God gave the children of Israel various expectations in the Old Testament. The Jews were required to follow those laws given. Most of the Old Testament laws were given as a part of the Mosaic covenant (which God established with the Jewish people after Moses led them out of Egypt). The mandate to honor the Sabbath was one of the most important expectations that came along with the Mosaic covenant.
However, the New Testament clearly teaches that the precise expectations of the Old Testament do not apply to Christians in the same way that they applied to the Jews in the Old Testament. Modern-day Christians are not obligated to follow the Sabbath in the same way the Jews were required. However, we would be wise to examine why God instituted the Sabbath, because the wisdom of God that led to the Sabbath mandate is good and helpful when we apply it to our lives.
In this article we’ll examine the history of the Sabbath, the context in which the Sabbath mandate was given, and how the Sabbath applies to Christians.
What is the Sabbath?
The Sabbath is the seventh day, when God rested in Genesis, after creating the world. This day was instituted by the Lord. This is the day that the Jews were expected to break from the normal busyness of life in order to reflect on God, his character, and his good deeds. The seventh-day was mandated for all the Jews:
… but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you.Deuteronomy 5:14
The Sabbath was the moment in the week when the Jews were to pause to remember all that the Lord had done for them, including the delivery from slavery in Egypt.
By refraining from attempts to control their own lives, the Jews were acknowledging their own weakness and acknowledging their dependence on God.
The Sabbath was a key component to the way of life for the Jews as they were entering in the the Promised Land. When we consider the Sabbath, we must do so in light of the context in which the mandate was given. In Exodus 20, Moses is given the ten commandments. Here we see the Sabbath decree clearly mandated.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 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.Exodus 20:8-11
Understanding the Sabbath Pattern
The Sabbath mandate is clear in Exodus 20. However, Exodus 20 is not the first time we see the Sabbath mentioned. As I stated above, the Sabbath rhythm goes back to creation. God created the world in “six days” and then rested on the “seventh” day. That’s the pattern God sets down for us.
The Lord rested, not because He was tired; He rested as a model for humanity. We ought to pause to remember God and be thankful to Him. At its core, this command was designed to remind the Jews that they were not in control.
Resting on the seventh day was the way of publicly recognizing God’s all-sufficient power. It was good for the Jews to take this weekly break, to remember the Lord. God models a good pattern for us.
It is good for humans to work, to create, to cultivate. And then, it is good for humans to break from their normal work rhythms in order to rest and honor the Lord. We all have busy routines. Life is taxing and hard. Breaking from our normal busyness is good.
The Commandments in the New Testament
In these types of conversations, it’s important to examine how the New Testament treats the Old Testament commands. As stated earlier, the New Testament clearly teaches that the precise expectations of the Old Testament do not apply to Christians in the same way that they applied to the Jews in the Old Testament. Specifically, the laws of the Mosaic covenant do not apply to modern-day Christians unless they are restated or reiterated in the New Testament.
Interesting fact: Nine of the ten commandments are clearly restated and reiterated in the New Testament. The only one not restated: the command to honor the Sabbath.
So, on one hand we see that Sabbath rhythms are good for us. On the other hand we see that we are not necessarily obligated to follow the Sabbath mandate.
How do we reconcile this? We examine the reasons as to why God gave the commandments in the first place. When we do this, we see lessons that are valuable for Christians today. While we may not be obligated to follow the Old Testament laws, we would be wise to ask, “Why did God give those laws?” And we ought to objectively consider how that may apply to our lives. When we do this exercise, we learn that God had very good reasons to command the Jews in the way he did.
Why Did God Give the Jews These Specific Laws?
In addition to the ten commandments, God gave the Jews 600+ laws relating to their diet, lifestyle, worship ceremonies, and in some cases even their clothing and apparel. God had several motivations for these laws. In some cases they were for health and safety. In other cases they were to teach the Jews benevolence. In other cases they were for social order and economic prosperity. And the ultimate reason why the Mosaic law was given, as the Apostle Paul tells us, was to expose our desperate need for a Savior (cf. Romans 3:9-24).
However, one other important motivation for many of the Old Testament laws was that the law served to force the Jewish people to stand out from the other nations around them. The nation of Israel was surrounded by pagan nations. God wanted his people to righteously stand out.
Many of the things that the Jews were told not to do were things that the pagan nations did, and God prohibited those things so that his people would stand out. This is something modern-day Christians ought to seriously consider. While the Bible is clear that the individual Old Testament mandates may not apply to us, the motivation behind the precepts certainly do still apply to us.
God wanted them to stand out. This is largely the reason why God gave them the circumcision mandate in Genesis. Remember, circumcision was a part of the Abrahamic covenant (which God established with Abraham, more than six centuries before the establishment of the Mosaic covenant). God wanted Abraham and the men in his family lineage to look different than other men. Every single time the circumcised man went to the restroom he would be reminded that he was different than the other men.
Every time the circumcised man had sexual relations with a woman, both he and she would be reminded that this man was different, this man was in covenant with God. God wanted his people to be different, to righteously stand out. This was true for Abraham and for the Jews after they left Egypt, and the same is true for you and I today. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, God wants you to righteously stand out.
So ask yourself: What are the things in my life that I can get rid of so that I can righteously stand out?
With all of this in mind, we then ask ourselves: Why did God mandate that the Jews to honor the Sabbath? It’s simple, as I stated above, God knew it was good for them to break away from their regular routines to rest, to reflect, to worship, to rejuvenate their souls, to bask in the glory of God; to remember all that God had done for them. This is essential for humans.
Humans need these types of breaks. This was true way back in the garden of Eden, this was true throughout the pages of the Old Testament, and this is most certainly true for you and I today. In fact, some could argue, because of technology and other modern innovations, that maybe this pattern is even more important today than at any point in human history.
Is the Sabbath Now Sunday?
In the Old Testament, the Sabbath was a 24-hour period that started on Friday evening and ran through Saturday. Modern Jews still honor the Sabbath in this way.
Some Christians claim that the Sabbath has now moved but the Bible never teaches that the Sabbath has moved to Sundays.
Now, as we examine early church history, it’s clear that the weekly day of rest and devotion was not rejected by the earliest Christians. And we also see that the believers developed the pattern of meeting together on Sundays for worship, because Sunday was the day Jesus rose from the dead. The Apostle Paul alludes to this pattern:
On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper so that contributions need not be made when I come.1 Corinthians 16:2
However, this does not necessarily mean that Sundays became the new Sabbath day for Christians. We should not automatically impute the original Sabbath elements to Sundays. In fact, the Apostle Paul makes it clear that different people will regard different days as holy, and that each person must make this determination on their own:
One person judges one day to be more important than another day. Someone else judges every day to be the same. Let each one be fully convinced in his own mind.Romans 14:5
Is Working on Sundays a Sin?
No, working on Sundays is not a sin, but Christians ought to consider implementing Sabbath rhythms in their lives. The mandate to not work on the Sabbath day was a part of the Mosaic covenant, which does not apply to modern-day Christians. The law was fulfilled in Christ.
However, believers ought to seriously consider orientating their lives around weekly rhythms that accomplish what the Sabbath would have accomplished. This was the pattern God set down for us during the creation week. There is great wisdom is following this pattern.
We do not need to obey the precise Sabbath expectations, but we ought to apply Sabbath wisdom to our lives and order our lives around that wisdom.
It is important to note, not all believers agree with me. There are some believers that claim that working on a Sunday is indeed a sin. However, this sentiment binds Christians to the Mosaic law, which was rendered obsolete in the New Testament.
By saying a new covenant, he has declared that the first is obsolete.Hebrews 8:13
However, while we can confidently assert that we no longer must obey the Sabbath mandate, we must be respectful of those who think the Sabbath is still mandatory for believers. We can be kind and cordial in our disagreement. However, if someone argues that the Sabbath is required for their salvation, then it should be forcefully resisted.
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. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.Colossians 2:16-17
How to Practice Sabbath Rhythms?
Even though the seventh day Sabbath is not mandatory for Christians, it is recommended to have at least one day of the week where you can break away from your normal rhythms and spend time with the Lord. A time to set aside away from your daily tasks, chores, bills, or your job, a time to sit and rest and read the Bible, and pray, and reflect on all the blessings the Lord has given you.
As I stated earlier, we would be wise to take regular breaks from the stress and busyness of life. All week long we work, creating and managing things at our jobs. But just as God stopped creating and working, we too ought to stop. To rest, to worship, to reflect. Time away from our typical responsibilities is good.
I have a friend who runs a successful financial planning practice. He’s very busy. But he has good Sabbath rhythms in his life. He uses a pattern that he calls the “7-7-7-rule.” One day every seven days he takes off, the whole day, to devote extra time to prayer and extra time with his wife and daughters. Then he does the same one weekend every seven weeks, and then again at least one full week every seven months. There’s no precise science with this, but he says that this is the frequency that has worked for him and for many of his clients.
The “7-7-7-rule” might work for you. Maybe you need more time. Maybe you need different rhythms. That’s fine. I will not ever mandate how much time you ought to take. That’s something you need to prayerfully consider.
I also don’t think it matters all that much which day you do it on, that’s not the point. For most people in the United States, Sundays probably make the most sense, simply because most people are already off work and headed to church anyway. It makes for an easy rhythm. But this might not be the case for you and your family. It may vary from person to person, family to family, and context to context.
You are not obligated to honor the Jewish Sabbath, but you would be extremely foolish to not develop some quality Sabbath rhythms in your life. God wants you to do this because he knows it’s good for you. And it’s quite dangerous to ignore what God wants.
We all need to rest and, more importantly, we all need to take time out for extra prayer and to bask in the glory of God, and to reflect upon all that God had done for us. This is how Christians ought to approach the Sabbath mandate.