There is a good bit of confusion about the fourth of the Ten Commandments, which reads, “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 of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work” (Ex. 20:8–9). Some people think followers of Jesus are still obligated to keep the Sabbath on the seventh day just as Israel was commanded. Others think all the Sabbath laws have been transferred to Sunday. And still others think that, since this is the only one of the Ten Commandments not repeated in the New Testament, there is no need to take a day of rest—we’re free to work seven days a week. So what should we think about the Sabbath? Let’s examine what the Bible says about the Sabbath in the past, present, and future.
What does the Bible say about sabbath and how it is to be observed?
The best place to start is by looking at what the Torah has to say about the Sabbath. First, at creation, God set an example for humanity by resting on the seventh day (Gen. 2:2–3). Why did God rest? After creating the world, it’s not as if He was tired. God’s omnipotence knows no fatigue and His omniscience doesn’t run out of ideas. Rather, God ceased His creative activity to model for us what we need—to cease from our labors. Note that at creation there was no command or ordinance telling people to keep the Sabbath. It only says that God rested.
It was at Mount Sinai that God gave Israel a command to keep the Sabbath. The people of Israel, living as a theocracy under God, were to obey Him by keeping the Sabbath. The first time the Sabbath was commanded was when Israel left Egypt and Moses told the nation not to gather manna on the Sabbath but to rest that day (Ex. 16:22–30). Then, God included this command in the Ten Commandments given on Mount Sinai (Ex. 20:8–11). Later, as part of the covenant code in the Law, God declared the Sabbath to be the outward sign of the Mosaic covenant (Ex. 31:12–17), identifying it as “a sign between Me and you throughout your generations” (Exod. 31:13).
By the time of the earthly ministry of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels, rabbinic tradition had developed a whole body of additional laws about the Sabbath, finding ways to make the Sabbath command more stringent in some ways and easier in other ways. The main point was that the religious leadership expected Israel not just to keep the Sabbath but to observe it according to the religious rules of Israel’s leadership. That’s the reason there was controversy between the Lord Jesus and the Jewish religious leadership about observing the Sabbath.
In one of these disputes, found in Mark 2:23–28, the Lord Jesus, as the Messiah of Israel, declares two perspectives on the proper observance of the Sabbath. First, He said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). This meant that God never intended keeping a day of rest to become a burden for Israel but a benefit. So, according to the Messiah Jesus, it was permissible to find food and eat it on Sabbath, to do holy work on the Sabbath, and most importantly, to do good for others on the Sabbath, especially for Him to heal people on Sabbath. The Lord Jesus also declared that He, as the Messiah, was “Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28). He was saying that, as Messiah, He created the Sabbath and therefore He alone, and not the religious leadership, could give the proper interpretation of how to keep Sabbath.
How are Christians supposed to observe the sabbath today?
The book of Acts records the birth of the church at Pentecost (Acts 2). With the conversion of the Roman centurion Cornelius (Acts 10), it became clear that the church, or the body of the Messiah, would be composed of Jews and Gentiles together. The epistles teach how the congregation of the Messiah (the church) is to view the Law of Moses, including the Sabbath. To begin, Ephesians 2:14–16 makes it clear that the Law of Moses was rendered inoperative by the death of the Messiah Jesus. Some versions use the word “abolish” but the word actually means “to render inoperative” (as translated by the International Standard Version). The Law still exists and can teach us much. But it is no longer the operating system for New Testament believers.
We need to trust, follow, and worship the Messiah Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath.
According to 2 Corinthians 3:7–18, the system that believers operate under today is the New Covenant, not the Old. Paul even says that the Ten Commandments, “in letters engraved on stones” (2 Cor. 3:7), had fading glory and was surpassed by the New Covenant (2 Cor. 3:7–11). Significantly, throughout the New Testament, it is possible to find nine of the ten commandments repeated. The only one left out was the Sabbath commandment, likely because it was an outward sign of the Mosaic law. By not repeating that command, it shows that New Testament followers of Jesus were no longer operating under the Mosaic Law but under the Messianic Law (also called the law of Christ or the New Covenant; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2).
In the New Testament era, legalists were pushing believers to observe the Sabbath as required under the Old Covenant. So Paul included this encouragement to believers in Colossians 2:16-17:
“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. These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is the Messiah” (HCSB).
So, even for us today, there ought to be no guilt trips about Sabbath-keeping that we put on ourselves or others. We have been given the true substance in the Messiah Jesus.
Even if Sabbath observance isn’t required, are we to keep Sunday as a required day of worship and rest? Some maintain that Sunday worship is required and treat the Old Testament Sabbath requirement as if it was transferred to Sunday in the New Testament. They cite three New Testament passages to make the case for Sunday worship and Sabbath-keeping, but a close examination of these Scriptures shows that none of them actually make these connections.
The first passage in Acts describes Paul’s farewell meeting with the people of Troas and says, “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread” (Acts 20:7). Although this group was meeting on the first day of the week, there is no mention of it being their regular worship time—they could have simply been meeting to say good-bye to Paul. Also, there is no clear command to worship on the first day. This argument fits with the nature of Acts, which is consistently more descriptive than prescriptive. The book of Acts records what happened but does not generally indicate what must happen. Also, Paul extended his words to midnight, showing that this was a night meeting. Since Luke usually used Jewish time, and the Jewish day was always reckoned as beginning in the evening (Gen. 1:5, 8, 13), this meeting likely took place on Saturday night, not Sunday morning.
Some cite 1 Corinthians 16:2 where Paul encourages the Corinthians to put aside money “on the first day of every week” for the offering he would collect when he came to Corinth. But this passage isn’t talking about taking an offering during Sunday worship. In fact, it wasn’t even referring to a public meeting. Paul uses the phrase par heauto (commonly translated “each of you”) literally meaning “by himself, in his home.” This refers to a private act of setting aside money in the person’s own home. Paul was not requiring Sunday worship but was merely giving a sound budgeting principle: they were to set aside the money at the start of the week, rather than wait to the end when there would be no money left. By saving this way, the Corinthians would be able to give a substantial offering to Paul for the church in Jerusalem.
The final reference describes the Apostle John as being in the Spirit “on the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10). The text never says what “the Lord’s day” meant, but most likely it means that John received his vision on “a day filled with the Lord.” Another possibility is that this phrase refers to “the day of the Lord,” a cataclysmic period of time at the end of days just before the return of the Messiah Jesus. John may have been describing his experience in the book of Revelation, which transported him by vision to the future to see that period of time. Whatever it does mean, it clearly doesn’t refer to Sunday.
Many believers teach that we ought to worship on Sunday because it remembers the resurrection of Jesus on the first day of the week. While this is indeed a great reason to worship on Sunday, it’s not a requirement stipulated in Scripture. We can and should worship the resurrected Lord Jesus any day of the week.
As we evaluate these Scripture references, we should not dismiss any verse because it is found in the Torah. These passages are still God’s Word and authoritative. But we do need to understand and interpret these Scriptures as Moses did. He described the Law as wisdom (Deut. 4:6–8). So we too should adopt the wisdom principle found in the Torah—namely, that we need one day a week for physical rest and spiritual renewal; we need a Sabbath rest. But even as we observe that Sabbath, we have a great deal of freedom as to which day of the week that might be. In Romans 14:5, Paul writes, “One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.” So if we want our day of rest and renewal to be Saturday, that’s fine. But so is Sunday, or Thursday, or whatever day.
We have New Covenant freedom to choose which day to rest our bodies and renew our spirits.
The final biblical perspective about the Sabbath to consider concerns the future. Hebrews 4:9 teaches that “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” This is a reference to the future millennial kingdom of King Jesus, when He will reign over the earth for a thousand years. The rabbis called this messianic kingdom “a day which is all Shabbat.” So we too can look forward to the reign of the Messiah Jesus on earth, when this world will be set free from its corruption and futility and we’ll be given the glorious freedom reserved for us as God’s children (Rom. 8:18–25). And then, according to the book of Isaiah, we’ll celebrate a Sabbath in that kingdom and in the new creation to follow, when “all mankind will come to bow down before” the Lord (Isa. 66:23).
Let’s remember the most important principle of Sabbath for today. We need to trust, follow, and worship the Messiah Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath. When we do, He will make every day a spiritual Sabbath rest in Him.
by Michael A. Rydelnik
You’ve got Bible questions. We’ve got answers. The Bible is full of great truths for our lives . . . and also, if we’re being...
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