Over the last few weeks, we have been looking at our relationship to the law of God in scripture. One of the things the scriptures have shown us is that we are still under the moral law of God as Christians today. Both Pastor Ryan and I have mentioned that this does not mean we must follow the ceremonial laws, or the food laws, only the moral laws. The ceremonial laws include the laws of sacrificing animals to take our punishment for sin. We no longer practice this, because the author of Hebrews tells us that Christ “has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26b). Christ did not come with the blood of goats or calves, but by his own blood to atone for our sin. This is the only sacrifice we need, and all the other sacrifices were meant to point us to this sacrifice. Similarly, we do not follow the same Old Covenant ceremonies and feasts, because they, too, were meant to point us to Christ (c.f. Col. 2:16-17). Another aspect of the law that is no longer binding is the food laws, because in Mark 7:19, Christ declared all foods clean.
But what about the Sabbath? The Sabbath is not part of the ceremonial law. It is part of the moral law. The fourth of the Ten Commandments states, ““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.” If this is one of the Ten Commandments, shouldn’t we still observe the Sabbath the same way today?
While this question is not directly answered in our Methodist doctrine, and many Christians have different viewpoints, my personal conviction is that Christians are not bound to observe the Sabbath, but instead, the Sabbath is replaced by the New Testament idea of the “Lord’s Day.” It is strange to say that only one of Ten Commandments is no longer binding on Christians today. However, I believe that is exactly what the New Testament teaches us. The Sabbath is not given as an instruction in the New Testament like many of the other Ten Commandments are (see Matt. 5:21-47, Eph. 6:2-3). Furthermore, we never read of the believers observing the Sabbath after Pentecost, and we never see the apostles instructing the new Gentile believers to observe the Sabbath. All indications seem to say that they were not concerned with Gentiles observing the Sabbath in the same way the Jews did. In Galatians 4:9-11, Paul expresses frustration that these “believers” are so concerned with, and even enslaved to “elementary principles of the world.” He says, “You observe days and months and seasons and years!” This probably includes Sabbaths and religious festivals. Paul goes on to say he is afraid he may have even labored to preach the gospel to them in vain because of this!
So why was the Sabbath given, then? It was given for two reasons. The first was to introduce God’s people to the godly principle of rest. Rest is vital to the Christian. The Sabbath was given for people to take a break, because it is a godly thing to do. Moses tells us that our obedience to the Sabbath is founded by the truth that God himself observed the Sabbath, resting from His works after creating all things in six days. As Christians, it is important to remember that God does command us to rest. How beautiful of a thing it is, to be given a command to rest! God is not holding his thumb over us, demanding constant efficiency and production. Scheduled times of rest are vitally important in the Christian life.
The second reason the Sabbath was given was to point us to Christ. In Colossians 2:16-17 Paul is instructing those who are judging others as less spiritual for not abiding by certain rituals. He tells us that the Sabbath is “a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” Paul wants us to know that the institution of the Sabbath was meant to point us to what Christ would do for us. In order to understand this, we have to look closer at the Sabbath in the Old Testament. The Jews were not allowed to do any work on the Sabbath. On one Sabbath, a man is found to be picking up sticks (Num. 15). The people of Israel ask God what they are to do with this man. God tells them to put the man to death by stoning him. Why in the world would God command that the man, who was made in God’s image, be put to death for simply picking up a few sticks on the Sabbath? The reason is found in Hebrews 4:9-10. Here we learn that “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” The Sabbath was intended to point us to an ultimate Sabbath rest. Once we enter this rest, we do not depart from it to go back to work. The author of Hebrews exhorts us to strive to enter this ultimate Sabbath rest, where we rest from all of our works. In Christ, we are able to enter this ultimate Sabbath. The Old Testament Sabbath was only a shadow of this eternal Sabbath rest we experience in Christ. The only way we can obtain true peace with God is by trusting in the work of Jesus, not our own works. To even rely partly on our own good works is to find ourselves deserving of death. This is why God ordered the man to be killed for simply picking up sticks. We cannot come before God by claiming that we are worthy because of any of our own works. To attempt to do so only brings death. We enter the eternal Sabbath rest by resting from all of our own works, and trusting in Christ alone, not Christ plus our good deeds. The Sabbath is fulfilled in Christ, because in him we rest from all of our works. Since it is fulfilled in Christ, it is no longer binding on Christians today.
However, the apostles replace the idea of the Sabbath with the new institution of what is called “the Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10). In the New Testament, Christians begin to worship together on Sunday, the day of the resurrection, instead of Saturday, the day of the Sabbath. Given the instruction and example of the early church, each Lord’s Day (Sunday) is to be set aside for worship, rest, and acts of mercy or service to God. Sunday should be a day where we deliberately schedule time to worship with other believers. Going to church is not just a casual thing to do when we have time for it. We are to go to corporate worship whether family is in town, or we are on vacation, or we are in the middle of our kid’s sport season. Although we can worship God anywhere and at any time, the New Testament church clearly placed importance on corporate worship (Acts 2:42-47), and we receive instruction not to neglect to meet together for this purpose (Heb. 10:25). Sunday should also be a day we set aside for rest with our families. It is wrong of us to believe that we must work every day of the week. Believing this shows our lack of faith in God. God is our great Provider. If we truly trust Him to be our Provider, we can certainly afford to obey His command to set aside time for rest from our daily labors. But this rest is not the same as it was in the Old Covenant. It is rest from our worldly works. Often times we may find ourselves performing acts of mercy, feeding the homeless, or telling our neighbors about the good news of Jesus. These and other acts of service are ways that we worship God.
So is the Sabbath binding for Christians today? No, it is not. But the godly principle of rest remains true and good, and we are instructed to set aside the Lord’s Day for worship, Christian service, and rest. The Lord’s Day is a joyful celebration of the resurrection of Christ. It is not a somber day, or a day for accomplishing religious duties. It is a day of exuberant worship, and like all our days, a day of resting in the finished work of Christ on our behalf.