What Is the Christian Sabbath?

The Seventh-day (Saturday) Sabbath View

If the Old Testament Sabbath commands do not allow for the separation of the day of the week on which the Sabbath was to be observed from its actual observation, and if nothing in the New Testament states or logically implies that the Sabbath was changed to another day, then the Sabbath day must still be the seventh day. The question that must be asked then is, Are Christians supposed to keep the Sabbath day?

Both sabbatarians (seventh-day Sabbath keepers) and semisabbatarians (Sunday-Sabbath keepers) will almost invariably try to prove the perpetuity of the Sabbath by saying that it began at the foundation of the world as a creation ordinance given to all humankind. To support this claim, they cite Genesis 2:2–3: “And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.” But we should notice that these verses do not contain a command to keep the seventh day as a Sabbath. These verses do not tell us that God told Adam and Eve or anyone else (before He told the Israelites just after the Exodus) to keep the seventh day as a Sabbath. These verses do not tell us that God even informed Adam and Eve or anyone else (before He told the Israelites just after the Exodus) that God rested on the seventh day and sanctified it. Context is important in understanding the Bible, so it is important to understand that Moses wrote Genesis 2 in the context of the Exodus, centuries after the Creation, just after he led Israel out of Egypt. He wrote this account in the context of the law being given at Sinai.

The connection of Genesis 2:2–3 to Exodus 20:11 cannot be overlooked, but neither should it be misunderstood. From the Creation to Exodus 16, the Sabbath is never commanded nor even mentioned. We must conclude that the reason is that it had not yet been instituted. The Holy Spirit inspired Moses to write Genesis 2:2–3 to show why the seventh day was the day God later commanded the Israelites to rest on. This information about God resting on the seventh day is repeated in Exodus 20:11. By observing the Sabbath, they were keeping a type of the rest God had observed at the Creation as described in Genesis 2.

Another common argument of Sabbath keepers is that the Fourth Commandment says, “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). If the Sabbath was something new, what was God telling them to remember? Only two possible answers fit the biblical evidence. 1) God was telling them to remember from that day onward. If I am giving a man directions, I might say, “When you get to Main Street, remember to turn right.” This in no way implies that this is information he should have known before. It merely means that he should remember this information at the time he needs it. God may have started the Sabbath command with “remember” because he knew the Israelites would have a tendency to forget it. The reason God ordered the Israelites to make fringes for their garments (Numbers 15:38–39) shows us the Israelites had trouble remembering the commands God gave them at Sinai. 2) Another possible explanation for God using the word “remember” may be that He was telling them to remember the events of Exodus 16. This chapter is an account of how God introduced the Sabbath to the Israelites through a physical example, much as one might teach a child. He told them that He would give them manna for six days, that they would have enough for each day, and that they were not to keep any overnight or it would spoil. The one exception would be on the sixth day, when they would gather enough for two days. They were to prepare this two-days’ worth on the sixth day, and they would be able to keep some overnight for the seventh day. They would not gather manna on the seventh day because it was the Sabbath. Exodus 16:23 is the first place in the Bible that the word Sabbath is found: “And he said unto them, This is that which the Lord hath said, Tomorrow is the rest of the holy sabbath unto the Lord: bake that which ye will bake today, and seethe that ye will seethe; and that which remaineth over lay up for you to be kept until the morning.” In Exodus 20:8, God may have been telling the Israelites to remember the lesson they learned in Exodus 16. Considering the lack of any evidence of the institution of the Sabbath before Exodus 16, there is no reason to assume that God wanted the Israelites to remember the Sabbath from some earlier period.

In Nehemiah 9:14 we read that God “madest known unto them [the Israelites] thy holy sabbath, and commandedst them precepts, statutes, and laws, by the hand of Moses thy servant.” This Scripture is important because it does not say that the Israelites knew of the Sabbath already and that God used Moses to remind them of it. It says that God, by the hand of Moses, made the Sabbath known to the Israelites. The Sabbath was first introduced to the Israelites at the time of Moses, over two thousand years after the Creation.

Ezekiel says something similar: “Wherefore I caused them [Israel] to go forth out of the land of Egypt, and brought them into the wilderness. And I gave them my statutes, and shewed them my judgments, which if a man do, he shall even live in them. Moreover also I gave them my sabbaths, to be a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord that sanctify them” (Ezekiel 20:10–12). Here again we find that God gave the children of Israel the Sabbath after He brought them out of Egypt. He says nothing about their knowing this before that time and His having to remind them.

An interesting point in this regard is found in Numbers 15:32–36: “And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day. And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto all the congregation. And they put him in ward, because it was not declared what should be done to him. And the Lord said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp. And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the Lord commanded Moses.” The Sabbath command was so new that the people did not know how to punish someone who broke it.

There is another biblical proof that the Sabbath could not have been a creation ordinance given to all humanity. In Exodus 31:12–17, we read, “And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying, Verily my sabbaths ye shall keep: for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that ye may know that I am the Lord that doth sanctify you. Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord: whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.” God says the Sabbath is a sign between Him and the children of Israel. Ezekiel 20:12 and 20 also say that God gave Israel the Sabbath as a sign between Him and them. If the Sabbath had been given to all humanity at Creation, it would not be unique to Israel and, therefore, it could not act as a special sign between God and Israel.

Additionally, in Deuteronomy 5, in the listing of the Ten Commandments found in that chapter, God gives the Israelites a reason other than His rest at Creation for keeping the Sabbath. He says that because He brought them out of Egypt, therefore, He commands them to keep the Sabbath (verse 15). So God, in the Ten Commandments, gives two reasons why He gave the children of Israel the Sabbath. One is because he rested on the seventh day at Creation (Exodus 20:11). The other is because He brought them out of Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:15). This second reason, God’s bringing Israel out of Egypt, happened only to the Israelites and is further evidence that the Sabbath day is specific to that nation.

Based on the above, then, we must conclude that the belief that the Sabbath is a creation ordinance, given at the Creation to all humanity, is an unfounded assumption. There is no biblical evidence to support this idea, and there is much biblical evidence against it.

Seventh-day keepers also see another reason in Exodus 31:12–17 to believe in the perpetuity of the Sabbath. What is pointed out is that the Sabbath is said to be “a perpetual covenant” and “a sign…for ever.” The Hebrew word translated “perpetual” and “for ever” is ‘ôlām. (From this point forward, I will simply use olam for this Hebrew word, as not all browsers will display the correct characters and diacritics.) Although this word, when the context calls for it, can mean eternal, there are many places in the Bible where it clearly means for a simple duration, or for a long time.

For example, on the subject of a servant who wants to remain with his master, Deuteronomy 15:16-17 states: “And it shall be, if he say unto thee, I will not go away from thee…Then thou shalt take an aul, and thrust it through his ear unto the door, and he shall be thy servant for ever [olam].” A mortal human being cannot serve another mortal human being for all eternity. “For ever” in this verse is limited by the human life span of the parties involved. In Leviticus 6:20-22 “is the offering of Aaron and of his sons, which they shall offer unto the Lord in the day when he is anointed…. And the priest of his sons that is anointed in his stead shall offer it: it is a statute for ever [olam] unto the Lord; it shall be wholly burnt.” Most Christians would agree that this offering is no longer required. Yet the Bible says it was to be “for ever.” In Exodus 27:20-21 and Leviticus 24:2-3, God orders that the lamps in the Tabernacle were to be kept burning continually (olam). This was to be a statute “for ever” (olam). Are these lamps burning today? No. In Leviticus 24, the instructions concerning the showbread (bread of the Presence) are described as “everlasting” and “perpetual.” All of these examples, and many others we could cite, use the same Hebrew word translated in Exodus 31 as “perpetual” and “for ever.”

A reexamination of Exodus 31 reveals that the Sabbath was to be a sign between God and the children of Israel throughout their generations—that it was to be a “perpetual” covenant, but this does not have to mean a covenant literally lasting for eternity. In Deuteronomy 5:2, we read that “God made a covenant” with the children of Israel “in Horeb” (Mount Sinai). From the verses that follow, we see that the Ten Commandments were that covenant. That covenant includes the Sabbath command (verses 12–15), which Exodus 31 says is a sign between God and the children of Israel. It is never said to be a sign between God and anyone else. No one else is ever commanded to keep the Sabbath.

God’s covenant with Israel given at Mount Sinai is the Old Covenant, and it has been replaced by the New Covenant: “For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second. For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: and they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more. In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away” (Hebrews 8:7–13).

You will sometimes hear people say that nine of the Ten Commandments are found in the New Covenant. I have said this myself. But it is not quite accurate and leads to the accusation that if we are keeping nine of the Ten Commandments, how can we ignore the Sabbath command? After all, did not James say, “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10)? Yes, if we were really trying to keep nine of the Old Covenant Ten Commandments while ignoring the Sabbath command, we would be guilty of breaking the whole law. But Paul said something very important in this regard. In Galatians 5:3, he states: “For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debter to do the whole law.” Trying to keep any Old Testament law—including the Sabbath command—indebts us to the entire law (including circumcision), not just the Ten Commandments. The point is, we are not to try to keep Old Testament law. The Old Covenant law killed transgressors; New Covenant law never condemns. New Testament law is the reality that was only shadowed or typified by Old Covenant law. I will have more to say about this later in this article, and you can also read more in my article, “Dead to the Law.”
The only people in the New Testament who try to enforce Sabbath keeping and who accuse others of Sabbath breaking are the Pharisees and their ilk. As mentioned earlier, many Scriptures in Acts mention the seventh-day Sabbath (Acts 13:14, 27, 42, 44; 15:21; 17:2; 18:4). Certainly, these show that Jews continued to call the seventh day of the week the Sabbath, even after Jesus’ resurrection. But they do not, as the promoters of the seventh-day Sabbath would like them to, indicate that Christians were obligated to keep the day.

In Acts 13, beginning with verse 14, Luke tells of how Paul and his companions went to the synagogue on the Sabbath in Pisidian Antioch and Paul preached. Afterward, “the Gentiles besought that these words might be preached to them the next sabbath”(verse 42).

“And the next Sabbath day came almost the whole city together to hear the word of God” (verse 44). We might wonder why Paul would wait a whole week in order to preach to the Gentiles the next Sabbath. Some might say that this was because Paul observed the Sabbath. But the Bible does not at all indicate this. Instead, the Bible says that the congregation included both Jews and God-fearing proselytes (verses 26 and 43). The Gentiles invited Paul to preach the next Sabbath and Paul heeded this invitation and waited until the next Sabbath to speak to them as an assembled congregation. Also, as Paul and Barnabas said to the Jews after the Jews rejected them (verse 45), “It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles” (verse 46). Paul waited until the Sabbath to speak, not because he observed the Sabbath, but because that was when he was invited to do so. Also, that was when he could speak to the assembled Jews, to whom he believed he had a responsibility to preach the Gospel first. There is no evidence that Paul waited until the Sabbath to speak because he kept the Sabbath.

Seventh-day Sabbath keepers sometimes point to Acts 17:2 and 18:4 as showing that Paul kept the Sabbath. Instead, these verses merely show that Paul used the Jews’ assembling in the synagogue on the Sabbath as an opportunity to preach to them while they were all assembled in one place.

It should not be ignored—in fact, it should be seen as highly significant—that while sabbatarians and semisabbatarians busy themselves accusing the church and the world of Sabbath breaking, often saying it is the number one sin for which God will punish us—neither Jesus, nor Paul, nor any of the apostles ever once list Sabbath breaking as a sin. Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles and writers of the New Testament never list Sabbath breaking as a sin. Myriads of sins are condemned in the New Testament, but Sabbath breaking—despite its supposed importance—is not one of them. One would think that the Gentile churches, unfamiliar with God’s law and in need of being corrected in Paul’s letters on so many other points, would have been in need of some admonition concerning the Sabbath at least once. But no, not one such admonition is to be found. Why? To those who view the Bible with an unbiased mind, the answer is inescapable: God never intended the New Testament church to keep a Sabbath day.

Seventh day keepers often quote Martin Luther (1483–1546) out of context, giving the false impression that Luther agreed that Andreas Carlstadt’s (ca. 1480–1541) sabbatarian views were right. This is what is usually quoted: “Indeed, if Carlstadt were to write further about the Sabbath, Sunday would have to give way, and the Sabbath – that is to say, Saturday – must be kept holy.” But now read the quote in context: “Indeed, if Carlstadt were to write further about the Sabbath, Sunday would have to give way, and the Sabbath – that is to say, Saturday – must be kept holy; he would truly make us Jews in all things, and we should come to be circumcised: for that is true, and cannot be denied, that he who deems it necessary to keep one law of Moses, and keeps it as the law of Moses, must deem all necessary, and keep them all” (“Against the Celestial Prophets” as quoted in The Life of Martin Luther in Pictures, p. 147). Carlstadt was trying to impose seventh-day Sabbath keeping, but Luther saw that the Bible did not support it. So we see that Luther, far from admitting Carlstadt to be correct, was rightly using the principles of Galatians 5:2–4 to show that Carlstadt was Judaizing, or making people debtors to the law.

Copyright © 2007-2009 Peter Ditzel