There is a long-standing controversy regarding the Sabbath. Are Christians obligated to keep it or not? Is it a moral principle or a ceremonial one? This article breaks down the Sabbath truth.
What is the Sabbath?
The word Sabbath is translated from a Hebrew word that means cessation or rest and expresses the practice of observing one day out of seven as a time of rest and worship. This practice originated in creation because God created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh (Gen 1). With this action, God ordained and established a pattern for living-that man should work six days each week and should rest one day a week.
The Sabbath: A Moral Principal?
The question is whether keeping the Sabbath is a moral or ceremonial law. So, how do we identify the Sabbath as a moral principle?]
Ceremonial law encompasses rules regarding celebrations and regular rituals regarding the temple and worship. Ceremonial law also includes all of God’s instructions around the building of the tabernacle. The ceremonial law was established to reflect physical depictions of God’s holiness as well as the holiness He expected from His people. The ceremonial law regulated how the people drew near God in worship, recognized remembrance of God’s prior actions, and pointed ahead to the Messiah.
The moral laws, on the other hand, focus on conduct and relationships concerning human individuals and God and between fellow humans. Moral laws are generally considered universal, timeless, eternal, and based on God’s particular character. Therefore, they are in force today. This is an excellent functional definition of the moral category, but a problem arises when individuals presume they are aware of what is included in it. Some individuals assert that a particular law is moral, or a specific group of laws is moral, without attempting to see whether the laws are timeless, eternal, and based on God’s character. Rather, they seem to reason in a reverse direction: these individuals take laws that they think are still in force and conclude that they are also a timeless reflection of God’s character.
The Sabbath Truth
So then, is the fourth Commandment morally binding? When God commands His people in Exodus 20:8 to “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” – are Christians under the New Covenant morally required and obligated to keep this command? At first glance, it would seem that there is no such obligation if one were to survey the evangelical landscape. The conventional Christian wisdom dictates that since we are “under grace,” we are no longer morally obligated to keep God’s moral law. Therefore, it is no mystery that in the last one hundred years, keeping the Sabbath as God commanded has literally disappeared from the thinking and the practice of today’s evangelical Christians.
Therefore, asking whether the fourth Commandment is morally binding invites a solid abhorrence to the basic idea, stating accusations such as, “That’s legalism!” Or it is to get a blank stare representing that no one is home upstairs– because they don’t even know what the question means. The response may be what is the fourth Commandment?
However, despite either reaction to this leading question, we must answer it since Scripture addresses the issue. The first and most crucial point to be made regarding the moral obligation of Sabbath-keeping is that this was a creation ordinance before it was even inscribed into God’s moral law (Gen. 2:2-3). As with marriage and work, God instituted Sabbath-keeping for man in his innocence before the Fall. This fact single-handedly establishes the moral obligation of the Sabbath, as well as its infinity. Moreover, this fact also justifies what Jesus Himself declared in Mark 2:27, which states, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” From Creation before the fall, God made the Sabbath for man – to benefit him spiritually, morally, and physically.
Furthermore, the Sabbath was made for man on the whole, not the Jews exclusively. This point is crucial because scores of individuals currently believe that the Sabbath was purely a Jewish decree and ceremony to be kept explicitly as a sign of God’s covenant with the Jews. While there were “Sabbaths” to be kept in connection with Israel’s ceremonial laws as a sign of the Mosaic economy (Exod. 31:16-17), which now have been fulfilled by Christ (Col. 2:16-17); yet, the Sabbath commandment in the moral law stands on the grounds of what God established in creation (cf. Exod. 20:11), which clearly predates and supersedes the Jews and any covenant God made with them.
Further confirmation of this is found in Ex 16:22-23
22 On the sixth day, they gathered twice as much — two omers for each person — and the leaders of the community came and reported this to Moses.
23 He said to them, “This is what the Lord commanded: ‘Tomorrow is to be a day of rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord. So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning.'” NIV
Here we have Moses giving instructions to the Israelites regarding the Sabbath. This instruction occurred long before receiving the Lord’s Law in Exodus 20. This passage further affirms the Sabbath as being established as God’s moral law from the beginning.
But of course, the second important reason and the most obvious for the moral obligation of Sabbath-keeping is simply that this Commandment is a part of the moral law itself. It is the fourth Commandment.
First, Interestingly, all righteous and unrighteous individuals agree that we should obey the moral law. For example, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not lie, thou shalt not commit adultery, and thou shalt not kill. Yet, the professing Christians will say there is no obligation to keep the Sabbath. The golden question is, why not the Sabbath? What substantiates the disregarding of this particular element of the moral law? Additionally, what substantiated the changing of worship from Saturday to Sunday? For more information on this question, please read the Saturday vs. Sunday Worship article on this website.
There is not one Scripture indicating that we no longer have to keep the Sabbath. In fact, New Testament Scripture says the complete opposite. James 2:10-11 reads:
10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.
11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.NIV
If we violate any part of the law, we are lawbreakers and guilty of violating “all of it.” Keeping the Sabbath is a divine command with a moral obligation. To say that the Sabbath command is not morally binding is to deny the moral law as a whole. What would civilization be like without the moral law?
The Ten Commandments stand and fall together because they sum up what it means to love God and to love thy neighbor (Rom 13:8-10). Therefore, the fourth Commandment, with the other nine, is morally binding for the New Covenant believer, demonstrating the fruit of saving grace. No true Christian believer should deny their moral responsibility to keep those commandments. This truth is why they continue in the New Covenant, as God writes them on the minds and hearts of the new nature (Jer. 31:31-34, Rom. 7:22); and why the Holy Spirit enables every Christian to fulfill them (Rom. 8:4).
“Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” is just as much a part of the moral law as “You shall not steal.”
2 By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.
3 And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. NIV
After God created the world in six days, He rested on the seventh day. He blessed it and made it holy, and He wants us, the highest of His creation, to celebrate it with Him.
The Sabbath is a day of rest, a celebration of God and creation, and a celebration of our salvation. God was the first to celebrate it and declared this seventh day a period of rest, even before sin polluted the world.
Many centuries later, it was part of the Ten Commandments, so the Israelites would remember where they came from, who their God was, and what a blessing it was for them to partake of it.
The blessing remains currently. Heb 4:9-11reads:
9 There remains, then, a Sabbath — rest for the people of God;
10 for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his.
11 Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience. NIV
Just as God set it up after creating an entire world for us to live in and care for (Genesis 1:26). We need to rest! The Sabbath can be a welcome break that renews us each week and allows us to grow closer to Him.
The Blessing of the Sabbath
Isa 58:13-59:1 reads:
13 “If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,
14 then you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.” The mouth of the Lord has spoken. NIV
In verse 13, we see how important the Sabbath is to God. Through His prophet Isaiah, He reminded the Israelites, His chosen people, that they were to avoid doing their own thing on the Sabbath, conducting business, etc., but to keep it holy by delighting and finding pleasure in keeping the Sabbath.
He also informed them in verse 14 that, as a result, they would find joy in the Lord, and He would bless them with the inheritance of Jacob. This inheritance was an earthly one – the Promised Land.
Today, keeping the Sabbath yields the inheritance of Jesus. We receive the Spiritual inheritance and blessing of eternal life through Him.
Jesus is quoted in Matt 11:28-29 as saying:
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Further, Ps. 37:4 reads: “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” By honoring the Son and keeping the Sabbath, we are honoring God the Father and delighting in Him (John 5:23), and He will bless us and give us the desires of our hearts.
We are blessed when we honor God and His Sabbath.
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