“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yehovah your God, on which you must not do any work—neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant or livestock, nor the foreigner within your gates. For in six days Yehovah made the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in them, but on the seventh day He rested. Therefore Yehovah blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy”. – Exodus 20:8-11
The Sabbath (also known as Shabbat) was long considered a holy day by the nation of Israel in the days of the Old Covenant. On this day no work was to be done, with exception to gathering food to eat and helping the needy (Exodus 12:16, Matthew 12:11-12).
Some Christians today argue that Christians, whilst free of the old law, still must observe the Sabbath as it was one of the 10 commandments, which they consider “separate” from the Old Covenant to Israel, others argue by means of quoting Jesus when he said:
- “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother”. – Mark 19:10
- “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them“. – Matthew 5:17.
- “Pray that your flight will not occur in the winter or on the Sabbath. For at that time there will be great tribulation, unmatched from the beginning of the world until now, and never to be seen again”. – Matthew 24:20
Or they will bring up references in the scriptures to when Jesus celebrated the Sabbath, such as Luke 4:16, and others… and will quote from the Torah that the Sabbath was an “eternal command” (Exodus 31:16).
However, other Christians make the case that because we are not bound to the Old Covenant anymore since Christ’s death, we are free from all its observations, which includes the Sabbath. But which view is correct? We need to look to the scriptures to see if we can find any verses where Christians are told to keep celebrating the Sabbath by Christ, or after the institution of the New Covenant we see Christians celebrating the Sabbath.
Did Jesus Command us to Observe the Sabbath?
We must first address the statements by Jesus, since if Jesus tells us to celebrate the Sabbath, then there is no question about it and the argument is over.
We need to pay close attention to Jesus words to the man who asked him how to inherit everlasting life, Jesus tells him to “observe the commandments”. Many Sabbath supporters will stop there and say “ah see, he says obey the 10 commandments, meaning the Sabbath!”, however if we read the passage in a wholistic manner we gain additional context:
- “… If you want to enter life, keep the commandments. ‘Which ones?’ he inquired. Jesus replied, ’You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ ‘All these I have kept’, the young man said. ‘What do I still lack?’ Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me‘.” – Matthew 19:17–21
We notice here that when Jesus was asked “which commandments” he went on to list only six of them specifically. In this list, he never once said “you shall celebrate the Sabbath day and keep it holy”. In fact, in all of his speeches, sermons and commandments to those who listened to him, the Sabbath was not once mentioned, not even in his famous sermon on the mount. So we cannot use these verses here to say that Jesus commanded anyone to celebrate the Sabbath, as when asked to be specific, he appeared to always leave the Sabbath out of it.
But what about Jesus celebrating the Sabbath himself? Did he not say we should imitate him? We have to ask; “in what way do we imitate him”? Are we required to grow long beards? Wear robes? Copy his hair style? Be circumcised? Not eat forbidden meats? All these things Jesus observed because he as a first century Jewish citizen was required to by the law of the Old Covenant.
We know we are are not required to grow beards, restrict our diet or circumcise anymore (Acts 10:13-16, Romans 2:25-29) even though these are things Jesus did and ‘had’ to abide by. So in what way do we imitate Jesus? Not as mime artists, but by in our personality and in our loyalty to God (1 Corinthians 11:1, Ephesians 4:24), doing not what Jesus did “literally” but in spirit by obeying God’s specific commandments to us in appropriate context.
To say otherwise would tie us to the Old Covenant in its totality for Jesus lived by the Old Covenant. This is in fact reasoning used by Muslims to claim Christianity is a false religion, and is in part why they enforce bowing to the ground in prayer, as they argue Jesus did such. They adhere to imitating Christ “literally”, not spiritually. In the same way, reasoning that Jesus celebrated the Sabbath does not make it equal to a commandment by Christ to Christians.
But what about Matthew 24:20? Was Jesus implying that they pray the fall of Jerusalem not happen on the Sabbath because the required celebration of it would get in the way? If this was the case then the Christians would have been stuck in a predicament where they would have been condemned to sin either way, for Jesus ‘commanded’ the Christians to flee Jerusalem (Matthew 24:15-16). Do they disobey the command to celebrate the Sabbath or do they disobey Christ’s command to flee to the mountains? Would Jesus really put them in a catch 22 scenario like that? Damned if you do, damned if you don’t (literally).
Or is the context of what Jesus meant is revealed when he compares the Sabbath to fleeing in the winter? He did not warn them because it was forbidden to travel in winter, but because it was difficult. Likewise, fleeing on the Sabbath would have been difficult because it was a time the Jews considered holy, and attempting to leave would have proven difficult as they would have likely met Jewish resistance, let alone Roman armies to contend with.
Another consideration was Jewish converts to Christianity who may have been having a hard time of giving up celebrating the Sabbath as it was a long held tradition for them, even though it may have been no longer required for them, just as many Jews had a hard time letting go of other traditions (Acts 16:3, 1 Timothy 4:3). So indeed, for the sake of these ones, it would have been wise to pray that the flight did not come on the Sabbath, for it would have proven a difficult time for Jewish converts to obey Jesus and leave Jerusalem behind on the Sabbath day.
Did the Apostles Observe or Command Observance of the Sabbath?
Though Jesus commanded many things when he was on Earth, he left his Apostles behind in charge to give further commands by means of holy spirit, which is why the New Testament contains some additional commands to Christians after Jesus leaves his disciples to return to Heaven. Do we find in any of these holy books a command to observe the Sabbath, or examples of Christians doing so? Some would say yes based on upon the book of Acts:
- “Now when Paul and his party set sail from Paphos, they came to Perga in Pamphylia; and John, departing from them, returned to Jerusalem. But when they departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day and sat down. And after the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent to them, saying, “Men and brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say on. Standing up, Paul motioned with his hand and said: “Fellow Israelites and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me” – Acts 13:13–16
- “As Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, the people urged them to continue this message on the next Sabbath. After the synagogue was dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who spoke to them and urged them to continue in the grace of God. On the following Sabbath, nearly the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord“. – Acts 13:42-44
- “On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate along the river, where it was customary to find a place of prayer. After sitting down, we spoke to the women who had gathered there”. – Acts 16:13
- “Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Messiah had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Messiah.” And some of them were persuaded; and a great multitude of the devout Greeks, and not a few of the leading women, joined Paul and Silas”. – Acts 17:1-3
- “After these things Paul departed from Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla (because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome); and he came to them. So, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them and worked; for by occupation they were tentmakers. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded both Jews and Greeks“. – Acts 18:1-4
Based on these scriptures, Sabbath supporters attest that this proves the Christians observed the Sabbath, because Paul attended at least 84 Sabbaths consistently. However, we should take note that not one of these verses say “Paul observed the Sabbath”, but rather, it was his custom to “go and teach” during the Sabbath.
One could argue that Paul was not celebrating the Sabbath, but was preaching on the Sabbath to take advantage of there being so many Jews (along with Greek converts to Judaism) being all gathered in one place at once, a perfect opportunity to preach and teach God fearing people all under one roof!
What we don’t see in the entirety of the New Testament after the initiation of the New Covenant of Christ are any verses where Christians are celebrating the Sabbath for its own sake outside of the context of preaching, nor do we see any commandment to. But what we do see are scriptures that appear to be to the contrary:
- “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath“, these are a shadow of the things to come, but the body that casts it belongs to Christ. – Colossians 2:16–17
- “One person regards a certain day above the others, while someone else considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes a special day does so to the Lord; he who eats does so to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God”. – Romans 14:5-6
We see here that Paul says the Sabbath was merely a “shadow” of the things to come in Christ and that nobody should be judged in regard to the Sabbath festival, which may be referring to the freedom to celebrate it or not celebrate it. Of course, some argue that this is not telling us to not celebrate, or is giving us freedom for a couple of reasons.
The first reason some argue is that these words in Colossians are in regard to “how” the Sabbath is celebrated, or to not feel judged by “the unbelievers” for celebrating Sabbath, for they would refer to an earlier part of the passage in verse 8 which states; “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, which are based on human tradition and the spiritual forces of the world rather than on Christ”. Through this some argue that this was talking about unbelievers or false religious people trying to taint the Sabbath with false practices, or not approving of how the Christians were celebrating the Sabbath…
However, I would draw attention to verses 11 and 14 which states; “In Him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of your sinful nature, with the circumcision performed by Christ and not by human hands….having canceled the debt ascribed to us in the decrees that stood against us. He took it away, nailing it to the cross!”.
We see here Paul moves on to the context of the old physical law being irrelevant by introducing the concept of circumcision, that it is now “in Christ” we are “spiritually circumcised”. From here he then moves on into verse 16, with the statement “therefore, let nobody pass judgement in regard to a Sabbath”. If we follow the logic and flow of the passage, Paul appears to be telling us that the Sabbath is as meaningless as being circumcised, as it is in “Christ” now.
Some would still argue against this notion by saying “that is in the future” by pointing out the quote “shadow of the things to come“. They would argue that this “hasn’t come” yet, and thus the Sabbath applies until Christ’s return, however, if this was what Paul meant, then based on the book of Hebrews, this would mean that Christ’s sacrifice is not yet in effect, and we are all still required to kill animals before God:
- “…So Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship, otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins…” – Hebrews 9:28, 10:2–3
However, all Christians agree that we do not have to sacrifice animals anymore, therefore, on the same textual logic, we cannot argue that Paul meant that the end of the Sabbath was “in the future” either.
Another consideration is that if Paul was speaking of the “correctness of the manner” one celebrates the Sabbath, in the same passage he then asserts that all Christians must celebrate the New Moon festival (Colossians 2:16), which is not a position we hear Sabbath supporters taking a stance upon on the basis of this verse.
Furthermore, Romans 14 tells us that some Christians may see “every day as the same”, and can “abstain from special days to the Lord”. If this excluded the Sabbath then surely Paul would have said; “Each Christian may view each day as the same and abstain from special days to the Lord-with exception to the Sabbath”?
One may argue “well the Sabbath was a given, the readers of the letter back in the day would have understood that”. However, as already mentioned, the Sabbath is not once listed as a command for Christians, whereas the other commands that were carried over from the original 10 commandments were repeated over, and over, and over again, by Jesus and the Apostles both. If the logic of the writers was “just go back and read the 10 commandments” then surely they would have done that for all the other commandments and would never have had to repeat themselves over and over, but this isn’t the case.
We never see any Apostle discipline a Christian for not keeping the Sabbath in the entire New Testament. But we do see them reminding Christians and disciplining Christians for everything else. The only time Sabbath is mentioned directly to Christians in letters are the quotes we’ve already covered, which ‘put down’ the Sabbath festival as opposed to raising it up.
Isn’t the Sabbath an Everlasting Covenant?
Another argument made is that “the 10 commands along with the Sabbath is an everlasting command” (Exodus 31:16) and therefore is not tied in with the Old Covenant which was nailed to the cross.
However, it is worth noting that note is that the other laws which were done away within scripture were also word for word said to be “everlasting”, including the laws on foods and circumcising. The 10 commandments and the ritual laws were not distinct from one another, but were seen as a singular eternal Covenant:
- “These are the terms of the covenant Yehovah commanded Moses to make with the Israelites in Moab, in addition to the covenant he had made with them at Horeb“. – Deuteronomy 29:1
- “I will establish My covenant as an everlasting covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you…. God also said to Abraham, “You must keep My covenant—you and your descendants in the generations after you. This is My covenant with you and your descendants after you, which you are to keep: Every male among you must be circumcised. You are to circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and this will be a sign of the covenant between Me and you“. – Genesis 17:7-11
Indeed, the Covenant is eternal, but like circumcising, through Christ it is now in a different form. From physical to spiritual. The physical Covenant with all its rituals and festivals was replaced and reformed by the new, as Yehovah foretold:
- “It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares Yehovah. This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares Yehovah. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people”. – Jeremiah 31:32
Didn’t Jesus say he didn’t come to Abolish the Law?
Another argument for following the Old Testament in general and not just the Sabbath is that Jesus said he did not come to abolish the law, but fulfil it (Matthew 5:17–18).
However we know this can’t be literally what Jesus meant, because God told the Apostles that many old laws were abolished through Christ as we’ve already established. So what ‘did’ Jesus mean?
If we look to the context of the entire passage, we see Jesus is being accused of apostasy, that he was trying to “do away” with the Torah and the prophets. However, Jesus had to make himself clear, that by establishing a “new law” and “new covenant”, he was not destroying the old law by means of apostasy or creating a new religion in his own name, but was the “holy completion” of the old law by means of authorised reformation and transformation.
He informed his followers in verse 18 that they must abide by the “new laws” he had been listing to them, but not to see them as a “destruction” of the old law, but as the “foretold fulfilment” of the old law, in order that they respect and understand what the new law meant, that Jesus was not a rebellious upstart or preacher of a pagan cult unrelated to Judaism, as he was accused of being.
The transformation of the Old Covenant into the New Covenant fulfils Yehovah’s words in Jeremiah 31:32, where physical becomes spiritual:
- “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away”. – Hebrews 8:13
One may wonder, if all the other laws have been replaced by spiritual things, then what is the spiritual Sabbath? Jesus himself, and the Apostles answer this directly in the scriptures:
- “Then Jesus said to them, ‘The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath‘”. – Luke 6:5
- “All things have been entrusted to Me by My Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him. Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest“. – Matthew 11:27-28
- “Therefore, while the promise of entering His rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be deemed to have fallen short of it. For we also received the good news just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, since they did not share the faith of those who comprehended it…. For somewhere He has spoken about the seventh day in this manner: ‘And on the seventh day God rested from all His works. And again, as He says in the passage above: ‘They shall never enter My rest’. There remains, then, a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For whoever 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 the same pattern of disobedience”. – Hebrews 4:1-2, 4-5, 10-11
As the Sabbath now appears to be in Jesus, and that by being “in him” we “enter his rest”, it would explain why Jesus told the rich man that one thing was missing from him at Matthew 19:17 after detailing which of the specific Torah commands he should follow, that he put away his life of material gain and riches and to “follow him” instead, that is “to enter the Sabbath rest that is in Jesus” and obey any and all other commands he gives (which in turn fills in all the remaining four commandments that were missing from the list he gave to the rich man).
Reaching the end of matters, I believe that no statement from Jesus nor the Apostles commands Christians to observe the Sabbath, but I find many scriptures that appear to advocate the opposite.
Now does this mean that if a Christian celebrates a Sabbath he is sinning? Not at all. Paul said likewise, those who abstain from such celebrations freely can, whilst others are free to observe it if they really wish to. What is important is that no Christian judge another brother or sister over whether they do or do not celebrate the custom. As Paul said “let each one be convinced in his own mind” and “do not judge anyone in regard to a Sabbath”.
Therefore, if you wish to celebrate, do so, if you do not feel the New Testament requires you to celebrate, then likewise, you do you. Shalom to you.