You might be rather shocked if I were to describe Sabbath observance as a deviation from the Christian faith – don’t really pious Christians keep the Sabbath strictly? Children of my father’s and grandfather’s generation were restricted in what they could do on a Sunday to ‘keep the Sabbath day holy’ (Exodus 20:8). Yet before we deplore a decline in standards we should consider what Scripture actually teaches.
The Old Covenant
At the very beginning Scripture says that 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 (Genesis 2:2-3). This is what is called an ‘anthropomorphism’ describing God as if He were a man – because, of course, God doesn’t need a rest. However, people do, and God’s instructions to His people included many instructions to keep sabbaths; not only the weekly seventh day, but on a number of feast days. The word ‘sabbath’ occurs 33 times in the Pentateuch (of the ESV), and it is several times described as a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Any who broke it by working were to be put to death (Exodus 35:2).
Why did God ordain this? Part of the reason, of course, was that the day was holy to the Lord, and it gave the people the opportunity to worship him free of daily cares, but partly it was to give everyone a respite from daily work. God said, “the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates (Exodus 20:10). Remember that in those days there were many slaves (‘bondservants’ in the old versions of Scripture) who were regarded as property, and their masters could be literally ‘slave-drivers’, trying to get as much work out of them as they could. Thus the Lord Jesus, picking out this second reason, said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
Religious rules always offer the opportunity for hypocrisy, and the Gospels give some examples of this. For instance, on one occasion the hungry disciples picked some ears of corn and rubbed them in their hands so that they could eat the kernels (Luke 6:1). The Pharisees criticised the Lord for permitting them to do ‘work’ on the Sabbath – yet they themselves had many subterfuges by which they could avoid nominal breaches of the Law. They criticised Him for doing the good deed of healing on the Sabbath, although they themselves would rescue their property (Matthew 12:11). The ordinance itself was good, but it was perverted by formalistic practitioners into a burden (Matthew 23:4).
The New Covenant
The Lord Jesus Himself instituted the New Covenant (Luke 22:20) which superseded many of the practices of the Old. The institution of the covenant itself gave no details about its implications, but Scripture expands on its benefits particularly in the Letter to the Hebrews, which might be expected, since they were the beneficiaries of the Old Covenant. It is important to recognise that the New Testament did not simply render the Old obsolete and irrelevant, but the whole of Scripture contains the developing self-revelation of God to man. For instance, God over the centuries taught His people the necessity of the shedding of blood in animal sacrifices, and the Pentateuch contains detailed instructions about doing this through all their generations. However, chapter 9 of Hebrews shows how the requirement for repeated sacrifices was subsumed in the greater and final sacrifice of Christ Himself; the New Covenant was a ‘better covenant’, enacted on ‘better promises’ (Hebrews 8:6). We cannot here discuss the differences between the covenants, but we can note that God, who gives these covenant promises, has the right to offer something which has greater benefits.
It is as though you had a job paying £30,000 a year and your boss offered you £50,000 with better conditions! The faith of those who lived under the Old Covenant was expressed in the law of commandments expressed in ordinances (Ephesians 2:15), but that has been abolished through the sacrifice of Christ. Our particular focus is on the question of the observance of the Sabbath, and there our principal guide must be what the new Christians actually did. In practice Christians no longer observed the sabbath, but came together on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7) (our Sunday), because that was the day on which the Lord Jesus had risen from the dead. There was, of course, considerable controversy about whether Gentile believers should have to submit to Jewish ordinances, centering particularly on the matter of circumcision, but that was resolved by the Jerusalem conference of Acts 15, where James summed up, “my judgement is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood” (Acts 15:19-20).
There was some controversy, too, about the observance of days; Paul wrote, “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” (Romans 14:5). The only particular title for a day, occurring twice in the New Testament is the adjective ‘kuriakos’, translated in Revelation 1:10 as the Lord’s day. It is apparent that there is no scriptural instruction for Christians to keep the sabbath (Saturday), and therefore it would be wrong to insist that it should be done, but it would be equally wrong to put out of our minds the setting aside of a day for the worship and service of God. We live in a primarily secular society, and if it is apparent that we regard some time as the Lord’s time it will be as effective a witness as speech.
The following are excerpts from previous writings by James Needham (for the entire chapter see The Lord’s Supper, Back to Basics, Hayes Press 2014, p.49):
On the seventh day, the people of God both shared God’s rest and remembered their own which came in redemption from His hand. By the grace of God, all were to be ‘refreshed’ in Him, literally ‘taking breath’ from the toil which sin had brought to the earth. On the last day of the week, the Sabbath had been about looking back on a finished work with restful satisfaction. On the first day of the week – the day on which the last enemy was vanquished – the breaking of the bread looks forward through sorrowful remembrance to the glorious hope of all that His work has accomplished, which shall be revealed throughout the eternal ages and was secured by His resurrection on the first day of the week. In [the Lord’s Supper], similarities could be seen with the Jewish Sabbath: it was a weekly assembly; a remembrance of a finished work of redemption which affected all creation; and it was something commanded by and for God. As to the Sabbath, it was a shadow, here was the substance which ‘is of Christ’… [But] for all the similarities between the Sabbath and the breaking of the bread, it is in the collective rest of the people of God that the shadow truly finds its substance.
Matthew 11 speaks of rest for the sinner and rest for the servant; Hebrews 4 presents Sabbath-rest for the people of God who Christ Himself leads in their obedience of faith into God’s dwelling to worship Him for His Son, so powerfully portrayed in the loaf and cup. The Sabbath initially marked a finished creation; our Sabbath-rest now marks a perfect redemption in which God rests once more, perfectly satisfied with the work of Calvary. Again, He calls men to share His rest, no more a shadow of good things to come, but entering into the very presence of God in the sanctuary, a prelude only to the rest which is eternally ours in Christ.