Why Don’t Christians Keep the Sabbath?

In Blogs by Bruce Scott18 Comments

“Why don’t Christians keep the Sabbath?”

That’s a good question and one not so easily answered. After all, there is no biblical text that clearly states, “You shall not keep the Sabbath.” Instead, in the Old Testament God highly emphasized the keeping of the Sabbath (Exodus 31:16). Not to do so was punishable by death (35:2). Keeping the Sabbath was also part of the Ten Commandments (20:8). In the New Testament, the apostle Paul regularly went into the synagogue on the Sabbath (Acts 17:1–2). Even Jesus kept the Sabbath. If Jesus kept the Sabbath, then why don’t we as His followers do the same?

Let’s try to answer the question with other questions.

What is meant by “the Sabbath”? The Hebrew word Shabbat (Sabbath) comes from a word meaning to desist, cease, or rest. There are actually many Sabbaths mentioned in the Bible, and they were given to national Israel by God (Exodus 31:13). But generally speaking, the term Sabbath refers to the weekly Sabbath, the seventh day of the week that runs from Friday’s sunset to Saturday’s sunset, the day on which God rested or ceased from His creation work (Genesis 2:2). This is usually the Sabbath that people mean when they ask the question, “Why don’t Christians keep the Sabbath?”

Don’t Christians already keep the Sabbath? Some Christians would say yes because they refer to Sunday, the day on which they worship, as the Sabbath. Why do they do that?

Historically, calling Sunday the Sabbath could have arisen out of mere tradition. Since the Jewish people called the day on which they worshiped, Saturday, the Sabbath, so, too, Christians, who customarily met on Sunday (Acts 20:7)—the day the Lord Jesus was resurrected—called their day of worship the Sabbath.

On the other hand, Christians calling Sunday the Sabbath could have arisen out of a further effort to supersede or replace Israel as the chosen nation. Replacement Theology, in which the church is considered to be the true “spiritual Israel,” has commandeered much of Israel’s position and identity over the centuries anyway, so why not also the Sabbath? Doing so would certainly fit Replacement Theology’s common use of allegorical hermeneutics. If, allegorically speaking, the church is Israel, then it’s not a stretch to say Sunday is the Sabbath.

Christians are not keeping the Sabbath when they worship on Sunday.

Whatever the historical or theological reason for claiming Sunday to be the Sabbath, the claim is false. The Bible clearly states that the Sabbath is not the first day of the week, but rather the seventh (Exodus 20:10–11). Christians, therefore, are not keeping the Sabbath when they worship on Sunday.

Interestingly, most Messianic Jews (believers in Jesus with Jewish backgrounds) in Israel today do not gather to worship on Sunday. Modern Israeli culture makes it impractical. Since Israel’s population is predominantly Jewish, most everything shuts down throughout the country from Friday night to Saturday night. Additionally, since Sunday is considered the first day of the work week and many Israeli believers have to go to work on that day, it is expedient for believing congregations to meet on Saturday.

What do you mean by “keep” the Sabbath? If you’re meaning to keep or practice the Sabbath as in biblical times, here’s how seriously God took the subject: “You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people” (Exodus 31:14). Is this how Christians should practice the Sabbath today? If so, how many people would have to die because of working on the weekend?

On the other hand, if you’re meaning to practice the Sabbath as the ancient rabbis did with their 39 extra categories of work, along with all of their additional Sabbath laws and traditions, then don’t expect getting much rest. Instead, you’ll be weighed down with a legalistic burden that exhausts people with minutiae and the fear of God’s wrath. Jesus condemned laying such burdens on people’s shoulders (Matthew 23:4). He had the right perspective when He declared, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

But isn’t keeping the Sabbath obligatory? Yes, it was obligatory for the nation of Israel, but not for Christians who live during this present age. In fact, “the Scriptures are silent concerning the observance of the Sabbath during the Church Age. Nine of the Ten Commandments are reiterated in some fashion in the New Testament, but the commandment concerning the Sabbath day is not. The book of Acts records that Paul and his companions were seen on numerous occasions going into the synagogue on the seventh day of the week; however, this was not out of obligation but, rather, out of practicality. Paul was seeking opportunities to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with those to whom the messianic promises had been made.”1 

But can I keep the Sabbath if I want to? Yes, you can. God gives us that freedom in Christ. But it all depends on your motivation and what you hope to achieve by doing it. 

Israeli believers will often keep the Sabbath primarily as a cultural observance. They invite friends and family over for a sumptuous meal on Friday evening which is followed by a time of warm discussion and fellowship. It’s a beautiful and inspirational occasion.

There have also been many studies proving the physical, mental, and emotional value of setting aside at least one day a week to stop your normal work routine and spend some time refreshing yourself. Even Jesus had His disciples do that on at least one occasion (Mark 6:31).

If your motivation for keeping the Sabbath is to somehow earn God’s favor or smile, then you have fallen from the principle of living by God’s grace.

But if your motivation for keeping the Sabbath is to somehow earn God’s favor or smile, then you have fallen from the principle of living by God’s grace (Galatians 5:4). You are in effect canceling out what He did in procuring your salvation in Christ. But the apostle Paul would not allow himself to do that. He wrote, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (2:21, NASB20).

Also, if by keeping the Sabbath you hope to derive some sort of benefit that will increase or enhance your spiritual growth, the opposite is actually true. Keeping the Sabbath or the rituals surrounding it may give you a warm feeling inside (the flesh always delights in thinking it is capable of pleasing God), but it doesn’t add anything to the progressive work of God in transforming you into the image of His Son (Romans 8:29). To think it does can actually stunt a Christian in a state of immaturity and weak faith (14:1, 5), a state that misunderstands God’s method of justification and sanctification. But God’s method has always been the same—“the just shall live by faith” (Galatians 3:11), “for we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7), because “without faith it is impossible to please Him [God]” (Hebrews 11:6). 

The apostle Paul writes, “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me but I will not be brought under the power of any. All things are lawful for me, but not all things edify” (1 Corinthians 6:12; 10:23). This is good counsel for a Christian who’s weighing the decision to regularly keep the Sabbath or not.

In short, can Christians keep the Sabbath? Yes, but let’s understand what that actually means. Jesus claimed to be the very source of rest (Matthew 11:28–30). That’s why the Sabbath is “a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Colossians 2:16–17). In other words, we shouldn’t get so enamored with the shadow, the Sabbath day, as much as with the substance behind it all. It’s because of the Messiah and what He did through His substitutionary death and His life-imparting resurrection that “there remains therefore a rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9). That rest is not a day or a thing, but a Person. And His name is Jesus.

We would do well to keep, to preserve, to honor that “Sabbath.”

Endnote
1 Bruce Scott, The Feasts of Israel: Seasons of the Messiah (Bellmawr, NJ: The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, 1997), 32.

About the Author

Bruce Scott

Bruce Scott is the director of Program Ministries at The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry and is the author of The Feasts of Israel: Seasons of the Messiah.

Comments 18

  1. The Sabbath was part of the Mosaic covenant and given exclusively to Israel as stated in Scripture, Exodus 19:3, 6, Psalm 147:19, 20 and Ezekiel 20:12. But even Israel is no longer under worship on the Sabbath. Except for Messianic Jews, worship by Jews is in vain for as Yeshua said in John 4:24, ” God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” Also in John 14:6 we have these words o His, ” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” But from the Hebrew Scriptures, we see that God had said He would suspend Israel’s holy feasts and days because they had become meaningless and through their actions had profaned His name, Isaiah 1:12-16, Jeremiah 16:9, Hosea 2:11, Amos 5:21-24. With the close of the dispensation of the law, the Mosaic covenant, Levitical priesthood and animal sacrificed for sin was voided along with His suspension of the feasts. The church age, which is an element of the dispensation of grace, isn’t about the law, but of the law of love and of grace. It’s not about what we do or don’t do, but about what Messiah has done. We are in Christ and will remain in Christ, not based on our works but by the power of His blood.

    1. Read Zech. 14:16-19. At least the Feast of Tabernacles will be mandatory for ALL. I am leading a Passover Seder at my Baptist church Friday evening. As a believer in Yeshua I want to remember His final propitiatory sacrifice. I am a dumb goyim, not a Jew, but I want to remember this, not neccessarily that I have to. He rose on the Feast of First fruits, not the pagan origin Eostre’. As to SUNday day of rest, Rome began the edict and the Catholic church jumped in. Read a history of Constantine, how he treated his own family and his allegiance to the Sun god Apollo, who is featured on Constantine’s own coin minted 330 CE (I have 3 of these coins), 5 years after the council of Nicea which essentially outlawed the keeping of Passover and all the other feasts. I am not a Judaizer, but would rather follow the holidays that Yehovah established than the ones man made. As mentioned briefly in the article, Yehovah rested on the 7th day, thousands of years before the Law. Should we do likewise?

    2. My understanding of Christians and the keeping of the sabbath is that the Lord commands us to observe a day of rest. What particular day that is may vary with each congregation, and in fact with each individual Christian. Many pastors, who work their tails off ministering to the rest of us on Saturdays and Sundays, will designate a weekday as their own personal day of rest. That is still observing the sabbath, isn’t it?

    3. “The Sabbath was part of the Mosaic covenant and given exclusively to Israel as stated in Scripture”
      OK, So where was Israel in Genesis 2? What about Manna BEFORE Mount Sinai? What about the Sabbath during the one thousand year Reign of Yeshua? Genesis 2:2, Exodus 16:20, The 10 Commandment were given at Mount Sinai, Isaiah 66:23

  2. Interesting. How does Matt 5:17-19 fit in? Yeshua is clearly upholding Torah until heaven and earth pass away. The Gentiles in the first two centuries turned away from what the saints first delivered to them. Pesach became ishtar, Sabbath (Yom Shabbat, Sabbado) became the first weekday etc.. If, as you stated, we can decide what HIS commandments mean, are we now as the Pharisees? Messiah taught against this!

  3. We celebrate the resurrection of the Messiah who died on the cross and whose sinless blood was shed to pay the sin debt no man could ever repay.

  4. How can you say “the Scriptures are silent concerning the observance of the Sabbath during the Church Age”? Have you not read Romans 14:5 (which, by the way, shows that “keeping the Sabbath” is not a matter of just choosing whatever day you want), Galatians 4:10, Colossians 2:16? Wouldn’t “keeping the Sabbath” be covered by the Apostolic Council’s decision in Acts 15? Even Martin Luther understood and says in his Large Catechism – that the Sabbath was a part of the covenant God made with Israel and as such is not binding on the Christian (yet because of the pull of tradition he still found a way of making some observance of “Sabbath” binding on the believer. We are freed from religious regulations by the Gospel. Why should we speak as though we are still bound by them? As Romans 14 goes on to say in verses 6-13, celebrate your freedom in Christ and decide for yourself how you will deal with the Sabbath. If I were a Jewish Christian, I would observe the Sabbath (Biblically, not necessarily as tradition dealt with it) and humbly give thanks that as a Jew I am entrusted with the “very words of God (Romans 3:1-2). As a Gentile, I do not keep the Sabbath (except as a day to gather for worship, since my culture allows it) and humbly rejoice that, though an ‘alien’ God still invited me to become a part of the Body of Christ. Praise God for His covenant with the Jews, and may the day soon come when He fulfills the promises made under that covenant.

  5. Bruce, I found your statements regarding Christians observing the Sabbath to be interesting. First you presented a question, “Isn’t keeping the Sabbath obligatory? You said Yes, it was obligatory for the nation of Israel but not for Christians who live during this present age.” I think all true Christians, Jews and Gentiles, should observe the Sabbath– rest on the sabbath day (one day per week). You mention “Paul and his companions were seen going into the synagogue on the seventh day. However, not out of obligation, but out of practicality.” How do you know Paul went just to share the gospel and NOT to worship? You stated, “Christians calling Sunday the Sabbath could have arisen out of a further effort to supersede or replace Israel as the chosen nation.” With this statement, I wondered if you are a little paranoid or “defensive”? I believe the MAIN reason the early church started worshiping on Sunday was, as you mentioned, it was the day Jesus was resurrected. And what a victorious day it was! Do you believe it is a sin that most Gentile Christians, like myself worship God, in a corporate sense, on Sundays? You said, “Christians are not keeping the Sabbath when they worship on Sundays.” That may be a technically correct statement, but it is highly legalistic. Do you think God agrees with your statement? Since we are now in New Testament times, I somehow doubt God agrees wholeheartedly with your statement. I think the key is to rest one day per week. After all, as you stated, Shabbat comes from a Hebrew root word meaning to “cease,” or “rest.” Therefore, I think God wants us to rest one day per week. And we should OBEY God. Finally, you stated, “In fact, the Scrip;tures are silent concerning the observance of the Sabbath during the church age. Nine of the Ten Commandments are reiterated in some fashion in the New Testament, but the commandment concerning the Sabbath day is not.” I have also heard John MacArthur make this statement. But it is NOT biblically correct. God gave the Jews, and us Gentiles the Ten Commandments as a “package.” To say that one of them is not currently in effect is unorthodox biblically. Jesus Himself informed all who would listen: “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath (Matt 12:8). In Mark 2:27, we read , “Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” So, here in the New Testament time, we have our Lord instructing us regarding His view of the Sabbath. As Jesus has told us, the Sabbath was made for man — and man really needs that day of rest each week. Oh, how most of us U.S. Christians need to do better in observing the Sabbath! Blessings to you.

  6. in genesis the 2nd chapter verse 2 “by the seventh day God had finished the work He had been doing; so He rested from all His work. and God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it HE rested from all His work of creating that He had done.” with that said, it seems to me that this then is for all—-not just the Jews. for God gives the 10 commandments 100’s of years later.

  7. The Sabbath is the sign of the [marriage] covenant (Ex 31:16-17). When one takes the position that Torah (Gods’ teaching/instruction, precepts/principals, wisdom /doctrine FOR righteous living are no longer for today and only suggestions. One begins on a very slippery slope downhill. It appears no one sees the mixed multitude in Ex 12:33. They were those from the Nations NOT descendants of any of Jacob’s 12 sons. These too placed blood over the doorposts of their homes and were part of “collective” Israel that Moses brought up out of Egypt during the historical Exodus. It was collective Israel which prefigures the “The Commonwealth of Israel” (Eph 2:12) which Rav Shaul is specifically addressing in Eph 2:11-13. Additionally Acts 15:21 clearly indicates the 1st gentile believers went to the Temple in Jerusalem to hear Moses. Those in the Diaspora would have done so in the local Synagogues. Acts 20:7 refers to Motza’ei-Shabbat which in Hebrew means “departure of the Sabbath” and refers to Saturday night. The Greek text here says, “the first day of the sabbaton,” where Greek sabbaton transliterates Hebrew Shabbat and may be translated “Sabbath” or “week,” depending on the context. Since Shabbat itself is only one day, “the first day of the sabbaton ” must be the first day of the week.

    But what was meant by “the first day of the week”? Or, were the believers meeting on Saturday night or on Sunday night? (It is clear from the verse that the meeting was in the evening.) A Saturday night meeting would fit more naturally with Jewish Shabbat observance, wherein the restful spirit of Shabbat is often preserved into Saturday evening, after the official end of Shabbat itself, which occurs after sunset when it gets dark enough to see three stars. It would be natural for Jewish believers who had rested on Shabbat with the rest of the Jewish community to assemble afterwards to celebrate their common faith in Yeshua the Messiah. The Gentile believers who came along later would join in the already established practice, especially since many of them would have been “God-fearers” (10:2) already accustomed to following the lead of the Jews in whose company they had chosen to place themselves. And since by Jewish reckoning days commence after sunset, the sense of the Greek text seems best rendered by “Motza’ei-Shabbat” and not “Sunday.”

    In various places this commentary notes the Christian Church’s tendency to expunge Jewish influences, and I think an instance arises when the present verse is understood to refer to Sunday night. A Sunday night meeting would imply a break of one full day of work between the Jewish Shabbat and the gathering at which Sha’ul spoke. Although Sha’ul cautions Gentiles against being “Judaized” into legalistic observance of the Jewish Sabbath (Col 2:16-17, and possibly Gal 4:8-10), although he asks the believers in Corinth to set aside money for the Jewish poor of Jerusalem also on “the first day of the sabbaton” (1 Сor 16:2), and although John at Rev 1:10 speaks of what most translators render as “the Lord’s day” (properly rendered as “the Day of the Lord”; an end time event, NOT a day of the week), nevertheless the meeting in Ephesus must have been on Saturday night. For in this city, as in other places, Jewish believers constituted the core of the congregation — Sha’ul “took the talmidim with him” from the synagogue (19:8-9), with many Gentiles coming to faith later (19:17, 20). The Jewish believers, as explained, would have been accustomed to prolonging Shabbat, so that they would probably not have minded Sha’ul’s talking till midnight A Saturday night meeting would continue the God-oriented spirit of Shabbat, rather than require the believers to shift their concern from workaday matters, as would be the case on Sunday night.

    The often quoted Heb 4:9 is NOT a day and NOT Shabbat. It’s part of the writer’s larger “commentary aka Midrash” on Psalm 95:6-11

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