The Sabbath Day Commandment
The Sabbath Day commandment is one of the most debated theological issues of our day. Unfortunately, it has also been a point of contention and very divisive in the Church.
Sabbath day views are derived by how we answer these two questions:
- Is the Sabbath Day commandment a moral law equal to the other nine moral laws?
- And if so, do these ten moral laws apply in exactly the same way today as they did then? A Biblically sound view will be achieved when we examine the Sabbath Day in the context of the whole Bible.
As explained in detail in Law & Grace, the Bible from cover to cover is about God’s covenant with people. Thus, the Bible has been divided into two parts: the Old Testament (Old Covenant) and New Testament (New Covenant). Scripture is clear that the Ten Commandments written by the finger of God for Moses to give to the people was God’s covenant with Israel. And I emphasize “ISRAEL”. The Ten Commandments, though a very moral law with great application for society today was God’s covenant with Israel during the old covenant.
When Jesus came, He fulfilled the Old Covenant and instituted a New Covenant for all peoples of the world. The Old Covenant was transformed into a new one. Those of us living in the era of grace (new covenant, present day) are not bound to keep the Ten Commandments in the way and for the same purpose Israel did. Where Israel kept the covenant of the Ten Commandments in faith of the promise that was to come (Jesus Christ); we today look back at the Ten Commandments through the new covenant in Jesus Christ.
If we neglect to understand or consider “covenant”, we will miss the distinctions made between the Old and New Testament and the significance of Christ’s work on the cross.
Where no distinction is made between covenants, the Ten Commandments are viewed the same today as they were when presented to Israel
For example, we say that the command “You shall not murder” applies the same today as it did then. Jesus also addressed the sixth commandment by adding further stipulation. It is also wrong to hate your brother. So we see that the sixth commandment applies today literally “You shall not murder” and applies to the heart issue of hating our brother.
This thinking seems to work fine until the fourth commandment (Sabbath Commandment). Many say that the sabbath commandment applies in terms of the heart issue: setting aside one day a week for God. The specific day could be Sunday in line with first fruits principle, Christ rose from the dead on Sunday, and the early church often met together on Sunday. This idea has become very traditional. But if we seek to apply this commandment literally we run into a problem. God clearly stated a specific day and it was the Sabbath (Saturday), last day of the week. No where in the New Testament (New Covenant) was the Sabbath day changed to Sunday or any other day of the week.
So while many apply nine of the commandments literally as presented in the Old Covenant, and with deeper heart meaning as presented by Jesus Christ; the same do not apply the Sabbath day commandment literally, but only with deeper heart meaning. In other words, this type of thinking gleans a principle out of the fourth commandment, but neglects or disregards the obligation to keep the literal meaning of the commandment.
This is an inconsistency and a dangerous method of interpreting Scripture. It is a subtle twisting of the Scriptures to fit a particular theological viewpoint however traditional the viewpoint may be.
The other view is that all Ten Commandments were intended to be kept literally today as they were during the Old Covenant. Thus, all Ten Commandments have equal morality and as we apply the commandment to not murder (literally), so we are obligated to remember the Sabbath (last day of week) day to keep it holy (literally). This would mean that the larger percentage of the Christian church today is in grave error by observing Sunday rather than the Sabbath (Saturday).
Again, the previous unbiblical conclusions regarding the Ten Commandments are achieved when no distinction is made between the Old Covenant and New Covenant.
Before moving on, lets address a couple major misconceptions about what God intended when He commanded a Sabbath day.
- Sabbath day does not equal going to church on Saturday or Sunday. It was never the purpose of the sabbath day to gather together for worship. Those who think they are keeping the fourth commandment by going to church on Sunday or Saturday are in error. The Sabbath was a command to rest from labor as God did from His when He created the universe.
- The Sabbath day is not about giving God our time. If it were it would likely have been consistent with the first fruits Biblical principle and would have been instituted on the first day of the week – Sunday rather than the last.
The Old Covenant Sabbath Day
The Bible clearly states that the Sabbath commandment was a sign to Israel of the covenant.
Any covenant God made with his people was accompanied by a sign. When God made a covenant with Noah after the flood the sign of the covenant was a rainbow.
“And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.” So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth” (Genesis 9:12-17, NIV).
When God made a covenant with Abraham, the sign of the covenant was circumcision.
“This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Genesis 17:10-14).
And when God made a covenant with Moses and Israel the sign was the Sabbath day.
“Then the LORD said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy.”
”‘Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it must be put to death; whoever does any work on that day must be cut off from his people. For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death.The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he abstained from work and rested’” (Exodus 31:12-17, NIV).
These signs of the covenant served as distinguishing marks that set Israel apart from other nations of the world as well as a constant reminder of God’s covenant with them.
It is interesting to note that when Jesus instituted the New Covenant, the sign of the covenant was communion.
“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (I Corinthians 11:23-26, NIV).
Through keeping the Sabbath day, God wanted Israel to remember that they served the Creator of the universe who Himself rested on the seventh day and sanctified it as holy. It was a reminder to Israel of God’s sovereignty and rule in their lives. It was also God’s act of mercy toward His people in allowing them a day of rest from all their labors.
The Sabbath day was listed in the covenant with the other nine commandments, but in addition it was also the sign of the covenant with Israel and as such is distinctly unique from the other nine commandments.
The Sabbath day command is like a badge on the uniform of a police officer: it is a sign that represents the responsibility and authority of the office. It is part of the whole uniform, but serves the unique roll of identification.
Just like the other elements of the Old Testament (including circumcision), the Sabbath day was a foreshadow of the future. It was a physical picture communicating a spiritual reality of that which was to come in Jesus Christ. Keep in mind that God’s purpose for the nation of Israel was to bring forth the Savior for all mankind – Jesus Christ. The Old Covenant with all its laws and prophets point to this.
Jesus said (after He was accused of breaking the Sabbath, John 5:16-17),
“You search the Scriptures [Old Testament] because you believe they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me so that I can give you this eternal life” (John 5:39-40).
Just as Israel worked six days and entered God’s rest on the Sabbath, in the new covenant entering into God’s rest means ceasing from our own works (for salvation) and accepting (resting in) Christ’s work. In the Old Covenant God sanctified the Sabbath day, separating it and making it holy. Keeping the Sabbath day was demonstrating faith in the promise of a new day of rest that would come in Jesus Christ.
“For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they [Israel] did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith. Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said,
“So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’”
And yet his work has been finished since the creation of the world. For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: “And on the seventh day God rested from all his work.” And again in the passage above he says, “They shall never enter my rest.”
It still remains that some will enter that rest, and those who formerly had the gospel preached to them did not go in, because of their disobedience. Therefore God again set a certain day, calling it Today, when a long time later he spoke through David, as was said before:
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”
For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:2-11, NIV).
Jesus Christ fulfilled the Old Covenant sign of the Sabbath day and transformed it into a new Sabbath rest in Jesus Christ. This is why in Matthew 12:8 Jesus calls Himself Lord of the Sabbath. Those who are in Jesus Christ have entered the Sabbath rest and thus, fulfill the purpose of the Sabbath. Just as the Sabbath day was sanctified and made holy by God in the Old Covenant, so Jesus was a sanctified and Holy rest for all who would believe in Him in the New Covenant. The Old Covenant rest required faith in God’s provision (because they were not working). The New Covenant rest also requires faith because it’s not by our works of righteousness that we are made right with God; but through the work of Jesus Christ.
With the exception of the Sabbath commandment, the new covenant (New Testament) restates each of the other nine commandments. The Sabbath commandment is not restated as a commandment to keep in the way Israel kept it because it’s purpose as a sign was fulfilled in Christ much like the command of circumcision first given to Abraham. To keep a literal Sabbath day is to disregard the work of Christ and the sabbath rest that was established in the new covenant.
The Sabbath commandment was transformed into a Sabbath rest in Christ. This is why the New Testament does not restate the need to observe the Sabbath Day, or command keeping the Sabbath Day; nor does it change the Sabbath Day to a different day.
“So do not let anyone make rules for you about eating and drinking or about a religious feast, a New Moon Festival, or a Sabbath day. These things were like a shadow of what was to come. But what is true and real has come and is found in Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17, NCV).
It is no longer about resting on a particular day. It is about entering the rest of a particular Person – Jesus Christ. In the Old Covenant, keeping the Sabbath was an acknowledgment of Creator God’s sovereignty (authority) and partaking in His mercy of rest. The same is true in the New Covenant. Those who enter into Christ’s Sabbath rest acknowledge the Holy Spirit’s sovereignty (authority) and partake in God’s mercy.
This does not mean it is not wise to take a one day of rest in the week. The Sabbath Day commandment establishes a healthy principle. Our bodies and minds need rest. To work a seven day week as a matter of habit or lifestyle will eventually result in unhealthy consequences. It is like the covenant sign of circumcision. Though we are not bound to this law, circumcision is proven to be a healthy choice. And circumcision on the eighth day after birth as directed to Israel in Scripture is medically shown to be the best day. The principle is also very similar to the food we eat. God gave Israel directives about the clean foods and unclean foods. Though we are not bound to obey these old covenant laws there is wisdom in eating right as stewards of the bodies God has given us. The old covenant laws contain excellent principles that when taken into consideration can add to our health and well-being. The problem comes when we take these principles and make them into a law similar to old covenant law. If a person has a conviction to rest on a particular day, that’s ok. But keeping a particular Sabbath day is not required in the new covenant and that conviction must not be imposed upon others who do not share such conviction.
The Sabbath Day view as outlined here does not discount the value of setting aside special time with God, but this is not what the Old Covenant command was about, nor is it what the new covenant Sabbath rest means. If we wish to address the idea of setting aside a day or days in the week for corporate worship, then we must do so out of the context of the Sabbath day commandment and Sabbath rest offered through Christ. Setting aside time for corporate worship, teaching, fellowship, and accountability are very Biblical. But there are no laws specifying one day over another as more important. We should not judge one another in respect to the particular day(s) that are chosen to worship God.
“In the same way, some think one day is more holy than another day, while others think every day is alike. Each person should have a personal conviction about this matter. Those who have a special day for worshiping the Lord are trying to honor him” (Romans 14:5-6, NLT).
Meeting together as believers is commanded, but is unrelated to the Sabbath commandment.
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25, NIV).
For a more detailed and thorough exposition of the Sabbath commandment see the article written by Brian Anderson.