This Sunday I preached on Jesus’ Sabbath confrontations with the Pharisees in Mark 2:23-3:6. One question that I did not get time to address was practically: are Christians required to still honor the Sabbath? If so, how?
One of the main points of my sermon was to argue that the Sabbath command pointed to Christ and the rest that He gives (Matt 11:28-30). The book of Colossians tells us that the Sabbath (along with other aspects of the Old Covenant) was a shadow that pointed to Christ (Col 2:16-17), and the book of Hebrews tells us that those who believe in the gospel now enter the “rest” of the Sabbath (Heb 4:1-3). Now that Christ has arrived, how does this change our relationship to the Sabbath command? Are we still obligated to keep it?
Well, there a number of factors to consider.
First, the Sabbath command of Ex 20:8-11 is the first instance of the rest command we find in the Bible. While the fourth commandment harkens back to the creation account of Genesis 2:1-3, particularly how God hallows and blesses the seventh day, it is not apparent that the Sabbath was a command given in Genesis. No one is told to rest on the seventh day, nor do we see anyone keep the Sabbath until Exodus 16:22-30, where it appears to be a novel concept to the Israelites. This means that the Sabbath command is not a creation ordinance, but is part and parcel of the covenant made at Sinai. It is interesting that in the New Testament, no one appeals to the creation account to defend the permanence of Sabbath, which Jesus does for marriage (Mark 10:2-10), Paul does for gender distinctions (1 Tim 2:12-13), and for the sinfulness of homosexuality (Rom 1:26-27).
Second, the covenant at Sinai has now been superseded by the new covenant (Hebrews 7-9). Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection have inaugurated the new covenant, so we are no longer under the Law of the old covenant, but under the new Law of the new covenant (Gal 3:23-25; Rom 7:1-6; Rom 8:2; Rom 10:4; 1 Cor 9:21; Heb 8:6-13; Jer 31:31-34). If we were still bound to keep the Sabbath command like those under the old covenant, we would be required to stop all work and worship on Saturday.
Third, despite there being a strong history of tradition in Christian interpretation that argues that the Christian Sabbath has now become Sunday, the “Lord’s Day,” (Rev 1:10; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2) in honor of Christ’s resurrection on a Sunday (cf. Matt 28:1), there is not much Biblical support of this idea. The New Testament nowhere *commands* Christians to gather to worship on Sunday in the same way Jews were commanded to rest on Saturday. Tom Schreiner explains:
“Most of the early church fathers did not practice or defend literal Sabbath observance (cf. Diognetus 4:1) but interpreted the Sabbath eschatologically and spiritually. They did not see the Lord’s Day as a replacement of the Sabbath but as a unique day. For instance, in the Epistle of Barnabas, the Sabbaths of Israel are contrasted with “the eighth day” (15:8), and the latter is described as “a beginning of another world.” Barnabas says that “we keep the eighth day” (which is Sunday), for it is “the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead” (15:9)…The Lord’s Day was not viewed as a day in which believers abstained from work, as was the case with the Sabbath. Instead, it was a day in which most believers were required to work, but they took time in the day to meet together in order to worship the Lord.”
Fourth, after Jesus resurrects, the Sabbath is barely discussed in the New Testament. This is surprising since Sabbath and circumcision were seen as the two largest distinctives that set Israel apart from the Gentiles around them. It was so important to Jews that it was Jesus’ Sabbath violations that led to the Pharisees being convinced He needed to be killed (Mark 3:1-6). Surely, if this was still a binding command on all Christians, Jewish and Gentile converts would need to be explicitly taught about what this looks like.
Fifth, the only places where the Sabbath command is mentioned in the New Testament after the resurrection, it is seen as a matter of relative indifference. Paul commands the Colossians to not let anyone pass judgment on them in regards to the Sabbath, since it was only a shadow that pointed to Christ (Col. 2:16-17). It appears Paul is worried that the Galatian’s desire to continue to follow the Sabbath is a sign that they don’t understand what Jesus has done with the new covenant (Gal 4:10-11, 21-31). In Rome, while teaching on the importance of disagreeing over disputable matters, Paul exhorts the church, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind,” Romans 14:5. Thus, Paul seems to place the “honoring of one day as better than another” as a matter over which good Christians can simply agree to disagree on. If we were required to continue to “honor the Sabbath” like old covenant believers, it is highly unlikely that Paul would say such a thing.
Attendance at the Worship Gathering
All of that being said, Christians are commanded to gather regularly for corporate worship (Heb 10:24-26), and it appears that the early church chose to make their day of corporate worship Sunday in honor of Christ’s resurrection. This is, of course, fitting since Jesus’ resurrection is the first installment of the New Creation, riffing off the idea of Sabbath being a remembrance of the first creation. Thus it is appropriate for Christians to normally gather together on Sunday for corporate worship. But they could also gather on Saturday, or Friday, or any other day of the week. The day is optional, but regularly gathering with the whole church is not. Thus, no one should interpret the passing away of the Sabbath command as an endorsement to abandon weekly gathering for corporate worship. If a Christian is in a pattern of regularly forsaking corporate worship they are disobeying the Lord–they are sinning. Of course, members who are sick, elderly, on military leave, or have some other legitimate reason for not being able to gather are not sinning. However, for the person who feels comfortable showing up once a month, once every two months, or not at all should be deeply concerned about their heart being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Heb 3:12-14). Church’s and their members should take regular attendance for corporate worship seriously.
All of these above points lead me to believe that, as Hebrews 4:3 teaches, we have already entered the Sabbath rest of God, even if we have not yet fully experienced it like we one day will in the New Creation (Heb 4:9-11). Thus, Christians are not under the obligation to keep the Sabbath command in the same way old covenant believers were. That being said, I do still believe Christians are obligated to obey the Sabbath command–but in a very different way than old covenant believers. We obey this command, like the other old covenant commands, by seeing how it leads us to Christ.
Jesus Christ is the substance of the Sabbath (Col 2:16-17). Jesus was trying to demonstrate that by teaching that He was the one who gives rest (Matt 11:28-30) and then immediately entered into two massive confrontations with the Pharisees specifically about the Sabbath (Matt 12:1-14). What is Jesus doing? He is showing that He, not the Sabbath command itself, is the One who gives lasting, real rest. So we obey the Sabbath command by coming to the one the command pointed to, the Lord of the Sabbath.
But, you may say, shouldn’t we take breaks? Shouldn’t we rest? Of course. Schreiner again helpfully explains,
“It is wise naturally for believers to rest, and hence one principle that could be derived from the Sabbath is that believers should regularly rest. But the New Testament does not specify when that rest should take place, nor does it set forth a period of time when that rest should occur. We must remember that the early Christians were required to work on Sundays. They worshiped the Lord on the Lord’s Day, the day of Jesus’ resurrection, but the early Christians did not believe the Lord’s Day fulfilled or replaced the Sabbath. The Sabbath pointed toward eschatological rest in Christ, which believers enjoy in part now and will enjoy fully on the Last Day.”
For a more on this topic, read all of Tom Schreiner’s extensive but very accessible article here. For a more academic exploration of this topic, you can look at an exegetical paper I wrote on this issue involving the theme of God’s covenantal presence and rest here. Or check out Don Carson’s extremely helpful edited volume here.