“Why don’t Christians keep the Sabbath?”
That’s a good question and one not so easily answered. After all, there is no biblical text that clearly states, “You shall not keep the Sabbath.” Instead, in the Old Testament God highly emphasized the keeping of the Sabbath (Exodus 31:16). Not to do so was punishable by death (35:2). Keeping the Sabbath was also part of the Ten Commandments (20:8). In the New Testament, the apostle Paul regularly went into the synagogue on the Sabbath (Acts 17:1–2). Even Jesus kept the Sabbath. If Jesus kept the Sabbath, then why don’t we as His followers do the same?
Let’s try to answer the question with other questions.
What is meant by “the Sabbath”? The Hebrew word Shabbat (Sabbath) comes from a word meaning to desist, cease, or rest. There are actually many Sabbaths mentioned in the Bible, and they were given to national Israel by God (Exodus 31:13). But generally speaking, the term Sabbath refers to the weekly Sabbath, the seventh day of the week that runs from Friday’s sunset to Saturday’s sunset, the day on which God rested or ceased from His creation work (Genesis 2:2). This is usually the Sabbath that people mean when they ask the question, “Why don’t Christians keep the Sabbath?”
Don’t Christians already keep the Sabbath? Some Christians would say yes because they refer to Sunday, the day on which they worship, as the Sabbath. Why do they do that?
Historically, calling Sunday the Sabbath could have arisen out of mere tradition. Since the Jewish people called the day on which they worshiped, Saturday, the Sabbath, so, too, Christians, who customarily met on Sunday (Acts 20:7)—the day the Lord Jesus was resurrected—called their day of worship the Sabbath.
On the other hand, Christians calling Sunday the Sabbath could have arisen out of a further effort to supersede or replace Israel as the chosen nation. Replacement Theology, in which the church is considered to be the true “spiritual Israel,” has commandeered much of Israel’s position and identity over the centuries anyway, so why not also the Sabbath? Doing so would certainly fit Replacement Theology’s common use of allegorical hermeneutics. If, allegorically speaking, the church is Israel, then it’s not a stretch to say Sunday is the Sabbath.
Christians are not keeping the Sabbath when they worship on Sunday.
Whatever the historical or theological reason for claiming Sunday to be the Sabbath, the claim is false. The Bible clearly states that the Sabbath is not the first day of the week, but rather the seventh (Exodus 20:10–11). Christians, therefore, are not keeping the Sabbath when they worship on Sunday.
Interestingly, most Messianic Jews (believers in Jesus with Jewish backgrounds) in Israel today do not gather to worship on Sunday. Modern Israeli culture makes it impractical. Since Israel’s population is predominantly Jewish, most everything shuts down throughout the country from Friday night to Saturday night. Additionally, since Sunday is considered the first day of the work week and many Israeli believers have to go to work on that day, it is expedient for believing congregations to meet on Saturday.
What do you mean by “keep” the Sabbath? If you’re meaning to keep or practice the Sabbath as in biblical times, here’s how seriously God took the subject: “You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people” (Exodus 31:14). Is this how Christians should practice the Sabbath today? If so, how many people would have to die because of working on the weekend?
On the other hand, if you’re meaning to practice the Sabbath as the ancient rabbis did with their 39 extra categories of work, along with all of their additional Sabbath laws and traditions, then don’t expect getting much rest. Instead, you’ll be weighed down with a legalistic burden that exhausts people with minutiae and the fear of God’s wrath. Jesus condemned laying such burdens on people’s shoulders (Matthew 23:4). He had the right perspective when He declared, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
But isn’t keeping the Sabbath obligatory? Yes, it was obligatory for the nation of Israel, but not for Christians who live during this present age. In fact, “the Scriptures are silent concerning the observance of the Sabbath during the Church Age. Nine of the Ten Commandments are reiterated in some fashion in the New Testament, but the commandment concerning the Sabbath day is not. The book of Acts records that Paul and his companions were seen on numerous occasions going into the synagogue on the seventh day of the week; however, this was not out of obligation but, rather, out of practicality. Paul was seeking opportunities to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with those to whom the messianic promises had been made.”1
But can I keep the Sabbath if I want to? Yes, you can. God gives us that freedom in Christ. But it all depends on your motivation and what you hope to achieve by doing it.
Israeli believers will often keep the Sabbath primarily as a cultural observance. They invite friends and family over for a sumptuous meal on Friday evening which is followed by a time of warm discussion and fellowship. It’s a beautiful and inspirational occasion.
There have also been many studies proving the physical, mental, and emotional value of setting aside at least one day a week to stop your normal work routine and spend some time refreshing yourself. Even Jesus had His disciples do that on at least one occasion (Mark 6:31).
If your motivation for keeping the Sabbath is to somehow earn God’s favor or smile, then you have fallen from the principle of living by God’s grace.
But if your motivation for keeping the Sabbath is to somehow earn God’s favor or smile, then you have fallen from the principle of living by God’s grace (Galatians 5:4). You are in effect canceling out what He did in procuring your salvation in Christ. But the apostle Paul would not allow himself to do that. He wrote, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (2:21, NASB20).
Also, if by keeping the Sabbath you hope to derive some sort of benefit that will increase or enhance your spiritual growth, the opposite is actually true. Keeping the Sabbath or the rituals surrounding it may give you a warm feeling inside (the flesh always delights in thinking it is capable of pleasing God), but it doesn’t add anything to the progressive work of God in transforming you into the image of His Son (Romans 8:29). To think it does can actually stunt a Christian in a state of immaturity and weak faith (14:1, 5), a state that misunderstands God’s method of justification and sanctification. But God’s method has always been the same—“the just shall live by faith” (Galatians 3:11), “for we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7), because “without faith it is impossible to please Him [God]” (Hebrews 11:6).
The apostle Paul writes, “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me but I will not be brought under the power of any. All things are lawful for me, but not all things edify” (1 Corinthians 6:12; 10:23). This is good counsel for a Christian who’s weighing the decision to regularly keep the Sabbath or not.
In short, can Christians keep the Sabbath? Yes, but let’s understand what that actually means. Jesus claimed to be the very source of rest (Matthew 11:28–30). That’s why the Sabbath is “a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Colossians 2:16–17). In other words, we shouldn’t get so enamored with the shadow, the Sabbath day, as much as with the substance behind it all. It’s because of the Messiah and what He did through His substitutionary death and His life-imparting resurrection that “there remains therefore a rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9). That rest is not a day or a thing, but a Person. And His name is Jesus.
We would do well to keep, to preserve, to honor that “Sabbath.”
1 Bruce Scott, The Feasts of Israel: Seasons of the Messiah (Bellmawr, NJ: The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, 1997), 32.