Must Christians Observe the Sabbath?
AN Orthodox rabbi walked ten miles from New York’s Kennedy airport to a home in Brooklyn. Why? Because his plane landed after sundown on Friday and it was against his religious code to use public transportation on his sabbath. Some in Israel insist that buses not be allowed to run on the sabbath, not even fire trucks. At times these Orthodox Jews will lie flat on the street side by side, from curb to curb, so as to stop all traffic on the sabbath. Of course, not all Orthodox Jews feel this way about their sabbath.
The law that these Jews profess to obey is the Fourth of the Ten Commandments, which reads (in part): “Remembering the sabbath day to hold it sacred, you are to render service and you must do all your work six days. But the seventh day is a sabbath to Jehovah your God. You must not do any work.” (Ex. 20:8-10) Is this sabbath law binding upon Christians or did it apply only to the Israelites, later known as the Jews?
Only with Israel?
Answering that question is the very introduction to the Ten Commandments: “I am Jehovah your God, who have brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves.” (Ex. 20:2) Whom did Jehovah deliver from Egypt? The descendants of Jacob or Israel. Note the way that the Fourth Commandment reads at Deuteronomy 5:12-15: “Keeping the sabbath day to hold it sacred, . . . you must remember that you became a slave in the land of Egypt and Jehovah your God proceeded to bring you out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. That is why Jehovah your God commanded you to carry on the sabbath day.”
In fact, this sabbath law was to be a sign between Jehovah and whom? Only Israel. At Exodus 31:13 it is written: “Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘Especially my sabbaths you are to keep, for it is a sign between me and you during your generations that you may know that I Jehovah am sanctifying you.’” (See also Ezekiel 20:10-12.) And while some claim that the sabbath law applied from Eden onward, Moses plainly stated to his people: “It was not with our forefathers that Jehovah concluded this covenant, but with us, all those of us alive here today.”—Deut. 5:3.
But was not that sabbath to be a sign between Jehovah God and his people “forever”? (Ex. 31:17, Byington’s translation, also The New English Bible) No, because the Hebrew word here rendered “forever” is ‛oh·lamʹ and merely means an indefinite period or uncertain time. Accordingly, the New World Translation renders ‛oh·lamʹ “to time indefinite.” So the sabbath was to be binding to time indefinite; it could be forever or it might not be. The fact that this word is used in regard to ever so many other features of the Law arrangement that have obviously passed away shows that it does not necessarily mean forever.—Ex. 12:14, 17, 24; 27:21; 28:43; 29:28.
What About Jesus and His Apostles?
Did Jesus observe the sabbath? The religious leaders of his day found fault with Jesus in this regard, but the fact remains that as a Jew born under the Law, he did indeed observe the sabbath. (Gal. 4:4) He kept the sabbath as God’s Word (not the Pharisees) directed. When challenged, he argued, not that the sabbath did not apply to him, but, rather, that it was “lawful to do a fine thing on the sabbath.” (Matt. 12:12) However, he also said that he came “to fulfill” the Law. (Matt. 5:17) How did this affect his disciples?
After Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension into heaven did they continue to keep the sabbath? No. But they did take advantage of local customs to preach to the people who usually gathered on the sabbath. Thus we read that Paul and his companions entered a synagogue on the sabbath. Why? Because that is when people were there. (Acts 13:14-16) And it was their listeners, accustomed to gathering on the sabbath, that asked that they be permitted to hear more on the following sabbath. (Acts 13:42-44) Whenever the sabbath is mentioned in the book of Acts, it is in connection with non-Christian worship, either at a synagogue or other place of prayer.—Acts 16:11-13; 17:1-3; 18:4.
On the other hand, mention is made that on certain occasions Christ’s disciples came together on the first day of the week. (John 20:19, 26; Acts 20:7) While this does not authorize Christians to make the first day of the week a sacred one, in the absence of any specific commands to that effect in the Christian Greek Scriptures, it certainly does imply that the early Christians no longer felt bound to the seventh day as a special one for worship.
At Romans 6:14 it is written to Christians: “You are not under law.” But the claim is made by some who hold out for sabbath-day observance that only those who break God’s law can be said to be “under Law,” and that all who keep it are “free from the Law.” But such an argument finds no support in God’s Word. Instead, the Bible says: “We know that all the things the Law says it addresses to those under the Law.”—Rom. 3:19.
Also refuting their position are the words of the apostle Paul found at Galatians 3:23, where it states that “before the faith arrived, we were being guarded under law.” Certainly Jesus was not a breaker of the Law, and yet we read of him: “When the full limit of the time arrived, God sent forth his Son, who came to be out of a woman and who came to be under law.” This one scripture of itself shows how specious is the argument that only those who break the Law could be said to be “under” it.—Gal. 4:4.
Warned Against Observing Days
While not under the Decalogue, Christians are admonished in line with the principles found in the Decalogue. Thus they are warned against worshiping other gods, against idolatry, against profaning God’s name, against murder, adultery, theft, bearing false witness and against covetousness; they are also commanded to honor their father and mother. But we look in vain from Matthew through Revelation for any express command to observe the seventh day of the week.
On the contrary, Christians are specifically commanded: “Let no man judge you in eating and drinking or in respect of a festival or of an observance of the new moon or of a sabbath; for those things are a shadow of the things to come.” (Col. 2:16, 17) In particular were the Galatian Christians reproved for observing certain days: “Now that you . . . have come to be known by God, how is it that you are turning back again to the weak and beggarly elementary things and want to slave for them over again? You are scrupulously observing days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that somehow I have toiled to no purpose respecting you.”—Gal. 4:9-11.
That sabbath observance was not obligatory upon early Christians can be seen from Romans 14:5: “One man judges one day as above another; another man judges one day as all others; let each man be fully convinced in his own mind.” The apostle Paul could not have put the matter this way if Christians were still bound by the Decalogue. In this regard it is indeed of interest that such early church “fathers” as Justin Martyr and Tertullian put sabbathkeeping in the same class as circumcision.
God Through Christ Made an End to the Law
Very clearly the Scriptures state that God through Christ made an end to the Law. (Eph. 2:14-18; Col. 2:13, 14) Some persons claim that God made an end only to the so-called ceremonial law, but not to the Decalogue. But there is no Scriptural warrant for such a separation. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus quoted from both the Decalogue and the ceremonial features of the Law and made no distinction between them.—Matt. 5:21-42.
In further support of this, note the inspired words appearing at Romans 7:4-12. There we read that Christians “were made dead to the Law through the body of the Christ,” and, as a result, they “have been discharged from the Law.” From what Law? From only the so-called ceremonial law? Not at all, for the inspired writer goes on to quote from the Decalogue, “You must not covet,” showing that by “Law” he meant not only the so-called ceremonial law, but the entire law given through Moses, including the Ten Commandments.
Law versus Undeserved Kindness
Throughout the Christian Greek Scriptures the law of Moses is contrasted with the “grace” or undeserved kindness that came in with Jesus Christ. Thus we read that “the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17, Authorized Version) Yes, “Christ is the end of the Law, so that everyone exercising faith may have righteousness.” By “end” is not meant merely the goal of the Law but its finish. Christians are therefore counseled: “Sin must not be master over you, seeing that you are not under law but under undeserved kindness.”—Rom. 10:4; 6:14.
The Law served its purpose, preparing the Israelites for their Messiah, even as we read: “The Law has become our tutor leading to Christ, that we might be declared righteous due to faith. But now that the faith has arrived, we are no longer under a tutor.” (Gal. 3:24, 25) For whom was the Law a tutor? Only for the Jews. Thus when Paul preached to non-Jews in Athens, some of them became believers, Christians, although they had never been under the Mosaic law as a tutor.—Acts 17:22-34.
The “Law” of Love
Does all this mean that, since Christians are not under the Ten Commandments, they are free to do whatever they please? Not at all. “You were, of course, called for freedom, brothers; only do not use this freedom as an inducement for the flesh, but through love slave for one another. For the entire Law stands fulfilled in one saying, namely: ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Gal. 5:13, 14) If Christians had been relieved only from the so-called ceremonial law, such a freedom would not constitute an inducement to the flesh. But clearly the argument is that just because they are no longer under the Mosaic law, including its Ten Commandments, they are not free to act with disregard for others, for they are still obligated by the law of love.
Showing that such obligation to love takes the place of commandments found in the Decalogue (and not just of the so-called ceremonial law) are the words found at Romans 13:8-10: “Do not you people be owing anybody a single thing, except to love one another; for he that loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. For the law code, ‘You must not commit adultery, You must not murder, You must not steal, You must not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there is, is summed up in this word, namely, ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does not work evil to one’s neighbor,’ therefore love is the law’s fulfillment.” Because of the fundamental importance of love, Jesus did not refer to any of the Ten Commandments when asked what was the greatest one, but showed that the greatest commandment was to love God with one’s whole heart, soul, mind and strength.—Mark 12:29, 30.
The Fourth Commandment, however, is not without meaning for Christians. They do keep a sabbath, not one day out of seven, but a continual sabbath, the sabbath that God entered into upon completing his works of creation. (Ps. 95:8-11; Heb. 3:7 to 4:8) Yes, “there remains a sabbath resting for the people of God,” wrote Paul; “let us therefore do our utmost to enter into that rest.” How? By exercising faith in God’s provision for salvation; by desisting from selfish works and, instead, using our lives to glorify God. “The man that has entered into God’s rest has also himself rested from his own works [works at self-justification, selfish works], just as God did from his own” works of creation. (Heb. 4:9-11) Have you done that?