Remember the Sabbath day? It is a biblical law that many Christians are quick to dismiss as a legalistic Old Testament practice no longer applicable for New Testament Christians. The thought of Sabbath keeping does sound very legalistic, especially when we look at some of the ways the subject of Sabbath keeping comes up in Scripture.
We are, perhaps, most familiar with the concept of Sabbath from the New Testament. The Sabbath is a major theme in the Gospels, typically in the context of controversy surrounding Jesus performing miraculous acts on the Sabbath day. In these stories some religious leaders (especially the Pharisees) condemn Jesus’ good works because he performed them on the Sabbath. Some leaders were so angry over Jesus’ supposed breaking of the Sabbath that it contributed to their desire to kill him (see John 5:18).
The stories from the Gospels may cause Christians to look at Sabbath keeping through a lens of suspicion. For this reason, when we read Paul’s words in Colossians 2:16 “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drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath,” we are quick to dismiss Sabbath keeping as something outdated—an old, legalistic tradition replaced by the New Covenant.
We should not, however, be so flippant in our dismissal of keeping Sabbath. An examination of the teaching of Scripture demonstrates that Sabbath keeping is vital to a healthy relationship with God. Far from a legalistic barrier to a relationship with God, Sabbath keeping is a deep blessing from God in which God invites his people to participate.
The Problem with Some Sabbath Keepers in the New Testament
The problem with those who criticize Jesus is not that they are keeping the Sabbath, but they are keeping it in the wrong way. Instead of giving attention to the reason God provides for Sabbath keeping in the Old Testament Scriptures, many Jewish people focused instead on human traditions concerning the Sabbath. These traditions dictated in explicit detail the distance someone could travel on Sabbath and the types of things people could carry on the Sabbath (apparently not a beggar’s mat! see John 5:10).
Jesus reminds his followers that the Sabbath was given to be a blessing and not a burden. When he and his followers are criticized for plucking grain as they walk through a wheat field, Jesus proclaims “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:26). Jesus consistently applies this logic when he speaks about the Sabbath. The New Testament presents Jesus as a Sabbath keeper, but according to the biblical purpose of Sabbath, not man made traditions.
This is what Paul is speaking of in Colossians 2. He begins the paragraph that mentions Sabbath, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8). So, Paul’s point is not that the Sabbath is unimportant, but instead that Christians should not be concerned with human traditions about the Sabbath.
How Do We Know Keeping the Sabbath Is Important?
Even if the Sabbath is not condemned in the New Testament, how do we know it is important? In other words, why should Christians give any more attention to keeping the Sabbath than they do to not wearing clothing of mixed fibers (Lev 19:19) or cutting their hair in a particular way (Lev 19:27)?
The easiest (but not the best) answer is that Sabbath keeping is one of the Ten Commandments. I often have some fun with my students by asking them the following questions:
- Do you believe Christians should keep the 10 Commandments?
They nearly always say “yes!”
- Do you believe Christians must keep the Sabbath?
They almost always say “not really.”
See the disconnect? Most Christians assume the 10 Commandments are moral commands that are still in effect for God’s people. Yet, when asked about the command to keep the Sabbath, they balk at whether or not Christians should obey the fourth commandment.
Like I said, the fact that Sabbath keeping is one of the 10 Commandments is the easiest way to demonstrate that Christians should care about keeping the Sabbath, but it is not the best way. When God gives his people the command to keep the Sabbath, he tells them why Sabbath keeping is important. In both narratives listing the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20:1–17 and Deuteronomy 5:7–21), God tells Israel that the command to keep the Sabbath is tied to his work in creation. Exodus 20:11 explains “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” This means that keeping the Sabbath is about more than rule following. The best way to demonstrate that Christians should care about keeping the Sabbath is to help them see that keeping the Sabbath is about participating in the holy rest that God built into the fabric of creation.
The importance of Sabbath keeping does not just come from a command in a couple of biblical proof texts. Instead, the command to keep the Sabbath is rooted in God’s work of creation. God works for six days and then rests—not because he is tired, but because he pauses to enjoy his creation and to allow his creatures to enjoy him.
Far from being an obscure and legalistic command, keeping Sabbath is about participating in the rest into which God graciously invites his people.
The next article in this series explores how the Bible contains a rich theology of the Sabbath and Sabbath keeping that points believers towards God’s purpose for creation fulfilled in Jesus’s redemptive work and applied to believers through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.
Cory Barnes has been blessed to teach God’s Word to college and seminary students since 2015. His research interests include biblical theology, intertextuality, and the ancient Near Eastern context of the Old Testament. In addition to his teaching role, Cory works with distance learning at NOBTS. He is the co-author of Kingdom Students(B&H Academic, 2020) and the author of From Creed to Canon (Borderstone Press, 2014).