What Does It Mean to Observe the Sabbath?

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

“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.”

 

“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.

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