Should Christians Observe a Sabbath?

The Law of God (Torah) from the Old Testament and its relationship to Christ and the New Testament is one of my favorites subjects. I have written several other articles one the Law in general and a few on its relationship to the New Testament. In a particular post (click HERE to read the previous post) I gave pointers for how a Christian should think about the Law and I vowed to consider some particular aspects of the Law and see if a clearer picture of these laws could be gained for Christians by using a few of my pointers. Well, I am making good on this vow (finally) and this article will consider the 4th commandment (Exodus 20:8-11) to “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”

Sabbath LampFirst, it is good to understand the purpose of the Sabbath commandment. Why did God institute the Sabbath? The good thing about this command, unlike some, is that we get some specific reasoning for its institution. The following passages give us reasoning for its institution, and I would encourage you to pause and read them: Exodus 20:8-11, Exodus 23:12, Deuteronomy 5:12-15, and Mark 2:27. Doing a quick survey of these passages, several purposes for the Sabbath emerge of which I will cover the major aspects though there are others. First, the Sabbath seems to be instituted for rest from labor. This rest is for humans and everything that works for us (slaves, livestock, etc). Secondly, Sabbath rest reflects the creative order. God had a pattern of work in creation and then rest. Our pattern of work and rest is meant to point us back to the creative order and particularly its fountainhead, God. This refocus on God’s creative order leads to our third purpose, worship. The Sabbath is meant to be a day of worship towards the God of creation. In this act we re-center our lives on the Holy One of Israel. We consider his mighty works in creation, his ordering of the cosmos and our world, and his provision. We take time out of our lives to worship Him. Fourth, the Sabbath is to be an eternal ordinance. It is to remain forever. The eternality of the command comes into play as New Testament implications are considered. In Summary, the Old Testament Sabbath can be seen as an eternal ordinance for a day of rest for humans (and those beings in our charge) focused on God and His creative order where we respond in worship.

Now Jesus comes into the picture and seemingly messes this nice, concise command all up. But does he? One of my first pointers (and I think probably the most important one) is to remember that Jesus came to fulfill the Law, not to abolish it (Matthew 5:17-20). So what does it mean for Christ to fulfill the command for Sabbath. Hebrews 4:1-13, a blessing of a passage, helps us understand what the Sabbath looks like now that Christ has come. What can be seen in this passage is that placing one’s faith in Christ is equated with entering into Sabbath rest (Hebrews 4:3). Hebrews 4:1-3 shows us that a Christian observes this eternal commandment by placing their faith in Christ and rests from working toward salvation. This is because Christ has accomplished the work that is needed to be in God’s presence. Faith in Christ is equated with rest. Furthermore, this passage points to the beginning of rest by faith in Christ and complete and perfect rest in the future. We enter God’s rest when we place our faith in Christ but a day is coming in the future when we completely enter the rest of God in the New Heavens and the New Earth. Hebrews shows us that Christ fulfills the command for Sabbath rest and Christians fulfill the command for Sabbath rest by believing in Christ.

But does that mean the prescriptions of the Old Testament Law for rest should be completely cast aside? Is there no need to cease from work for a day, to give our workers and animals a rest, and set aside a day for worship since Christ has fulfilled the Sabbath commandment? Absolutely not! In my second pointer I mentioned that the Law teaches us about God’s Holiness, and in my fifth pointer I mentioned that the Law teaches us about our sin. What God has revealed about humans is that we need rest and the people and animals that work for us need rest. Furthermore, God wants us to set aside time to worship him as the Holy creator of all that is. These original purposes still stand as long as we have sin ravaged human bodies. We need rest and we need to intentionally set aside time to worship God.  We still need dedicated time set aside to refocus on the reality of God and his ordering of the universe every week. And so we are left with a tension between the fulfillment of the Sabbath command in Christ and the practical needs of a Sabbath for reasons originally prescribed. What is a Christian to do? Live in the tension knowing that Christ has fulfilled the Sabbath. Maybe a quick illustration would help.
                  Old Covenant      Jesus                   Jesus Returns
Already/Not Yet
                                                        New Covenant                         Eternal State

I would like to introduce here another pointer for understanding the Old Testament Law in relation to Christ and the New Testament, and that is The Overlap of the Ages. This pointer is particularly acute when we think of the Sabbath. Under the Law faithful followers of God were called to observe a Sabbath for all the reasons prescribed above. When Jesus came he fulfilled the Sabbath (that is filled it up, not fulfilled in an abolished sense) in all the way prescribed in Hebrews 4:1-13 above. The Christian is then left in the tension. We fulfill the Law by putting our faith in Christ. We begin to actually taste the peace and joy of the New Covenant in Christ now, but we are waiting to enter our permanent Sabbath rest when Jesus returns and our bodies our glorified. In the mean time our bodies still need rest, and we need time set aside to worship God, to refocus our life on the Creator.

In summary Christians are no longer bound to observe a strict Sabbath, yet the original principals of rest and worship are still needed and provide wisdom for Godly living. Furthermore, observing a Sabbath sets Christians apart from the rest of the world that does not cease from its striving (pointer 4 from previous article). Finally, Christians fulfill the Sabbath through faith in Christ. Everyday, by God’s Spirit, can be Sabbath oriented. We rest and trust God for provision and fruitful labor. We rest in Christ’s salvation from spiritual works. And everyday we can draw near to God and orient our lives around the only One that matters and worship Him.

*The image above was used in accordance with the licensing agreements of WikiCommons and in no way reflects the views of the artist that produced the image.
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