Thoughts on Christians and the Sabbath

Should Christians keep the Sabbath?  Is Sunday the ‘correct’ day to do church?  These were some questions that were addressed to me the other day and I thought I would write down my response to them.

I should point out that this is far from comprehensive in terms of thoughts, so feel free to add more to the comments section.

What is Sabbath?

Firstly, it is worth asking the question, “what is Sabbath?”  To answer that question we need to turn to Genesis 2:1-3:

“Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.  By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested [sabbath-ed] from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” (Gen 2:1–3 NIV11-GKE)

There is a difference between work and rest.  They are not mutually exclusive. But they are different.  In short, let me define them as work being “bringing about God’s good order” and rest is “ enjoying God’s good order”.  We see this in creation, God has worked to bring about his good order in creation and now he stops and he enjoys that order.

Whatever we say about Sabbath, it needs to be God-centered.  It needs to focus on God.  In many ways 1 Tim 4:4-5 is about Sabbath as much as the day it is on or when one takes it.  It is about the enjoyment of the world that God has created, fractured as it is.

The Command to Sabbath

But “to sabbath” is not merely a good thing to do, for the Israelites, it was a command.  In both list of the ten commandment is it the fourth command.  Though it does have a different reason in both lists:

“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.” (Ex 20:8–11 NIV11-GKE)

“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you. 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 ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do.Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” (Deut 5:12–15 NIV11)

The difference between the two is not the command, but the reason for it.  One has a creation mandate and the other a specific mandate for Israelites who have descended from the generation who had been led out of slavery by Moses.  The point here is that the Sabbath, was in part to remind people of their identity as God’s people, but they were to enjoy the rest and the freedom that had been given to them by being taken out of slavery from Egypt.

Does this mean that Christians should keep the Sabbath?

Jesus was one who seemed, at least, to break the Sabbath regularly (e.g. Mark 2:23-3:6).  But this was to point out that Jewish legalism had exceeded the commands of God and was no longer seeking to obey God himself.  Nevertheless, his teaching seems to be ambiguous as to whether he was expecting his followers to obey the Sabbath as he would the Old Testament people.  Keeping mind that he did not expect his followers to obey the food laws in the same way as Old Testament Israel had (Mark 7:19b).

Paul spends little time on the Sabbath, which for the author who spends more time on establishing principles for church practice than any other writer, is surprising.   In summary “The Sabbath does not feature prominently in Paul’s writings, except negatively. For the Galatians to observe it as if they were still subject to OT law would be to descend into gospel-denying slavery (Gal. 4:9–11)”⁠1. This leads us to Paul’s instruction in Colossians ““Therefore 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.” (Col 2:16 NIV11).

Paul, I believe, is warning against the idea of Sabbatarianism.  This idea had its height during the late puritanism movement in the 1600s. Sabbatarianism lead to the assessment of people’s spiritual lives was based upon their observance of the Sabbath, or even whether the Sabbath is used purely for worship or for an absence of work.  It should be noted that it completely contravened Paul instruction in Colossians 2:16.

The book of Hebrews is last key place for us to understand the idea of Sabbath.  Hebrews 3:7-4:11 reminds us that God’s project for creation is a time of ultimate rest, or Sabbath.  This passage ignores the issue of whether we are to keep the Sabbath, though I think this is implied but reminds us that we need to listen carefully to the one who is leading us to this Sabbath rest.

Is Sunday the right day for Church?

What about Sunday church?  Should we be having “church” as a part of the sabbath?  In one sense church should be included in the idea of Sabbath, because it should be the place where we enjoy God and his order in creation.  Whether we should be having that day on a Sunday or a Saturday is picked up by Shead:

“We have said nothing about the Christian Sunday since we are convinced that there is no theological connection between Sabbath and Sunday, despite occasional attempts to prove the contrary (e.g. R. T. Beckwith and W. Stott, This Is the Day). There are hints in the NT that the first day of the week was set aside for evening worship, including the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2); Revelation 1:10 refers to ‘the Lord’s Day’. There is, however, absolutely no indication either that the ‘first day’ replaced the ‘Sabbath day’ in practice (the first Jewish Christians continued to attend the synagogue on the Sabbath), or that there was a transfer of Sabbath theology to Sunday worship. The Sabbath was a day of rest rather than a day of worship, and Sunday became a day of worship but was not initially a day of rest.”⁠2

The last sentence in this paragraph gave rise, I believe, the idea of the weekend.  Saturday was to be a Sabbath, Sunday a day of worship.  The point here is that the day itself is not the issue, that we take time to Sabbath is.

So Christians and the Sabbath….?

There are a number of reasons that Christians should enjoy a Sabbath: it is a reminder of our heavenly Sabbath that is to come, it is a reminder that God is the one who is in control of all things and we are not, it is a reminder of who we are as God’s people, redeemed from a life of slavery, we are built (created) to rest.  If you are a Christian then you should be taking time to enjoy the things that God has given you.  What time and day that is, I don’t think matters.

However, Sabbatarianism, that is judging and being judged by when and how we Sabbath, can become an unhealthy legalism that is warned against by the New Testament and we need to be careful not to fall into it.


FOOTNOTES:

1 A. G. Shead, “Sabbath,” New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 749.

2 A. G. Shead, “Sabbath,” New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 749-750.

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