabbath and taking a day off of normal labors, Israel demonstrated their relationship with God. Specifically, by keeping it, Israel demonstrated their dependence upon God and their affirmation of His lordship over every area of their lives.

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, produce, 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 Yahweh’s Lordship to the watching nations.

What was Israel’s motivation?

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.

Are Christians required to keep the Sabbath?

After the brief flyover of what the Sabbath looked like and why it was instituted, we are now in a position to address whether Christians should keep the Sabbath. As noted in the introduction, many (if not most) Christians believe that Christians are obligated to keep the Sabbath. Note the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith (XXI.7).

7. As it is the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in His Word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment binding all men in all ages, He hath particularly appointed one day in seven, for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto him: (Exod. 20:810–11Isa. 56:246–7) which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week; and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week, (Gen. 2:2–31 Cor. 16:1Acts 20:7) which, in Scripture, is called the Lord’s Day, (Rev. 1:10) and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath. (Exod. 20:810Matt. 5:17–18)

Many believers throughout the ages have argued, like the Westminster Divines, that Christians are obligated to keep the Sabbath. In this argument, most Christians acknowledge that the Sabbath has changed to the first day of the week (Sunday instead of Saturday). However, the argument for the continuation of the Sabbath misunderstands the believer’s relationship both to Mosaic law and to the Mosaic covenant.

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 laws which were attached to that covenant are also done away with. These laws which have been rendered inoperative even include the Sabbath law, which was the sign of that covenant.

Paul himself affirms this transition away from the Mosaic law and covenant with the following statement.

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.

Colossians 2:16-17

Paul’s statement in Colossians 2 would have been unthinkable under the Mosaic covenant. But in the new covenant, according to Paul, believers are no longer obligated to keep 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.

Paul’s point 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 about days upon 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 life to demonstrate that God is in control. How one uses their time, their money, their talents—all of these decisions demonstrate to the watching world whether or not the Christian believes God is Lord over all things.

A well-known axiom in the Christian world goes like this: “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 Google calendar, who would he say is in control 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 and Youtube channel.

One Comment

  • Michele

    I was brought up in an Independent Methodist School and attended a United Methodist Church and they never stressed keeping Sabbath… just that we should attend their church building on Sundays. lol

    If we look at Matthew 28:1 in the Greek NT INT+ bible in eSword, we see it reads the following:

    “Late in the day also the Sabbath it began to dawn to ONE SABBATH, come Mary the female Magdalene and the other Mary to be a spectator of the grave.”

    The word “one” here is a PRIMARY NUMERAL and not an adjective. One means ONE, not first or beginning. There are no more plural Sabbaths after the cross.

    Jesus did not abolish or change the Sabbath….. He fulfilled it once and for all. He is Lord of the Sabbath! Hallelujah!!

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