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Should Christians Keep the Sabbath?

Pastor of Iglesia Conexiones, a baptist church in Jessup, MD. B.A. in Bible, B.S. English Ed., M.S. in Educational Leadership.

It is not uncommon for Christians to wonder whether they should obey the Sabbath. After all, not only is the Sabbath taught in the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible, which we usually call the Old Testament), but the Sabbath was a matter of dispute between the Lord and the Jewish leaders of first century Israel.

However, how we answer the question of whether Christians should keep the Sabbath is largely influenced by our understanding of another issue: the relationship between the gentile Christian and the Law of Moses.

But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:2, ESV)

Genesis, The Sabbath, and The Mosaic Law

In Genesis 2:2-3, we read:

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. 3 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, ESV)

The relationship between verses 2 and 3 in Genesis 2 is intriguing if we consider the role that the creation account plays in the entire Torah (the Law, or the first five books of the Bible). Clearly, God rested on the seventh day of the creation week in Genesis 1—but, when did he bless the seventh day and make it holy? Did he do this on that same seventh day, or did he do this when (hundreds of years later) he commanded Israel to keep the Sabbath (20:8-11, ESV)?

My interpretation of this matter is that the book of Genesis was written to give Israel a background for the Law of Moses (why God had given them the Law, and why some commandments made sense); and, therefore, Genesis 2:3 is explaining to Israel why God sanctified the Sabbath in Genesis 20:8-11). In support of my view, consider that the book of Genesis does not present anyone as a Sabbath-keeper (the Sabbath is not mentioned again in Genesis).

Consequently, we can see that God did not institute the Sabbath during the week of creation (Genesis 1:1-2:3), but at the giving of the Law (known as the Mosaic Law and the Law of Moses, but better understood as God's Law through Moses). Therefore, the Sabbath is part of the Law and of the covenant that ratified it (Mosaic Covenant, or Sinaitic Covenant).

In fact, the Sabbath was so important and central to God's Law for Israel that the breaking of the Sabbath was punished severely:

"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." (Exodus 31:14, ESV)

The reason why the Sabbath is so important is that it stands as the sign of the Covenant between God and Israel through 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. (Exodus 31:13, ESV)

Moreover, I gave them my Sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them. (Ezekiel 20:12, ESV)

"And keep my Sabbaths holy that they may be a sign between me and you, that you may know that I am the Lord your God."(Ezekiel 20:20, ESV)

Anyone who kept the Sabbath was declaring his personal faith in Hashem: that Hashem is the Creator, that Hashem chose Abraham and his descendants, and that Hashem sanctified Israel (set them apart for himself). Therefore, anyone breaking the Sabbath was in essence breaking the God's Law, God's covenant with Israel, and giving up the faith.

Justified by Faith, Not by Works

However, we need to remember that the purpose of the Torah, according to the Torah itself, is not to provide salvation* (forgiveness of sins, justification, and eternal life). The book of Genesis itself teaches us that it was through faith, not obedience to the Law, that God declared Abraham righteous (Genesis 15:6).

And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6, ESV)

Recognition of this principle—which the Apostle Paul insisted on (Romans 4:3, Galatians 3:6)—is a fundamental issue that separates Christianity apart from rabbinic Judaism. Moreover, it isn't only Genesis and Paul that teach this principle, but the prophets do so too:

“Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,
but the righteous shall live by his faith." (Habakkuk 2:4, ESV)

"And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls." (Joel 2:32, ESV)

“Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other. (Isaiah 45:22, ESV)

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin! (Psalm 51:1-2, ESV)

Therefore, we see that forgiveness of sins (together with justification, salvation, and eternal life) is offered in the prophets and the Psalms to those who repent and believe in God, even if they have broken God's law.

The New Covenant and The Law

Therefore, God can theoretically remove the Mosaic Covenant and the Mosaic Law without hurting anyone's salvation, for these were not the vehicles of salvation—and, by sending Jesus as a man under the Law (Galatians 4:4) to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17), God did in fact remove the Mosaic Covenant and the Mosaic Law, because He made a new and better covenant through the blood of Jesus (Jeremiah 31:31-34, Matthew 26:28, Hebrews 8:13, Ephesians 2:13-18), a covenant to which we have access by faith in Jesus Christ.

And the requirement to obey Sabbath, and the penalty for breaking the Sabbath (which were established by the Mosaic Covenant as part of the Mosaic Law) has been removed.

"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. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ."(Colossians 2:16-17, ESV)

Even Judaism recognizes that gentiles are not required to keep the Sabbath. Many of them believe that, in order to be declared righteous, gentiles need to keep the seven Noahide laws—yet the Sabbath is not one of these laws. Why? Because the Mosaic Covenant, the Mosaic Law, and the Sabbath were given at Sinai to Israel, not to the gentiles: it is a commandment for Jews to keep. Thus, gentiles are neither required to keep the Sabbath nor penalized for not keeping the Sabbath.

A Christian Application of The Sabbath

Nevertheless, although we (gentile Christians) are not required to keep the Sabbath to avoid a punishment, to receive a blessing, or to be saved, we will do well to learn from the commandment of the Sabbath.

In the words of the Apostle Paul, God's Law for Israel is good, even spiritual (1 Timothy 1:8, Romans 7:14). The New Testament (the New Covenant) never teaches denies that we can learn from God's Law—in fact, the New Testament constantly quotes and teaches us from the Law, as the Lord also did.

It is therefore important to study God's Law and allow the Spirit of God to teach us how we, who live in the New Covenant and serve God in the newness of the Spirit, can apply it spiritually to our lives (Romans 7:6). I think we can do this by remembering the Lord's words: that the Sabbath was a gift from God to humanity:

"And he [Jesus] said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath" (Mark 2:27, KJV).

Practicing the Sabbath gives us an opportunity to remember that God is our Creator, to remember that Jesus resurrected on the morning of the first day of the week (just after the Sabbath), to focus on resting and serving God. Moreover, a Christian Jews (Messianic Jew), can also practice the Sabbath to remember that God did something special through his people, the descendants of Abraham. None of these things are against the Spirit. In fact, the early church even worshipped in the temple in Jerusalem (Acts 2:46). Being Jews, they did not think it was necessary for them to separate themselves from their customs, they only believed that gentile converts should not be required to obey the Law (Acts 21:23-26).

In Christ, Jews and Gentiles Are One

In conclusion, I believe it is lawful (1 Timothy 1:8) for Messianic Jews (Christian Jews) to follow the Torah, for the law is both good and spiritual. However, as they do so, they should keep in mind the changes brought about by the New Covenant. Gentile Christians, similarly, can seek to learn form the Law and apply it to their lives as they are led by the Spirit, yet being careful to find their sufficiency in Christ.

Given that, through faith in Jesus the Messiah, both Jews and gentiles are fellowcitizens, members of God's household, and the temple of God (Ephesians 2:19-21), neither is better than the other—therefore, both should be satified in the Lord.

"Is any man called being circumcised? let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called in uncircumcision? let him not be circumcised....n Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called.(1 Corinthians 7:18, 20 KJV).

*The Purpose of The Law

If the purpose of the Law was not to provide salvation, what then was its purpose? The answer to this question is complex, as the Mosaic Law served many purposes.

  • To guide Israel as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6)
  • To give Israel wisdom and understanding among the natnions (Deuteronomy 4:6-8)
  • To bless Israel for its obeidence (Deuteronomy 29:9)
  • To curse Israel for its disobedience (Deuteronomy 29:21)
  • For a testimony unto foreigners and future generations (Deuteronomy 29:22-29)
  • To make the entire world guilty before God (Romans 3:19)
  • To teach Israel and the nations that we need Christ (Isaiah 53:3-8, Jeremiah 31:32, Galatians 3:24)

© 2021 Marcelo Carcach