What Does It Mean to Observe the Sabbath?

What Does It Mean to Observe the Sabbath?

What is the Sabbath? Do we keep the Sabbath just by going to church?

“If you love me,” Jesus told his disciples, “keep my commands.”1 The connection is inescapable: obeying God’s Word is one of the most important ways we love God.

But let’s face it: the Bible is filled with a dizzying array of directives. The Mosaic Law alone contains 613 commands.2 How are Christians today to make sense of them all? Which Old Testament instructions are we still called to obey—and how?

If any Old Testament laws remain in force, many Christians reason, surely the Ten Commandments do. After all, they encapsulate the moral heart of the Hebrew Scriptures. But what about the fourth—and longest—commandment to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy?

What is the Sabbath? How does a Christian “keep the Sabbath” today?

Sabbath Beginnings

In Exodus 20 we read:

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 the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 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.3

Just as God rested after his six-day “workweek” of creating the world, so his people must rest after their workweeks. At its core, this command was designed to remind the Israelites on a weekly basis that they were not God. Resting on the seventh day was a way of publicly recognizing God’s all-sufficient power.

By refraining from attempts to control their own lives, the Israelites were admitting their own weakness and acknowledging their dependence on God. “God’s rest symbolizes his control over the cosmos,” one theologian explains, “which his people recognize whenever they yield to him the day they could have used to provide for themselves.”4

Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, keeping the Sabbath remained an integral mark of Israel’s faithfulness to God—or lack thereof. By the time we reach Jesus’ day, however, many Jews were living under an almost unbearably complex collection of Sabbath regulations.5

It’s obvious that much has happened in the 3,500 years since God first delivered this Sabbath directive. Most significantly, according to Christian belief, he has come to earth in the person of Jesus Christ. While on earth, he lived a perfect life, died a redemptive death, and rose again to launch a new age. Needless to say, the situation has changed drastically since the Israelites huddled around Mount Sinai, the memory of their enslavement in Egypt still lingering in their minds, while Moses received the Ten Commandments.

A Brand-New Era

“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,” Jesus declared to the Israelites.6

Given this remarkable claim, it isn’t surprising that Jesus goes on to present himself as the ultimate rest-giver:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. . . . For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”7

By claiming to be Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus claims his divine authoritative right and implies that the Law’s built-in anticipation apparatus has been finally dismantled.8 The scaffolding of the Law can be removed, for the substance has arrived. The Sabbath command, then, doesn’t need abolishment but reinterpretation. As theologian Thomas Schreiner notes, it seems that Jesus deliberately healed people on the Sabbath (then forbidden by Law) in order to “demonstrate his superiority” and “hint that [the Sabbath] is not in force forever.”9

Three Crucial Bible Passages

Though the Sabbath is discussed elsewhere within the Bible, the following three passages play a crucial role in the Christian understanding of the concept.

1. Colossians 2

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul writes, “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration, or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”10

This is a remarkable statement. We’re explicitly told that the Sabbath belonged to the era of shadows—essentially an era that gave only a glimpse of what has since given way to glorious fulfillment. In fact, the term Paul uses for “shadow” (skia) is the same one the author of Hebrews uses for explaining that Old Testament sacrifices are outmoded: “The law is only a shadow [skia] of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves.”11

Both the Sabbath and sacrifices were ultimately skia designed to anticipate the Messiah—the anointed one of God who would come to save the world.

2. Romans 14

Paul also exhorts the Christians in Rome not to quarrel about “disputable matters.”12 He writes, “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.”13

Again, this is a breathtaking thing for Paul to say. Imagine how it would have sounded to a recently converted Jew who had kept the fourth commandment every week of his entire life. Any mention of a “sacred day” would have immediately triggered thoughts of the Sabbath.

Schreiner observes, “[Paul] almost certainly thinks of the Sabbath here, but he reckons it to be a matter of inconsequence. Paul’s attitude of indifference relative to the Sabbath indicates that it is no longer normative. A new era has dawned in which the Mosaic covenant has passed away.14

Imagine walking into a church and finding a table with some brochures about a fundraising drive for a new building. Next to the brochures sits a detailed miniature model of the future property. That would make sense. But imagine returning to the church—now meeting at the new location—two years later and finding that same miniature model in the lobby. It would be strange, right? The structure served its purpose; why keep displaying it? It is only a shadow of what has since come to fruition.

The Old Testament law regarding the Sabbath is a bit like that miniature model. Fulfillment has come, Paul is saying, and his name is Jesus. For more information on that concept, let’s look at the next passage.

3. Hebrews 3–4

In chapters 3 and 4 of the book of Hebrews, we read of the everlasting rest Jesus has won for those united to him by faith. The author concludes his argument: “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following [the Israelite wilderness generation’s] example of disobedience.”15

The weekly Sabbath had always been pointing beyond itself to an eternal Sabbath. So how do God’s people now—in the age of fulfillment—obey the fourth commandment? We do so ultimately by resting in the finished work of Jesus.

Relevance for Today

Many Christians assume they are observing the Sabbath whenever they attend church and enjoy a restful Sunday. While belonging to a church is important for a believer, the Sabbath-to-church application is not quite right.16

Sunday is not the “Christian Sabbath” but the Lord’s Day17 Christians gather for worship on the first day of the week because it is the day that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead.18

Even though we are no longer under the Sabbath law like Old Testament believers, I do believe it’s vital for believers to honor the Sabbath principle God has embedded in his creation—and even modeled himself—from the start.19 This pattern of regular rest ought to be woven into the rhythm of our lives. Among other things, it’s a declaration to others and a reminder to ourselves that we are small. We are frail. We are dependent. We are not God. No wonder a persistent failure to rest usually reveals our pride and leads to burnout.

The command to “remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” carries rich significance across the unfolding storyline of Scripture. While it is certainly wise to pursue periods of deliberate rest in God, the command itself no longer binds believers because the new covenant has arrived in Jesus. The ultimate way we “observe the Sabbath” today, then, is by embracing its fulfillment—the One who offers eternal rest to anyone who trusts in him.

  1. The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, John 14:15.
  2. The Mosaic Law is the set of commands God gave his people, the Israelites, through the prophet Moses. It is detailed in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
  3. The Holy Bible, Exodus 20:8–11. The fourth commandment is also recounted in Deuteronomy 5:12–15.
  4. John H. Walton, “Interpreting the Bible as an Ancient Near Eastern Document,” in Israel—Ancient Kingdom or Late Invention? Archaeology, Ancient Civilizations, and the Bible, ed. Daniel I. Block (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2008), 322.
  5. The Jewish Qumran community, for example, thought animals should be left to die if they fell into a pit on the Sabbath (CD 11:13–14)—while Jesus assumed that a person would rescue a fallen animal, even on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:11). In the Mishnah, Judaism’s first major canonical document after the Hebrew Scriptures, no less than thirty-nine kinds of work are prohibited on the Sabbath (m. Shabbat 7:2). “The focus on regulations evident in Jubilees, Qumran, and in the Mishnah is absent in Jesus’ teaching,” one biblical scholar notes. “He reminded his hearers that ‘the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:27).” Thomas R. Schreiner, 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2010), 211. I am heavily indebted to Schreiner’s discussion of the Sabbath in this article.
  6. The Holy Bible, Matthew 5:17.
  7. Ibid., Matthew 11:28–30, 12:8. It isn’t coincidental that the Sabbath episode (Matthew 12:1–14) immediately follows Jesus’ offer of ultimate soul rest (Matthew 11:28–30).
  8. Theologian Millard Erickson writes, “God had established the sacredness of the Sabbath [and] only God could abrogate or modify this regulation. . . . [Jesus] was clearly claiming the right to redefine the status of the Sabbath, a right that belongs only to someone virtually equal to God.” Millard F. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 626.
  9. Schreiner, 211. Likewise, theologian James Hamilton writes: “The easy yoke and the light burden of rest in the land of promise reverberates with Old Testament statements of when Israel enjoyed rest in the land. Jesus is bringing an end to exile through all the tribulations and rejections he is enduring.” James M. Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 372.
  10. The Holy Bible, Colossians 2:16–17.
  11. Ibid., Hebrews 10:1. Schreiner writes, “Believers are not required to observe the feasts, festivals, and special days of the Old Testament calendar. This includes the Sabbath, even though the Sabbath is part of the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:8–11). Such a judgment surprises some, but it must be recognized that the entirety of the Old Testament law is abrogated in Christ.” Schreiner, 91. And later: “Paul does not denigrate the Sabbath. He salutes its place in salvation history, for, like the Old Testament sacrifices, though not in precisely the same way, it prepared the way for Christ. I know of no one who thinks Old Testament sacrifices should be instituted today; and when we compare what Paul says about the Sabbath with such sacrifices, it seems right to conclude that he thinks the Sabbath is no longer binding.” Ibid., 212.
  12. The Holy Bible, Romans 14:1.
  13. Ibid., Romans 14:5.
  14. Schreiner, 71. Elsewhere he writes, “Paul clearly teaches that Christians are free in regard to the observance of days. No day, in principle, holds pride of place above another. . . . Clearly, the Sabbath is included here; since it was observed weekly, it was the day that would naturally come to mind for readers. . . . The Sabbath belongs to the shadows of the old covenant [cf. Colossians 2:16–17] and is a matter of indifference now that Christ has come.” Ibid., 91. Later, Schreiner writes, “Paul has undermined the authority of the Sabbath in principle, for he . . . leaves [its observance] entirely up to one’s personal opinion. But if the Sabbath of the Old Testament were still in force, Paul could never say this, for the Old Testament makes incredibly strong statements about those who violate the Sabbath, and the death penalty is even required in some instances. Paul is living under a different dispensation, that is, a different covenant.” Ibid., 214.
  15. The Holy Bible, Hebrews 4:9–11. This is the author’s conclusion to a section of thought beginning in Hebrews 3:7.
  16. See Jonathan Leeman, Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).
  17. I know of no finer biblical-theological treatment than D. A. Carson, ed., From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982).
  18. See The Holy Bible, Matthew 28:1; Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2; and Revelation 1:10.
  19. Ibid., Genesis 2:2–3; Exodus 20:11. Interestingly, the New Testament never grounds Sabbath keeping in the creation order like it does with marriage (e.g., Matthew 19:4–6; 1 Timothy 4:3–4), gender roles (e.g., Ephesians 5:31–32; 1 Timothy 2:12–13), and the inherent goodness of all foods (1 Timothy 4:3–4). But how should we understand the Old Testament connection between the Sabbath and God’s creational rest (Exodus 20:11)? It’s probably best to see creation as an analogy instead of a ground, Schreiner explains. “The Sabbath was the sign of the Mosaic covenant, and since the covenant has passed away, so has the covenant sign.” Schreiner, 214.