Definition: Sabbath is taken from the Hebrew sha·vathʹ, meaning “rest, cease, desist.” The sabbatical system prescribed in the Mosaic Law included a weekly Sabbath day, a number of additional specified days throughout each year, the seventh year, and the fiftieth year. The weekly Sabbath of the Jews, the seventh day of their calendar week, is from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday. Many professed Christians have traditionally kept Sunday as their day of rest and of worship; others have adhered to the day set aside on the Jewish calendar.
Are Christians under obligation to keep a weekly sabbath day?
Ex. 31:16, 17: “The sons of Israel must keep the sabbath, so as to carry out the sabbath during their generations. It is a covenant to time indefinite [“a perpetual covenant,” RS]. Between me and the sons of Israel it is a sign to time indefinite.” (Notice that sabbath observance was a sign between Jehovah and Israel; this would not be the case if everyone else were also obligated to keep the Sabbath. The Hebrew word rendered “perpetual” in RS is ‛oh·lamʹ, which basically means a period of time that, from the standpoint of the present, is indefinite or hidden from sight but of long duration. That can mean forever, but not necessarily so. At Numbers 25:13 the same Hebrew word is applied to the priesthood, which later ended, according to Hebrews 7:12.)
Rom. 10:4: “Christ is the end of the Law, so that everyone exercising faith may have righteousness.” (Sabbath keeping was a part of that Law. God used Christ to bring that Law to its end. Our having a righteous standing with God depends on faith in Christ, not on keeping a weekly sabbath.) (Also Galatians 4:9-11; Ephesians 2:13-16)
Col. 2:13-16: “[God] kindly forgave us all our trespasses and blotted out the handwritten document against us, which consisted of decrees and which was in opposition to us . . . Therefore 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.” (If a person was under the Mosaic Law and was judged guilty of profaning the Sabbath, he was to be stoned to death by the whole congregation, according to Exodus 31:14 and Numbers 15:32-35. Many who argue for sabbath keeping have reason to be glad that we are not under that Law. As shown in the scripture here quoted, an approved standing with God no longer requires observance of the sabbath requirement given to Israel.)
How did Sunday come to be the principal day of worship for much of Christendom?
Although Christ was resurrected on the first day of the week (now called Sunday), the Bible contains no instruction to set aside that day of the week as sacred.
“The retention of the old Pagan name of ‘Dies Solis,’ or ‘Sunday,’ for the weekly Christian festival, is, in great measure, owing to the union of Pagan and [so-called] Christian sentiment with which the first day of the week was recommended by Constantine [in an edict in 321 C.E.] to his subjects, Pagan and Christian alike, as the ‘venerable day of the Sun.’ . . . It was his mode of harmonizing the discordant religions of the Empire under one common institution.”—Lectures on the History of the Eastern Church (New York, 1871), A. P. Stanley, p. 291.
Was the requirement of sabbath keeping given to Adam and thus made binding on all of his offspring?
Jehovah God proceeded to rest as to his works of material, earthly creation after preparing the earth for human habitation. This is stated at Genesis 2:1-3. But nothing in the Bible record says that God directed Adam to keep the seventh day of each week as a sabbath.
Deut. 5:15: “You must remember that you [Israel] 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.” (Here Jehovah connects his giving of the sabbath law with Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, not with events in Eden.)
Ex. 16:1, 23-29: “The entire assembly of the sons of Israel finally came to the wilderness of Sin . . . on the fifteenth day of the second month after their coming out of the land of Egypt. . . . [Moses] said to them: ‘It is what Jehovah has spoken. Tomorrow there will be a sabbath observance of a holy sabbath to Jehovah. . . . Six days you will pick [the manna] up, but on the seventh day is a sabbath. On it none will form.’ . . . Jehovah said to Moses: . . . ‘Mark the fact that Jehovah has given you the sabbath.’” (Prior to this, there had been a marking off of weeks of seven days each, but this is the first reference to a sabbath observance.)
Is the Mosaic Law divided into “ceremonial” and “moral” parts, and is the “moral law” (the Ten Commandments) binding on Christians?
Did Jesus refer to the Law in a manner that indicated division of it into two parts?
Matt. 5:17, 21, 23, 27, 31, 38: “Do not think I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I came, not to destroy, but to fulfill.” Now, notice what Jesus included in his further comments. “You heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You must not murder [Ex. 20:13; the Sixth Commandment]’ . . . If, then, you are bringing your gift to the altar [Deut. 16:16, 17; no part of the Ten Commandments] . . . You heard that it was said, ‘You must not commit adultery [Ex. 20:14; the Seventh Commandment].’ Moreover it was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce [Deut. 24:1; no part of the Ten Commandments].’ You heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth [Ex. 21:23-25; no part of the Ten Commandments].’” (So, Jesus mixed together references to the Ten Commandments and other parts of the Law, making no distinction between them. Should we treat them differently?)
When Jesus was asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” did he isolate the Ten Commandments? Instead, he replied: “‘You must love Jehovah your God with your whole heart and with your whole soul and with your whole mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. The second, like it, is this, ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments the whole Law hangs, and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:35-40) If some cling to the Ten Commandments (Deut. 5:6-21), saying that they are binding on Christians but that the rest are not, are they not actually rejecting what Jesus said (quoting Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18) as to which commandments are the greatest?
When referring to the passing away of the Mosaic Law, does the Bible directly say that the Ten Commandments were included in what came to an end?
Rom. 7:6, 7: “Now we have been discharged from the Law, because we have died to that by which we were being held fast . . . What, then, shall we say? Is the Law sin? Never may that become so! Really I would not have come to know sin if it had not been for the Law; and, for example, I would not have known covetousness if the Law had not said: ‘You must not covet.’” (Here, immediately after writing that Jewish Christians had been “discharged from the Law,” what example from the Law does Paul cite? The Tenth Commandment, thus showing that it was included in the Law from which they had been discharged.)
2 Cor. 3:7-11: “If the code which administers death and which was engraved in letters in stones came about in a glory, so that the sons of Israel could not gaze intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, a glory that was to be done away with, why should not the administering of the spirit be much more with glory? . . . For if that which was to be done away with was brought in with glory, much more would that which remains be with glory.” (Reference is made here to a code that was “engraved in letters in stones” and it is said that “the sons of Israel could not gaze intently at the face of Moses” on the occasion when it was delivered to them. What is this describing? Exodus 34:1, 28-30 shows that it is the giving of the Ten Commandments; these were the commandments engraved on stone. Obviously these are included in what the scripture here says “was to be done away with.”)
Does doing away with the Mosaic Law, including the Ten Commandments, imply the taking away of all moral restraint?
Not at all; many of the moral standards set out in the Ten Commandments were restated in the inspired books of the Christian Greek Scriptures. (There was, however, no restating of the sabbath law.) But no matter how good a law is, as long as sinful inclinations dominate a person’s desires, there will be lawlessness. However, regarding the new covenant, which has replaced the Law covenant, Hebrews 8:10 states: “‘For this is the covenant that I shall covenant with the house of Israel after those days,’ says Jehovah. ‘I will put my laws in their mind, and in their hearts I shall write them. And I will become their God, and they themselves will become my people.’” How much more effective such laws are than those engraved on stone tablets!
Rom. 6:15-17: “Shall we commit a sin because we are not under law but under undeserved kindness? Never may that happen! Do you not know that if you keep presenting yourselves to anyone as slaves to obey him, you are slaves of him because you obey him, either of sin with death in view or of obedience with righteousness in view? But thanks to God that you were the slaves of sin but you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were handed over.” (See also Galatians 5:18-24.)
Of what significance to Christians is the weekly Sabbath?
There is “a sabbath resting” that Christians share in every day
Hebrews 4:4-11 says: “In one place [Genesis 2:2] he [God] has said of the seventh day as follows: ‘And God rested on the seventh day from all his works,’ and again in this place [Psalm 95:11]: ‘They shall not enter into my rest.’ Since, therefore, it remains for some to enter into it, and those to whom the good news was first declared did not enter in because of disobedience, he again marks off a certain day by saying after so long a time in David’s psalm [Psalm 95:7, 8] ‘Today’; just as it has been said above: ‘Today if you people listen to his own voice, do not harden your hearts.’ For if Joshua had led them into a place of rest, God would not afterward have spoken of another day. So there remains a sabbath resting for the people of God. For the man that has entered into God’s rest has also himself rested from his own works, just as God did from his own. Let us therefore do our utmost to enter into that rest, for fear anyone should fall in the same pattern of disobedience.”
From what are Christians here urged to rest? From their “own works.” What works? Works by means of which they formerly sought to prove themselves righteous. No longer do they believe that they can earn God’s approval and gain eternal life by complying with certain rules and observances. That was the error of faithless Jews who, by ‘seeking to establish their own righteousness, did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God.’ (Rom. 10:3) True Christians recognize that all of us were born sinners and that it is only by faith in the sacrifice of Christ that anyone can have a righteous standing with God. They endeavor to take to heart and apply all the teachings of God’s Son. They humbly accept counsel and reproof from God’s Word. This does not mean that they think they can earn God’s approval in this way; instead, what they do is an expression of their love and faith. By such a course of life they avoid the “pattern of disobedience” of the Jewish nation.
The “seventh day,” referred to in Genesis 2:2, was not merely a 24-hour day. (See page 88, under the heading “Creation.”) Similarly, the “sabbath resting” that true Christians share is not limited to a 24-hour day. By exercising faith and obeying the Bible’s counsel, they can enjoy it every day, and especially will they do so in God’s new system.
There is a thousand-year “sabbath” rest that lies ahead for mankind
Mark 2:27, 28: “[Jesus] went on to say to them: ‘The sabbath came into existence for the sake of man, and not man for the sake of the sabbath; hence the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath.’”
Jesus knew that Jehovah had instituted the Sabbath as a sign between God and Israel, and that it was meant to bring them relief from their labors. Jesus also was aware that his own death would provide the basis for setting aside the Mosaic Law as having found its fulfillment in him. He appreciated that the Law, with its sabbath requirement, provided “a shadow of the good things to come.” (Heb. 10:1; Col. 2:16, 17) In connection with those “good things” there is a “sabbath” of which he is to be Lord.
As Lord of lords, Christ will rule all the earth for a thousand years. (Rev. 19:16; 20:6; Ps. 2:6-8) While on earth, Jesus mercifully performed some of his most amazing works of healing on the Sabbath, thus demonstrating the kind of relief that he will bring to people out of all nations during his Millennial Reign. (Luke 13:10-13; John 5:5-9; 9:1-14) Those who appreciate the real meaning of the Sabbath will have opportunity also to benefit from that “sabbath” rest.
If Someone Says—
‘Christians must keep the Sabbath’
You might reply: ‘May I ask why you feel that way?’ Then perhaps add: ‘What the Bible says about it definitely should govern our thinking on the matter, should it not? . . . There are some Bible texts that I have found helpful on this subject. Please let me share them with you. (Then use appropriate portions of the material on the preceding pages.)’
‘Why don’t you keep the Sabbath?’
You might reply: ‘My answer would depend on which sabbath you have in mind. Did you know that the Bible tells about more than one sabbath? . . . God gave sabbath laws to the Jews. But did you know that the Bible speaks of a different kind of sabbath that Christians are to keep?’ Then perhaps add: (1) ‘We do not keep one day a week as the Sabbath because the Bible says that requirement “was to be done away with.” (2 Cor. 3:7-11; see comments regarding this on pages 348, 349.)’ (2) ‘But there is a sabbath that we do keep regularly. (Heb. 4:4-11; see pages 349, 350.)’