Culture The Decalogue The Law of Moses

What Does it Mean to Keep the Sabbath?

Among the Ten Commandments, none has been treated with more flexibility than the Fourth.


One encounters a whole range of views on the Sabbath command, and what people believe their obligation is toward it.  Since it is one of the Ten Commandments, it makes a good test case whether those who insist Christians must keep the Ten are actually doing so. The first question is, what is the Sabbath Day? Many point to the roots of the Sabbath in creation itself.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. Gen 2:1-3

But while God did this, he did not issue any command to Adam to rest on the day. The text of Genesis says only that God rested. Many traditions have dealt with Sunday—the Lord’s Day— as a substitute for the Sabbath. We keep the Sabbath or honor it by gathering for corporate worship on Sunday, and by refraining from some activities they do on the other days of the week. The Westminster Confession affirms this:

This Sabbath is to be kept holy unto the Lord when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy. (WCF 21.8)

But this is based on some assumptions of history and culture, and not on Scripture. The prior section of the Confession reads,

[God] has particularly appointed one day in seven, for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto him: which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week: and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week, which, in Scripture, is called the Lord’s Day, and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath.

The Scriptural proof offered that Sunday is now the Sabbath are the verses that record Christians gathering for worship on the first day of the week. But none of these verses identify this day with the Sabbath. In fact, we learn from Acts 20 that the believers were meeting in the evening, very likely because Sunday was a work day for them. They certainly were not resting on the day. I agree with those who protest that Sunday is not the Sabbath day. The Sabbath is Saturday; always has been, always will be. But it is also not necessary to keep the Sabbath day as God commanded Israel because we in Christ are not Israel.

Returning to the Old Testament, it wasn’t until later than Eden that there is a command that Israel should rest on the day. When this command comes, it comes with specificity for the seed of Jacob alone—Israel.  The Sabbath receives its fullest explanation in Exodus 31.

And the Lord said to Moses, “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’” (Exodus 31:12-17)

The Sabbath day in Israel was a day of rest. No work was to be performed on the day at all.  It was not a day of worship, or of going to the Tabernacle of the synagogue (there were no synagogues until the Babylonian Captivity) but only of rest. Those who say that Saturday is the proper day of gathering for worship face the hurdle that this is absent from the text of Scripture. It is, ironically, a tradition. I say ironically because some accuse those who worship on Sunday of giving in to the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church or of Constantine, but this is incorrect. We gather on Sundays because the Lord Jesus rose on that day, and the early church began to do so. (It’s not my purpose here to argue for Sunday worship, so I won’t expand upon that.) But we can say that Saturday was not a day of worship for Israel.

Note also that the day is called a sign specifically between God and the children of Israel. Gentiles were never commanded to keep the Sabbath because they were not part of the covenant God made with Israel.  Some have also noted that even if one holds to some form of natural law; that things such as murder, theft, and lying are universally and naturally known by all men to be wrong, one cannot say the same thing for the Sabbath command. Who knows in their conscience that resting on Saturday is a morally right thing to do, or that working on Saturday is wrong? For this reason, even those who believe the Ten Commandments are an abiding standard for Christians today often categorize the Sabbath command as ceremonial, and not part of the moral law.  Michael Horton writes, “To suggest that the fourth commandment, then, is part of the ceremonial, rather than the moral, law is to say that it is no longer binding for Christians.”[1] He avers that the fourth commandment is unique among the Ten, including the fact that it cannot be credibly claimed that it is stamped on the human conscience, as the others are, and that it is nowhere repeated: “We search in vain to find one single New Testament commandment concerning the Sabbath.”[2]

How did Israel treat the Sabbath? In Numbers 15, the people find a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath, and he is kept in ward until God tells Moses what to do with him. He is to be stoned by the whole congregation. Sabbath-breaking was thus a capital crime in Israel. For those who insist on keeping the Sabbath today, is it a capital crime not to do so? If not, why? Where was this changed? The point is that those who claim they are keeping the Sabbath aren’t actually doing so. They have modified the commands that accompany it, but with such modification, they aren’t actually keeping the day as God commanded.

Like much of the law, the Sabbath pointed forward to Christ. The Sabbath in the New Testament is no longer a day, but a person. We as believers find our rest in Christ. Recognizing that our rest—our Sabbath—is found in the Lord Jesus is the closest thing the New Testament has to describe how believers now “keep” the Sabbath. This isn’t to suggest that a rhythm of rest is a bad idea, but it is to say that believers have freedom from the law, and are not required to “Keep the Sabbath.” Paul writes that “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord.” Rom 14:5-6, and “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” Col. 2:16-17.  If you have a conviction to rest on Saturdays, (or Sundays) by all means do so, but don’t do so because God commanded Israel to do it.

[1] Michael Scott Horton, The Law of Perfect Freedom (Chicago, Moody Press, 1993), 124.

[2] Ibid., 126.

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