Is Sabbath Observance for Christians?
Did Jesus or the apostles command sabbathkeeping? What should be a Christian’s position regarding it?
IN 1610, a man, in what is now the United States, could be whipped for breaking a Sunday sabbath law. In 1961 men can still be arrested and punished in some communities for this. Well-meaning religious people have caused such laws to be passed because they have sincerely believed that sabbath observance is a fundamental requirement of Christianity. Sunday legislation, however, originated in the Roman Empire more than sixteen centuries ago. According to Clark’s Biblical Law, it began when “Constantine the Great passed an edict commanding all judges and inhabitants of cities to rest on the venerable day of the Sun.” Since this first day of the week was the day pagan Romans dedicated to sun worship, why do professed Christians observe it as a sabbath and a holy day?
When confronted with the fact that Sunday was a holy day for the worshipers of Mithra, persons who believe Sunday to be the Christian’s sabbath will deny that the day was adopted from the pagans. Their contention is that this first day of the week is the “Lord’s day” because that was the day Jesus was resurrected. They believe Christians are supposed to observe that day to commemorate that marvelous event. They argue that since the apostles were assembled together on Jesus’ resurrection day, which was Sunday, and a week later on the same day, it proves that they were observing the first day of the week as the Christian sabbath.—John 20:19.
But is this a really sound conclusion? Was it not a natural thing for Jesus’ disciples to meet together after hearing about his resurrection? Is it not reasonable that they would want to come together and discuss it? If Jesus had intended that they start observing that day as a sabbath to commemorate his resurrection, why did he not say something about it when he personally joined their meeting that day? That would have been the time and occasion for him to command sabbath observance for Christians if God required it of them, but there is nothing in the Bible to indicate that he said anything about it.
That meeting was late in the day, and we are told that “eight days later his disciples were again indoors.” (John 20:26) Let us assume that the count began with Sunday so the eight days would end on the next Sunday. Does this mean that the disciples had no meetings between these two days? In view of the momentous events that had just taken place it is most unreasonable to conclude that they waited an entire week before coming together again. So the mere mention of the disciples assembling on the first day of the week when Jesus was resurrected and a week later on the same day does not prove sabbath observance on that day, and neither does Jesus’ presence with them at that time prove it. Note that it was on a weekday when he was present with them at another gathering forty days after his resurrection, the time when he ascended to his Father.—Acts 1:3, 6.
What is written at Acts 20:7 and; 1 Corinthians 16:2 is used by Sabbatarians to prove that the apostles recognized the first day of the week as a sabbath day. The first scripture speaks about Paul and some Christians at Troas as having a meal together on that day. Since Jesus did not instruct his followers to assemble on the first day of the week as a regular observance of that day, we must conclude that the assembly of Christians at Troas on the first day of the week was not in observance of Sunday as a sabbath but for Christian fellowship at a meal because Paul was leaving the next day for Assos.
The scripture at 1 Corinthians 16:2 states: “Every first day of the week let each of you at his own house set something aside in store as he may be prospering, so that when I arrive collections will not take place then.” How does the fact that the Corinthians were told to set aside contributions on the first day of the week prove they were observing that day as a sabbath? The contributions were set aside at home, not at an assembly place. The first day of the week, before expenses of the week cut into their funds, would be the logical time to set aside a contribution. That also would be better than waiting until the last minute before Paul came to gather something together hurriedly. Thus the evidence points to personal budgeting by the Corinthians and not to sabbath observance.
Keeping Sunday as a sabbath day of rest to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus is wholly without Scriptural support. The same can be said of any comparison that may be made between it and the seventh-day sabbath observance mentioned in the Ten Commandments. Note what The Popular and Critical Bible Encyclopedia says in this regard: “We fail to find the slightest trace of a law or apostolic edict instituting the observance of the ‘day of the Lord;’ nor is there in the Scriptures an intimation of the substitution of this for the Jewish sabbath.” Since Scriptural evidence for Sunday-sabbath observance by Christians is wholly lacking, we must conclude that it was inspired by the influence of pagan sun worshipers.
Since the observing of Sunday as a sabbath rest is not commanded or even suggested by the Scriptures, what about Saturday? Are Christians required to keep it as a sabbath in view of the fact that it is the seventh day mentioned in the fourth of the Ten Commandments?
Although the fourth commandment commands the observing of the seventh day as a sabbath rest, it must be kept in mind that the Ten Commandments were part of the law given to the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai. This law covenant was not given to any other people, and regarding the sabbath observance contained in it, Moses said: “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.” (Deut. 5:15) The sabbath was given to the Israelites to commemorate their deliverance and to act as a sign of their covenant relationship with God. (Ex. 31:16, 17) That cannot be said of Christians.
Christians are not under the law covenant, because Christ fulfilled that law when he died upon the torture stake. “For Christ is the end of the Law.” (Rom. 10:4) There is no justification in the Scriptures for separating the Ten Commandments from the rest of the law covenant and claiming that it was not brought to an end by Jesus but is binding upon Christians. The apostle Paul wrote at great length about the law covenant and how it was brought to an end, but not one word was said about the Ten Commandments as being a separate moral law that is eternally binding and the rest of the Law being a ceremonial law that ended.
At Romans 7:6 he speaks about Christians being “discharged from the Law,” and in the next verse he refers to the tenth commandment without giving any indication that he considered it to be a separate law. Then in the thirteenth chapter of Romans he mentions several commandments in the Decalogue and points out that they are all fulfilled by the new commandment that Jesus gave to “love one another.”—Rom. 13:9, 10; John 13:34; Matt. 22:39, 40.
It might also be noted that in the sermon on the mount Jesus quotes from the Ten Commandments as well as the rest of the Law without making any distinction between them.—Matt. 5:21-44.
The fact that Jesus kept the sabbath does not mean he set the example for Christians to keep it. It was necessary for him to observe it because he was born under the law covenant, and until he fulfilled it by his sacrificial death he was obliged to keep all the Law. If Christians should keep the sabbath because he did, then they must also keep the entire Law as he did, and we know from the Scriptures that this is not required of Christians.
There is no express statement in the Scriptures saying that Christians, after Pentecost, continued to keep the seventh day of the week as a sabbath. Some persons may point to the occasions recorded in the book of Acts when the apostle Paul went into synagogues on the sabbath, but how does this prove he was observing the sabbath? If he went to the synagogue in obedience to the sabbath law that required Jews to hold a holy convention or assembly on that day, would he not be indicating that he was still under the Law? On the other hand, if he was keeping the sabbath, not as a Jew, but as a Christian, does it not seem strange that he should choose to assemble with those who did not believe in Christ rather than with fellow Christians?
Paul’s reason for going to a synagogue on sabbath days was not that he was keeping the sabbath, but that he knew that was where he could preach the good news about God’s kingdom and God’s Son to a large number of Jews. Thus at Acts 17:1, 2, we find Paul fulfilling his commission in the Christian ministry rather than observing the sabbath with persons who still thought themselves bound to the Mosaic law. “So according to Paul’s custom he went inside to them, and for three sabbaths he reasoned with them from the Scriptures.”
Some persons may point to what Jesus said at Matthew 24:20 as proof that Christians would observe the sabbath. “Keep praying that your flight may not occur in wintertime, nor on the sabbath day.” It should be borne in mind that Jesus was speaking to Jewish followers who were well acquainted with the great difficulty in trying to travel on the sabbath day because of the restrictions that kept Jews within 2,000 cubits of their cities on that day.
It was Jesus’ custom to illustrate his teachings with things with which the people of his day were thoroughly familiar. In this instance he chose the great difficulty anyone of that time would have in trying to travel a great distance in Palestine during the winter or on the sabbath. Flight to safety should therefore be done before the time arrives when it is next to impossible. His advice was followed by Christians shortly before Jerusalem’s destruction in A.D. 70. They did not stay in the city until the Roman armies under Titus had surrounded it, preventing anyone from fleeing, but they fled before it was too late. Jesus’ use of the sabbath and of wintertime as illustrations forcefully put his point across to his Jewish listeners, but it does not prove that Christians were expected to keep the sabbath in future ages. Sabbath observance was not even being discussed here. There is no evidence in Jesus’ words to prove that Christians are obligated to observe the sabbath.
Since there is no evidence in the Scriptures that Christians were commanded to observe a sabbath or that it was kept during the lifetime of the apostles after Pentecost, what position should a Christian take? He can Scripturally take the position that sabbath observance is not a Christian requirement. This is made evident by Paul’s statement at Colossians 2:16, 17: “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, but the reality belongs to the Christ.”
The law covenant with its observance of new moons and sabbaths, including the seventh-day sabbath, was like a shadow that led to and ended with Christ. As it did not reach into the Christian Era to obligate Christians to keep it, so sabbath observance did not carry over into the Christian Era. That is why sabbath observance is not mentioned by the Christian governing body at Jerusalem as a requirement for non-Jewish Christians, although several other things were mentioned. The record of this is at Acts 15:19, 20. Neither here nor in later instructions to them was any mention made of sabbath observance, which certainly would have been made if it were vital for God’s approval.
The apostle Paul said: “I have not held back from telling you all the counsel of God.” (Acts 20:27) Despite all the counsel and instructions he gave the Christian congregation, he said nothing about sabbath observance as being required of Christians. In his letters to Timothy and Titus he details things that are required of persons appointed to positions of oversight in the Christian congregation, but he makes no mention of sabbath observance. Since he told “all the counsel of God” for Christians but did not mention sabbath observance, we must conclude that God does not require it of Christians.—1 Tim. 3:2-7; Titus 1:7-9.
Jesus’ Jewish followers after Pentecost ceased the observance of days and seasons. So did the Gentiles who left behind pagan religions when they became Christians. They worshiped and served God every day, not just one day a week. For them to observe one day a week as a sabbath would be turning back to the elementary things and becoming enslaved to them, as Paul points out at Galatians 4:9, 10 and Gal 5:1.
Weekly sabbath observance belonged to the nation of Israel and is of the past. Christians are not living in the past but are living for the future when Christ’s 1,000-year reign, which was pictured by the sabbath, will bring rest and peace to obedient mankind. Instead of observing a weekly sabbath, they look forward to this great sabbath rest under the “Lord of the sabbath.”—Matt. 12:8.