The Sabbath: should Christians keep the Sabbath?

Recently I have been getting questions about whether or not Christians should observe the Sabbath, so I want to address what I believe is the heart of this question here. But before I begin, let me encourage my brethren to participate and engage with each other on this issue as followers of Christ and children of God (Matthew 5:9).

To begin we need to understand that there are three Sabbaths commanded in Israel:

1. The seventh day Sabbath (Exodus 31:15-17). This was a reminder that it is God who sanctifies them.

2. The Sabbath year to be perpetually kept every seventh year (Exodus 23:10-11; Leviticus 25:1-7). On the sabbath year the land was to rest by not being sown, cultivated, or harvested (Ex 23:10–11). God promised to provide for Israel’s needs while the land lay fallow (Le 25:20–22).

3. The Year of Jubilee– or Jubilee Sabbath- is to be observed on the 50th year after observing seven Sabbath years; Israel was to rest for another year (Leviticus 25:8-17; cf 25:1-8). It was heralded on the day of atonement by the sounding of “jubilee” (Heb. yobel), i.e., a “ram’s horn” or a trumpet made in the shape of a ram’s horn (Le 25:9; cf. 16:29–30). The year of jubilee provided Israel with a time of release and rest (Le 25:10–12). Like the Sabbath years of rest, it was to be observed “to the Lord” with celebration and trust that God would provide food as He promised (Le 25:2–7, 11–12, 18–22).

Israel was sent into their seventy-year Babylonian captivity as punishment for their failure to observe the sabbatical years (2 Ch 36:21; cf. Le 26:34–35, 43). When modern arguments for observing the weekly Sabbath are made, they rarely include or address these Sabbath years. But any argument for keeping the weekly Sabbath likewise applies to these Sabbaths.

So I want to begin by first challenging my Sabbatarian friends with a sincere question: are you being consistent in keeping all Sabbath laws or are you keeping those that are convenient to you while ignoring those that are not?

And with that challenge I also think it is appropriate to take a moment and commend my Sabbatarian friends because I truly have great respect for those Sabbatarians who have taken their position in response to diligent study of the Old Testament commandments (Exodus 31:15-17) with a pure desire to express their love to God through obedience to His commandments. I explored this subject myself and understand why one might believe that Christians are meant to observe the Sabbath. I have great respect for anyone who takes God’s word seriously enough to seek for his will by diligently studying God’s word and taking the answers they find therein seriously. I lament that many Christians who worship on Sunday have never asked themselves why they worship on Sunday, nor taken it upon themselves to bring their understanding of the matter before the Word of God. In the same way that there are also many Sabbatarians who have adopted their view because someone came to them with a strong argument that they never really cross-examined, or because they were raised in a Sabbath observing family and never questioned what they were taught growing up, there are many Christians who have never cross-examined their teachings to worship on the Lord’s day. And I think we would all be better off if more people took the time to cross-examine their views.

I hope you’ll forgive me for such a lengthy opening note, but I want to make clear that I am not challenging Sabbatarians out of contempt for them or their view; I’m challenging them because I think they are wrong even though I respect how many of them arrived at their conclusion.

Should Christians observe the Sabbath(s)?

Paul speaks directly to this question:

Colossians 2:16-17 (CSB) 16 Therefore, don’t let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is Christ

Let’s briefly deal with the setting of Paul’s writing to the Colossians.

The seventh-day Sabbath was a sign between God and Israel based on God’s rest after six days of creative operations (Exod. 31:16, 17; See 20:8–11). Over time the Old Testament regulations were developed and systematized to such an extent that they became a burden upon the people. We find two whole treatises of the Mishna occupied with regulations for observing the Sabbath. This is the setting that provides the antagonism roused by the Lord’s curing miracles worked on the “Sabbath” (Matt. 12:9–13; John 5:5–16). Therefore, according to rabbinical ideas, the disciples broke the Sabbath in two respects by plucking ears of corn (Matt. 12:1; Mark 2:23), and rubbing them (Luke 6:1): to pluck was to reap, and to rub was to thresh. The Lord’s attitude towards the “sabbath” was to free it from these vexatious traditional accretions which made the Sabbath an end in itself, instead of a means to an end (Mark 2:27).

This is the setting Paul is entering when he deals with those who are trying to bind the “sabbath day” on Christians. Paul writes that God has “canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross” (2:14). He concludes that such observances point to a spiritual reality that is ultimately fulfilled in Christ (2:17).

We see this principle being central to Paul’s understanding of another perpetual covenant from the Old Testament: circumcision.

Paul writes:

Colossians 2:11-12 (CSB) – 11 You were also circumcised in him with a circumcision not done with hands, by putting off the body of flesh, in the circumcision of Christ, 12 when you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.

Christians are meant to understand that we find substantive fulfillment of the Old Covenant in Christ.

We find Jesus teaching and the New Testament pointing to this fulfillment:

Matthew 11:28-30 (CSB) – 28 “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Hebrews 4:9-11 (CSB) –  9 Therefore, a Sabbath rest remains for God’s people. 10 For the person who has entered his rest has rested from his own works, just as God did from his. 11 Let us, then, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall into the same pattern of disobedience.

The three Sabbaths progressively build on each other and culminate in the Year of Jubilee, which is observed on the Day of Atonement; these three Sabbaths point us to Christ and the atonement provided by his sacrifice to finally and ultimately fulfill all righteousness. The weekly Sabbath is “a sign that it is I the LORD who sanctifies you” (Ex. 31:13); the yearly Sabbath is to teach dependence (faith/ trust) upon the blessing of God (Lev. 25:20-22); the Jubilee Year is to joyfully celebrate and proclaim liberty (Lev. 25:10). Atonement, faith, and liberation from captivity (to sin) form the bedrock of all Christian doctrine.

Therefore, the Sabbath and Circumcision were both given as “perpetual signs” to the Children of Israel pointing to Christ. Circumcision is fulfilled by the “circumcision not made with human hands” (Colossians 2:11) and the Sabbath rest is fulfilled in Christ’s “promised rest” (Matthew 11:28-30).