Ask Pastor Dave: Why Don’t We Worship on the Sabbath?

q-aThis question very clearly understand the importance of the Sabbath in the Scriptures. It’s clear from the Old Testament that the Sabbath is extremely important. The Lord insists, commands that the Israelites “observe the Sabbath” that they “keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8; 31:13; Deut. 5:12), and He even warns them of judgment for failing to keep the Sabbath (Ex. 31:14). Yet, as the question notes, we as a church do not observe the Sabbath – the Sabbath is Saturday, yet we worship on Sunday. There are some Christians who do worship on the Sabbath, but in what follows I will argue that Christians do not need to keep the Sabbath. To answer this question thoroughly and carefully we must understand the place of the Sabbath in redemptive history, our place in redemptive history, and the relationship between the two points.

The Sabbath was given by God to Israel as a nation in order to cause them to remember their dependence upon God. The first official mention of The Sabbath that we get is in Exodus 16. Here God commands Israel that they are not to collect or bake or boil any food on the seventh day of the week, because they are to rest. Whatever they would need to feed themselves and their families on that seventh day they were to prepare on the sixth. The point is that one day of the week was specially made for Israel to rest. The language harkens us back to Genesis and the creation accounts where God creates in six days and on the seventh He rests. The point is for Israel to remind themselves of their indebtedness to the Lord. This connection is made abundantly clear in Exodus 20, where the commandment itself is rooted in Creation. We get it again in Exodus 31 where God stresses the importance of the commandment.

 Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. (Exodus 31:15 )

It was a serious issue to God and therefore He expected it to be a serious issue among His people. God states that remembering this Sabbath is a sign of Israel’s belief and commitment to the God who provides for them.

The most clear indication of this connection probably comes from Leviticus 25, where Israel is instructed to keep a Sabbath Year. That is a whole year where they do not work (I know, you’re already loving this idea aren’t you?). Hear what God says to Israel:

 3 For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits,  4 but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the LORD. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. (Leviticus 25:3-4 )

God promises he will provide for them and they have only to trust Him. They are to rest from their working as a way of testifying to their faith in the God of sufficient provision.

 20 And if you say, ‘What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we may not sow or gather in our crop?’  21 I will command my blessing on you in the sixth year, so that it will produce a crop sufficient for three years. (Leviticus 25:20-21 )

God promised he would provide and Israel had only to trust him. This small rest was a way of acknowledging that God could give whatever they needed.

In Deuteronomy 5 the significance of the Sabbath is tied to the Exodus event. In verse 15 we read:

You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.

So, the Sabbath is intimately tied to Israel’s covenant relationship with God. This is an important point for it helps to explain why Christians today do not need to keep the Sabbath. The Sabbath was a sign of the Mosaic Covenant, but this Covenant has been fulfilled in Christ.

The Mosaic law was temporary. We read in Galatians 3:24 that the Law “was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith,” but, Paul adds, “now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (v. 25-26). In 1 Corinthians 9:20-21 Paul makes this even more clear; we read:

To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.

Paul draws three distinctions here: those under the law (Jews), those not under the law (gentiles) and those under the law of Christ (Christians). He finds himself in this last category as one “not being… under the law” and yet “not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ.” In Paul’s teaching then, we find that Christians are not under the Mosaic law, but under the law of Christ, i.e. the New Covenant. He communicates the same idea across his epistles:

He is a minister of a “new covenant” (2 Cor. 3:5-11)

Christians are not under law but under grace (Rom. 6:14)

Christians are dead to the law (Rom. 7:4-6)

As Christians, then, we are no longer bound to the Old Covenant, and thus no longer bound to the sign of the Old Covenant.

In regards to the Sabbath in particular, Paul calls it a “shadow.” In Colossians 2:1-17 he lumps it in with the laws regarding foods, festivals, and new moon. New Testament scholar Tom Schreiner observes:

The law is only a “shadow (skia) of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (Heb. 10:1). The argument is remarkably similar to what we see in Colossians: both contrast elements of the law as a shadow with  the “substance” (soma, Col. 2:17) or the “form” (eikona, Heb. 10:1) found in Christ. Paul does not denigrate the Sabbath. He salutes its place in salvation history, for, like the Old Testament sacrifices, though not in precisely the same way, it prepared the way for Christ. I know of no one who thinks Old Testament sacrifices should be instituted today; and when we compare what Paul says about the Sabbath with such sacrifices, it seems right to conclude that he thinks the Sabbath is no longer binding. (40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law, 212).

The Sabbath, like all the law, has been fulfilled in Christ and is not binding on the Christian. In fact, Paul puts it very plainly to the Romans when, speaking about weaker brothers, he says that “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” (Rom. 14:5). There is no “holy day.” Christians have long celebrated worship on Sundays, probably because it is said that Jesus rose from the dead on the “first day of the week” (John 20:19; Mark 16:2). So, in light of this, Christians began to gather together “on the first day of the week” (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2), but even this is a choice. We are not bound to Sundays. We are free, because of Christ, to worship on any day of the week we so choose. 

That’s the very long explanation of why we don’t worship on the Sabbath. The answer, however, is worth considering because it reminds us of the great freedom we have in Christ and of all that He has accomplished for His followers.

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