The Sabbath – A Biblical Survey

Sabbath is defined as “rest”.

When God created the heavens and the earth, He began on the seventh day a Sabbath, a rest from the work of creation (Genesis 2:1-3).

This Sabbath was not observed by man, as he had been created only one day before, and had performed no work from which to rest (Genesis 1:26-31). Indeed, for those thousands of years from the creation until God constituted Israel a nation, there is not even an intimation that God required any man to observe a Sabbath. Nor is there any record that any man in that time – including Adam, Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Job – ever observed a Sabbath.

The first commandment from God to man to observe a Sabbath was given to Israel about 1440 BC at Mount Sinai (Exodus 16:23-30). Immediately afterward, God entered into a covenant with Israel, to the exclusion of Gentile nations (Exodus 19:1-8). That covenant was summarized in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), a legal code comprising “the words of the covenant” (Exodus 34:28). (It is commonly called the Mosaic, or Sinaitic, and eventually the Old Covenant.) The fourth of the Ten Commandments, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy….” (Exodus 20:8-11), was distinguished from the other nine in that it was the “sign of the covenant” between God and Israel (Exodus 31:13; Ezekiel 20:12), a sacred symbol of it to be honored as long as its covenant was in force.

The foregoing paragraph teaches us that neither that covenant, nor its legal code or Sabbath, are eternal. Its Sabbath was but a temporary shadow pre-figuring the coming Messiah (Colossians 2:16; more on this later). Its legal code derived from a higher code of commandments (Matthew 22:34-40), and “was added [in 1440 BC] … till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made” (Galatians 3:19; another prophecy of Messiah). The covenant itself was conditional (Exodus 19:5), and would remain in effect only as long as Israel obeyed its law and hallowed its Sabbath.

Israel violated its covenant with God, and God therefore prophesied in those days of a day when He would abrogate and replace that covenant with “a new covenant” (Jeremiah 31:31-34). He has done so through His own Son, Jesus Christ. The Son of God was born under that Old Covenant and its law (Galatians 4:4), and fulfilled all that it required (Matthew 5:17) – including observing its Sabbaths (e.g. Luke 4:16), and shed what He called “My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28). He has thereby become “the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). He is therefore called “Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant” (Hebrews 12:24; 9:15) – “a better covenant, which was established on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6). Accordingly, the Old Covenant was abrogated and replaced by the New Covenant through Jesus Christ (Hebrews 8:7-13).

The abrogation of the Old Covenant consequently abrogated also its legal code (Galatians 3:24) and its commandment to hallow the Sabbath-day. The New Covenant code of conduct requires Christians to love God and neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40; Romans 13:9), and is called “the royal law” (James 2:8). But the New Covenant never requires Christians to observe a Sabbath-day. Rather, God today approves the Christian who “esteems every day alike” (Romans 14:5). And He requires them to “Therefore let no one judge you … regarding … sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Colossians 2:16f. (That is, the Old Covenant Sabbaths were but temporary shadows cast by Jesus Christ, and are no longer to be observed now that He has come.) And He sharply rebukes them if they should “turn again to the weak and beggarly elements [of the Old Covenant’s law], to which you desire again to be in bondage” (Galatians 4:9).

But this is not to say that Christians do not have a Sabbath (Hebrews 4:9): “There remains therefore a rest [Greek Sabbatismos, “Sabbath-keeping”] for the people of God.” But it is not a day of the week for physical rest (as Constantine decreed, and even as some well-meaning Christians wrongly aver). The Christian Sabbath is that which is entered through faith in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 3:7-4:11), which He Himself calls “rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28f).

Sabbatarians will now object, reminding us that even Paul the apostle attended Sabbath-day worship services of the Jews (Acts 17:2; 13:14; 13:42-44; 18:4). But if they will carefully read the texts they cite, they will observe that Paul did so in order to preach the gospel to unbelievers therein and to direct them to Christ. Sadly, these Sabbath-keepers proved themselves to be vehement enemies of the gospel by strongly opposing Paul’s ministry, and on one occasion even stoned him and left him for dead (Acts 14:19).

Although the unbelieving Jews and their Gentile proselytes continued to assemble for worship on their Sabbaths – vainly, of course (Romans 10:1-4), disciples of Jesus Christ assembled on “the first day of the week” (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1). This was by them called “the Lord’s Day” (Revelation 1:10) in honor of His resurrection from the dead on it.

The ancient fathers of the Christian church give testimony to this. For example:

– Ignatius (died 98 or 117), contemporary of John the apostle and bishop of Antioch, wrote of those who have “obtained new hope, no longer keeping the sabbath [lit. “sabbathing”], but living according to the Lord’s [Day] on which our life dawned through him and his death” (Epistle to the Magnesians 9:1).

– “Justin Martyr [circa 100-165], in controversy with a Jew, says that … Christianity requires not one particular Sabbath, but a perpetual Sabbath. He assigns as a reason for the selection of the first day for the purposes of Christian worship, because on that day … Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his assembled disciples, but makes no mention of the fourth commandment” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol.II, p.203).

– “Barnabas [thought by many to be the companion of Paul the apostle] … calls this day the eighth day, in distinction from the seventh-day sabbath of the Jews, and which he says is the beginning of another world; and therefore we keep the eighth day, adds he, joyfully, in which Jesus rose from the dead, and being manifested, ascended unto heaven” (John Gill’s Commentary, Revelation 1:10).

– Chrysostom (345[?]-407), the greatest preacher of the Eastern or Greek Church, said of the first day of the week, “It was called the Lord’s Day because the Lord rose from the dead on that day” (commentary on Psalm 119).

What is your Sabbath?

That of the Old Covenant, or this of the New?

That which was given through the mediation of Moses, or this which is given through the mediation of Jesus Christ?

That for the body, or this for the soul?

That of the law, or this of the gospel? That of works, or this of grace?

That which is but one day weekly, or this which is everlasting?

That which is followed by the resumption of work, or this which ends all works?

That which is identified with bondage, or this which is identified with liberty?

That which was but a temporary shadow, or this which is the abiding Substance – Jesus Christ?

That which is still observed by Jews who reject Jesus Christ, or this which is observed by Christians who believe in Him?

Is Jesus Christ your Sabbath?

He is a Sabbath far more “a delight” (Isaiah 58:13) than that of the Old Covenant.

By Daniel Parks

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