Should Christians keep the Sabbath? (#1)

“You’ll have a hard job persuading me that one of the ten commandments no longer applies!” It was a cordial argument between two preachers, but that was my response about 15 years ago when my friend told me he no longer believed Sunday was the Sabbath.

Let me put my cards on the table: I now don’t believe Christians should keep the Sabbath. Either on Saturday, or Sunday… and this is part one in a short series to explain why. I do, however, believe that Sunday is the Lord’s Day, and that it has real significance for Christians. That, however will have to wait till later in the series. For now, let’s look at a few reasons why Christians do not have to keep the Sabbath:

The Sabbath was NOT a Creation Command

This is the argument I used to make: “God instituted the idea of a sabbath rest at creation. It was a creation ordinance. That means it has timeless significance, right?” Well, actually, no:

  1. To be a creation command, it would actually have to be a command. But it’s not. Search and see, but you won’t find one word of command in Genesis 2:1-3. It’s just a description of what God said and did.
  2. There is no mention of the word Sabbath until after the Exodus.
  3. There is no evidence of anyone keeping the seventh day as holy or anything like it, until after it was introduced in Exodus 16.
  4. The sabbath restrictions were all meaningless to Adam & Eve, who received the creation ordinances. Think about it: no toilsome work to rest from, no need to bear burdens, as food was abundant and accessible. No fires to light, no cooking to be done, and no need to stop one day out of seven and delight in God, since that was something you did every day!
  5. Nehemiah 9:14 places the moment that God “made known” His holy Sabbath to Israel in the same time period as their sojourn at Sinai. The implication is that they didn’t know about it before that period, which means it was not a creation ordinance.
  6. The language used in Exodus 16, where Moses first talks about the seventh day being “a sabbath” seems to be introducing something new to them. He uses the indefinite form that we translate with the word “a” several times (Exodus 16:23, 25, 26) before announcing to the people that the LORD had given them “the Sabbath” (Exodus 16:29). If they already knew about the Sabbath command, it seems strange to start by talking about the seventh day as being “a” sabbath. All this seems to confirm the reality that it was not until after the Exodus that God introduced the Sabbath to the people of Israel, and thus it was not a creation ordinance.

Helpful? Well there’s a take-home point from all this:

  • Not every law is eternal. We cannot take laws that God introduced later, and read them back into an earlier period.

For example, even with laws like the prohibition of murder, which were written into human conscience long before they were ever written on stone by the finger of God, there is a development of that law over time. God declared to Noah and his family that if someone takes another man’s life, his own life must be taken. However, much earlier when Cain murdered Abel, God prevented anyone from taking Cain’s life. Much later, when God expounded His law to Israel, the prohibition was expanded to include inflicting injury that did not result in death, and relevant penalties were prescribed. This is just one example of how God’s law was developed over time, and it would be wrong to read those laws back into the early chapters of Genesis and claim that God, or Adam and Eve should have executed Cain.

Perhaps a more striking example is with respect to marriage. In Leviticus 18:9 sibling marriage is prohibited. Clearly this was a new law that was prohibiting an act that was not previously sinful, in and of itself. Certainly not for Cain! God introduced further law at the time he chose, and we cannot read that law back into the early chapters of Genesis.

With all that said, it’s not so hard to accept that God didn’t establish the Sabbath as a law in Genesis 2. Until He made the laws in Exodus, there was no law prohibiting any activity on the seventh day, or prescribing a day of rest. The only hint people had was that God blessed the day and made the day “holy”—but we have no record of how much that was communicated to them, or how much of it was passed on. It’s obvious that we can only speculate about how the people of God in the thousands of years covered by Genesis responded to what they knew about God’s blessing on that day. They may have chosen to keep the seventh day special, but they may not have done so. The point I am making here is that whether they rested or not, it would not have been transgression for them to work on the seventh day. That is clear from Romans 4:15 “where there is no law there is no transgression,” and Romans 5:13 “sin is not counted where there is no law.”

Where the idea of a “sabbath” came from is lost in the mists of time and debated by scholars unable to prove their case. Unless we want to add our own speculation to Scripture, we should be careful not say that the Sabbath was a creation ordinance! It might be possible to talk about example. It could even be possible to talk about principle, but the Sabbath was not a creation command.

The Sabbath was a Covenant Command

Why did God give the Sabbath commandment to Israel? Well, for a start, it was to make sure they rested one day in seven to allow them to be refreshed and worship Him: Obviously, God’s plan for a seven-day week was his original design in Genesis 1-2, and it works. All other attempts to change this design have failed, just ask a historian. If people before the giving of the Ten Commandments had known Genesis 2 and taken a principle of rest from God’s example in creation, that would have been good for them. By giving the law to Israel in Exodus, God ensured his chosen people would get the rest they needed and an opportunity to focus on Him and take time for worship. Exodus 23:12 makes it clear that God was concerned that his people rested and were “refreshed” —and that included their servants, and even their animals and the “alien” or sojourner who were also not allowed to work. God legislated to ensure his original design for rest and worship was not an optional extra for his chosen people.

If you were to stop there however, with the principle of rest for worship, you would miss the explicit purpose that God gave when He made the Sabbath part of the Ten Commandments. The Sabbath command, was a covenant command: it was part of the covenant, but it was also the sign of the covenant.

The Sabbath as the sign of the Mosaic Covenant

The command not to work on the seventh day was a very visible outward indicator of whether an Israelite wanted to participate in God’s covenant with His people. It was something that would serve to remind them of the covenant they had made with God, and to remind them of the rest from which they had been excluded, because of sin. It also served as an obvious indicator of their participation in God’s covenant with his people Israel.

Let’s break this down:

What is a sign in respect to a covenant? When God made a covenant with humanity after the flood, He set the sign of his covenant in the clouds, so that we could know that when He saw the bow (Genesis 9:8-17), He would in effect be reminded of the covenant He had made never to destroy the whole world again in a flood. When we see the rainbow, we can know that God won’t forget to keep His promise! The sign works in both directions but it’s interesting that God specifically talks about its affect on Him, so that when we see it, we are reminded that He is also reminded!

When God made a covenant with Abraham, the sign of the covenant was circumcision (Genesis 17:11). God would give Abraham offspring, a land and blessing (Genesis 12:1-3, 7), and He only gave Abraham one command: “Every male throughout all your generations… shall surely be circumcised,” (Genesis 17:12-13). In this way, the sign of the covenant was a very physical reminder to them that God had made a covenant with them. It was also a very obvious sign to God that Abraham’s descendants were party to his covenant. It’s no wonder then that if anyone refused circumcision, that person was to be cut off from the people of God (Genesis 17:14). By refusing to be circumcised, they were in effect rejecting God’s covenant in its entirety, and so circumcision was the sign of their participation in the covenant God had made. Circumcision served as a very real reminder of the covenant God had made, and their inclusion in it.

The same can be said for the Sabbath with the Mosaic covenant given at Sinai. Exodus 31:12-18 is pivotal. Notice three things:

First, Sabbath keeping would be a very real reminder of the covenant God had made with Israel. In Exodus 31:13 God says that it is their keeping of the Sabbaths that is a sign between Him and them, and it was to remind them that He sanctifies them. Thus, as they kept the Sabbath, they would see the sign, and they would be reminded that God chose them and made a covenant with them, setting them apart for Himself from all the nations around them. God also would see the sign, and in the same sense as with the rainbow and the Noahic covenant, God would see it and “remember” the covenant.

Next, just as with circumcision, if anyone broke the Sabbath, they were to be cut off from the people of God (Exodus 31:14).

Lastly, the Sabbath itself would be a sign to them: “It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel…” (Exodus 31:17). The Sabbath was a law. It stood in the middle of the Ten Commandments that form the heart of the Mosaic covenant. The reality of that law — its very existence would perpetually be a sign to both God and to the Israelites of the covenant that He’d made with them. If they didn’t keep it wholly holy, their failure to keep the Sabbath would remind them of God’s covenant with them which included blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience.

Technical moment: It’s highly unfortunate that the ESV chooses to translate the Hebrew word kî as “that” rather than “for” (as per almost all other translations). This gives the impression, especially in the absence of a comma, that the sabbath is simply a reminder that God created in six days and rested on the seventh. It is true that rarely kî can be used “to introduce a clause which explains and fulfils the idea of the principal sentence” (HALOT), but this totally fails to explain the language of the sign being “forever” and “between me and you” just as with the Noahic covenant (see Genesis 9:8-17). It also fails to recognise that this is a direct repetition of the language of Exodus 20:11 “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth.” It seems both bizarre and to me, incomprehensible that the ESV chose to translate kî in Exodus 31:17 as “that,” when every Hebrew speaker would be hearing a repetition of the exact language of the Ten Commandments at this point, and not interpreting the kî as introducing a clause to explain what the sign was.
For Hebrew readers who want to compare the two:
כִּי־שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֗ים עָשָׂ֤ה יְהוָה֙ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ Exodus 31:17
כִּ֣י שֵֽׁשֶׁת־יָמִים֩ עָשָׂ֨ה יְהוָ֜ה אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָ֗רֶץ Exodus 20:11

My point, overall, is simple: the Sabbath command was given as part of the Mosaic Covenant, but it was also given as the sign of the covenant. Since the Mosaic Covenant, was an agreement made by God with the people of Israel, and the Sabbath command was inextricably bound up with that covenant, the Sabbath command was a covenant command, and thus its purpose and significance stand, or fall, with the Mosaic Covenant.

Helpful? Well, here’s another take home point to ponder:

  • Not every law is universal. The Mosaic Covenant was made specifically with the people of Israel to set them apart from the other nations.

I’m not inventing that. God said so. Let’s think about that:

First, when He was about to give Israel the covenant He spoke to the elders of the people in advance: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” (Exodus 19:5-6).

Next, when God gave the Ten Commandments, He prefaced them with the words, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out fo the Land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery,” (Exodus 20:2)—effectively addressing the Ten Commandments specifically to the people of Israel.

Then, when the people had all heard the Ten Commandments from the mountain, from the voice of God himself (Deuteronomy 4:12-13), and the covenant had been formally made by God with the people (Exodus 24) and sealed with blood sacrifice (Exodus 24:8), Moses went back up the mountain to receive more detailed exposition on the covenant from God, and for God to give him the Ten Commandments written in stone with his own finger. Before he came down from the mountain, God had some last words of instruction for Moses, and exhorted him to make sure the Israelites kept the sign of the covenant (Exodus 31:12-18). It seems strange to us that God would close his time with Moses by telling him to “speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths,'” etc. However, as we’ve seen, Sabbath observance was to be the sign of the covenant, lying at the heart of the Ten Commandments, so it does make sense.

However, this is a remarkable passage because in a few short verses, God makes it clear He is speaking specifically to Israel: “You are to speak to the people of Israel” (31:13); “this is a sign between me and you” (31:13); “it is holy for you” (31:14); “therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath observing the Sabbath throughout their generations as a covenant forever,” (31:16); “It is a sign between me and the people of Israel” (31:17).

Much later, God inspired a Psalmist to teach the people of Israel to sing that, “(God) declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and rules to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know his rules,” (Psalm 147:19-20). You could say that God effectively said the same thing to his people in Deuteronomy 4:5-8, and Deuteronomy 4:32-40.

My point? God made the Mosaic Covenant specifically and exclusively with the people of Israel. His law was not universal. The Mosaic Covenant was not made with every nation. The Sabbath therefore, as the sign of the Mosaic Covenant, was not a law for every nation. Instead, it had a purpose within the covenant, as the sign of the covenant God made with Israel, and Israel alone. The Sabbath, was not a creation command, but it was a covenant command, and as such, it is not for Christians to keep, since we are not under the Mosaic Covenant.

Now, someone will object that Christ did not come to abolish the law. Surely, they’ll say, the Ten Commandments make up the moral law, and that continues unchanged in the New Testament era, right? Surely, it’s only the civil and ceremonial aspects of the law which have been set aside for as Christians, right?

In part 2, we’ll look at the question of whether or not it’s possible to divide up the Mosaic Covenant, and the relationship all this has to the New Covenant and to Christians.