The Least of These: A Study on the Sabbath for Christians

SabbathMany 21st century evangelical churches do not observe the Sabbath, beyond meeting as a church on Sunday. You will not often hear sermons exhorting the congregation to rest on the Sabbath, nor will you find many cases of a Christian being corrected for putting in overtime at work on the Christian Sabbath.

Matthew is concerned with, among other things, how the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in Jesus as the Messiah, and how to live in this newly inaugurated kingdom; “such themes would effectively instruct and perhaps catechize the church” (Carson and Moo, 2005, p. 159). The early church wrestled with how exactly to view the Law in light of this new kingdom. Are we free from it, or free to follow it? Regarding the Sabbath, Matthew displays Jesus’ example particularly in 12:1-12. Surely this provided a rubric for the early church—and for us—to follow.

Jesus declares, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17, ESV). Our understanding of what Jesus meant by “fulfill” is necessarily given some boundaries by the two following verses, where he makes two important statements: that the Law (here we know he refers to the commandments in the Law, not just the books, by verse 19) will not pass way until the end of time, and that if anyone relaxes any of the commandments, he will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.

If we recognize Jesus as referring to the Torah by “the Law”in 5:17 (which we must, in light of the use of ton nomon e tous prophetas), then we must ask why some commands given in the Torah, namely the ceremonial aspects, have certainly fallen out of use, even among the New Testament churches. This is divinely demonstrated by the rending of the veil in 27:51. Martensen addresses this question when, regarding the ceremonial law, he writes that “the ideas which form its basis, as the distinction between the unclean and the clean, are confirmed by Christ, and contained in the law of holiness which he teaches men” (Martensen, 1873, p. 379). And so aspects of the Law have been fulfilled and passed out of use, and others have been fulfilled and remain to be practiced (i.e. “you shall not murder”).

We have now established several important points: that Jesus did not make all the commandments in the Torah obsolete for the New Testament church, that Jesus is referring to the Torah and the Prophets in 5:17, which encompasses both the moral law and the ceremonial, and that the ceremonial law has been fulfilled in Christ to such an extent that the NT church no longer ought to practice them, although the truths they signify remain.

Ante-Nomian Institution of the Sabbath

Observe Genesis 2:2,3 where God implements the Sabbath far prior to the giving of the law. Surely this is not merely a ceremonial aspect of the Law! Later God includes the continuance of Sabbath-observance in the Ten Commandments, but nowhere do we find he abrogates it. Rather, we see a clear example in Jesus of how to observe it (Matt 12:12). Ought we as Christians to relax this ancient law, or should we look to God’s example in creation before the giving of the Law and Jesus’ example in the New Testament, and observe this holy day?

Festivals, New Moons, and Sabbaths in Colossians

We cannot effectively discuss Sabbath observance without looking at Colossians 2:16. “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”

Many take this passage as a reason why they ought not keep the Sabbath. In brief, I would argue that Paul is referring not just to the Sabbath in general, but to those aspects of the Sabbath that are particularly Jewish. He uses three terms together; “festivals,” “new moons,” and “Sabbaths.” These are not three random things Paul squished together; rather, you will find these three terms scattered throughout the Septuagint (Nu 28:9, 2 Ch 2:4, Ho 2:11, Eze 45:17, etc.). These three aspects of the Jewish ceremonial law had strong national and ethnic implications for the Jews.

In the greater context of Colossians, we see Paul combatting the Jewish legalism that threatens to place un-Christian restraints on the church, and it is to this legalism, ascetism, and Jewish nationalism that I believe Paul has addressed these words. Thus, I do not believe that a Christian sins if he does not keep the Jewish Sabbath, but I would be concerned for a Christian who disregards the “Christian Sabbath” (the Lord’s Day).

Sabbath and the Lord’s Day

Finally, we would be remiss to not discuss the Lord’s Day, and the apparent shift of the Sabbath for the Christian from Saturday to Sunday. The Jews observed the Sabbath on Saturday to commemorate the day on which God rested after completing his creation. Christians observe the Sabbath, or the Lord’s Day, on Sunday in order to commemorate the day on which God ushered in his new creation. The Sunday Sabbath is a beautiful picture of the already-not-yet.

Consider that God told Adam to work 6 days, and rest on the seventh. We who are in Christ, however, begin our week by resting in Christ and the work that he accomplished, and then work six days as a loving response. Beautiful, isn’t it?

Let’s look at some biblical data on the Lord’s Day, or the first day of the week. The term “the Lord’s Day” ocurrs only in Revelation 1:10 when John writes that “On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit . . .” We also see mention of believers worshiping together with the breaking of bread and a sermon on the first day of the week in Acts 20:7. The word here for “gathered” (συνηγμένων) is used in the Lukan corpus 17 times, but every ocurrance from Acts 4:31 on uses it particularly to describe the assembly of believers, usually to worship (see Acts 4:31, 11:26, 13:44, 14:27, 15:6, 30, 20:7, 8).

In 1 Corinthians 16:2 Paul instructs the believers in Corinth to take up a collection on the first day of each week. The Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible has a helpful bit on this passage:

There is one further hint in Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians that this “charity reminder” was part of the church’s Sunday worship. In 2 Corinthians 9:12 he describes his special collection for the poor in Jerusalem by using a word that has close associations with worship (it is the root of our word “liturgy”). So here is a strong indication that in the churches Paul founded, Sunday was seen as a special day for worshiping God, and that part of this worship focused on meeting the needs of others.[1]

From these scant passages, the Early Church began setting aside Sunday as “The Lord’s Day,” treating it as a spiritual Sabbath. In the very early 2nd century, Ignatius of Antioch writes:

Let us therefore no longer keep the Sabbath after the Jewish manner, and rejoice in days of idleness. . . But let every one of you keep the Sabbath after a spiritual manner, rejoicing in meditation on the law, not in relaxation of the body, admiring the workmanship of God, and not eating things prepared the day before, nor using lukewarm drinks, and walking within a prescribed space, nor finding delight in dancing and plaudits which have no sense in them. And after the observance of the Sabbath, let every friend of Christ keep the Lord’s Day as a festival, the resurrection-day, the queen and chief of all the days [of the week]. Looking forward to this, the prophet declared, “To the end, for the eighth day,” on which our life both sprang up again, and the victory over death was obtained in Christ[2]

Made for Man

God has set aside one day out of seven as a gift to man. A day for worship, for spiritual and physical rest, a day particularly holy unto the Lord. This day is a blessing to us, and a blessing to our neighbors. Should we abandon this gift in our zeal to be “not Jewish”? Should we decline so gracious a thing as a day set aside to trust God with our whole mind, heart, body, and soul?


[1] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1347.

2Carson, Donald A., Morris, Leon, Moo, Douglas J. An Introduction To The New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005).

3Martensen, Hans L., Christian Ethics (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1873).

[2] Ignatius of Antioch, “The Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1 (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 62–63.

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