A Case For Sabbath Observance


Lord's DayThis post will examine what the Bible teaches us about the time of public worship. We know that the Bible teaches us Who the assembled church should worship (in the first and second commandments), and it teaches us how to worship Him (in the second and third commands). But too few people understand that it also teaches the assembled church when to gather for worship (in the fourth commandment). If we lose the doctrine of the Sabbath, the fourth of the Ten Commandments, then we also lose the time to receive God’s ordinary means of grace and to obey all God has commanded the church to do.

Because this teaching has fallen into disrepute lately, it is necessary to teach again what the Bible says about it. Consider the following Scriptural points that establish the doctrine of the Sabbath commandment.

1. The Sabbath Day is an Ordinance of Creation. Just as God instituted marriage and work in the Garden of Eden, so He also instituted Sabbath observance at creation. He set one day in seven aside for rest and worship at the very beginning of the Bible’s story. Genesis 2:3 says, “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” Notice that God placed a special blessing or grace upon the Sabbath day, and He “made it holy,” or “sanctified” it, which means that He set that day apart from every other day. Just as we continue to observe the pattern of marriage found in Genesis 2, we should continue to observe the pattern of Sabbath observance found in Genesis 2 as well. Thus, the pattern of the Sabbath ordinance is prescriptive, just as marriage is prescriptive.

In fact, Jesus teaches precisely that. In Mark 2:27, Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” In that passage, Jesus is thinking of the order of creation. Christ’s meaning is, “The Sabbath was created for Adam, and not Adam for the Sabbath.” In other words, God created the Sabbath after He created Adam and Eve in the Garden. God didn’t make human beings slaves to the Sabbath to hurt or burden them; rather, He gave them one holy day in seven on which to rest and worship for their good. Christ showed that the Sabbath continues into the New Testament: “The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mk 2:28), just as He is Lord of the church, Lord of the family, and Lord of all creation.

2. The Sabbath Day was Observed Prior to Sinai. Some people think the Sabbath commandment was only a ceremonial law of the Mosaic covenant, that it applied only to God’s people under the Old Covenant. But Scripture clearly teaches us that God’s people observed the Sabbath prior to God’s writing it on tablets of stone, which means the Sabbath commandment was not limited to the Mosaic covenant. In Exodus 16, Scripture tells us that the people of Israel gathered up the mana from heaven on the sixth day in order to free themselves for rest and worship on the seventh day. Scripture says, “On the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers each. . . Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is a Sabbath, there will be none” (Ex 16:22, 26). Note that Exodus 16 comes before God gave the Sabbath law at Sinai.

3. The Sabbath Commandment is One of the Ten Commandments, which Makes it Perpetually Binding Moral Law. The Ten Commandments are unique among all the laws of the Bible. The Bible itself wants us to see the Ten Commandments this way.

Only the Ten Commandments were written with the very finger of God. Exodus 31:18 says God gave Moses “tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.” All of the other laws of the Old Testament were written by the pens of prophets on parchment, which would eventually disintegrate. But God visited His people on Mount Sinai and delivered the Ten Commandments, writing them on permanent tablets of stone with His own finger.

Only the Ten Commandments were given with such a display of God’s power. God gave the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai with loud thunder, flashes of lightning, a thick cloud, and a “very loud trumpet blast” (Ex 19:16). God made the giving of the Ten Commandments a sensory experience, which the people were never to forget. God was saying, “These laws are unique among all my laws.”

Only the Ten Commandments were included within the ark of the covenant. All of the other laws were rolled up in a scroll and placed beside the ark of the covenant in the tabernacle. In Deuteronomy 31:24-26, God said, “Take this Book of the Law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant.” The other laws of the Old Testament applied the Ten Commandments, but only the Ten Commandments formed the basis of Old Testament law and therefore only they were placed inside the ark.

Therefore, since the Sabbath commandment is one of the Ten Commandments, it comes to us with the same force of authority and perpetuity as the other nine commandments. See Philip Ross’s book, From the Finger of God, which makes a solid case for the threefold division of the law and for the perpetuity of the moral law of God summarized in the Ten Commandments.

4. The Sabbath Commandment is Grounded in Creation. If we examine the wording of the Sabbath commandment given at Sinai, we find that God bases His command on creation itself. It’s not based on the temporary ceremonial system of the people of Israel. It’s not based on a temporary epoch in redemptive history. Rather, God grounds the Sabbath on His own actions at the creation of the world. Exodus 20:8, 11 say, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy . . . For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” Note the preposition “for.” This shows us that the reason we should observe a Sabbath day is that God rested on the Sabbath day and made that day holy.

Church5. The Sabbath Commandment is Written on the Hearts of New Covenant Members. Jeremiah’s prophecy of the New Covenant is repeated and explained in the book of Hebrews. God promises that all the members of the New Covenant will have the Old Covenant law written on their hearts so that they will obey God freely and faithfully from the heart. God says that in the New Covenant, “I will put my laws into their minds and write them on their hearts” (Heb 8:10). Literally, the word “write” could be translated “carve,” which calls to mind the image of God carving His law onto the tablets of stone. This is consistent with what 2 Corinthians 3:3 says about how in the New Covenant, God writes his truth, “not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts.” We know that the law God writes on the hearts of believers isn’t the ceremonial law, since the book of Hebrews expressly says that the ceremonial law has passed away. Referring to the ceremonial laws of the priesthood, Hebrews 7:18 says, “A former commandment is set aside.” But, then, in the very next chapter, God tells us in the same book of Hebrews that God will “put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts” (Heb 7:18). This can’t mean that God writes the whole Old Testament law on His people’s hearts. So, what law does He write on their hearts? It must be the law of the Ten Commandments. This is confirmed by Hebrews 13, which moves through many of the Ten Commandments as the guide for the New Covenant people of God.

6. In the New Testament, the Sabbath Moved from Saturday to Sunday. The book of Acts teaches us that while the Old Covenant church observed the Sabbath on the last day of the week, the New Covenant church observes the Sabbath on Sunday, the first day of the week to celebrate not only creation, but also Christ’s glorious resurrection. Acts 20:7 says they gathered “on the first day of the week.” Paul confirms this transfer of Sabbath observance from the last day of the week to Sunday saying that they met “on the first day of every week” (1 Cor 16:2). In Revelation 1:10, the apostle John calls Sunday “the Lord’s Day.” The transfer of the day of worship from Saturday to Sunday does not violate the Sabbath command, since what it requires is a pattern of six days of work followed by one Sabbath day. In the New Testament believers worked Monday through Saturday, and observed the New Covenant Sabbath on Sunday. O Palmer Robertson has written a helpful article, “Why On Sunday?,” outlining the biblical teaching that Sabbath Day observance has changed to Sunday, Lord’s Day observance.

So, what are some practical implications of our lives together in the church under the Sabbath command?

To start off, let me say that I am loathe to hand out prescriptive applications of the Sabbath, since that’s what the Pharisees did. I believe that pastors should simply teach what the Bible says, apply it as far as it’s clear, but must refrain from issuing commands that the Bible does not issue. In light of the above teaching on the Sabbath, however, consider some of the following questions for your own personal application.

Am I observing the Sabbath Day? Am I observing a whole day unto the Lord with God’s people, attending all of His commanded means of grace?

Am I preparing during the week for Sabbath observance? Do I get my work done on six days of the week so I can rest spiritually and worship on the seventh with God’s people?

Do I structure my whole life around God’s design for six days of work (at home, at work, in the community) and one day of rest and worship (with the church)? Do I allow God’s creational rhythm to organize my own time and existence in this world? Or, do I believe that I am lord of my own time?

Am I willing to sacrifice extra-curricular activities and entertainments for the church’s assembly on the Lord’s Day? There is nothing wrong at all with extra-curricular activities and entertainment, when they’re in their proper place! They can be blessings. But do I allow these things to interfere with God’s appointment of one day in seven as spiritual rest and worship?

In the next post, I’ll consider some of the objections to Sabbath observance.

Here are some other excellent resources on the Sabbath.

Call the Sabbath a Delight by Walt Chantry
The Lord’s Day by Joseph Pipa
The Market Day of the Soul by James Dennison
Jon English Lee has a great historical series on the Sabbath commandment here at the Founders Blog.

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9 Responses to “A Case For Sabbath Observance”

  1. Stephen duBarry

    I’m absolutely in favor of setting aside the Lord’s day, the first day of the week, for worship, and I think I understand the motivation to want to say that Sunday is the Christian sabbath. However, it strikes me that this position leaves us on the horns of a dilemma.

    The fourth commandment clearly states “… the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work …” (Ex. 20:10). That is, the particular day to be set aside–“the seventh day”–is an integral part of the commandment as given by the finger of God. In other words, the fourth commandment doesn’t merely establish a principle of one set aside day in seven, it establishes precisely which day of the week is to be set aside, “the seventh day”.

    Therefore, it seems we must be forced to make one of two possible concessions:

    1. The fourth commandment is not in its entirety a perpetually morally binding law. (In contradiction of your point 3.)

    2. Christian worship on the Lord’s day is of a fundamentally different kind than the sabbath enjoined in the fourth commandment. (In contradiction of your point 6.)

    I think I can say honestly that my only desire is a right understanding of our present relationship to the law. Am I missing something?

    • Tom Hicks
      Tom Hicks

      Hi Stephen, thanks for your comment and for your good question. Historically, “seventh Day Baptists” made precisely your point about the Sabbath command requiring rest on the seventh day of the week, but historic Baptists like Benjamin Keach, John Bunyan and later Charles Spurgeon argued against their view. There were a couple of different ways of answering.

      1. The Sabbath command is partly moral and partly positive. The positive aspects of the Jewish Sabbath have been abrogated together with the Old Covenant as a whole. This includes the details of Sabbath keeping outlined in the Old Covenant, together with the precise day of the week. The moral aspect of the command includes the fact that there is a seven day week, and that one day is a day of rest. Therefore, the day of the week is not moral but positive only.

      As an aside: Would you agree that moral law prescribes a seven day week, which is marked by one day that is different from the other six? Or would you say there would be nothing immoral about shifting to a 10 day week as they did during the French revolution? The French had to change it back to a 7 day week because the 10 day week almost broke the people and destroyed their economy. How could this be, if there is no rest/work pattern hardwired into the human being based on a seven day week?

      2. The Sabbath command revealed in the Bible does not require rest on the seventh day *of the week.* This is another way Puritans answered the objection you raise, and it is the one I prefer. If you look carefully at Exodus 20, it does not command “seventh day *of the week* rest.” It says, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God” (Ex 20:9-10). It commands six days of work and the seventh after those six days is a Sabbath. This 6 and 1 principle is established on the ground that God rested on the seventh day of the week (Ex 20:11), but the command does not require seventh day of the week worship.

      The Second London Baptist Confession of 1677/89 rightly says in Chapter 22, Paragraph 7:

      “As it is the law of nature, that in general a proportion of time, by God’s appointment, be set apart for the worship of God, so by his Word, in a positive moral, and perpetual commandment, binding all men, in all ages, he has particularly appointed one day in seven for a sabbath to be kept holy unto him, [28] which from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ was the last day of the week, and from the resurrection of Christ was changed into the first day of the week, which is called the Lord’s Day: [29] and is to be continued to the end of the world as the Christian Sabbath, the observation of the last day of the week being abolished.”

      [28] Exod. 20:8
      [29] 1 Cor. 16:1,2; Acts 20:7; Rev. 1:10

  2. Thanks Tom. I question the teaching that the Sabbath moved from Saturday to Sunday at all. It seems to me as I read the law, the Sabbath was set by the calendar, not the day of the week. Actually the seven day week did not replace the eight day Roman week until after the apostolic church. The Sabbath would have come every seven days, but based on the calendar, like your birthday. The first day of the week would have followed the Sabbath that came every seven days according to the calendar (plus other Sabbath corresponding to the festivals), but would not have been “Sunday,” since Sunday did not exist yet. When the Old Covenant was fulfilled in Christ and we moved under the New Covenant, the Old Covenant calendar of festivals and Sabbaths would have been abolished and the moral fulfillment of the law on our hearts became the first day of the week and eventually became Sunday as history progressed. The New Testament admonishment not to let anyone judge you because of not keeping the Sabbaths would have applied to the dismissal of keeping all of the Jewish calendar including the Sabbaths, because the church was no longer this administration of the law and was meeting on the first day of the week which became the Christian Sabbath. I’ve stated this declaratively, but I mean to present it for discussion because I’m not well read enough to be dogmatic about this. It’s just something I’ve been suspicious about. If anyone could shed further light on this, I’d appreciate any insight. Thank you.

    • Tom Hicks
      Tom Hicks

      Thanks for your reply Russell. I realize that at this point in the history of the church, the question of Sabbath observance is hotly disputed, and that my view, even among Calvinistic Baptists, is the minority today. Of course, everything depends upon one’s exegesis of key passages. Regarding the passage you mention in Colossians 2:16-19:

      “[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. [17] These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. [18] Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, [19] and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.”

      Here Paul addresses a serious heresy in the church of Colossae that involved the worship of angels (Col 2:18), the reception of visions from angels (Col 2:18), combined with the practice of asceticism (Col 2:20-23) on Jewish feast days and sabbaths, not the weekly sabbath (Col 2:8-23). Paul, therefore, rejects a total system of Jewish-Gnostic heresy, not the moral law of the sabbath day.

      But, how do we know that the sabbath referenced in Colossians 2:16 is not the moral sabbath? The terms “festival, sabbath, and new moon” (Col 2:16) often appear as a “package” in the Old Testament and refer to Jewish sabbaths other than the weekly sabbath. Therefore it doesn’t seem Paul is referring to the moral sabbath at all, but only to the Old Testament ceremonial sabbaths. See 1 Chron 23:31; 2 Chron 2:4; 31:3; Neh 10:33; Isa 1:13-14 (contrast with Isa 58:13-14); Hos 2:11; Ezek 45:17 for some instances of the “package” containing “festival, sabbath, and new moon.”

      Also, when Paul says “let no one pass judgment on you,” he means that the false teachers in Colossae have no right to judge the salvation of the Colossians for refusing to enter into pagan practices and for refusing to observe Old Testament ceremonial sabbaths.

      • Thank you Tom. Sorry, I was not clear. I agree with your position and everything you write in your response. I was specifically questioning the idea that the Sabbath was on Saturday and was changed to Sunday. I’m not sure the seven day week as we know was in the mind of the apostles at all. I think they may have worked either around the 8 day Roman week or worked around the Jewish calendar, or both. The Sabbaths were set by the calendar and fell on specific calendar days every year beginning in Abib and surrounding Passover, rather than days of the week. The same days of the month would have marked the Sabbaths every year. My birthday is on November 3rd, but it falls on a different day of the week every year. If the Jews had a Sabbath other than the ones prescribed by the calendar that floated along the calendar like our current days of the week, then they would have been commanded to do work prohibited on the Sabbath every time festival preparation fell on one of these floating Sabbaths. Let me illustrate. Suppose I was commanded not to throw a birthday party on Sunday and at the same time commanded to throw a birthday party on my birthday. That would mean that every time my birthday fell on Sunday, I’d be forced to obey one commandment or the other. The Jews had a Sabbath every seven days according to the calendar. They also had other Sabbaths along with the corresponding festivals on certain calendar days. I do not believe they had a Sabbath that was set on a specific day of the week. The only week they had was the calendar week or the Roman 8 day week. If they were keeping the Sabbath on a day of the Roman calendar then it would come around every 8 days.

        • My point is this. The Apostles did not stop meeting on Saturday and start meeting on Sunday. Rather, they stopped meeting on the day prescribed by the calendar as the Sabbath (which fell every seven days) and started meeting on the first day of the week (which fell every 7 days). In this way, they were freed from the law in the Galatians sense, but kept the law in the New Covenant or Romans 8 sense.

      • Tom Hicks
        Tom Hicks

        Russell, thanks for your comment. I haven’t studied that at all. Very interesting!


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