Are followers of Jesus—speaking in particular of Gentile followers of the Lord—required to keep the Sabbath? And if so, should it be on Saturday, as originally given, or on Sunday, as it has been observed through much of church history? Is it more scriptural simply to set aside any one day as holy to the Lord, a day to rest from normal work? Or is this a completely wrong approach to the Sabbath question for a Christian, since in Jesus, every day is holy to the Lord and we have already entered into rest from our labors?
Here are some key points for consideration:
- The seventh-day Sabbath was sanctified at creation and, according to the prophetic Scriptures, it will be part of the future age. Normally, when we think of the Sabbath, we think of the Ten Commandments, but in reality, the Sabbath was sanctified at creation (see Genesis 2:2-3), although there is no command associated with it at that time, and the creation account forms the basis for the command to observe the Sabbath in Exodus 20:11: “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
But these words in Exodus 20, spoken by the Lord at Mount Sinai, do not represent the first time that God spoke to Israel about the Sabbath. This took place in Exodus 16, before the Israelites arrived at Sinai, when God commanded His people not to gather manna on the seventh day (see Exodus 16:22-26).
So then, the Sabbath was established at creation and then given to the Israelites before Sinai, then commanded again at Sinai, and, according to Isaiah, it appears that the Sabbath will continue in the world to come:
“As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the Lord, “so will your name and descendants endure. From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the Lord (Isaiah 66:22-23).
In any case, it can be stated clearly that in the Hebrew Bible, the Sabbath precedes Mount Sinai and continues into the age to come.
- The seventh-day Sabbath was given as a special sign between God and Israel. According to Exodus 31:17, God said that the Sabbath was to 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.” He reiterated this centuries later through the prophet Ezekiel: “I gave them my Sabbaths as a sign between us. . . . Keep my Sabbaths holy, that they may be a sign between us” (Ezekiel 20:12, 20).
God did not call any other nation to observe the Sabbath, although he did open the door for Gentiles to join themselves to His covenant with Israel in Isaiah 56:4-7, which is addressed to “the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths.” So, the door was open for the Gentiles to enter into Israel’s covenant, but the specific covenantal, seventh-day Sabbath sign was given exclusively to the people of Israel.
- In the New Testament, Gentile believers are never called or required to observe the seventh-day Sabbath, and they become full-citizens along with Israel without having to observe the full requirements of the Law.
It is true that many of the first Gentile believers were actually “God-fearers” who heard the message of the Gospel in synagogues (see Acts 13:26; 17:4, 17), and they would have been familiar with the seventh-day Sabbath. In fact, they would have heard Paul preaching on the Sabbath. Nonetheless, the verdict of Acts 15 was clear: Gentile believers were not required to observe all the Torah laws.
- There is no biblical support for the view that after the resurrection of Jesus, the Sabbath was changed to Sunday. There is some evidence that as early as the late first or early second century, believers gathered before or after work on Sundays to celebrate the Lord’s resurrection, but this was not related to the concept of the Sabbath, and strong arguments can be made against the Sabbath being changed to Sunday within the New Testament itself. It was not until the fourth century that the church formally declared that the Sabbath had been moved to Sunday, with the question begging to be asked, “By what authority did you do this?”
- On the other hand, since God never commanded Gentile believers to observe the seventh-day Sabbath—it is simply not stated in the New Testament—there is no reason why they cannot set Sunday aside as a special day of rest and worship for the Lord, thereby incorporating the principle of Sabbath into their lives. To the extent that Christians feel led to set aside Sunday as their Sabbath, there is nothing wrong with doing so, as long as they realize that they cannot judge others who do not share this conviction (see especially Romans 14).
- The Sabbath should be set aside as a day of delight in the Lord. This was clearly stated by the Lord in Isaiah 58:13-14, and Jesus also taught that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). This means that however this day is observed, it should be done with joy and gladness, truly honoring the Lord and truly bringing liberation to others. In keeping with this, Jesus frequently healed the sick on the Sabbath.
- Our ultimate rest is found in a Person, not a day, so Sabbath observance should be both spiritual and practical. It is clear that God set up a system of weekly renewal in which we would rest from our daily labors and focus on Him. On a certain level, through the work of the Messiah, we have entered into a perpetual rest from our own labors (see Matthew 11:28-30; Romans 4:4-5; Hebrews 4:9-11). On another level, the demands and distractions of this life are ever upon us, so it is good to slow down and turn aside from these things every week, at the same time directing our attention to the Lord to find renewal in Him.
Some of these same principles apply to Jewish believers, but we must remember that the seventh-day Sabbath was given as a special sign to Israel, and in keeping with that, it is especially appropriate for Messianic Jews to observe the seventh-day Sabbath, also worshiping as congregations on that day as well. Nonetheless, as we have stressed, this is a matter of conviction and calling, and other Jewish believers may sense a different calling and responsibility in the Lord, part of their being all things to all men so as to save some (1 Corinthians 9:20-22) and part of their liberty in the Lord.
In that respect, we must always remember that, with the coming of the Messiah into the world, our relationship to the Torah was radically changed as well, and that includes our relationship to the Sabbath.