The Sabbath: A Requirement or a Choice?

The Sabbath: A Requirement or a Choice?

Theological Essay:  The Sabbath: A Requirement or a Choice?

Michael P. Andrus

August, 2023

Introduction:  The Sabbath is a confusing topic for Christians today. In fact, there are at least four distinct views that evangelicals have taken on the issue of Sabbath observance: (1) Some believe Sabbath observance is required today just as in Moses’ day, and they mean Saturday.  (2) Others accept all the Sabbath requirements but transfer them from Saturday to Sunday, which they call “the Christian Sabbath.”  (3) Still others reject all restrictions on either day, believing Christians are free from Sabbath observance altogether.  (4) And finally, there are those who believe that the “Sabbath commandment” is no longer in effect but the “Sabbath principle” is. 

Here is how the Fourth Commandment reads in Exodus 20:8-11:

“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 manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates.  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.”

The Sabbath Commandment is unique in that it is the only one not found explicitly in the New Testament.  All the rest of the Ten Commandments are confirmed and reiterated in some form in the New Testament, but not this one.  Sabbath observance is, of course, mentioned in the Gospels, but it is never commanded.  And in the Epistles, the handbook of the early Church, you discover surprisingly that: (1) Sabbath-keeping is only mentioned twice–once in a negative reference and the second time metaphorically,[i] (2) Sabbath-keeping is never commanded, (3) Sabbath-breaking is never included in any of the many lists of sins, and (4) most importantly, in several NT epistles, the Fourth Commandment is specifically contradicted.  These we will look at shortly.                        

But to get a complete picture of the Sabbath issue, let’s begin with a brief historical analysis.  

God required Sabbath observance in the Old Testament.

This is beyond dispute.  Nor did the concept originate with Moses.  God Himself observed the first Sabbath during creation week.  In Genesis 2:1-3 we read,

“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 from all his work.  And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.”

God rested, not because He was tired, but because His work was done.  But He also rested to set an example for us.  He knew that for our mental, emotional, and spiritual health we need a regular rhythm of work and rest, so He provided the Sabbath as a gift and a blessing for His people.

But it was through Moses that God first attached clear and uncompromising rules regarding the Sabbath.  They were to remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, i.e., by setting it apart from all other days by refraining from any and all work.  God carefully defined work in scores of OT passages as everything from sowing a field to pruning a vineyard, gathering wood, lighting a fire, selling food, carrying a load, fishing, or any number of other activities that people of that day regularly engaged in.  

Furthermore, God made it clear that Sabbath observance applied to men and women, adults and children, servants and masters, foreigners in their midst, and even the animals.  And the punishment for violation is clearly stated in Exodus 31:14, where we read, “Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you.  Anyone who desecrates it must be put to death; whoever does any work on that day must be cut off from his people.”  So, the commandment was very clear regarding what it required, to whom it applied, and what penalty was attached for disobedience.

But strangely the Jewish religious leaders were not content with the rules and restrictions God Himself placed upon the Sabbath.  They developed over 1500 additional rules and regulations, which turned the blessing of the Sabbath into a burden.  For example, one could lift a child on the Sabbath, but not if the child had a stone in his hand, for the stone was a burden even if the child was not.  A doctor could take steps to keep a sick man from getting worse, but he could to nothing to make him better.  One could not cook a dinner, use false teeth, or rescue a drowning man on the sabbath.

Now I would summarize OT Sabbath observance by saying that it was absolutely required, there were clear rules as to how it was to be observed, and severe penalties were attached to the violation of it.  However, the NT takes us in quite a different direction.

God does not require observance of the Jewish Sabbath for believers today.

The first thing we find in the NT is that Jesus refocused attention from the rules of Sabbath-keeping to the purpose of the Sabbath.  He taught that the Sabbath was a gift from God.  He said that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).  In fact, He frequently went out of His way to violate the Pharisaical rules and regulations about the Sabbath, and in the process, He established two major exceptions to the prohibition of work on the Sabbath.  He taught that works of mercy and works of necessity can and ought to be done on the Sabbath.  

Jesus illustrated the first exception (works of mercy) by healing on the Sabbath at least six different times.  He illustrated the second (works of necessity) when He approved of His disciples gathering food on the Sabbath because they were hungry.  The point He seemed to be making is that the letter of the Law must not be allowed to overshadow the spirit of the Law.  The Sabbath must not be observed legalistically.

However, the NT epistles go even further than Jesus in challenging OT Sabbath observance.  The very requirement of Sabbath observance is specifically abrogated by both teaching and example.  In Romans 14:5 Paul is dealing with debatable issues in the Christian life.  The primary issue is meat sacrificed to idols, but then he addresses another in verse 4: “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike.  Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.”  It would have been impossible for any prophet or leader of Israel in the OT to say something like that.  The Fourth Commandment does not have a phrase in it that says to the Israelites, “keep the Sabbath holy if you feel like it” or “make up your own mind as to which day is sacred to you.”  Clearly Paul believes that with the death of Christ and the establishment of the NT church, something major has changed in regard to the Fourth Commandment.  

Another critical passage is Colossians 2:16-17: “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.”  In the OT God ordered His people to judge one another in regard to religious festivals and Sabbath days, even to the extent of putting a person to death for a violation; now they are no longer even permitted to judge one another.

But not only does the NT teach that observing the Jewish Sabbath is no longer required; it also demonstrates by example that the early Christians did not do so.  The Jewish Sabbath was on Saturday, but soon Christians began to shift their worship allegiance to Sunday.  In Acts 20:7 it was on the first day of the week that the congregation at Troas met for worship and communion.  In 1 Cor. 16:2 it was on the first day of the week that the Corinthians were to put something aside for the collection for the Jerusalem church, apparently because that was when they worshiped.  And it was the Apostle John who first used the term “the Lord’s Day” to refer to Sunday, when he writes in Revelation 1:10, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day.” 

It is true the Apostles still frequently went to the synagogues on Saturday, but that’s because they could find large groups of Jewish people there to evangelize.  But when the church met for worship, it was generally on Sunday, the Lord’s Day.  Without doubt that was to commemorate the resurrection.  

One might conclude from these facts that the early Christians merely transferred the OT Sabbath requirements from Saturday to Sunday, making Sunday the Christian Sabbath.  But that is not so.  The early believers did not refrain from work on Sunday.  Many were from the lower classes, even slaves, so they had no choice but to work on Sunday.  Those who lived in Jewish communities undoubtedly rested on Saturday because that’s when commerce shut down, but they worshiped on Sunday–generally in the evening, after work.  That’s undoubtedly why Paul is preaching late into the evening in Troas, resulting in Eutychus falling asleep and falling out of the window (Acts 20:7-12) 

The Sabbath in Church history

It is true that later in church history some turned Sunday into “the Christian Sabbath.”  By the early 3rd century there is evidence that some Christians were not only worshiping on Sunday but also observing it as their day of rest.[ii]  In 321 Emperor Constantine passed the first law against work on Sunday, exempting only agricultural workers.  In the 8th century Alcuin was the first to identify Sunday as “the Christian Sabbath.”  And in the 13th century Thomas Aquinas made it a matter of church law that “the Sabbath is changed into the Lord’s Day.”  All work on Sunday came to be viewed as a breach of the Fourth Commandment. 

While this was going on in the Roman Catholic Church, however, the 16th century Reformers objected that the Lord’s Day and the Sabbath were not the same.  They were equally unanimous that the Fourth Commandment was, for the Christian, abrogated.  In his Larger Catechism Luther insisted that people have a day of rest and refreshment, and a day when they could gather to hear God’s Word, to praise and to pray, but he claimed that in principle it was of no importance what day that was.  Calvin said essentially the same thing. The Helvetic Confession (1536) summarizes the position of the Reformers: 

“The Lord’s Day itself ever since the Apostles’ time was consecrated to religious exercise and to a holy rest….  Yet herein we give no place to the Jewish observance of the day or to any superstitions.  For we do not count one day to be holier than another, nor think that mere rest itself is acceptable to God.  Besides, we do celebrate and keep the Lord’s Day, and not the Jewish Sabbath, and that with a free observance.”  

It was not long, however, before the Puritans in England had reverted to a strict Sabbatarian view of Sunday, and the Westminster Confession, 1646 (probably the most influential of all doctrinal statements since the Apostles’ Creed), followed suit.  The church began to draw up rules for Sunday observance that were almost as detailed as the Scribes and Pharisees did for Saturday.  Blue laws were subsequently passed in many countries with Christian majorities to enforce the Christian Sabbath.  Not only was work forbidden, but also virtually any kind of amusement, sports, dancing, or singing–essentially anything that anyone might possibly find enjoyable.  Jonathan Edwards once resolved never to utter anything humorous on the Lord’s Day, but then Edwards was not a real funny guy anyway. 

This whole movement to view Sunday as the Christian Sabbath was wrong-headed.  William Barclay is correct when he says, 

“One thing has become completely and inescapably clear.  The Sabbath day and the Lord’s Day are different days and commemorate different events.  The Sabbath is the last day of the week and commemorates God’s rest after the toil of the week of creation; the Lord’s Day is the first day of the week and commemorates the Resurrection of our Lord.  Here we must be very plain and very definite.  For the Christian the Sabbath has ceased to exist….

This fourth commandment is not binding on the Christian at all, for there is no evidence in Scripture that the rules and regulations which govern the Sabbath were ever transferred by divine authority to the Lord’s Day.  The Sabbath is not a Christian institution, the Lord’s Day is….  This means we are not asking: How ought I to keep the Sabbath?  We are asking, How ought I to keep the Lord’s Day?”[iii]  

To that question he then responds,

“The Lord’s Day is not primarily and essentially a day when this, that, or the next kind of work and action is prohibited, which is what the Jewish Sabbath is.  The Lord’s Day is primarily and essentially a day when we remember that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and is alive for ever more, and therefore with us here and now.  Every time we become involved in arguments about what may or may not be done on the Lord’s Day we are, in fact, being Jewish instead of Christian, and we are, in fact, turing the Lord’s Day into the Sabbath again.”[iv]

However, while the NT itself tells us the Jewish Sabbath is no longer in effect, we do not have the right to drop the Sabbath concept altogether.  Why not? 

There is still a Sabbath principle that we violate to our own detriment.

The Sabbath commandment is no longer in effect but the Sabbath principle is.  The Sabbath commandment was given through Moses but rescinded through the Apostle Paul.  The Sabbath principle was established at Creation and has never been rescinded.  The Sabbath principle is that God established a divine rhythm to life, namely six days of work and one day of rest.  Both are essential.  

Six days of work are optimal for good physical, emotional, and spiritual health.  Sadly, few pay attention to one of the important statements in the Fourth Commandment: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work” (Exodus 20:9).  Some argue that this is not an imperative and really should be translated, “Six days you may work,” but most scholars see it, at the very least, as the God-given pattern for life.

There have been many experiments through human history to establish a different rhythm.  During the French Revolution an attempt was made to adopt a ten-day week–working nine and taking the tenth off.  It was abandoned quickly when worker productivity fell off.  In the first half of the 20thcentury the western world established a five-day work week, and more recently in some industries the four-day work week has become the norm.  While the long-term effects of these experiments are unknown, it is almost certain they will not be positive, particularly if the resulting two or three-day weekend is consistently used entirely for leisure and pleasure.  That’s not how God made us.  That is not what contributes to our fulfillment and happiness.  

Humans were made to work six days a week.  That doesn’t necessarily mean we have to work at the same job for six days.  If a person works at a four-day-a-week job and then has a part-time job for two more days, or if he has a five-day-a-week job and on the sixth day works hard around the house, or gardening, or volunteering his service to others, that is perfectly consistent with the sabbath principle.

But frankly there are many today who view work as their enemy, or at best, an unhappy necessity.  They “work to live” rather than seeing their work as a meaningful part of their life.  We’ve even developed a pejorative term for hard workers; we call them “workaholics,” and they have received a lot of bad press in recent years.  In fact, obeying this part of the Fourth Commandment (the command to work six days) seems to be viewed by some as a greater sin than violating the other part of the Commandment (the command to rest one day).  

Obviously, if hard work causes a person to neglect his health and his family and his church, then his work habits are out of control and need to be corrected.  But why should we think that a 40-hour work week is somehow a divine maximum?  The 40-hour week is a relatively recent product of American capitalism and humanistic social philosophy.  There were very few individuals, if any, in either OT or NT times who experienced a work week of as few as 40 hours.  

But while there are some who don’t follow the biblical injunctions about work, there are also those who don’t follow its advice about rest.  The sabbath principle also teaches that one day of rest out of seven is optimal, even essential, for good physical, emotional, and spiritual health.  We live in a harried society.  We are going full speed, only too often we don’t know where we are going.  We are stressed out and uptight, often working not for the love of work but so we can afford to buy more things that end up stealing more of our time and causing even more stress.  

The divine rhythm demands one day in seven for rest and recharging, and there is no known substitute.  There are times, of course, for all of us when we of necessity miss a day of rest.  Even twice in a row may not hurt us severely, but if that is allowed to continue indefinitely, we will eventually harm our bodies, our emotions, our spirits, or all three.  There is an old Indian proverb to the effect that the bow that is always bent will cease to shoot straight.  

Barclay has observed that the Fourth Commandment . . .

“… is primarily a great piece of social and humanitarian legislation.  It is not primarily a religious regulation at all.  There is nothing at all said about worship or about religious services.  What is laid down is a day of rest on which even the serving men and women lay aside their tasks and on which even the toiling beasts are not forgotten, and when even the stranger and foreigner share in this rest.”[v]

We live in a culture where rest must be consciously scheduled or it may not happen.  Even our leisure activities have a way of wearing us out.  As much as we might enjoy a day at the stock car races or at a pro football game, do we really come home rested and refreshed, or are we even more worn out by the noise and the tension?  How many times have we said after a week of vacation, “I’m so glad to go back to work and rest up from my time off!”?  We need to learn to enjoy times of silence, to practice meditation, and to center ourselves on the Lord.

The values of the sabbath principle are many and varied, among them rest, worship, joy, and service.  Rest is essential, but it is not a static concept.  Some kinds of work can be very restful.  For those who work at a computer all week, inactivity is not restful.  Instead, going out and splitting logs or mowing the lawn on Sunday afternoon might be the most restful thing one could do.  

Another key component of the sabbath principle is worship.  While the Fourth Commandment itself does not mention worship, other Sabbath passages in the OT make it clear that was the day when the people of God gathered to worship.  This was true also of the Lord’s Day in the NT.  Worship included teaching, prayer, fellowship, praise, music, and gathering at the Lord’s Table.  We are not required to do these things on Sunday, but we must do them sometime.  “Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together,” the writer tells us in Hebrews 10:25.  In our culture, Sunday is the optimum time for most people to fulfill this command, but there’s certainly no fault attached to Saturday night services at some churches. 

My friend Tom Rea, pastor of the Free Church in Nevada, MO, made a meaningful observation in his weekly letter to his congregation: 

“An interesting verse on the principle of Sabbath is found in Luke 23:56.  Sabbath rest is so important for a healthy life and vibrant service for God.  God has really built us for ‘6 days on, 1 day off.’  The verse in Luke 23 is an easily overlooked part of the crucifixion story.  After Jesus had died and Joseph of Arimathea had asked for the body and climbed up (on a ladder?) to take the bloody body down, it’s written that the women who were watching followed Joseph and the body of Jesus to the tomb and returned home.  Then, this little mention: ‘And on the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment’ (Luke 23:56).  That seems amazing to me given the circumstances.  A small reminder of the importance of our Sabbath rest—not just naps (which we all like on a rest day), but also worship, spiritual renewal, and perhaps spiritual service.”

Another key element of the sabbath principle is joy.  God took great satisfaction in his Creative handiwork when He rested on the Sabbath, and we need to find time as well to sit back and enjoy both His creative handiwork and our own.  How often do we take the opportunity at the end of the week to look back and reflect with joy on the fact that we are able to work, that we have good jobs, and that we are able to make a difference for eternity.  This too is part of the sabbath principle.

A final important element of the sabbath principle is service.  One of the ways in which Jesus tweaked the Pharisees the most was by healing on the Sabbath.  He taught us by example that one of the great purposes of the sabbath principle was for us to serve one another.  American Christians have largely become selfish with their sabbaths, viewing their free time as just for them and their families.  Sabbath time is much more productive, fulfilling, and even restful when a portion of it is spent serving others.  This may be through hospitality, teaching a children’s class, mentoring a teenager, or visiting a retirement center.

Conclusion: There is a sabbath rest that is infinitely more important than the one of which Moses spoke in Exodus 20, or the one the Puritans called the “Christian Sabbath.”  In the Book of Hebrews, the author speaks at length about the superiority of Jesus to Moses.  Contrasting the Sabbath of Moses to the Sabbath-rest Jesus provides, he tells us that God has established a day as holy for us.  That day is Today“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…. There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God….  Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest.”(Hebrews 4:7-11)  He is speaking, of course, of the salvation-rest Christ provides to all those who put their faith in Him, who rest from our sin and selfishness, a rest that lasts for eternity.        

We can rest because Jesus worked.  And when He completed His work, He said, “It is finished.” 

[i].  Colossians 2:16 says, “do not let anyone judge you by … a Sabbath day.”  Hebrews 4:9 mentions “a Sabbath-rest for the people of God,” but clearly this is speaking metaphorically of the salvation-rest that awaits the believer, not of resting on Saturday.

[ii].  This was due to several factors.  The Jewish influence in the church had declined, so there were fewer people who had a tradition of Saturday Sabbath.  Also, Christianity had penetrated the higher ranks of society where people could, if they so chose, observe the Lord’s Day without working.  

[iii] William Barclay, The Ten Commandments for Today, 39.

[iv] Barclay, 39.

[v] Barclay, 27