Are Christians supposed to observe the sabbath as commanded by God to the Hebrews? Which day really is the sabbath? There are groups that believe that Christians are supposed to obey the true sabbath, which is Saturday, and there are those who claim that the sabbath was changed to Sunday by Constantine, and there are still others who believe that Christians are not commanded to observe a sabbath day. This study is designed to present the biblical data to teach us about the sabbath doctrine.
Exodus 20:10–11 (NASB95) — 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. 11 “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the 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.
The observance of the Sabbath was commanded by God as part of the ten commandments to the Israeilites. We further see that the Sabbath observance was for the Israelites and their generations to come. See Exodus 31:12-17.
Exodus 31:16 (NASB95) — 16 ‘So the sons of Israel shall observe the sabbath, to celebrate the sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant.’
Moses gave the reason for the Sabbath observance to the Israelite people.
Deuteronomy 5:15 (NASB95) — 15 ‘You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day.
So, the reason for the Israelites to observe the Sabbath was as a memorial to their deliverance from Egypt. They were to remember that they were slaves and that God delivered them from the Egyptians.
The Sabbath law was very serious. Breaking it meant death (Exodus 31:15, Numbers 15:32-35).
The New Testament does not reveal to us that Christians are to observe the Sabbath. This observance is not mentioned at all from Acts to Revelations. We find revelation from the New Testament that is the very opposite of a command to observe the Sabbath.
Colossians 2:16–17 (NASB95) — 16 Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day— 17 things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.
There is no indication from scripture that the New Testament believer is to observe the Sabbath. Instead, it admonishes us about the observance of special days and the like.
Colossians 2:13–14 (NASB95) — 13 When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, 14 having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.
See also Galatians 4:9-10 and Romans 14:5-6.
The New Sabbath?
Many people claim that Emperor Constantine changed the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday in A.D. 321 with the edict of Constantine.
“On the venerable Day of the sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country, however, persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits: because it often happens that another Day is not so suitable for grain sowing or for vine planting: lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost."
We note that though Constantine professed to be Christian, he at heart was most likely still a sun worshipper. His edict had little to do with Christian observances or dedications, e.g., an observance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the first day, but rather because it was the Sun day, i.e., Sunday in observance of the sun. Therefore, the edict of Constantine was a pagan observance not a Christian one.
Other laws were added to this edict by emperors and Popes of the Roman Catholic Church in succeeding centuries. In AD 364, the Council of Laodicea by the Roman Catholic Church, which further solidified the Sunday worship.
“Christians shall not Judaize and be idle on Saturday (Sabbath), but shall work on that Day: but the Lord’s Day, they shall especially honour; and as being Christians, shall, if possible, do no work on that day. If however, they are found Judaizing, they shall be shut out from Christ."
We must be aware of the fact that Christians were observing the first day of the week, i.e., Sunday, as a day to come together for worship. See Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:2, and 2 Corinthians 9:12. Sunday was the normal meeting and fellowship day for Christians long before Constantine’s edict in 321. The church met on Sundays from the first century on.
Therefore, Constantine did not establish Sunday as the day of worship or new Sabbath for Christians since Christians were already voluntarily meeting on Sunday.
The Sabbath day observance is still on the sixth day of the week—Saturday. However, that is part of the Old Covenant between Israel and God not between New Testament Christians and God. Christians are free from the bondage of the law in that Christ delivered us from it and fulfilled it (See Galatians 4, Romans 6:14).
Keeping of the Sabbath is not a requirement for Christians whether you believe it is a Saturday or Sunday. It is up to the individual to observe a Sabbath rest or not (Romans 14:5). We should not get caught up in the observance of special days and the like. Our focus should be on Jesus Christ and what he told us to do, namely make disciples of all nations. Remember also that Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27).
Too often we focus our attention on unimportant and sideline topics so to speak. We judge each other on how we were baptized, whether we observe the Sabbath or not, whether we speak in tongues, the clothes we wear, etc. These things cause us to divide instead of joining together as one body of Christ. We allow religion to come in and destroy what Jesus Christ is building in his church.
I would like to say that though we are not obligated to observe the Sabbath, I think it is a good idea and beneficial for us to rest sometimes. We all need rest from our regular work so that we can contemplate, hear from God, etc.
By William R. Cunningham