The Christian Sabbath: Considering The New Testament

The question before us is do the scriptures teach that the fourth commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”, is still in force for Christians today? This is not my first post on the subject. In the first, I simply stated our belief on the matter. In the second, I addressed what I believe to be a crucial problem within the modern church, namely, antinomianism. In the third, I introduced the categories of moral, civil, and ceremonial as they apply to the law of Moses. I made the case that the fourth commandment contains both moral and ceremonial aspects. This is why the command will abide forever (because it is moral), and why some things have changed (the day has moved from Saturday to Sunday, etc., due to the ceremonial aspect of the command). Now we turn our attention to the New Testament and ask, does the New Testament teach that the fourth commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”, is still in force for Christians today?  I have seven points for you to consider.

One, the burden of proof is on those who claim the Sabbath command is no longer in force. A careful reading of the Old Testament scriptures leaves one with the impression that the one in seven pattern of work and rest will continue on to the end of time. I’ve made a case for this in previous posts. Those who claim that the fourth command is no longer binding must prove that the New Testament says the command has been done away with, leaving us with nine of the Ten Commandments

Two, never does the New Testament suggest that fourth commandment has been removed. Some will respond by citing Colossians 2:16-17, which says, “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 substance belongs to Christ.” In fact, this verse supports the view that we hold to. Paul is using technical language to refer to the Jewish seventh-day Sabbath along with the whole complex of festivals and feast days associated with the Jewish Sabbath. We agree that the Christian is not to rest and worship on Saturday as if under the Old Covenant. Neither is the Christian obligated to observe the Passover, the Feast of Booths, or any of the other Jewish holiday. Christ has fulfilled these things, and has thus removed them. By no means is this text saying that the one-in-seven moral principle given at creation and on Sinai has been fulfilled and thus removed. Clearly Paul has in mind all of the ceremonial laws of the Old Covent associated with the Jewish Sabbath, including the ceremonial aspect of the fourth command itself (the seventh day). Notice that he uses the language of shadow and substance, proving that he has the ceremonial and symbolic in mind, and not the moral command of God.

Three, Jesus taught that no law would pass away until it is fulfilled. Listen to Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:17-18: “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. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” The word translated fulfill means, “to give the true or complete meaning to something—‘to give the true meaning to, to provide the real significance of’” (Louw-Nida, 33.144). The question must be asked, did Christ fulfill, or accomplish, all that the Sabbath signifies at his first coming? I hope not! The Sabbath is, among other things, a picture of eternal rest (Hebrews 4). Though Christ earned and secured our rest at his first coming, we have not yet entered into it fully. When we gather for worship on the Lord’s Day (the Christian Sabbath) we are to remember Jesus and his great act of deliverance accomplished at his first coming. But we are also to look forward to the fulness of God’s rest which is yet in our future. The full significance of the Sabbath has not yet been fulfilled, therefore we should not think that it has passed away.

Four, some have claimed that because the New Testament never reiterates the Sabbath command word for word, it is no longer in force. My response: Who says that something must be repeated in the New Testament in order for it to carry over from the Old? The vast majority of the Old Testament is not repeated in the New and yet we understand that much of it remains in force. If we argue that a particular Old Testament principle no longer has force we must demonstrate theologically why that would be. To say that a law or passage of scripture from the Old Testament only applies if it is repeated word for word would gut the vast majority of the Old Testament of significance for the Christian.

Five, while it is true that the fourth commandment is never reiterated word for word in the New Testament, it is in fact spoken of more than any other command. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were constantly accusing him of breaking the Sabbath. Read the Gospels and notice, however, that Christ never broke the Sabbath. He kept it perfectly. He stripped away all of the gunk that man had heaped upon it. He kept the Sabbath purely, but rejected the traditions of men. One should remember that the Gospels were written to Christians. Also, it should be remembered that they were written, not as bear facts of  history, but in order to persuade Christians to believe and to live rightly according to the truth. One should ask, if the Sabbath were of no importance to the Christian under the New Covenant, then why did the Gospel writers deal with it so frequently? The reason they dealt with it, in my opinion, was to demonstrate to the Christian community the importance and true significance of the Sabbath. Jesus kept the Sabbath purely. Christians are to keep the Christian Sabbath, or the Lord’s Day, in the way that he did. To state it another way, why would the Gospels devote so much time to the Sabbath principle and labor to demonstrate  Jesus’ restoration of the fourth command if the command were destined to be tossed into the garbage can of history after the inauguration of the New Covenant?

Six, notice that early church gathered according to the pattern of one in seven, but on the first day of the week. Read the Gospels and see that Jesus met with his disciples on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, after his resurrection, and before his ascension to the right hand of the Father (John 20:26). Read the book of Acts and see that the first Christians gathered for worship on the first day of every week (Acts 20:7). Read Paul’s letters and see that he expected the Church gather together on the first day of the week (1 Corinthians 16:2). And notice, finally, that John the Apostle was said to have been in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day (a day that uniquely belongs to the Lord) when he received the vision of the Apocalypse (Revelation 1:10). How do we explain this pattern? It was so firmly and so quickly established by the first Christians, but nowhere do we find a command from Christ or his Apostles saying, the Sabbath is no more, now you are to rest and worship on the Lord’s Day. No such command is given. Where does this new pattern for rest and worship come from, then? Is it not most reasonable to see that the early Christians understood exactly what we are saying? The Sabbath principle given at creation and reiterated on Sinai was for all people in all times. God’s people were were to work six days and rest and worship one. But the resurrection of Christ was so significant (it was an act of new creation) that the day moved from Saturday to Sunday, and is rightly called the Lord’s Day. I have often wondered how pastors who claim that the fourth command was fulfilled and thus taken away by Christ compel their people to gather for worship once a week on Sundays. On what basis do they argue for such a practice? If there is no Sabbath command behind this practice, then we must admit that it is simply a tradition. And if it is a tradition, then we cannot be bound to keep it. Why not gather once a month (some Christians do, I guess). Why not gather for corporate worship on Thursdays. Who’s to say that it must be weekly and on a particular day? The only persuasive answer is that God has ordained that we gather weekly, and he has specified that the people of God gather on Sunday now that the Christ has come, having accomplished his work of redemption.

Seven, consider the following passages that do explicitly speak of a continuation of Sabbath keeping under the New Covenant: First of all, notice Matthew 24:20. Here Jesus speaks of the tribulation that the people of God will experience after he goes to the Father. He says, “Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath.” It seems most reasonable to think that Jesus envisioned the pattern of six and one to exist under the New Covenant as it did under the Old. Two, notice that the writer to the Hebrews says, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:9–11). The word translated “Sabbath rest” refers to, “a special religiously significant period for rest and worship—‘a Sabbath rest, a period of rest'” (Louw Nida 67.185). He says that it “remains” (present tense). And remember that he was writing to Christians under the New Covenant. And why does it remain? It remains because we have not yet entered the fullness of God’s rest. Notice how  he exhorts Christians in verse 11 to “strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.”

The evidence it overwhelming, in my opinion, that the fourth commandment is still in force under the New Covenant. The six and one pattern remains because this is the pattern established by God at creation and reiterated on Sinai. In response to the question, who changed the Sabbath? The answer is that Jesus did, by his life, death, and resurrection. We rest and worship on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, because God’s word, the Holy Scriptures, Old and New, compel us to. May God’s people learn to call the Sabbath a delight!


Comments are closed.

"Him we proclaim,
warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom,
that we may present everyone mature in Christ."
(Colossians 1:28, ESV)

© 2011-2022 Emmaus Reformed Baptist Church