When Christians think about the Sabbath, many of us traditionally associate it with Sunday and church services. Sundays are often referred to as the “Christian Sabbath.” When I read the ten commandments, and I get to the place that says “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8), I almost instantly visualize a dear Christian mentor and his wife.
She would do all of her Sunday cooking on Saturday, and he would make sure there was no work left undone. They would not patronize restaurants or grocery stores on Sunday. They would simply go to church, drive home, eat, rest, go back to church, drive home and go to sleep. Absolutely no leisure, work, or excessive activity for them on Sundays. They believed strongly that Christians should observe a sabbath, and by not doing so, they were sinning.
While I do not question the sincerity or motives of my friends on this issue, I do question their interpretation and application of God’s Word. They were following a centuries old tradition, similar to the Jews before them. However, just because it is an old tradition doesn’t make it right. We must examine everything through Scripture.
For the Christian, we no longer observe a physical Sabbath because Christ is our Sabbath. He is our rest. He is our respite from our labors. He has brought to a halt forever the idea that we must perform in order to win favor with God. Let’s examine a few things that will help us think biblically about Jesus as our sabbath:
The word sabbath means rest. Under the Mosaic law, the Sabbath was an actual physical rest. For the Israelites, nothing considered work was allowed on the Sabbath day (Leviticus 23:3). Physical rest was mandatory for all. If someone was found working, or doing anything forbidden on the Sabbath, he or she was duly punished, even up to death. One poor sap was found gathering wood on the Sabbath and stoned to death (Numbers 15:32-36)! Things like building fires and walking too far was also forbidden.
Over the years, the Jews added more and more “dos and “don’ts” to the list of what was and was not allowed on the Sabbath. By the first century, Sabbath rules and regulations extended to baking, sewing, writing, and erasing (!). Likewise, later, as Christians could not see the discontinuity between the New and Old covenants, they created the idea of the “Christian Sabbath,” still believing that they were bound to observe the Mosaic law. Some Christians still hold to the notion of a “Christian Sabbath,” we see this in our attitude that Christians shouldn’t work a job on Sundays; stores should be closed; alcohol shouldn’t be sold; blue laws should be in effect, etc.
The one thing both groups missed (and are still missing) was that the Sabbath rest was meant for the benefit of man (Mark 2:27). Its purpose was to evoke delight and pleasure in God (Isaiah 58:13). And, like the entire Old Covenant, it pointed to a coming greater fulfillment.
In one of the earliest recorded interactions between Jesus and the Pharisees, the question of the Sabbath came up. In Mark 2 Jesus and his disciples were eating grain from the grainfields as they passed through. The Pharisees saw it and called them out for being law breakers. Jesus immediately pointed them back to the story of David and his men eating temple bread reserved for “holy” use (1 Samuel 21:1-12).
The greater point of the story was that David and his men were starving in the Lord’s service, and the only available food was the showbread. Therefore, the food was allowed to David and his regiment because it served a higher purpose.
Likewise, Jesus told the Pharisees that the Sabbath served a higher purpose. It’s purpose wasn’t to regulate the behavior of others, but to meet a greater need. In this case it was physical hunger, but he stated that in him the Sabbath has its ultimate purpose and fulfillment, he was “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8).
So then, how does this apply to us today? We have to remember that Jesus said he himself was rest: “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 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.” (Matthew 11:28-29). What Jesus was saying was that there was a greater rest that mankind needed and that it could only be found in him.
The writer of Hebrews made it clear that keeping the Sabbath was not a physical matter, but a spiritual matter: “For anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his” (Hebrews 4:10). To come to Christ is to keep the Sabbath. It is pleasing to God when people lay their tired weary souls on Christ and simply stop working. Stop trying to please God by being religious, by keeping rules and regulations in the hopes you’ll your works will earn acceptance from him. Stop thinking your debased morality will ever recommend you to God.
Drop your hammers. Drop your nails. Drop your weapons. Drop your acts.
Stop trying to keep laws you are unable to keep, but which condemn you nonetheless. Jesus kept them for you. In him there is no condemnation.
Your hope lies in one thing: Resting in Christ. He is our Sabbath.
(P.S. – FYI: the Sabbath was on Saturday, not Sunday.)