Further Thoughts on the Weekly Sabbath

I recently wrote, “Response to ‘Should Christians keep the Sabbath or Sunday?'”. This laid out some Scriptures regarding Sabbath, with special attention on how Christ fulfills the Sabbath (and Sabbath was meant to point toward Him, so that Christians feeling obligated to honor a weekly Sabbath for righteousness’ sake are actually going backwards).

Here I wanted to continue that discussion.

Disclaimer

First:

  • If you (like me) think it is wise and healthy to take built-in weekly breaks (such as a Sabbath), for the sake of growing your physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being, I honor and bless you for doing that. I think there is a natural wisdom in doing that, where even corporate America (generally) gives employees 2 days a week off. Why? Because they believe they can get more work out of them by built-in breaks. It truly is how God has wired us, and I think we need to respect that. So long as you don’t mistakenly think keeping this weekly ritual is necessary for Christians to honor Christ and walk in righteousness.
  • Further, if there are cultural or background norms where keeping a weekly-Sabbath is/was built-in to the fabric of your culture, and you want to honor that tradition and norm, I honor and bless you for doing that. So long as you don’t mistakenly think keeping this weekly ritual is necessary for Christians to honor Christ and walk in righteousness.
  • Further still, if there is anything else that compels you personally to keep a weekly-Sabbath in your walk with the Lord, I honor and bless you for doing that. So long as you don’t mistakenly think keeping this weekly ritual is necessary for Christians to honor Christ and walk in righteousness.

Keeping a Weekly Sabbath Ritual Is Optional, and Not Necessary to Honor Christ and Walk in Righteousness

With that disclaimer (I hope) clearly secured, I want us to consider what the New Testament says (and doesn’t say) about weekly sabbaths:

  • Acts 15: When Gentiles were coming into the faith, God (through the apostles and elders in Jerusalem) enumerated only 2 general Jewish practices they wanted believing Gentiles to keep: (1) not eating food sacrificed to idols, blood, or strangled animals, and (2) sexual purity (see Acts 15:29). And even the first item was later shown, by Paul, to be more culturally bound (so as to not unnecessarily offend–see 1 Cor. 8ff), whereas Jesus already, “declared all foods clean,” (Mark 7:19). Other than these 2 items, the apostles saw that adding other requirements of the law was, “putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10). Instead: “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are [through faith].” (Acts 16:10). Not only do they affirm Gentiles in faith in the gospel alone as necessary for salvation, but they also see none of the Old Testament rituals as part of the Gentile walk in faith. This would necessarily include Sabbath.
  • Hebrews 3-4: The book of Hebrews is filled with Jewish practices that God has clearly abolished in light of Christ and the gospel. Much of it concerns the necessity of appealing to Levitical priests, animal sacrifices, and rituals requiring the temple. But Jesus and His sacrifice make such rituals, “obsolete,” (Heb. 8:13). So that we don’t need to offer animals for sin, we don’t need to find a Levitical priest for purification, and we don’t need to go to the Jewish temple for cleansing. So far, I’m quite sure all Christians would say a hearty, “Amen!” Yet I don’t hear the same hearty, “Amen!” when people open Hebrews 3 and 4. Those chapters unmistakably see our resting in Jesus’ finished work as the ultimate fulfillment of Sabbath (“There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God.” Heb. 4:9). Clearly, the weekly Sabbath was not the goal of God, otherwise, after 1,500 years of ordaining it, God would never say there still “remains” another Sabbath. The writer of Hebrews seems to put this practice on par with the customs of the temple, animal sacrifice, Levitical priesthood. The whole tenor of the argument seems to break down if people thought God was teaching that temple, animal sacrifice, and Levitical priesthood are nullified by Jesus and the Gospel, but Sabbath remains.
  • Romans 14:5-6: “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind…” This verse seems as clear as I could imagine that Sabbath is an optional practice, and unnecessary in honoring Christ. If one feels it is important for them, then by all means do it, and please let no one stop you. But once people move from there to telling others it is required by God’s law, important for all to do, and/or necessary to honor Christ/God, they have crossed the line and are guilty of the very thing Paul is warning against in context. As D.A. Carson pointed out (see “D. A. Carson teaches on the Christian’s relationship with the Old Testament Law”), it is unimaginable and preposterous to consider that Paul would make a similar clause about such clear sins as, for instance, “adultery” (i.e. we don’t read, “One person considers adultery bad, another considers it good, let each do as he wishes,” — God forbid!). Thus, weekly Sabbath-keeping is put on a different plane than any other 10 commandments. You’re fine to do it and fine to not.
  • Col. 2:16-17: This was already mentioned in more detail in “Response to ‘Should Christians keep the Sabbath or Sunday?’”, so I won’t spend too much time on it now. But consider that here we are told, “do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or…a Sabbath day,…the reality, however, is found in Christ,” (Col. 2:16-17). I hope you can see by now how consistent this is with what was said above. Rom. 14 (like Col. 2) puts Sabbath keeping alongside eating certain foods, and both passages say these are not matters that others should judge you on (that is, they are not universal commands for Christians to do. They are optional. Heb. 3-4 shows that the substance and fulfillment of Sabbath is Jesus, just as Col. 2:17 does. And in all 3 passages (Heb. 3-4; Rom. 14; Col. 2), Sabbath is placed alongside other Jewish rituals/practices that are clearly said to be obsolete in terms of needing to do them to honor Christ and walk in righteousness: eating certain foods (cf. Mark 7:19; 1 Tim. 4:3), etc. There is a powerful consistency here.
  • And these are the main “weekly-Sabbath” commands I’m aware of in the New Testament. Also, notably, these are all of the passages found in direct communication to Gentile Christians, especially concerning what parts of the Old Testament rituals/practices are binding. All of these passages seem to point in 1 trajectory. Now, conversely, consider the notable places Sabbath is missing in the N.T.:
  • We have many “vice” lists that preclude people from the kingdom of God. For instance 1 Cor. 6:9-11 lists many practices that, if people are perpetually and unrepentantly participating in, would exclude them from God’s presence: “sexually immoral…idolaters…adulterers…men who practice homosexuality…” you get the idea. But in all of these various lists (e.g. 1 Tim. 1; Gal. 5; Rev. 22; etc.), Sabbath keeping (or any Jewish ritual keeping: festival days, eating foods, etc.) is never mentioned. So not only do the passages mentioning Sabbath keep it as optional and unnecessary in terms of righteousness, but the passages that list many of the “necessary” items, never include Sabbath. This does not mean that these various “vice” lists are exhaustive. The point is: are you led by the flesh or the Spirit? And here are some marks of not having/living by the Spirit. But it’s notable Sabbath-keeping is never mentioned as a mark of walking by the Spirit.
  • Further still, we know that there are 10 commandments listed out in Exodus 20. These are monumental and truly basic to Judaism and Christianity. 1 of these commandments is honoring the Sabbath. I think this may be 1 reason some Christians don’t feel comfortable dropping Sabbath-keeping as essential to righteousness. They argue that we still believe murder and adultery is bad, shouldn’t we believe the same about Sabbath-keeping? But, as I believe it shows in Heb. 3-4 (see above), I think we do ultimately fulfill this command by resting in the finished work of Christ through our faith in the gospel. Thus, unlike all the other 10 commandments, a Christian is not obligated to keep a weekly Sabbath, and it is not a necessary evidence of walking in the Spirit that you do keep the weekly Sabbath. Proof of this is seen in the fact that all the 9 other commands of Exodus 20 are clearly repeated in the New Testament, including correspondence with Gentile Christians: idolatry (Rom. 1); taking Christ’s name in vain (1 Cor. 12:1-3); honor your parents (Eph. 5); don’t murder (Rev. 22); don’t commit adultery (2 Pet. 2:14); don’t steal (Eph. 4); don’t lie (Eph. 4); don’t covet (James 4:2).

I hope this makes sense. Forgive me where it doesn’t. As I said above, by all means practice weekly Sabbath for the right reasons. But if you think doing it is part of what any Christian should do to honor God and be righteous, please reconsider.

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