Should Christians Keep the Sabbath?

Of the Ten Commandments that God gave to Israel, perhaps none has provoked more controversy and debate than the fourth: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). Does the Sabbath commandment still hold today?

None of those who answer in the negative suggests the Sabbath was a second-tier command in the Decalogue, a good idea but not mandatory. No, the Sabbath served as the covenant sign between Israel and her God, unfolding a weekly drama that testified to God as mighty Creator (Exodus 20:11) and merciful Redeemer (Deuteronomy 5:15). On the Sabbath, Israel declared total dependence on her covenant Lord, a Lord more than able to uphold his people even though, for one day in seven, they hung up their shovels, laid aside their plows, and rested from their labors.

The question, then, is not whether Israel should have kept the Sabbath under the old covenant, but whether Christians should under the new. Should Christians keep the Sabbath? The question may sound nonsensical to some. We keep commandments one to three and five to ten, don’t we? So why skip number four?

Yet strewn throughout the New Testament is telling evidence that, in Christ and the new covenant, the Sabbath has found its fulfillment.

Jesus: ‘I will give you rest.’

Readers of the Gospels soon discover just how crucial the Sabbath was to the Jews of Jesus’s day. The seventh day marks the setting of so many clashes between Jesus and the Pharisees that when we read something like, “Now it was a Sabbath day . . .” (John 9:14), we expect trouble.

Strictly speaking, the only commandments Jesus broke on the Sabbath belonged to Jewish tradition, not divine law. In their zeal to define exactly what a person could and could not do on the Sabbath, Jewish leaders laid on the people’s backs a spiritual burden heavier than any physical burden (Matthew 23:4). Jesus attacked such traditions with the vehemence of one who saw more clearly than any that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

“Christ’s first coming did not abolish rest; it ushered in a deeper kind of rest than the Sabbath could ever offer.”

Yet even though Jesus never broke the fourth commandment, he did hint that a change to the Sabbath may be coming. If we could remove the chapter break between Matthew 11 and 12, we might notice, in the context immediately preceding the Sabbath controversies in Matthew 12:1–14, these arresting words: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). The rest offered on the Sabbath was now being offered in Christ.

A grand claim lies behind this grand promise: “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8). D.A. Carson writes,

That Jesus Christ is Lord of the Sabbath is not only a messianic claim of grand proportions, but it raises the possibility of a future change or reinterpretation of the Sabbath, in precisely the same way that His professed superiority over the Temple raises certain possibilities about ritual law. (From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, 66)

In Jesus, something greater than the Sabbath is here.

Paul: ‘Let no one pass judgment.’

Two passages in particular from the apostle Paul spell out the implications of Jesus’s lordship over the Sabbath. The first is Colossians 2:16–17:

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 substance belongs to Christ.

“What Paul says here is remarkable,” Tom Schreiner writes, “for he lumps the Sabbath together with food laws, festivals like Passover, and new moons. All of these constitute shadows that anticipate the coming of Christ” (40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law, 212). And since Christ has now come, observing the Sabbath is no longer a matter of obedience or disobedience. Rather, Paul says, “Let no one pass judgment on you.”

Romans 14:5 holds a similarly striking claim. Consider Paul’s words here alongside a typical old-covenant statement about the Sabbath.

You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. (Exodus 31:14)

One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. (Romans 14:5)

If an old-covenant Israelite esteemed “all days alike,” he might be stoned to death (Numbers 15:32–36). Yet Paul evidently felt no need to impose the Sabbath command on his Gentile converts. Some in Rome, it seems, wanted to keep the Sabbath (and so esteem “one day as better than another”) — perhaps Jewish Christians eager to maintain the traditions of their fathers. Paul had no issue with those Christians, so long as they refrained from pressuring others to imitate them or suggested that salvation hinged on obedience to the Sabbath (compare Galatians 4:8–11).

For the sake of Christian freedom and mutual love, Paul says simply and remarkably, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5).

Hebrews: ‘We who have believed enter that rest.’

The author of Hebrews brings us closer to the heart of why the new covenant does not require a literal seventh-day rest. Christ’s first coming did not abolish rest; rather, it ushered in a deeper kind of rest than the Sabbath could ever offer.

According to Hebrews 4, Israel’s Sabbath day always pointed forward to a far greater day: the still-future day when all creation will enter fully into the rest foreshadowed and promised in Genesis 2:2–3, the very first seventh day. “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9). The ultimate Sabbath rest is coming, when God’s people will enjoy work without toil, hearts without sin, and an earth without thorns.

Yet even now, Hebrews implies, we feel the first waves of the coming rest. In Christ, we “have [already] tasted . . . the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:5), rest included. For, the author writes, “We who have believed enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:3) — not “will enter,” but “enter”: fully later, truly now.

And how do we enter that rest? Not mainly by putting aside our weekly labors for one day in seven, but by believing: “We who have believed enter that rest.” Faith in Jesus Christ brings the rest of the seventh day into every day.

John: ‘I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day.’

Of course, when Christians today speak of the Sabbath, they almost never mean the seventh day, but the first day: not Saturday but Sunday. But surprisingly, no New Testament writer ever refers to Sunday as the Sabbath. When Jewish (and perhaps some Gentile) Christians observed the Sabbath, they would have done so on Saturday, as Israel had done for centuries. But that doesn’t mean Sunday held no special place in the early church. Scripture suggests that it did, only under a different name: the Lord’s Day.

The phrase “the Lord’s Day” appears only in Revelation, where the apostle John writes, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (Revelation 1:10). But other passages suggest that “Lord’s Day” simply put a name on the church’s common practice of gathering on Sunday. In Ephesus, Paul met with the church “on the first day of the week . . . to break bread” (Acts 20:7). Likewise, Paul instructed the Corinthians to set aside some money “on the first day of every week” (1 Corinthians 16:2).

None of these passages shows the early church resting, as if they considered Sunday their new Sabbath. Richard Bauckham goes so far as to write, “For the earliest Christians it was not a substitute for the Sabbath nor a day of rest nor related in any way to the fourth commandment” (From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, 240). The majority of these early Christians likely needed to work on the first day of the week. (Sunday was declared an official day of rest throughout the Roman Empire only under Constantine in AD 321.)

The passages do suggest, however, that Christians worshiped on the Lord’s Day. Perhaps in the morning before work, perhaps in the evening afterward, the first believers gathered to praise the one who rose “very early on the first day of the week” (Mark 16:2; Matthew 28:1; Luke 24:1; John 20:19). When the stone rolled away from Jesus’s tomb on Easter morning, true Sabbath rest arrived, and a new day dawned.

Lord of Our Days

So, should Christians keep the Sabbath?

“The world and the devil would have us work even while we rest. But Jesus would have us rest even while we work.”

In one sense, no: under the new covenant, no Christian is bound to the fourth commandment as such. We may still decide to rest one day in seven — and indeed, wisdom seems to support the practice of imitating God’s own 6-and-1 pattern (Genesis 1:1–2:3). Especially in a day when many can work anytime anywhere — answering emails after dinner, taking calls on the weekend — we may do well, even for one day in seven, to say, “I worked yesterday, I will work tomorrow, but today I rest and worship.”

In another sense, however, Christians should keep the Sabbath always. And here we do find a connection between the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian Lord’s Day. Andrew Lincoln writes,

In the Old Testament the literal physical rest of the Sabbath pointed to future rest; but since Christ has brought fulfillment in terms of salvation rest, it is the present enjoyment of this rest that acts as the foretaste of the consummation rest which is to come. In other words, it is the celebration on the Lord’s Day of the rest we already have through Christ’s resurrection that now anticipates and guarantees the rest that is yet to be. (From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, 399)

Every Lord’s Day, we come again to Jesus, weary and heavy laden (Matthew 11:28). We trace the shadow of the Sabbath to its substance (Colossians 2:17). We hear again in the distance the sounds of the future Sabbath festival; we glimpse again by faith the glow of “innumerable angels in festal gathering” (Hebrews 12:22). We look again into the empty tomb and hear Christ say, “Peace to you!” (Luke 24:36). In other words, we find rest — the kind of rest that remains long after Sunday has passed.

Without regularly experiencing this kind of rest — and with special power every Lord’s Day — it matters little how much rest we give our bodies. Our rest will be restless, and our work will become a desperate attempt to secure for ourselves the rest that we have not found in Christ. Neither the sluggard (who works for the weekend) nor the workaholic (who has no weekend) has yet learned to enjoy the rest of the true Sabbath.

Not so with those who have heard and heeded Jesus’s invitation to “Take my yoke upon you . . . and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28–29). The world and the devil would have us work even while we rest. But Jesus would have us rest even while we work. And here, in this Christ-saturated resting and working, we live out the Sabbath today.