One question a lot of Christians have is how to understand the biblical commands about the Sabbath and apply them in their lives. The Ten Commandments tell us that God expected Israel to keep the Sabbath day holy, do no work of any kind and dedicate the day to rest and remembering Him. Is that command in force today? What does the Bible say about applying the Sabbath in light of Christ’s coming? This study aims to answer these questions by looking at the command and how the Bible relates the Sabbath to Christ.
Remember the Sabbath Day
The Sabbath command is the fifth of the Ten Commandments. Christians often remember the part that says, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). But is there is more to the command. The entire Fifth Commandment reads:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it. (Exodus 20:8–11)
There are several details to observe, including:
1. The Sabbath is to be remembered and be regarded as holy
2. The Sabbath is an entire day of rest at the end of the seven-day week
3. The Sabbath is an entire day of rest for everyone in the household
4. The Sabbath as a day of rest points back to God’s creation of the world
Many Christians place emphasis on points 1 and 3. Some remember point 4. But point 2 says the Sabbath is the seventh day of the week—Saturday—whereas many Christians transfer it to Sunday, the first day of the week when they gather to worship with their local church. It is clear that many modern Christians do not observe all the details of the command. This reveals an important underlying idea—if and how the Sabbath command is fulfilled in Christ.
Commandment and Fulfillment
The issue of fulfillment is particularly controversial in modern Christianity. Matthew 5:17 speaks to the idea of fulfillment, as Christ says,
Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.
This verse says Christ did not come to completely get rid of the Old Testament commandments. Instead, He came to fulfill them. In the Bible, when something is fulfilled, that means it is brought to completion. So, to answer our questions about keeping the Sabbath, we need to consider how the Old Testament commandments are fulfilled, or completed, in Christ.
The Law Leads to Hope in Christ
When it comes to the authority of the Old Testament Law, the Bible teaches that the Law’s authority was temporary. This is addressed in Galatians chapters 3–4. The gentile Galatian Christians were being told by some people that they had to become circumcised and submit to certain Old Testament regulations to keep their salvation and fellowship with the church (Galatians 1:6–10, 4:21). But, Galatians 3 argues, salvation comes by faith and is marked by receiving the Holy Spirit. As Galatians 3:1–3 says,
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? 2 This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?—3 Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?
As Paul continues, the Law clarified many ways that people order their lives against God. The Law exposed sin in the lives of people and showed them their need for a Savior. This pointed people to a believing hope for the future coming of the Christ:
What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; … before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, … the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. 25 But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. (Galatians 3:19, 23–25)
So, the Law was a teacher for God’s people until Christ came. But when Christ came, there was no longer a need for the teacher. After Christ completed His work on the cross, when the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost, this function of the Law came to an end. Observance of Old Testament Law was no longer evidence of saving faith; the presence of indwelling Holy Spirit became that evidence (see Ephesians 2).
This does not mean that the Law is entirely obsolete; rather, in Christ, it has been fulfilled and its authority is no longer in force. However, the Law is still a reflection of God’s heart for our wellbeing. It teaches us about God’s character and God’s thoughts on man’s ways, which helps us know God’s heart and make godly decisions in our lives.
Jesus As Lord of the Sabbath
The next question is if and how the Sabbath has been fulfilled in Christ. Mark 2:23–3:5 records two incidents about how Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. In both incidents—plucking grain to eat a miraculous healing—the Jewish religious leaders accused the Twelve and Jesus of breaking the Law. In the first incident, Jesus counters their accusations, saying,
The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath. (Mark 2:27–28)
The idea is that Jesus, as the Son of God, is the author of the Sabbath command. As the author of the command, Jesus has authority to give its true interpretation and to declare its fulfillment.
The second incident, the healing of a man on the Sabbath, hints at the true interpretation of the command. As Jesus asks the religious leaders in Mark 3:4,
Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?
So, when the issue is life and death, or good or evil toward others, a right application of the Sabbath law always aligns with God’s heart of love toward people (John 3:16; 1 John 3:16).
Jesus As Our Sabbath Rest
Although the Sabbath commandment is not in force today, it does reflect God’s heart of love for people. God made us to regularly rest from other life activities to remember and worship Him.
This idea of finding rest is applied to Christ in Hebrews 4. Hebrews 4 references how the first generation of Israelites rebelled in their hearts against God and, therefore, they were not permitted to enter the Promised Land (see Numbers 14). Based on this negative example, the writer of Hebrews is calling us to hold on to our hope in Christ and not give in to the temptation to turn our hearts from following Him. Hebrews 4:14–16 highlight this idea,
Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
So, in practice, resting in Christ means in every area of life where we experience weakness, we turn to Christ. Whenever we have any need—provision, protection, illness, infirmity, etc.—we come to Christ in prayer, giving our habits, hurts, and heartaches over to Him (Hebrews 7:25).
So, is the Sabbath for today? No and yes. The authority of the commandment is not in force. The Law has been fulfilled in Christ, Lord of the Sabbath, our Sabbath rest. Many Christians set aside Sundays as a day of worship and rest, committing to regular church attendance and spending the rest of the day in family activities. This is a good habit and a great example of personal application. But it is not a universal requirement.
But God it also is true has created us with the need to regularly take breaks from life activities and find rest in Christ. This allows Christ to refresh our hearts and give us the spiritual strength to keep living for and hoping in Him. Strict Sabbath observance is not a universal rule for life, but prayerfully applying the idea of rest is vital to maintaining a healthy relationship with Christ.