What's Up With the Sabbath?


Last night we took a look at the fourth commandment, which is found in Exodus 20:8-11. This commandment is interesting. It stands out because it is the ONLY one of the Ten Commandments to not be repeated in the New Testament. Which naturally begs the question, why? And furthermore, why does it seem that the New Testament has moved on from the Sabbath as it was known in the Old Testament (Col 2:16-17; Rm 14:1-12)? To understand the answer to these questions we have to understand the commandment and its purpose. 

The command to observe the Sabbath had a threefold purpose for the Israelites:

  1. It was part of what set them apart as the covenant people of God.
  2. It was a time to remember and worship God for two of God's most powerful acts, Creation (Ex 20:11) and Salvation from Egypt (Dt 5:15), and to look with anticipation toward the coming of the Messiah.
  3. It was to be a time of rest.

So, the real question here is how has Christ changed all of this?

Christians, unlike the Israelites, are not marked as the people of God by outward, physical symbols like circumcision, dietary laws, or Sabbath keeping. Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit testifies that we are children of God (Rm 8:16). When Christ gave us the Holy Spirit it removed any need for physical symbols of covenant separation (i.e. dietary laws, circumcision, Sabbath keeping). The Holy Spirit is the only evidence any Christian needs that their salvation is genuine (Acts 15:8).

But what about remembrance and worship? Surely Christians still need the Sabbath for remembrance and worship, right? The Bible does command Christians to meet together for the purpose of worship and remembrance (Heb 10:25). But Christ has changed everything about our worship. Ever since the resurrection of Christ Christians have been gathering on Sunday mornings to worship in celebration of his resurrection (Acts 20:7). Our worship is no longer in anticipation of what WILL happen but, rather, in response to what God has already done for us in Christ. The New Testament worship is a gathering of Christians on the day of our Lord's resurrection to celebrate what that death and resurrection achieved and to remember the sacrifice that was made once for all. This is why Paul instructs the Colossians to not let anyone pass judgment on them concerning the Sabbath. "These are a shadow of the things to come," Paul said, "but the substance belongs to Christ (Col 2:16-17)." 

The final purpose of the Old Testament Sabbath was rest. Rest was a part of the rhythm of life that God had first demonstrated in the story of creation. God created in six days and on the seventh He rested. There is no doubting that rest is still a very important part of the rhythm of life. But for the Christian, our rest is completely wrapped up in Christ our Savior. Jesus told his followers to come to him and find rest (Mt. 11:28). The Bible also tells us that Christ has prepared the true Sabbath rest for His followers with Him in heaven (Heb 4:9). The Hebrew word for Sabbath is a musical term. A rest in music is just as important as a note. It serves a vital purpose. It stops the pattern and helps prepare for what is to come. In the same way Sabbath rest for Christians serves to pause from the regular pattern of life for a moment, focus on the Creator and Sustainer of us all, and to prepare for what is to come. And just as the rest is an essential part of any great musical composition, so Sabbath rest is an essential part of the rhythm of Christian life.

It is understandable that there are many ideas and opinions about the Sabbath. There are some Christians who still feel obligated to keep the Sabbath in some way and to some degree. Other Christians feel comfortable celebrating the Lord's day and finding rest in Christ throughout the week. Whatever our conviction on this particular matter it is important to keep in mind that Paul identified Sabbath keeping as a matter of conscience for believers (Rom 14:1-12). We should be careful not to violate our conscience. We should be careful not to cast judgment on those whose conscience leads them to a different conviction concerning the Sabbath. 

Scriptures for Reflection:

During your time of study this week prayerfully read through the following passages. Allow them to help give you a fuller understanding of this command and its New Testament implications:

  • Colossians 2:16-17
  • Romans 14:1-12
  • Deuteronomy 5:12-15

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Why is Sabbath keeping different for Christians? 
  2. What do I believe about the Sabbath and its application in my life?
  3. What are my responsibilities as a Christian in worship, work, and rest?