God founded the Sabbath as a holy day of rest commemorating His rescue of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). He commanded the Israelites, along with sojourners, servants and even work animals, to rest on the seventh day as a memorial of that rescue. Anyone profaning the perpetual covenant by working suffered fatal consequences (Exodus 31:12-16). With His own finger, God inscribed the Sabbath into the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments He gave Moses (Exodus 20:8-11; 31:18), telling him in Exodus 31:17, “It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor, and was refreshed.” But are believers bound to sanctify the Sabbath today? And if so, how?
God gives Sabbath instruction in Isaiah 58:13-14:
If because of the sabbath, you turn your foot
From doing your own pleasure on My holy day,
And call the sabbath a delight, the holy day of the LORD honorable,
And honor it, desisting from your own ways,
From seeking your own pleasure
And speaking your own word,
Then you will take delight in the LORD,
And I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
And I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
Here and in other Old Testament passages, God promises blessings for keeping the Sabbath His way.
In Exodus 35:1-3, Moses reminds Israel of God’s ordinances, beginning with the Sabbath. In Jeremiah 17:21-22, the LORD tells the Israelites, “You shall not bring a load out of your houses on the sabbath day nor do any work, but keep the sabbath day holy, as I commanded your forefathers.” When God designates His handful of holy days in Leviticus 23, He starts with the Sabbath.
In Leviticus 16:29-34, He establishes a permanent annual Sabbath Day of Atonement. The high priest made meticulous preparations for cleansing, then passed alone beyond the veil into the Holy of Holies to present sacrifices and offerings for the entire nation. Israel still celebrates this holy day holiday, Yom Kippur. The holiest and most solemn day on the Israeli calendar, it is a day of reflection and repentance to prepare for the new year’s blessing.
The Old Testament contains more than 100 sabbath references. The New Testament contains 60, mostly in the gospels. Jesus referred to the Sabbath almost 20 times Himself. Still, people of Jesus’ day found fault with the Savior’s Sabbath behavior.
He confronts them in John 7:23-24: “If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath so that the Law of Moses will not be broken, are you angry with Me because I made an entire man well on the Sabbath? Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.”
The crowd did not understand how Jesus would fulfill the Law. Something greater than the Law had come, and even believers today do not fully understand.
In John 5, Jesus heals a man at Jerusalem’s Bethesda pool on a Sabbath, telling him in verse 8 to “pick up your pallet and walk.” The man’s instant healing after 38 years of crippling sickness only makes the Jews want “all the more to kill Him (Jesus), because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.” (verse 18).
In Matthew 12:2, the Pharisees accuse Jesus’ hungry disciples of breaking the Law by plucking grain from the fields on the Sabbath. Jesus replies in verses 3-8:
“Have you not read what David did when he became hungry, he and his companions, how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat nor for those with him, but for the priests alone? Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent? But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
This account is also recorded in Mark 2:23-28 and Luke 6:1-5.
A few verses later in Matthew 12, Jesus encounters a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. Before healing him, Jesus answers the Pharisees’ accusations (11-14):
And He said to them, “What man is there among you who has a sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep! So then, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand!” He stretched it out, and it was restored to normal, like the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against Him, as to how they might destroy Him.
Jesus brazenly and repeatedly chose to heal on the Sabbath, thus breaking it, according to those He defied.
In Mark’s withered hand incident (3:1-6), Jesus asks the watching Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to kill?” Jesus heals the man after “looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart” (verses 4 and 5).
Jesus’ conspiring enemies finally convince the Romans to crucify Him (Luke 23). Scrupulously observing the Sabbath (except for killing God), “the Jews, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.” (John 19:31). Jesus’ female Galilean followers see how He’s laid, but then observe a Sabbath rest, even with the rotting corpse of their Lord at stake (Luke 23:55-56).
Jesus truly was and is Lord of the Sabbath: He is believers’ only Day of Atonement, the one full and final sacrifice for sin. He came to do God’s will, and “By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Hebrews 10:10). All the deaths of all the animals for all sacrifices pointed to His ultimate death. God took no pleasure in them, but He takes pleasure in His beloved Son (Hebrews 10:8-9, Matthew 3:17).
Through Jesus, we have a new covenant. The Holy Spirit testifies in Hebrews 10:16-25:
“THIS IS THE COVENANT THAT I WILL MAKE WITH THEM
AFTER THOSE DAYS,” SAYS THE LORD:
“I WILL PUT MY LAWS UPON THEIR HEART,
AND UPON THEIR MIND I WILL WRITE THEM,”
He then says,
“AND THEIR SINS AND THEIR LAWLESS DEEDS
I WILL REMEMBER NO MORE.”
Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.
Since therefore, brethren, we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way through which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near.
That day is almost here.
Jesus said in Matthew 5:17-20:
Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Considered the most righteous of their time, the scribes and Pharisees weren’t righteous enough to enter Heaven. They considered the Lord of the Sabbath a Law-breaking sinner, but He is our perfect, eternal sacrifice, our High Priest who entered the Holy of Holies once and for all, splitting the veil at His death to show that the way to God is now open to believers through His atoning blood: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4).
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).
That said, I do attempt to keep Saturday holy by delighting in the Lord: doing good, refraining from work, spending time in His word, praying, singing praises, recalling His acts, etc. It refreshes, recharges and blesses me.
Scott Hubbard writes in “Should Christians Keep the Sabbath,”
According to Hebrews 4, Israel’s Sabbath day always pointed forward to a far greater day: the still-future day when all creation will enter fully into the rest foreshadowed and promised in Genesis 2:2–3, the very first seventh day. “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9). The ultimate Sabbath rest is coming, when God’s people will enjoy work without toil, hearts without sin, and an earth without thorns.
Yet even now, Hebrews implies, we feel the first waves of the coming rest. In Christ, we “have [already] tasted . . . the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:5), rest included. For, the author writes, “We who have believed enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:3) — not “will enter,” but “enter”: fully later, truly now.
And how do we enter that rest? Not mainly by putting aside our weekly labors for one day in seven, but by believing: “We who have believed enter that rest.” Faith in Jesus Christ brings the rest of the seventh day into every day.
Jesus is our rest now and forever.
He says in Matthew 11:28-29, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, 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 SHALL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. For My yoke is easy, and My load is light.”
So should believers keep the Sabbath today? Romans 14:5 says, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.”
Regardless of our decision, the LORD prophecies in Isaiah 66:23, “And it shall be from new moon to new moon And from sabbath to sabbath, All mankind will come to bow down before Me”.
- Scripture quotations taken from the NASB (New American Standard Bible) copyright by The Lockman Foundation http://lockman.org
- Greek translations and lexicon from http://blueletterbible.org