Thoughts on the Sabbath


God, after six days of creating the universe, rested on the seventh day and made the seventh day holy (Genesis 2:2-3). In Exodus 20:11, God substitutes "sabbath day" for "seventh day," making it very clear that the seventh day was God's sabbath after He created the universe and that His Old Testament Church, Israel, was also to observe the sabbath on the seventh day after God's pattern. In Exodus 31:12-17, God again commands Israel to "observe my sabbaths" and "observe the sabbath" as a sign between God and Israel, "for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased and was refreshed." Israel's observance of the sabbath was inseparable from the fact that God ceased from work on the seventh day.

Commands for the sabbath included that no one is to work (Ex. 20:10, 31:15, 35:2; Lev. 23:3; Jer. 17:24), no one is to go out of his place (Ex. 16:29), no one is to kindle a fire (Ex. 35:3), no one is to gather wood (Num. 15:32-36), no one is to buy merchandise or grain (Neh. 10:31), no one is to tread wine presses or bring sacks of grain, wine, grapes, figs, and other loads into the city or sell food or other merchandise (Neh. 13:15-18), no one is to seek his own pleasure or speak as he pleases or do his own thing (Is. 58:13), and no one is to bear a burden or carry a burden out of his house or out of the city (Jer. 17:21-27). The penalty for not observing the sabbath was death (Ex. 31:14; Num. 15:32-36).

Other sabbaths were commanded, such as the Day of Atonement on the 10th day of the 7th month in which no one is to work and all must humble (or deny) themselves (Lev. 16:29-30, 23:26-32); the sabbath of the land in which the land is not worked every seventh year (Lev. 25:2-7); and the Year of Jubilee every 50th year (after seven sabbaths of years, or 49 years) in which all debts are forgiven, all property is returned to its original owner, and no sowing, reaping, or gathering is to be done (Lev. 25:8-13).

It is important to note that all of these sabbaths were types of Christ, as all of the other ceremonial laws were.

How should the New Testament believer approach the sabbaths that were commanded in the Old Testament? Since all Christians would agree that the sabbaths that were not mentioned in the Ten Commandments have been fulfilled and thus abrogated in Christ, we will focus on the sabbath day of the 4th commandment. There are four paths that could be followed:

1. The sabbath day commandment remains unchanged; thus, on the seventh day of our week (Saturday), we are to observe the sabbath, with all its specific prohibitions.

2. The sabbath day commandment has changed in that the day has been changed from the seventh day to the first day of the week, but all other parts of the commandment have stayed the same; thus, on our first day of our week (Sunday), we are to observe the sabbath, with all its specific prohibitions.

3. The sabbath day commandment has been abrogated, as all Old Testament laws, including moral, civil, and ceremonial laws; there is no obligation of any believer to observe any Old Testament law.

4. The sabbath day commandment has changed in that Christ has fulfilled the ceremonial part of the commandment (the specific day and specific prohibitions), and believers are still under obligation to the spiritual sabbath, that is, resting from our works.

Which of these four paths has the most Scriptural support?

At the death of Jesus, the veil of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom (Mark 15:38). The Judaic ceremonial system had come to an end, as Jesus, the fulfiller of all types, had done his work once for all. Yet after Jesus' ascension, mention is still made of the sabbath day in the book of Acts (13:14,27,42,44; 15:21; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4). It is obvious from these verses that the sabbath day continued to be the seventh day. This might seem to lend credence to Path #1; however, these sabbaths were being observed by the Jews who did not believe that Jesus fulfilled the sabbath commandment -- they were still under the Judaic ceremonial system. The apostles reasoned with the Jews in the synagogues on the sabbath as part of their evangelism, not as part of a sabbath observance.

The apostles met together on the first day of the week to break bread (Acts 20:7), which might seem to lend credence to Path #2. However, no mention is made that this was the "Christian sabbath," and there is no indication that on the first day of the week, the New Testament Christians held to all the specific Old Testament prohibitions. By meeting on the first day instead of the seventh (and the fact that it is commonly accepted that the Lord's Day in Revelation 1:10 is the first day of the week), they showed that the Old Testament sabbath day had passed away (remember that God, in the Ten Commandments, made an inextricable link between the seventh day and the sabbath day). In fact, the Greek word for "sabbath" is only used once more in the Bible after the book of Acts, and that is in Colossians 2:16-17: Therefore let no man judge you in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day -- things which are a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. Evidence suggests that the Lord's Day is a New Testament institution and is not the "New Testament sabbath."

There is solid Scriptural evidence that the moral law continues to be a rule of life for the believer (e.g., John 14:21; 1 John 2:3-4, 3:22-24, 5:2-3; 2 John 1:6). In addition, it is clear that the moral law was not a type or shadow that was fulfilled in Christ, but rather, it was a set of binding commandments for all time. It is not my purpose to debate the "Law/Grace" issue here, but it is my conviction that Path #3 is untenable.

It is my position that Path #4 is the correct path. The book of Hebrews includes how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament. Although the Judaic system, with its ceremonial laws, was still in effect when Jesus was alive, Jesus' death, resurrection, and exaltation ushered in the new dispensation of the covenant of grace., and with it, abolition (through fulfillment of the types and shadows) of all Old Testament laws but the moral law. The moral law, which is encapsulated in the Ten Commandments, remains as a means of conviction of sin and a means of sanctification. But the New Testament Scripture makes it clear that New Testament observance of the 4th commandment differs from the Old Testament observance because of Christ's fulfillment of the types and shadows -- i.e., the literal day of resting with its specific prohibitions. This does not make the 4th commandment any less binding on us, but its observance has significantly changed because of Christ.

In Hebrews 4, God gives us instruction on how we as New Testament believers are to approach the sabbath. Just as in Exodus 20:11 and 31:17, Hebrews 4:4 says, "And God rested on the seventh day from all His works." But instead of including the parts in Exodus to which that statement is joined (the parts about not doing work on the sabbath day), God says, "There remains therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works as God did from His" (Heb. 4:9-10. "Sabbath rest" is one Greek word with "sabbath" as the root). This is saying that God's New Testament church, the New Israel, has a sabbath. There does remain a sabbath -- and that sabbath is resting from our works. The sabbath is resting in the sovereign grace of our Lord Jesus Christ! "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast" (Eph. 2:8-9). "So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy" (Rom. 9:16). Those who do not have this sabbath -- this total ceasing from attempts to be saved by works -- are, as in the Old Testament, cut off from the people; they are not saved.

In addition to Christ's being our Sabbath rest, He is our Day of Atonement in His atoning work on the cross for His elect (Rom. 3:25, 5:6-11), and He is our Year of Jubilee by paying for an canceling our sin debt (Col. 2:13-14; 2 Cor. 5:19). Just as we do not now observe the Day of Atonement (a literal day) and the Year of Jubilee (a literal year) because of Christ's glorious work on the cross, we also do not now observe the literal sabbath day because of Christ's glorious work on the cross. We gather together for worship on the Lord's Day, the first day of the week, the day that Christ rose from the dead. (It is also sin to engage in worldly pursuits that would hinder us from the corporate worship on the Lord's Day.) But we do not observe a "Christian Sabbath." We have no more types and shadows. We have our sabbath rest in the risen Christ.


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