Observing the Christian Sabbath


The following article was written after a discussion I had with a friend regarding the continuance of the Sabbath and the change to the first day of the week. This is merely an outline of my opinions and beleifs as I understand the Scriptures to teach regarding the Sabbath. It addresses only the continual observance of the Sabbath and the change from the last day of the week to the first. I do not address (other than a cursory mention in the definition) how we are to oberve the Sabbath day, and what activities are lawful to be performed on it. Perhaps that will be a topic for a future article.

Dan Horn’s book Sanctified by God was invaluable to me in my studies of this topic, as well as Jonathan Edwards’ work, The Perpetuity and Change of the Sabbath.

Defining the Sabbath

The Sabbath is the day which the Lord blessed and made holy.1 It is a day of solemn rest, a holy convocation, to be kept holy to the Lord in all dwelling places.2 Man observes the Sabbath by turning from his own employment, pleasures, words, and thoughts,3 and desiring to spend the whole day honoring the Lord in public and private worship, duties of necessity, and acts of mercy.4

Observing the Sabbath

Precedent Established

The Sabbath was first instituted on the seventh day of creation when God blessed it and made it holy. When the Lord hallowed this day before the giving of the fourth command, He did it with mankind in mind, so that he may have a day of rest, and set apart one day in seven to honor the Lord. For God did not bless the day for Himself, that He might observe it; And we should not suppose that it was made holy only for the Jewish nation, which rose up 2,000 years later, but that the Sabbath was instituted for mankind to remember God’s rest from His work of creation and to honor Him as holy.

Commanded to Remember

When the Lord redeemed Israel from the land of Egypt, He gave them His moral law summarized in the ten commandments. The fourth command instructs us to “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”

The key aspect of this command is not wether we are working or not, instead, the key point is about holiness. The whole law reflects God’s holiness, and this command in particular emphasizes our need for a reminder that we are to be holy. This command shows us that it is the Lord who makes the Sabbath holy, and not our observance of it. It also shows that it is the Lord who sanctifies us and makes us holy.5

The Sabbath was given to be a sign between the Lord and His people that they may know that it is He that sanctifies them.6 Man is commanded to remember this day and the Lord’s sanctification of it. In doing so, he is reminded of his dependence upon the Lord for his spiritual growth. He remembers this work of the Lord by devoting one day in seven to rest and to religious exercises.

Perpetual Observance

The fourth command of the ten, places a perpetual moral obligation upon all men to “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” As the Sabbath command is based upon the creation order, it cannot be specific to Israel, and therefore it is every man’s moral duty to acknowledge God as the Creator and morally binds him to honor the Lord on the Sabbath.

This command, being among the moral laws, is in the very law that is written on the hearts of all men7—and we know that those who love God keep His commandments.8 Man’s moral duty to God’s law never changes. And because the fourth command is part of the Decalogue, it is necessarily moral and still applies today.

Additionally, we know that the keeping of the weekly Sabbath is moral because it is spoken of by the prophets as being among moral duties and a holy life.9 In Isaiah 56, when the Sabbath is spoken of as being kept in the gospel era, it is a duty which is acceptable to God; that the man who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, is blessed.

‘Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.’ (Isaiah 56:2)

Further in this chapter, when the eunuchs are freed from the ceremonial law in the gospel era, they are still obligated to keep the Sabbath.10 The foreigner also, representing the gentiles in the gospel era, keeps the Sabbath as a perpetual command.11 Here it is shown that though the ceremonial aspects of the Sabbath laws where fulfilled in Christ, the moral obligation to honor the Sabbath day remains.

We also see in the New Testament, that the Sabbath’s perpetual observation is anticipated to continue in the Christian era. Jesus declares to the Pharisees, “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”12 He does not say that He is sovereign over a soon-to-pass ceremonial ritual, but He is presently and continually sovereign. He also demonstrates by His perfect understanding of the Sabbath, and correction of the Pharisees’ false doctrine of the Sabbath,13 that it will continually be kept in the Christian era.

Still further in the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus says, “Pray that your flight may not be ... on a Sabbath.”14 Here He is speaking of the Christians flight from Jerusalem before their final destruction—by the time this occurs, the Jewish constitution has ended, and the Christian era has been fully established. These words of Jesus imply that Christians are still bound to observe the Sabbath.

The Christian Sabbath


In the Mosaic law there were three Sabbaths: the weekly Sabbath,15 the seventh-year Sabbath,16 and the year of jubilee.17 All three of these Sabbaths were shadows and types of a future reality—fulfilled by Jesus Christ’s atoning work on the cross. All foreshadowing types which were fulfilled with the coming of Jesus Christ will never be reinstituted.

The weekly Sabbath occurred every seven days on the last day of the week and was called the Lord’s Sabbath.18 It was established on the seventh day of the week because that was the day which the Lord brought Israel out of Egypt19 and it typified God redeeming His people from bondage to sin.20 We no longer celebrate the Jewish weekly sabbath remembering their deliverance from Egypt, because it typified a now present reality.21

Every seven years there was to be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land22 which was the seventh-year Sabbath. Similar to this, was the year of Jubilee in which debts were to be forgiven, slaves set free, land given rest, and liberty proclaimed by returning the land to whom God had given it.23 These Sabbaths pointed to our freedom in Christ from our debt to the law.24 Now that they have been fulfilled, we no longer observe them.

With the realization of all the ceremonial laws foreshadowing Christ in the Old Testament, we no longer remember the type, which represented something greater, but instead we remember the antitype—the fulfillment of the type.

The Fulfillment

In the Scriptures we read of two creations—the old and the new.25 The first giving of the Sabbath command was based, by divine example, on the creation order. Honoring the Sabbath on the last day of the week followed the example which the Lord established on the seventh day of Creation. In like manner, the words from the fourth command are to be respected by those of Christ’s new creation as they were by those who belonged to the old creation.

We are told in Isaiah 16:17–8 that when the Lord creates the new heaves and new earth that we should not remember the former creation, or bring it to mind, but that we should rejoice and remember the new creation:

For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness.

Parallel with the appointed Sabbath remembering God’s rest from His work of creation, those who have joined with Christ in this new rest (His work of redemption and the new creation) forever remember this new creation with the appointment of the Christian Sabbath.26

The First Day of the Week

We are taught that Christian Sabbath, known as the Lord’s Day,27 is to be celebrated with holy joy by the church on the day of Christ’s resurrection,28 which occurred on the first day of the week.29 The apostles and the early church demonstrated their observance of the Christian Sabbath on the first day of the week by turning from their own employment, pleasures, words, and thoughts,30 and desiring to spend the whole day honoring the Lord in public and private worship, duties of necessity, and mercy.31

Just as the Jewish Sabbath was set to remember the day which the pillar of cloud and fire rose out of the Red sea, the Christian Sabbath was set to remember the day which the real body of Christ rose from the grave.

Objections Addressed

Some object to the fourth command being applied to the first day of the week. Yet the words of the fourth command do not determine a specific day, only that we are to keep a Sabbath every seventh day, or one day after every six. It says, “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest,”32 which implies nothing other than after six days of work, we rest and keep holy the next day.

While the command does imply that a specific day is appointed, it does not say which.

By instituting the Christian Sabbath, the fourth command does not change. The words used in the fourth command may apply to different days under different dispensations, just as the fifth command may require different people to honor different fathers and mothers.

1 Genesis 2:3, Exodus 20:11 2 Leviticus 23:3, Exodus 20:8 3 Exodus 20:10, Leviticus 23:3, Isaiah 58:13 4 Acts 13:27, Acts 15:21, Psalm 92, John 7:22–23, Luke 6:9 5 Exodus 31:13–14 6 Ezekiel 20:12 7 Romans 2:15 8 1 John 2:3, 5:3 9 Isaiah 58:13–14, 56:4, Ezekiel 20:21, 20:24 10 Isaiah 56:4 11 Isaiah 56:6 12 Matthew 12:8, Mark 2:28, Luke 6:5 13 Luke 13: 15 14 Matthew 24:20 15 Exodus 20:8–10 16 Leviticus 25:2–6 17 Leviticus 25:10–12 18 Leviticus 23:38 19 Deuteronomy 5:15 20 Psalm 69:1–3, 14–15, John 15:25, John 2:17, Matthew 27:34, 48 21 Colossians 2:17 22 Exodus 23:11, Leviticus 25:4 23 Leviticus 25:10 24 Isaiah 61:1, Jeremiah 34:8, Luke 4:21 25 2 Corinthians 5:17, Galatians 6:15 26 Hebrews 4:9 27 Revelations 1:10 28 Psalm 118:22–24 29 Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1, John 20:1 30 Acts 20:7 31 Acts 20:10–11, 1 Corinthians 16:2 32 Exodus 23:12, Exodus 34:21