Is the Sabbath Required for Christians Today?
Can the fourth commandment be obsolete?
The Bible says, "Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy" (Exodus 20:8). God’s people were told to rest on the seventh day of every week. Nevertheless, most Christians today do not observe the seventh-day Sabbath—they say it is obsolete. This article explains why.
We will examine the major questions, and give brief answers. We have longer explanations available for each question, but this article will give a concise overview.
1. Was the Sabbath commanded at creation, even before humanity sinned?
There is no evidence in the Bible that God commanded the Sabbath before the days of Moses. Genesis says that God rested, but nowhere does it say that the first humans were commanded to follow his example. Before humans sinned, they lived in a blessed and holy time, in which they were in a state of peace with God, trustful and obedient. They did not need to labor in the way they later did. They did not need to set aside a day for communion with God, for they had it continually. The first human did not need to rest on the second day of his life.
God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, but that does not mean that he required people to rest on it. As the Jubilee year shows (Lev. 25:8-12), time can be holy without requiring a rest. In the days of Moses, the creation week was used as a pattern for commanding the seventh-day Sabbath, but that pattern does not prove that the Sabbath existed ever since creation.
If God commands the Sabbath, then we should keep it, of course, even if we have to adjust our schedules, suffer financially, and alienate our families. But if God does not require the Sabbath, then it would be wrong to put this unnecessary burden on anyone. When the effect on our lives is so great, we need to make sure that we have a clear command from God, not a questionable inference. Genesis does not command the Sabbath, never mentions the word, and never pictures anyone as keeping it.
Abraham kept all of God’s commands (Gen. 26:5), but this does not mean that he kept all the annual festivals, sacrificed his firstborn animals, or did any of the other laws that Moses gave. This verse tells us that Abraham was obedient to all the laws that applied to him, but it doesn’t tell us which laws applied. The Jewish Talmud says that Abraham did not keep the Sabbath; the Jews believed that the Sabbath was given, as the Bible describes, through Moses to the Israelite people.
2. The Sabbath was called holy time. Doesn’t it remain holy forever?
Not necessarily. In ancient Israel’s worship system, many things and places were holy. Firstborn animals and children were holy (Ex. 13:1-2), but they are not holy in the same way today. The Jubilee Year was holy, but it is not so today. The laws of holiness told the Jews how to worship God, and although we might think that worship laws telling us how to show love to God are the most important, the fact is that many of ancient Israel’s worship laws are now obsolete. God does not expect us to worship him in exactly the same way that the Israelites did.
3. The Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments. Shouldn’t Christians keep the Ten Commandments?
Christians generally agree that nine of the Ten Commandments still apply today. The last six commandments are quoted several times in the New Testament—but it is a mistake to assume that the Sabbath command is also commanded today. We are asking whether all Ten of the Commandments are still required—we cannot assume in advance that all Ten must stay together. We need to see what the Bible says about it.
The Bible refers to the Ten Commandments as a group in only three places. They are called the covenant that God made with his people through Moses (Ex. 34:28 and Deut. 4:13)—and this covenant is now obsolete (Heb. 8:13). Christians are not required to keep "the law of Moses" (Acts 15). The law-code of Moses, although containing some eternally-valid laws, also contains some temporary laws that became obsolete when Jesus Christ came. All Christians agree that some of these God-given laws became obsolete; the question now is whether the list of obsolete laws happens to include the Sabbath. We cannot judge the law by its neighbors—we cannot assume that it is valid, nor can we assume it is obsolete.
To answer our question, we must turn to the New Testament. Although some of the commandments are quoted at various places in the New Testament, the only place in the New Testament where the Ten Commandments are mentioned as a group is in 2 Cor. 3. There, Paul talks about tablets of stone when Moses’ face was shining in glory (vs. 3, 7). Clearly, Paul is talking about the Ten Commandments. Notice what he says: They are the letter that kills, a ministry of death and condemnation, which came in glory but its glory is now fading away (vs. 6-11). The new covenant, in contrast, is a ministry that brings life, is much more glorious, and is a ministry that does not fade away.
Paul did not praise the Ten Commandments as part of the Christian way of life. Rather, he pointed out ways in which the gospel of Jesus Christ is different from the Ten Commandments. They were part of a ministry that was fading away. Since Paul says that the ministry of the letter is fading, it should be no surprise if we find that one of the Ten was a temporary command. Something about those stone tablets is fading away; we cannot assume that all Ten Commandments are eternal.
4. Didn’t Ex. 31:16 declare the Sabbath to be a perpetual covenant between God and his people?
Yes, but so was circumcision (Gen. 17:13) and the weekly showbread (Lev. 24:8). The same Hebrew word is used to say that the Day of Atonement is a lasting ordinance, and the Levitical priesthood will continue (Lev. 16:29; Ex. 29:9; 40:15). Obviously, the Hebrew word does not mean eternal. The covenant that God made with the Israelites is now obsolete (Heb. 8:13).
God gave the Sabbath to the Israelites as a sign between God and the Israelites (Ex. 31:17). The Sabbath made the Israelites different from other nations—but Paul says that the laws that separated Jews and Gentiles have been done away by the cross of Christ (Eph. 2:11-18).
5. Didn’t Isaiah say that Gentiles would be blessed for keeping the Sabbath?
Yes, he did. He also said that Gentiles will offer burnt offerings and sacrifices (Isa. 56:7). The prophets predicted that people will observe new moons (Isa. 66:23; Ezek. 46:3), discriminate against uncircumcised people (Isa. 52:1-2; Ezek. 44:9), sacrifice in the temple (Ezek. 20:40; Zech. 14:20-21) and observe other laws that Christians do not need to. The prophets lived under the old covenant, and they described devotion to God in terms of the old covenant. We cannot assume that those specifics apply to Christians in this age.
6. Jesus kept the Sabbath. Shouldn’t we follow his example?
Yes, Jesus kept the Sabbath. He kept all the Jewish laws, because he was born under the law and kept it perfectly (Gal. 4:4; Heb. 4:15). He killed Passover lambs, tithed to the Levites, told cleansed people to make offerings commanded by Moses (Matt. 8:4), and he observed Hanukkah (John 10:22). He would have worn blue threads on his garments (Num. 15:38) and done a lot of other things that Christians aren’t required to imitate. When we look at the example he set, we must remember the historical context.
What kind of example did Jesus set on the Sabbath? The Bible never says that he rested—we are told only of his activity. He never commands anyone to keep the Sabbath, nor praises anyone for it. Rather, he constantly criticized people who had rules about what could or could not be done on the Sabbath. He always taught more freedom, never any restrictions. Although he told people to be very strict about some laws (Matt. 5:21, 28, etc.), he was always liberal about the Sabbath.
Jesus always compared the Sabbath to ceremonial laws, not to moral laws. When his disciples were picking grain, he used the example of the showbread, and the work of the priests in the temple (Matt. 12:3-6). Those rituals were just as important as the Sabbath. He said that circumcision could be done on the Sabbath (John 7:22), which indicates that circumcision is a more important law than the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a ritual law—it says that behavior that is perfectly good one day, is forbidden on another, simply because the earth has rotated. But true morality does not change from one day of the week to another. When ritual laws became obsolete when Jesus died, it should be no surprise that the ritual of the Sabbath also became obsolete.
Jesus said that daily chores could be done on the Sabbath (Luke 13:15). Even hard labor could be done in an emergency (Luke 14:5). He told a healed man to carry his sleeping mat, even though there was no hurry (John 5:8). He even used the word "work" to describe his activity (v. 17). Many Christians follow this example. They remember that Jesus consistently criticized the Sabbath rules of the Pharisees, and that he treated it as a ritual law.
7. Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man (Mark 2:27).
Circumcision was made for man, too. All of God’s laws, even the obsolete ones, were made for humans. The Sabbath law was made to benefit humans, to serve them, not become an unpleasant burden. Jesus said this to argue for liberty, not for making requirements. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath—he has authority over it, and he can set it aside if he wants to.
8. Luke 23:56 tells us that even after Jesus’ crucifixion, the women "rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment" (Luke 23:56). Does this show that the Sabbath is still commanded for Christians?
The women rested on the Sabbath, but their example does not tell us whether that commandment is still in effect. They did not yet understand that God no longer required ritual laws. Luke’s readers might have wondered why the women rested even though they were faced with an urgent need, so Luke told them why—the women rested because of the commandment.
Luke used the word "commandment," but that does not prove that the commandment was required for Luke's readers. Paul used the same word to describe the rules that divided Jews from Gentiles (Eph. 2:15), but Paul says that those commandments do not have any validity for his readers. The word "commandment" does not imply any validity or permanence. Luke is simply using ordinary words to explain why the women rested. He is not commanding his readers to follow that example.
9. Jesus said that his disciples should pray not to flee on the Sabbath (Matt. 24:20). Doesn’t this mean that we should be keeping it?
No. It is permissible to flee for your life on the Sabbath. But Jesus said that people in Judea (v. 16) could find it difficult, just as they would find it difficult but not sinful to flee in winter (v. 20). This verse does not say whether the disciples would be keeping the Sabbath or not—it just recognizes that other people in Judea would be, so it would be difficult for the disciples to flee when city gates were closed, shops were closed, etc. This verse does not command the Sabbath—it only shows that it would be difficult for people in Judea to flee on the Sabbath.
10. Heb. 4:9 says that a Sabbath-rest still remains for believers today.
Hebrews 4 is talking about a future rest. People did not have this rest in Joshua’s day, nor when Psalm 95 was written (v. 8), so this chapter is not talking about the weekly Sabbath. This rest is entered by faith in Christ (v. 2). By using the word "Sabbath-rest," Hebrews is saying that the weekly Sabbath symbolized the real rest that God wants his people to enter. Just as the Levitical sacrifices symbolized the work of Christ, the weekly Sabbath pictured our final salvation. This symbolism says nothing about whether Christians should continue observing the symbols.
In one way, symbols are obsolete, but in another way, they are still required. Circumcision is a great example. Christians do not have to be physically circumcised (Rom. 2:29)—but we should be circumcised in the heart. We are to keep this ritual law, but we do so in the spirit, not the letter. In one sense, Christ has made the law obsolete; in another way, he has transformed it and still requires it in its transformed way. The same is true of the Levitical rituals: although we do not offer animal sacrifices, we are obedient to those laws when we have faith that Jesus Christ fulfilled those sacrifices. The requirement has been transformed.
In a similar way, since the Sabbath points toward our final salvation, and this salvation is in Christ, we are abiding by the purpose of the Sabbath command when we put our faith in Christ. It is in him that we find the rest that we need (Matt. 11:28-30). The requirement for rest has been transformed to focus on Christ rather than a day of the week. If we have faith in him, we are entering God’s rest and we are therefore keeping the spiritual intent of the Sabbath.
11. Revelation says that the end-time people of God will be keeping God’s commandments (Rev. 12:17).
This verse does not say which commandments are still valid. It is wrong to assume that it means the Ten, when God has actually given many more commandments than that.
12. Didn’t Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, keep the Sabbath?
When Paul was preaching the gospel in a new city, his custom was to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath (Acts 13:14; 16:13; 17:2). But this does not mean that he kept the Sabbath. Paul wanted to preach to Jews first, and the best place to do this was in a synagogue, and the best day to do it was the Sabbath, when the Jews were there. It was simply a good evangelistic strategy to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath. However, Paul never taught anyone to keep the Sabbath.
Paul sometimes kept Jewish laws such as circumcision, making vows, and participating in temple rituals (Acts 16:3; 18:18; 21:26). When he was with Jews, he lived like they did—but he did not consider himself to be under the old covenant law (1 Cor. 9:20). When with Gentiles, he could live like a Gentile, just as Peter could (v. 21; Gal. 2:14). In the first century, neither Jews nor Gentiles believed that Gentiles should keep the Sabbath. If Paul had a different view, we should expect to see some evidence, but there is none.
In the Gentile cities of Lystra, Derbe and Athens, nothing is said about the Sabbath. In some places, Paul preached every day (Acts 17:17; 19:9). When he was in Troas, we do not hear anything about the Sabbath. Rather, the church waited until the first day of the week to come together and break bread (Acts 20:7). The example of Paul, like that of Jesus, is always liberty, and makes no restrictions or commandments about the Sabbath.
Before we see what Paul taught about the Sabbath, let us summarize our observations.
- The first place we see a command for the Sabbath is in the law of Moses.
- The law of Moses contains many commands that Christians do not have to keep.
- Even laws that came before Moses, such as circumcision, can be obsolete.
- To see which laws are obsolete, we need to study the New Testament.
- The New Testament never commands the Sabbath.
- Jesus always criticizes Sabbath rules, and never tells anyone to be careful about what they do on the Sabbath.
- Jesus always groups the Sabbath with ceremonial and ritual laws.
- Peter and Paul could live like Gentiles if they wanted to.
- Paul said that something about the Ten Commandments was fading away.
Should Christians keep the seventh-day Sabbath? Is the command clear enough to require people to lose their jobs and alienate their families? No—the only place that the Sabbath is commanded is in a covenant that the New Testament calls obsolete. True, the New Testament does not explicitly say that the Sabbath is obsolete. Instead, it says much more—that the entire old covenant is obsolete. It says that Christians do not have to keep the law of Moses. It says a large category of law is no longer required, and it never tells Christians to keep the Sabbath. None of the Sabbatarian arguments proves that the Sabbath is still commanded.
If the Sabbath were required, it is surprising that the New Testament never repeats the command. It has space for all sorts of other commands, from holy kisses to avoiding idolatry, but it never commands the Sabbath. It never criticizes anyone for breaking it. Paul dealt with numerous problems of Christian living, but he never tells slaves or others how to keep the Sabbath. He lists numerous sins that can keep a person out of the kingdom of God, but he never mentions the Sabbath. If the Sabbath is important, the silence of the New Testament is astounding.
But the evidence against the Sabbath goes even further than what we have covered. The New Testament not only fails to command the Sabbath—it says that it is wrong to require it.
13. Christians should not judge one another regarding the Sabbath.
The only time that Paul mentions the Sabbath by name is in Col. 2:16-17. He says, "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. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ." Here, Paul groups the weekly Sabbath with the annual festivals, the monthly rituals, and eating and drinking restrictions of Judaism.
There is no translation problem here—Paul is talking about the weekly Sabbath and saying that it, like the other rituals of Judaism, is not a basis for judging. The Christians at Colossae should not let other people judge them by what they do on the Sabbath day—and in the same way, they should not judge other Christians by what they do on the Sabbath. In other words, they are not to say it is wrong for other Christians to be working on the Sabbath. Christians should not let anyone make them feel guilty for what they do on the Sabbath.
The reason for this, Paul says, is because Christ is the reality that these rituals symbolized. Since Christ has canceled our debts (v. 14), we should therefore not let anyone criticize us for what we do on the Sabbath. Because of the cross, the regulations about the Sabbath (as well as the new moons and annual festivals) are obsolete.
Paul told the Galatians that the promises of salvation were given to Abraham (Gal. 3:16). Then a law was added 430 years later—meaning all the laws added through Moses (v. 17). This law was temporary, in effect only until "the Seed" (Christ) had come (v. 19). This law was put into effect until Christ, but now that he has come, we are not under the supervision of that law (vs. 24-25). The New Testament message is consistent: the old covenant, the law of Moses, is obsolete. If a command (such as the Sabbath) can be found only within the temporary law, then it is not likely to still be required.
14. In Christianity, every day may be treated alike.
In Romans 14, Paul writes that some Christians consider "one day more sacred than another," whereas other Christians consider "every day alike." In the Roman church, partly composed of Jews and partly composed of Gentiles, it is obvious what kind of days might be considered sacred.
But Paul says, "Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind." In other words, he is saying that it is permissible for a Christian to think that every day is alike! He did not feel any need to explain that one day of the week should be considered different. He was quite content for Christians to consider them all the same. His concern here, as it was in Colossians, was that Christians should not judge one another about their different customs (v. 4).
Paul was indifferent about the question of days—and the only reason that he could be indifferent about it, was that he considered the Sabbath command to be obsolete. If Christians work on the Sabbath, we are not to judge them or call them wrong, because they are not wrong. The Sabbath command does not apply.
First-century Jews did not think that the Sabbath applied to Gentiles, anyway. Paul would have had an uphill battle if he had wanted to teach otherwise. The reason that Paul could be so indifferent about days, that he could tell people not to judge one another about them, is that they were not commanded.
15. God accepts us on the basis of Christ, not on whether we keep a certain day of the week.
The Sabbath (or any other distinctive practice) can deceive a person and subtly reduce the importance of Jesus Christ. The tendency is to think, "I please God because I keep the Sabbath. I am counted as one of his people because I keep the Sabbath." But God knows us as his people through Christ, not through a day of the week. The Bible says that the only reason that we please God is because of Jesus Christ:
"He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life" (Titus 3:5-7).
No matter how many laws we keep, we are sinners, and the only reason that we can be saved is because Jesus died for our sins. But a focus on laws, especially laws that make us different from other people, tends to put the focus back onto ourselves—and what we do. For some people, the badge of betterness is a certain style of worship. For others, it is a certain belief, or the avoidance of alcohol, or a style of dress. For Sabbatarians, it is the Sabbath. Not everyone falls into this trap, of course, but the more distinctive the doctrines, the more likely that people will value them too highly.
Suppose we come to the Day of Judgment and we are asked, "Why should we let you into the kingdom of God?" How will we answer? Will we talk about what laws we kept? Or will we trust in Christ alone? Will we try to claim part of the credit? The Bible says that our only basis of salvation is faith in Christ, and that no one has anything to boast about (Eph. 2:8-9). Our works don’t count for anything; our only hope is Jesus Christ, and any doctrine or practice that obscures this fact is an enemy of faith. Anything that tempts us to look at what we do, tempts us to take away some of the trust that we should be giving to Christ.
Christians try to obey God, but our obedience does not count anything for our salvation. There are many reasons to obey God (faith in his wisdom, gratitude for his mercy, personal love for him, desire to spread the gospel, etc.), but salvation is not one of them. Salvation is a gift; obedience is a response—and that is for laws that are still valid in the New Testament era. If obeying a valid law counts for nothing, what good does it do to keep an obsolete one?
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
Of course, Christians may refrain from work one day a week if they wish. Spiritual disciplines like that can be helpful to a person’s spiritual growth, but they can also become obstacles, if people begin to think that these particular practices make them better than others. And these practices can become spiritually dangerous, if people think that everyone else ought to measure up to the way they worship God. Christians should not place themselves "under the law" (Galatians 3:25) as if the laws of Moses still had authority over them.
Jesus criticized people who taught requirements that God did not have: "You experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them" (Luke 11:46). When we teach requirements, we need to be very careful.
The Sabbath has nothing to do with salvation, and nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ. It was never part of the message of the New Testament church. The message is always one of liberty, never one of restrictions on a particular day of the week. God accepts us because of Jesus Christ, not because of anything that we do. It is by grace, not works. We are to trust in Christ for our salvation.