THE SABBATH: A Christian Biblical Perspective

The Sabbath: A Christian Biblical Perspective

By Daniel E. Woodhead, Ph.D 

The word Sabbath as a  direct command, first appears in Scripture in Exodus. It is first stated during the narrative of the story of the Jews who were traveling from Elim to Sinai. It would be at Sinai where they would receive the Law from God after leaving the four hundred year captivity in Egypt.

Exodus 16: 23 And he said unto them, This is that which Jehovah hath spoken, Tomorrow is a solemn rest, a holy sabbath unto Jehovah: bake that which ye will bake, and boil that which ye will boil; and all that remaineth over lay up for you to be kept until the morning.

In keeping with God’s seventh day of creation where Scripture says He rested (Hebrew shabot Genesis 2: 2-3) God through Moses wanted the Jews to rest on the Sabbath. The Law had not been formally implemented that is, given by God, was nevertheless being observed with a declaration by Moses to the Children of Israel. They were to rest on the Sabbath. Other pre-Law passages affirm this commandment for the Jews to rest (Exodus 16: 25, 26,29). In fact the manna, which was their God given bread from heaven, was there for them each day except the Sabbath (Exodus 16:25). God wanted them to not gather the manna on the Sabbath. He wanted them to rest.

When the Children of Israel reached Sinai God gave Moses the 613 commandments, the first ten are called the Ten Commandments or the Decalogue. In the forth commandment the observance of the Sabbath was enacted into Law for the Jews under the Mosaic Covenant.

Exodus 20: 8-11 Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work; but the seventh day is a sabbath unto Jehovah thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy man-servant, nor thy maid-servant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: for in six days Jehovah made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore Jehovah blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

For those Jews who did not observe the Sabbath they were to be put to death (Exodus 31:15). And Scripture makes it quite clear that only the Jews were to be responsible for keeping the Sabbath (Exodus 31: 16). It did not apply to any other people group. Some Bible expositors and pastors see the New Testament Church of Christ in these verses. Typically the pivotal terminology they employ to link the Church to the Nation Israel is the “Church of the Old Testament.” However, the word Church never appears in the original Hebrew language or the English translations of the Old Testament. Further the Jews belonged to the Nation of Israel. There is no Church in the Old Testament. The first time in the long chronology of the whole Bible text the word Church appears is Matthew 16: 18 where Jesus during His first advent was discussing with Peter the building of the institution known as His Church. Even then He refers to the Church as yet future to that time. It is simply outside biblical orthodoxy to try and merge the New Testament Church to the Old Testament Law given to the Nation Israel.

In addition to being exclusively directed to the Nation Israel the Sabbath mandated a series of activities, which were restricted for the Jews. Some of those are:

  1. The whole family was prohibited from doing any work on the Sabbath; that is, sons, daughters, manservants, maidservants, even livestock and visitors as well converts to Judiasm (Exodus 20:10).
  2. No fires could be kindled (Exodus 35:3).
  3. The priest would wave a sheath on the next day after the Sabbath to the Lord (Leviticus 23: 11).
  4. In the seventh month in the first day of the month a Sabbath memorial was to take place, which included a blowing of trumpets and a holy convocation (Leviticus 23:24).
  5. The First Fruits Feast on the 15th day of the Seventh month was followed by a Sabbath observance (Leviticus 23:39).
  6.  Each Sabbath twelve fresh baked cakes each containing two tenths of an ephah would be set in two rows of six each on a pure table before the Lord. Putting pure frankincense on each of the cakes followed this. This is a Sabbath memorial offering by fire to the Lord (Leviticus 24: 5-7).
  7. A land Sabbath was commanded. This was for an entire year each seven years for allowing the land to lie fallow so as to give it a rest (Leviticus 24: 2-6).
  8. An offering each Sabbath was to consist of two lambs one year old or less that were spotless and two tenths of an ephah of flour mingled with oil and the drink offering (Numbers 28: 9-10).
  9. If any of these observations of the Sabbath were not followed death was the penalty, typically by stoning (Numbers 15: 32-36).
  10. Each fiftieth year, the Jubilee was sabbatical as well (Leviticus 25:8-13). The land was to lie uncultivated during these times, indentured servants were released, and debts were to be cancelled (Deuteronomy 15:2)

In a fifty-year span upon reaching the Jubilee, the faithful Hebrew, to one degree or another – depending upon the specific requirement of the law, would observe 5,830 Sabbaths. These Characteristics embody the bulk of Sabbath observance commanded to the Jews under the Mosaic Law. This is the biblical concept referred to as “Keeping the Sabbath.” Any other activity, memorial or single day observance is contrived and not of the Bible. These activities never were meant for the Christian Church. Anybody in New Testament Christianity that believes they are following the Sabbath is unaware of the biblical requirements of the Sabbath. Typically what one finds is the New Testament Christian that does not understand the Bible will pick and choose which parts of the Scripture they will follow, somehow thinking this is appropriate.

Shabbat (Jewish word for Sabbath) is still a most important ritual observance in Judaism. It is the only ritual observance instituted in the Ten Commandments. It is also the most important special day, even more important than Yom Kippur. Shabbat is primarily a day of rest and spiritual enrichment. The word “Shabbat” comes from the root Shin-Bet-Tav, meaning to cease, to end, or to rest.

First Worldwide Church Council Refutes Mandatory Law Keeping

Within the very early church there was an ongoing conflict between two groups who both claimed to be followers of Jesus Christ. One group held to the teachings of Jesus as taught by the apostles regarding salvation in Christ alone. The other group also held to the teachings of Jesus but added adherence to the Mosaic Law, particularly circumcision. Paul waged a steady campaign against a group of false teachers, commonly known as Judiazers, who had sown great confusion among the apostle’s recent converts by teaching that becoming Jewish and following the Law was necessary for salvation.

Paul was particularly forceful in his instructions regarding the Judiazers and their gospel+religious works. The apostle charged, “Evidently, some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.” Paul’s solution to this problem was that “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” The gospel of the Judiazers “is really no gospel at all.” (Galatians1: 6-9)

The apostles instructed believers to give no ground when it came to preserving the purity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. John stated, “Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God.” (II John 9)

Regardless of how many other biblical truths might be held in common, anyone or any group that adds anything onto the Gospel receives the sternest of rebukes and a severe condemnation by the inspired Word of God. Dr. John Walvoord points out the seriousness of such an act, “When the gospel message is corrupted, the way of salvation is confused and people are in danger of being eternally lost.”

Belief in religious works does not die easily. Many people today believe that it is necessary to keep the Sabbath. In order to ease out of the true biblical requirements of the Sabbath including death for non-compliance they make up their own Sabbath. Church history shows evidence of an effort to impose Old Testament practices as religious work necessary for salvation or sanctification.

The Judiazers had a strong hold on the Galatians convincing them that they had to follow the Jewish Mosaic Law and this new heresy had to be dealt with by the first worldwide church council. Acts chapter fifteen describes this.

The Sabbath was a sign of the Law Covenant (Mosaic). Israel was a nation and needed laws like any other nation. The Church is not a nation so to speak and God never commissioned it to enforce civil laws. Many Christian groups make the mistake that only the animal sacrifices of the Law were abolished. The Bible declares that the Old Mosaic Covenant was to be replaced by an entirely New Covenant for Israel and was based upon an entirely different principle (Jeremiah 31:31-34). The New Covenant is primarily for Israel. It is particularly addressed to Israel (northern 10 tribes) and Judah (southern 2 tribes) not the Church. It is important to keep the two separate. The Church does participate in the New Covenant through Christ. The Church does not appear anywhere in the Old Testament. The apostle Paul states that the Law, which was engraved on tables of stone, was “done away” and “abolished” (II Corinthians 3: 7).

The Law was a covenant. The Old Covenant has been annulled through the death of Christ. The New Covenant made in Christ’s blood, was made with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not with the Gentiles in the Body of Christ (Ephesians 2: 15; Colossians 2:14).

We as the Church are the “Bride of Christ.” This was a mystery in the Old Testament. The New Covenant is only for Israel and Judah. We were given salvation to make the Jews jealous.  In the Church the saved Jews (now part of the Church) can continue to celebrate the feasts if they so choose. There is no longer any obligation to do so. The Gentiles may do the same if they choose to do so. They also are under no obligation to do so. The unsaved Jews are still under the Law and are required to keep the Law. Try to think of Christians a riding on the New Covenant under unsaved Israel. We will become detached some day at the Rapture and be with Christ forever more. For now our Law is Christ’s Law given in the New Testament. Interestingly, nine of the Ten Commandments get restated in the New Testament. It is only the Sabbath that does not appear in the NT. During the Millennial Kingdom all the ordinances will be reestablished under King Jesus. Of course they will be ceremonial for the King Himself provided the sacrifice.

The Sabbath Terminated

The Scriptures are emphatic that the requirement to keep the Sabbath has been terminated. New Testament data lead to the conclusion that the Law of Moses (with all of its components – including the sabbath) has been abrogated. Paul affirmed that the “law of commandments” was abolished “through the cross” (Ephesians 2:14). Similarly, the “bond written in ordinances” (which contained such things as feast days, sabbaths, etc.) was taken out of the way, having been nailed to the cross (Col. 2:14-16). Sabbatarians allege, however, that only the ceremonial features (e.g., animal sacrifices) of the Mosaic covenant were abolished at the cross.  There is no biblical proof that this is correct. If it were the case they could see that the Sabbath, which is the only ceremonial commandment of the Decalogue, would cease to be mandatory. Their position is arbitrary, artificial, and will not stand the test of scripture. The New Testament Law replaced the entire OT Law. It was a complete replacement not a partial one. Observe the following:

God promised to make a “new covenant,” which would not be like the one given to Israel when the nation left Egypt (Jeremiah 31:31). When that “new covenant” was given, a “change” in laws was made (Hebrews 7:12). But the old law, bestowed when Israel came out of Egyptian bondage, contained the Ten Commandments (II Kings. 8:9,21). Thus, the Decalogue passed away when the Old Testament was replaced by the New.

In Romans 7, the apostle argued that the Christian is “dead to the law through the body of Christ” (4). He further contended that the child of God is “discharged from the law” (6).

Well, exactly what “law” was in view? Merely a “ceremonial” law? No that is not the case, for subsequently Paul says: “For I had not known coveting, except the law had said, ‘You shall not covet’” (vs. 7; cf. Ex. 20:17).

Clearly, the law to which the Christian is “dead,” i.e., separated from, and from which he is “discharged,” included the Ten Commandments. The Christian is not under obligation to keep the Sabbath.

The fact is, just after he affirmed that the law was “nailed to the cross,” Paul declared that no one could “judge,” i.e., condemn a Christian for not keeping feast days, sabbaths, etc. (Col. 2:16). That statement could not have been made had the sabbath-law still been operative.

There is no doubt that many Sabbatarians are genuinely sincere in their profession of keeping the seventh day. But sincerity alone does not justify. First they have devised their own Sabbath. They avoid the terms of Sabbath keeping given in the Bible. Second they make Sabbath keeping a requirement for salvation and /or sanctification both of which constitute the heresy of legalism. The modern practice of “sabbath-keeping” is simply erroneous.

First Century Christian Practice

There is no evidence that the early church observed the Sabbath with apostolic approval. Yes, it certainly was the case that the apostles frequented the synagogues on the Sabbath for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel. That is where the greatest concentration of Jews would have been (cf. Acts 13:14; 17:1-2, etc.), and the message regarding Jesus was to be spoken first to them (Rom. 1:16).

But there is no evidence that the early church, under divine guidance, came together to worship God on the Sabbath day, nor did they move the Sabbath to Sunday.

The kingdom of Christ was established on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1), which always fell on “the morrow after the sabbath” (Lev. 23:15-16), hence, on Sunday. So the church started out meeting for worship on the first day of the week not to observe the Sabbath (cf. Acts 2:42).

The disciples at Troas “were gathered together” [passive voice] upon “the first day of the week” to break bread, i.e., to worship, (Acts 20:7). The specific day of meeting was no accident. Though Paul was anxious to get to Jerusalem (20:16), he waited seven days for the opportunity to assemble with the church.

Moreover, the passive voice (see above) indicates that someone other than the disciples orchestrated the assemblage; it was of divine initiative. It was not a commandment of New Testament Law. It simply meant that they decided to “meet” on the first day of the week. It says nothing about keeping the Sabbath.

The saints in Corinth were assembling, and contributing into the church treasury, “every first day of the week” (1 Cor. 16:2 – Greek text; cf. NASB).

The Gospel narratives, of course, make it clear that the resurrection occurred on Sunday. While Revelation 1:10 would not be conclusive by itself, the very fact that the day is specifically mentioned is significant.

While it was true that some weak or uninformed Christians had a problem making a clean break with the Mosaic economy (Rom. 14:1ff; Gal. 4:10-11), it is important to recognize that inspired apostolic teaching sought to correct this error.

Also, there is the record of the post-apostolic patristic writers. For the first three centuries of Christian history, the testimony is uniform that the original disciples of Jesus Christ worshipped on Sunday. They did not worship on the Sabbath and they did not call Sunday the Sabbath. Here is a sampling of that testimony.

The Didache (c. A.D. 120) declares that “every Lord’s day” the Christians gather themselves together and “break bread” (ANF.VII.381).

The Epistle of Barnabas (c. A.D. 120), in discussing such things as incense, new moons, and Sabbaths, says that the Lord “abolished these things” in deference to “the new law of our Lord Jesus Christ” (ANF.I.138). Later, it is affirmed: “Wherefore, also, we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead” (I.147).

Justin Martyr (A.D. 140) declared that “on the day called Sunday” the primitive Christians met for worship. He further stated that this was the day on which Christ was raised from the dead (I.186).

Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 194) spoke of the one who “keeps the Lord’s day” as “glorifying the Lord’s resurrection in Himself” (ANF.II.545).

Tertullian (A.D. 200) argued that the “old law” had been consummated; thus the “observance of the Sabbath is demonstrated to have been temporary” (ANF.III.155). Elsewhere he says that “Sabbaths are strange” to Christians, and that they share together “the Lord’s day” (70).

Eusebius (A.D. 324), known as the “father of church history,” stated that Sabbath-observance does not “belong to Christians.” On the other hand, he asserted that Christians “celebrate the Lord’s days . . . in commemoration of his resurrection” (26,113).

Noted historian Philip Schaff concludes: “The universal and uncontradicted Sunday observance in the second century can only be explained by the fact that it had its roots in the apostolic practice” (478-479).

Many Bible elucidators have erroneously referred to Sunday as the Sabbath. They have done so for a variety of reasons. Chief among them has been an unwillingness to separate the New Testament Church from the Mosaic Law written to the Jews in the Old Testament. The apostle Paul dedicated the book of Galatians to refuting the mandatory “keeping of the Law” for those coming into the Church. This included both Jews and Gentiles. Due to the freedom we have in Christ some Jews that became Christians wanted to continue keeping the Law, which includes the Sabbath, but they did so out of preference not out of commandment. We must make the distinction out of the two motivators, commandment and preference. (Galatians 5: 1; Colossians 2: 14-17)

Finally, we must make this comment. It is incorrect to refer to Sunday as “the Christian Sabbath.”

Daniel E. Woodhead