Christians who desire to be obedient to God want to know what God expects of us regarding the Sabbath. Should we observe the Sabbath on Saturday as Jewish people do? Should we treat Sunday as a Sabbath? Or is there no Sabbath requirement for Christians?
Most of us agree about what the Sabbath meant for Israel:
- In Old Testament times, the Sabbath was the seventh day of the week, i.e. Saturday.
- God commanded Israel to rest (to do no work) on the Sabbath.
But we don’t all agree about what the Sabbath means for Christians. Example views:
- Christians should also observe the Sabbath by resting on the 7th day of the week.
- Christians should now observe Sunday as a Sabbath/rest day, not the Jewish Sabbath.
- Christians are not required to observe a rest day, since Christ has fulfilled the Law.
There’s a great little book called Perspectives on the Sabbath (B&H, 2011). Its four authors present different views:
- Skip MacCarty presents the Seventh Day Adventist view.
- Joseph Pipa presents the view that our day of rest is now Sunday.
- Charles Arand explains Luther’s variation.
- Craig Blomberg argues that the Sabbath was fulfilled in Christ, so not required for Christians.
My personal view is closest to Blomberg’s. The Sabbath was part of the Sinai covenant for Israel, commandments that do not apply directly to us. God never commanded other nations to observe the Sabbath. Jesus fulfilled the law for Israel, and established a new covenant between God and all humanity. This new covenant commands no one to observe the Sabbath.
The Gospels and Acts mention the Sabbath as part of interacting with Jewish culture. After that, the NT hardly mentions it:
- 1 Corinthians 16:2 uses the word Sabbath as a metonym for week.
- Hebrews 4:9 uses a related word (sabbatismos) to describe the restoration of creation to a state of rest — a state that was not restored through Moses or Joshua, only through Christ.
- Colossians 2:16 is the only significant text. It instructs believers not to judge each other over matters of Jewish law — the observance of kosher food laws, annual festivals, monthly celebrations, and weekly Sabbaths.
Observing the Sabbath is explicitly not a requirement in the new covenant. That’s why it doesn’t even rate a mention in 18 of the 21 New Testament letters.
So was the Sabbath changed to Sunday? You can find a couple of anecdotal cases in the NT where some Christians met on a Sunday, but:
- no one said it was a Sabbath, and
- no one said it was required.
You might conclude that early Christians weren’t tied to Saturday, but you cannot make a case for Sunday as a replacement Sabbath.
What about the Lord’s day in Revelation 1:10? A Seventh Day Adventist might assume it means YHWH’s day, so Saturday. Someone else reads it as Jesus’ day, and assumes that’s Sunday, even though there’s no reason to do so (typically because Jesus rose on a Sunday). The logic to make it mean Saturday or Sunday is pretty tenuous either way.
In the OT prophets, the day of the Lord was already well known phrase. It’s much more likely that John was saying, “I was transported by the Spirit into the day of the Lord” i.e. the day of his reign.
Actually, John gave us an even stronger clue. He didn’t use kyrios (Lord) but kyriakos, a rare word with strong political overtones. Spicq’s lexicon says:
St Paul and St John borrowed it from the commonly used, official language: ‘concerning the emperor’ or better ‘belonging to the emperor.’
— Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, volume 2 page 338.
Using an imperial word leaves little doubt about what John meant to convey: “By the Spirit, I was in the day of our imperial sovereign.” That is so much more meaningful than saying, “I had my vision on a Sunday (or a Saturday).” (The other occurrence of this word is the NT is even more interesting, but that’s another story.)
In summary, there is no command or requirement in the New Testament for Christians to stop working or to gather together on any particular day of the week. But there is a requirement that we not judge each other over this matter.
So how should we respond to our opening question: Should Christians keep the Sabbath on Saturday or Sunday? I think the answer is, No.
But that’s only half the story. There’s no command, but there is a blessing to rest. More on that next time.
What others are saying
Skip MacCarty, “The Seventh-Day Sabbath” in Perspectives on the Sabbath (Nashville: B&H, 2011).
This chapter does not take the position that all Christians who presently worship on a different day do not love Jesus or have the assurance of salvation. Nonetheless, it argues that seventh-day Sabbath observance is God’s will for all Christians and points to the blessing they will gain when they do.
Joseph A. Pipa, “The Christian Sabbath” in Perspectives on the Sabbath (Nashville: B&H, 2011).
From the time of the Reformation until the mid-twentieth century, the great majority of Protestant Christians held fairly strict views regarding the use of Sunday. Most in practice would have fallen into the category this book calls the “Christian Sabbath” view. … This practice has so declined that today only a small minority of Christians in the West hold to this position. Who is correct? … My thesis in this chapter is that we should restore the Sabbath to its purpose and uses as described in the Westminster Standards.
Craig L. Blomberg, “The Sabbath as Fulfilled in Christ” in Perspectives on the Sabbath (Nashville: B&H, 2011).
The view that the Sabbath is binding on Christians rests on no explicit text in the NT or early Christian literature. It is surpassingly strange that a supposedly central Christian religious duty depends on the interpretation of an OT text.
[previous: Put the Christ back in Christology]
[next: The blessing of rest]