The keeping of the sabbath forms no part of the apostles’ teaching. In Colossians 2:16, “Let none therefore judge you in food or in drink, or in matter of feast, or new moon, or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ”. Why chase shadows if you have the substance? In writing to Galatia, Paul calls such things the “weak and beggarly principles to which ye desire to be again anew in bondage. Ye observe days and months and times and years. I am afraid of you, lest indeed I have laboured in vain as to you”. Galatians 4:9-11. He was in despair about them. The absence of any reference to keeping the sabbath in Acts 15 is itself very telling. In short, keeping a literal sabbath has no place in Christianity. However, let us look at the subject further as it has become a big subject in some parts of the Christian profession.
God rested on the seventh day in the conscious satisfaction of his own work in creation. Genesis 2:1-3. Sadly, sin came in and man’s failure broke into that rest. God began immediately the work of redemption to recover man to himself. How could God rest in a world where sin had disturbed his rest?
It is important to note however that the sabbath was never given to mankind until after Israel’s exodus from Egypt. At that point it was given to Israel, and Israel alone, as a sign of God’s covenant with them. As God says in Exodus 31:13 - “And thou, speak thou unto the childrern of Israel, saying, Surely my sabbaths shall ye keep; for this is a sign between me and you throughput your generations … verse 17, It shall be a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever”… Note the reference to “sabbaths”. The sabbath and the seven other feasts - outlined in Leviticus 23 - are all covered by the expression “sabbaths”. It may be worthwhile to digress and note that God gives a sign as a witness when he makes a covenant. He gave Noah (and the earth) the rainbow as a sign of the promise that he would not destroy the earth again by water; he gave Abraham the sign of circumcision; he gave Israel the sabbaths as a sign of his first covenant with them (based on their obedience to the law); and finally the blood of Jesus - as symbolised in the cup at the Lord’s Supper - is the sign of the new covenant with Israel. This new covenant involves God taking them up, not based on works of law, but on the remission of sins and his teachings in their hearts and minds. See Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Hebrews 10:16-18. Another verse, much later in their history, reiterates the same theme – see Ezekiel 20: 20.
So we see that the sabbath was given to Israel and not the nations. God bought them into Canaan to enjoy that rest, but they failed. They ignored Jehovah and followed the gods of the nations. Hebrews 4:1-13 describes this situation. In essence, God provided himself with a creation-rest; Adam and Eve disturbed that rest. God provided himself a Canaan-rest and Hebrews 4 reminds us that Israel disturbed that. He has found his rest, his satisfaction, in Christ. And so should we.
Will Israel enter God’s rest? Of course they will. “The gifts and calling of God are not subject to repentance” [irrevocable] Romans 11:29. The millennial reign of Christ will be that rest for them. This is the meaning of Hebrews 4:9 –“There remains then a sabbath [rest] to the people of God” [Israel].
Where do Christians stand in this? Hebrews 4 exhorts us to not allow sin and unbelief from hindering the present enjoyment of the kingdom of God. Hebrews 4 is emphasising not so much the good news of the blood of Christ, but the good news of the glory of Christ. The Hebrew Christians were saved by the blood (as Israel had been by the blood on the lintel and door-posts) but were in danger of losing their enjoyment of Christ in glory. See Hebrews 4:14. Their eternal salvation was not in question.
We have looked at the sabbath from God’s side. Now let’s look at the observance of the ordinance itself. Saturday is the sabbath. It is for Israel and is connected with the law. sabbath-keeping is no part of Christianity. We are told this in Colossians 2:16-17 “…or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come”, and in Galatians 4;9,10 Paul was horrified that they observed days.
If a person keeps a day as special, and does it as unto the Lord, love in me would not hinder that, as I am told in Romans 14, where it is put on the basis of a weak brother. But that is a very different thing from a person declaring that we should all do it, and from promulgating it as a doctrine. When that happens we must withstand it, as Paul did to Peter – see Galatians 2:11-16.
To those who insist we should keep the sabbath, I tell them they had better keep all the eight Jewish feasts, the sabbaths, for the reasons outlined above. In the fourth commandment the sabbath stands as the symbol of the whole system of feasts and ordinances, just as “Thou shalt not kill” represents all forms of violence to one’s neighbour.
Do I keep the first day of the week? I keep it as free from secular activity as I can, but I don’t keep it as a legal ordinance. If my employment involved working unavoidably on that day, then I would work. In the New Testament the Lord’s day is given a distinctive place. “On the first day of the week, we being gathered together to break bread”, the Lord rose on that day, John “became in the Spirit on the Lord’s day”, and several other references which I leave the reader to search out. Be assured that the Spirit of God does not waste words by putting them there for casual interest, or just to make a story interesting. I feel that just as the sabbath represents the system of earthly blessing, so I feel that the “first day” represents a new day, a better or a heavenly blessing which is the church’s true portion.
MM last revised 18/04/2007