Should Christians observe the Sabbath?
Donald L. Norbie, Greely, Colorado, USA [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
While the Israelites were camped at Mt. Sinai the Law was given. The Ten Commandments sum up the moral requirements of the Law. The fourth commandment states, ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy’, Exod. 20. 8. In all the references to it the Hebrew word for Sabbath is sabbat and it means ‘to cease’ or ‘to rest’. God was telling His people to rest on one day in the week from their physical labours and to think about their God and spiritual matters.
It is interesting that the word Sabbath does not appear in the book of Genesis. The patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are not recorded as observing it. It is connected with the giving of the Law to Israel. God told Moses, ‘Speak also to the children of Israel, saying: “Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you . . . a perpetual covenant . . . a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever”’, Exod. 31. 13-17. We can conclude then that the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, was a special sign to Israel of their covenant relationship with God, and not given to mankind as a whole. But men everywhere recognize that a day of rest during the week is beneficial to all. The teachers of the Law went on to add to the scripture itself a multitude of rules and regulations, ‘the traditions of the elders’, which made the Sabbath a burden to the people rather than a blessing. The Lord Jesus had many confrontations with the Pharisees over these traditions. God intended the Sabbath to be a day of physical rest and spiritual renewal and a reminder of their covenant relationship with their God.
But what about today? Should churches observe the seventh day as the Jews still do? What was the practice of the early church? The question came up early as many Jews who believed felt very strongly that Gentiles who accepted Christ should then become ‘Law keepers’ to please God. ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’, Acts 15. 1. It was a hot issue with strong feelings on both sides. The apostles and elders gathered in Jerusalem to settle the matter once and for all. They talked, prayed and came to a united decision. A letter was sent to the churches which stated, ‘For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell’, Acts 15. 28-29. Gentiles did not need to live like Jews when they were converted. But they should abstain from eating blood which was offensive to the Jews and should live holy lives. They were not told to keep the Sabbath.
The principle of a day of rest and spiritual meditation was carried over into the churches. But it was not the Sabbath, which was connected with Israel and the covenant with them. God had instituted a new covenant with believers based on the blood of Christ. In Hebrews chapter 8 verse 13 we read, ‘In that He says, “A new covenant”, He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away’. The temple would be destroyed shortly and the sacrificial system of the Jews cease. On the Sabbath Christ was still in the tomb, a day of mourning and despair. It was the first day of the week that brought them hope and joy. As the disciples came to the tomb they found it empty with the angels standing guard. They were told, ‘He is not here for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay’, Matt. 28. 6. It was on the first day that Christ appeared to them and their sorrow was turned into joy. It was fitting that they should meet on the first day each week for teaching, worship, fellowship and prayer, Acts 2. 42.
It became known as the ‘Lord’s Day’, Rev. 1. 10; a day belonging to Him and set apart for Him. Israel remembered their covenant relationship with Jehovah on the Sabbath. Believers today, as they remember the Lord in the breaking of bread, remember their covenant with God. The Lord told His disciples, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you’, Luke 22. 20. The disciples in Troas came together to break bread on the first day of the week, Acts 20. 7, as did Christians in Corinth, 1 Cor. 16. 2. This was the custom of all the churches established under the apostles’ leadership. As believers then, let us celebrate the Lord’s Day, not with the rigid legalism of Judaism but in the liberty of the Holy Spirit, Gal. 5. 1. It should be a day when we assemble together with believers to hear God’s word, to worship, to fellowship and to pray. Beware of neglecting this time in favour of work or pleasure, Heb. 10. 25. Make it your custom to meet with the Lord’s people. Make it a day of physical rest and spiritual rejuvenation. Rejoice with the Lord’s people. ‘The Lord is risen indeed!’
AUTHOR PROFILE: Donald Norbie is in fellowship with the assembly in Greeley, Colorado, and is a commended full-time worker. A regular contributor to Precious Seed and other assembly magazines his ministry is widely appeciated throughout N. America and the UK.