Christians and the Sabbath

  • Question 202, from Ben, United Kingdom

    What’s the summary of the Biblical teaching regarding the observance of the Sabbath? Particularly with regard to if it is binding on Christians today and what day it ought to be observed.

    The Sabbath was established in the Old Testament, and was listed in the Ten Commandments with the order to ‘keep it holy’. The instructions regarding the Sabbath can be found in Exodus chapter 20, verses 8-12, where all work by the entire household and even non-Jews in the area is banned.

    The reasoning given alongside the Sabbath instructions links the working week to the six days of creation in the book of Genesis, and the Sabbath to the ‘seventh day’ when God rested from the work of creation. A different reason is given when the Ten Commandments are included at the start of Deuteronomy (chapter 5, verses 12-15), where it is linked to giving servants a day to rest – with a reminder to show mercy to servants so that the Israelites are not like the Egyptians who they used to serve. Deuteronomy also includes an injunction against animals working on the Sabbath; probably the first recorded instant of laws governing animal welfare in human history. (1)

    The book of Exodus does bear several marks of later additions being interpolated into the text, and it is possible the references to Genesis were an attempt to explain the Sabbath by a later writer. The creation accounts in Genesis are generally held by Old Testament scholars to show Babylonian influences, and to have been written later than the core writings of the rest of the Pentateuch. If the creation-linked reasons are a later addition, this shows the growing theological understanding of the Sabbath in Israelite religious thought during the Old Testament time period.

    Breaking the Sabbath was considered punishable by death (Numbers chapter 15, verses 32-35) and so there was much discussion over what constituted ‘work’. This led to very specific rules and definitions until Sabbath observance became a major point of orthodoxy in Jesus’ lifetime.

    Jesus was involved in arguments about the Sabbath. His opponents accused him of breaking the Sabbath by performing healings and also by allowing his disciples to collect grain to eat (see Matthew chapter 12, verses 1-14). However, Jesus rebuked his accusers, saying ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’ (Mark chapter 2, verse 27)  and asserted that to do good on the Sabbath was lawful (Matthew chapter 12, verse 12). This meant “Jesus did not break the Sabbath; he broke only the human traditions surrounding the Sabbath.” (2)

    This effectively means the Sabbath can be reinterpreted by Christians. ‘Observing the Sabbath’ is not about following rules, but about doing good. In Jesus’ teaching ‘holiness’ was not about following the rules, but came from the heart of a person, so it would be possible to keep the Law but with the wrong attitude and, therefore in an unholy way (see Matthew chapter 15, verses 1-20).

    On a final note regarding Jesus’ observance of the Sabbath, that was the day between his death and resurrection. Jesus ‘rests’ in the tomb for the Sabbath, returning to life the day afterwards.

    It appears from the New Testament that the church initially kept on observing the Sabbath. Criticisms from Jews who did not accept Jesus centered on the issues of circumcision and food rituals, which the Christians abandoned as the gospel spread into non-Jewish areas. If the church had abandoned meeting on the Sabbath then this criticism would have been levelled at them as well. So it seems it was later that the Church adopted the first day of the week as ‘the Lord’s day’.

    There are references to religious activity on the first day of the week in the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians chapter 16, verses 1-3, Christians are urged to set aside money for charitable endeavours, but this is not linked to regular church meetings. In Acts chapter 20, 7-12, there is a meeting on the first day of the week that included communion in the city of Troas, but this is in the context of a teaching visit from Paul and it’s his last night with them. This does not necessarily mean that the church broke bread together on the first day of the week, or even if they did, that this had replaced observance of the Sabbath. However, in Colossians chapter 2, verse 16, Paul tells the Christians not to get into arguments about observing Jewish festivals or the Sabbath, which may show the beginning of a divergence in practice between Gentiles and Jewish Christians.

    It appears that Christian gatherings on the first day of the week were a later development. There are several possible reasons. There was the growing separation of Christianity as a religion in its own right from Judaism. To gentile converts the Sabbath observance may have felt unnecessary. There was also antagonism between the followers of Jesus and other Jews that forced a divergence in their paths. Certainly as Christianity became more popular and powerful, its leaders wanted to distance it from its Jewish roots.

    The first day of the week was identified with the day of resurrection and it seemed natural to commemorate and celebrate on that day. There was also conflation between Christianity and the popular sun-worshipping cults. The Emperor Constantine established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in 312AD, but previously Constantine adhered to the sun cult. It is no accident that the ‘Sun’s day’ became the main day of celebration in official Christianity. (3)

    During the Protestant Reformation, there was a renewed emphasis among many groups in the observations of the Sabbath. Some radical Anabaptist groups reinstituted the Sabbath into their version of Christianity. Other groups, such as the Puritans in England, tried to enforce Sabbath-like rules on Sundays. These groups referred to Sundays as the Sabbath and were often disparagingly called ‘Sabbatarians’. It was an outlook that was particularly strong in the non-conformist chapel culture in Wales and the ‘free’ churches of Scotland, well into the twentieth century.

    More modern sects have also emerged trying to ‘reclaim’ the Sabbath. These include the Seventh-day Adventists, which began in the middle of the nineteenth century (often the date of 1863 is given for their formal founding).

    There are many modern Christian authors and leaders who have expounded upon the Biblical principles of setting time part for God and taking a day of rest. Very few churches make this a formal requirement to join. The vast majority of churches meet on a Sunday, and members are expected to attend if they can. In the UK there are still certain rules around Sunday trading and other activities that hark back to the idea of Sundays being the Christian Sabbath and a day of rest.

    In conclusion, there are no requirements on Christians to follow strict rules regarding Sabbath attendance. Jesus’ example of using the Sabbath as a day to do good and thereby proclaim the good news is the nearest thing Christians have to a rule. As the Apostle Paul says in Colossians “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.” (verses 16-17).


    (1) McKeating, Henry (1979) Studying the Old Testament. Epworth Press. p.59

    (2) Swartley, Willard M. (1983) Slavery, Sabbath, War & Women. Herald press. p.70.

    (3) “One connection between Christ and the sun still visible today is the fact that his resurrection is not celebrated on the Sabbath, but on Sun-day, the Dies Solis.” [Thiede, Carsten P. (1992) Heritage of the First Christians. Lion Publishing. p.127

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