Old Testament Laws: Is There a "Sabbath Principle" for Christians to Keep?

The old covenant requirement for Sabbath rest does not apply to Christians. It was part of Israel’s Mosaic Law that had governed the old covenant relationship with God. With the completion of Jesus’ redemptive work and the beginning of the church, the new covenant came into force. The old covenant religious regulations found in the Law of Moses became obsolete, and Christians now follow the “law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2; 1 Corinthians 9:21). The standard of godly conduct and the principles that should guide a person’s life are expounded in the New Testament.

This new covenant teaching for Christians superseded the old covenant teaching for Israel. Nowhere in the New Testament Scriptures to the church was it commanded that Christians must keep the religious regulations given to Israel such as circumcision, temple worship, offering sacrifices, keeping weekly or annual holy days, tithing on farming and husbandry increases, engaging in purification rites, following special food laws, and other similar practices.

The old covenant institutions have symbolic value for us. Here are a few examples. The book of Hebrews tells us that Moses was a type of Christ. The Law points to Jesus and the indwelling Holy Spirit. Its essential principles, that we are to love God above all and our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40), is now embodied in the “law of Christ,” as it is expressed through the Spirit. The physical sacrifices point to the one sacrifice of Jesus, both for sin and as a sweet aroma to God of our own total sacrifice of ourselves to him. The temple is now the people of God in whom he dwells through the Holy Spirit. This reality was foreshadowed by the presence of Yahweh in the physical temple in Jerusalem. Jesus is our High Priest, our Passover and our Tabernacle. And so on.

Articles About the Sabbath

Jesus himself is our Sabbath, in whom we can rest—in freedom from sin and in the assurance of eternal life, as guaranteed by his own resurrection. We have entered by faith into the ultimate rest, which will blossom into its fullness at Jesus’ return. This was prefigured by the weekly Sabbath under the old covenant. All the various “rests” of the Mosaic Law—the weekly Sabbath, the annual festival rests, the land year rests and the Jubilee Year freedom rest — all prefigure the ultimate rest we now have in Christ.

But is there a different kind of “Sabbath principle” still in force, one that teaches us that it is good and pleasing in God’s eyes for us to physically rest on the seventh day of the week? Some have come to this conclusion. The reason and reasoning for such an idea is explained below.

Some, while still believing that the Sabbath rest should be kept, have come to realize that the New Testament does not teach that Christians must keep this weekly day. It has also become clear to them that to insist that Christians must keep the Sabbath simply because it is mentioned in the Law of Moses is to use faulty reasoning. However, these people still believe that there must be something special about the Sabbath rest. It is sometimes expressed in the phrase “the Sabbath principle for Christians.” Some of the arguments for such a principle take the following forms: As people of God, we need to have time to commune with God, free from the distractions of everyday life, especially that of earning a living. According to this view, it is generally recognized that humans benefit from a time of rest from work, and this is evidenced in such human institutions as the five-day work week. While we should not keep the weekly Sabbath in a legalistic manner or base our arguments on Mosaic laws, they say, the principle of a physical Sabbath continues.

Let’s look at these arguments. Almost no one would deny the physical and spiritual benefits of having a weekly day or days off from work. Many in the generation of Israelites who came out of slavery and endless toil would have been elated to have a day off each week. Whether this exuberance for such “time off” continued or was universally accepted by the Israelites is doubtful. The fact that Israel had to be commanded on pain of death to not engage in labor on the Sabbath implies that such supposed “benefit of rest” was not appreciated, or even wanted in some cases. The history of Sabbath-breaking by Israel underscores this point. The idea of physically resting on a special day of the week is not a self-evident principle intrinsic to or indelibly stamped on the human psyche.

Nowhere in the old covenant Sabbath commands is the supposed benefit of rest as such, either for physical or spiritual reasons, extolled as a reason for making the seventh day of the week (and several days during the year) a day of rest. The reasons given to Israel for the Sabbath were different: so the nation would remember that Yahweh was the one true Creator God (Exodus 20:11) and that he had rescued the people from Egyptian slavery because he was faithful to the promises he had given (Deuteronomy 5:15). Thus, the Sabbath was a “sign” of the covenant between God and Israel (Exodus 31:12-13).

It is not a sign between God and Christians. Jesus himself has become Our Sign through the indwelling Holy Spirit (Isaiah 7:14; Luke 2:12). The evidence of our relationship with God is faith in Christ, not in which day we set aside.

The argument about a “Sabbath principle” is not advanced solely on the idea that physical rest is good. It is also said that such rest from our normal work and daily activities allows us to commune with God and develop a relationship with him. Thus, the argument is advanced, a Sabbath rest is pleasing to God, and something that Christians should joyfully want to keep. On this basis, it is argued, the “Sabbath principle” is intrinsically good and pleasing to God.

No one would deny that we should take time to commune with God. It is good to leave the distractions of daily life to deepen our relationship with God through spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible study, fasting and meditation. If a person uses Saturday for such communion with God, that is fine. However, there is no New Testament teaching that Friday sunset to Saturday sunset is a special time to do such communing with God. It is one thing to take “time out” for special communing with God—whenever this is possible, convenient or necessary to do so. It can be done for a portion of every day or any day. It can be done all day on any day of the week, during a weekend retreat or during some other period of time. But we cannot imply that it is holier or better to keep one particular time.

In the early centuries of Christianity, and into the Middle Ages, individuals sometimes left society so they could commune with God in what they felt was a more complete way. Some went into the wilderness and established monasteries far from human civilization. Others walled themselves up in rooms for weeks, months, years or even a lifetime, receiving only food and water so that they could fulfill their desire to live in communion with God without the distractions of human life. Such practices stemmed from the individuals’ perceived needs for spiritual contemplation. But it could not be demonstrated that Scripture directly stated or through principle implied that such communing activities were expressions of a principle that applied to all human beings.

If a person rests on each Sabbath because this day is thought to be special and God-ordained, then one is essentially keeping the letter of the Mosaic Law, which commanded Israel to rest on this day. One can invent a different reason for such a rest, or claim to base it on higher spiritual considerations. But to claim that a certain 24-hour period has special significance for Christians is to claim that such a time is “holy time.” This is simply a restatement of the Mosaic command to keep the Sabbath holy.

Author: Paul Kroll


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