Old Testament Laws: Paul and the Sabbath (study paper)

Paul’s custom was to keep the Sabbath (Acts 13:14; 16:13; 17:2). Shouldn’t we should follow his example in this (1 Corinthians 11:1)?

Paul, like Jesus, customarily went to the synagogue. But why should we insist on imitating one phrase of the sentence and ignore another part? Why should we cite the example of “Sabbath” but not of “synagogue”? The fact that this was a synagogue should alert us to the historical situation and should caution us regarding specific customs. Paul went to the synagogue on the Sabbath because that is when and where people were assembled to hear discussions of Scripture. That is when and where he had an audience. He went to Jews first, and then to gentiles, and the best way to preach to Jews would be to go to the synagogues on the day Jews were there.21

Paul sometimes kept other Jewish customs, too, such as circumcision, making vows and participating in temple rituals. His example isn’t automatically authoritative. If we imitate all the ways in which he lived like Jesus, we would have to be unmarried traveling preachers. We need to discern which details of their lives were based on the circumstances they lived in, and which were based on Christianity, and which were involved in both.

Articles About the Sabbath

Paul considered himself under the law of Christ, not under the law of the old covenant (1 Corinthians 9:19-21). He was free to observe old covenant customs when with Jews, and he was free to ignore them in other situations. Peter was free to “live like a Gentile,” and Paul was, too (Galatians 2:14). Today, we are to obey the commands of Jesus (Matthew 28:20), and Jesus never commanded anyone to rest on the Sabbath.

In Pisidian Antioch, Paul gave a controversial message in the synagogue: “Through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39). The Jews and proselytes asked Paul to speak to them the next Sabbath (verse 42), and that is what Paul did. Paul did not try to change their Sabbath-keeping custom. Large portions of the audience would have had to work the next six days and would not have been able to assemble on Sunday. Also, it would be good for them to think about and discuss Paul’s message for a week. Because Paul waited a week, the entire city was able to hear about the controversy and therefore came to hear him speak (verse 44).

In the gentile cities of Lystra and Derbe, however, nothing is said about the Sabbath. Even in Athens, where some Jews lived, nothing is said about the Sabbath. Instead, Paul reasoned “in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:17). Daily preaching is a valid custom, too, if we wish to follow the example set by Paul and Jesus.

Moses was preached in the synagogues every Sabbath, James noted (Acts 15:21). But James was not encouraging gentiles to attend synagogues! The converts needed to hear about Christ, not about Moses. The Jerusalem conference rejected the view of those who thought the gentiles had to keep the entire “law of Moses” (verse 5).

“We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (verse 19). Instead of requiring gentile Christians to keep the law of Moses, the conference told them to abstain from blood, strangled things, idolatry and fornication (verse 20). The council gave a lenient decree because strict requirements were being preached in the synagogues (verse 21). The Sabbath was part of the law of Moses, just as as circumcision was, but nothing was said to make the Sabbath an exception, either by the council or by Luke, who wrote many years later for gentile readers.

In Corinth, Paul again started in the synagogue, and there he argued every Sabbath (Acts 18:4). But soon Paul left the synagogue and began teaching next door (verse 7). After this, nothing is said about the Sabbath, and Paul could have taught every day of the week. Even as he made tents, he could discuss the Scriptures with any who had time to listen.

In Ephesus, Paul preached every day of the week for two years (Acts 19:9). This is a valid custom, too.

On his way back to Jerusalem, Paul stopped seven days in Troas (Acts 20:6). But we do not hear anything about the Sabbath. What we hear is that the church (“we”) waited until the first day of the week to come together and break bread, and Paul preached after the Sabbath was over (verse 7). Why wait till then? Apparently the first day of the week was the time that the believers could get together. Although Paul was in a hurry (verse 16), he had to wait until the first day of the week. This is a significant example, too.

In short, we are never told that Paul rested on the Sabbath, or that he taught anyone to rest on the Sabbath. What we are told is that he used the day as an evangelistic opportunity, and that he could use any day of the week to preach about the Savior. His example shows liberty, and nothing about requirements.

Paul taught regularly on the Sabbath (Acts 18:1-11). Was he teaching the gentiles to keep the Sabbath?

This passage says only that he taught in the synagogues for a few Sabbaths — after that, it does not say when he taught. Although it may have been on the Sabbath, it may have been on other days, too, as it was in Athens and Ephesus. And the passage says nothing about avoiding work on a particular day of the week.

The book of Acts tells us what Paul did on a few Sabbaths and a few other days. If we want to know what Paul himself taught about the Sabbath, we must turn to the only place the word “Sabbath” is used in his epistles: Colossians 2:16-17: “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”

Paul begins his analysis of the Sabbath with a “therefore.” That word should alert us to back up and examine the context. It is because Christ has triumphed in the cross (verse 15) that Christians should not let people judge them regarding the Sabbath. Christ’s death on the cross had changed something about the Sabbath. In Colosse, the Sabbath had no connection with temple rituals. The only way it could be observed is by abstaining from work and assembling for worship. But Christ’s death had changed something about the Christians’ approach to the Sabbath. Christians were not to be judged by anyone regarding the Sabbath.

The Sabbath, festivals, new moons and the entire Jewish calendar were a “shadow” of things to come. They were foreshadows — predictive shadows symbolizing things to come. Grammatically, it is ambiguous as to whether those things have already taken place, or whether some are future. For Christian practice, it does not matter, since Paul’s conclusion is that we should not let others judge us with regard to the Sabbath. We should not let others make us feel guilty regarding what we do on the Sabbath.

The contrast between “shadow” and “reality” is found also in Hebrews 10:1 — the sacrificial laws were a shadow of the good things that were coming (same Greek word and tense as in Colossians 2:17), not the reality. Just as the sacrifices were shadows that pointed to Christ and were superseded by him, the old covenant worship days were also shadows that pointed to Christ.22 [Click here for article about Colossians 2.]

Now that he has come, the days are no longer standards by which we are judged. The proper standard is Jesus Christ. At the last judgment, the definitive question will not be about days, but about faith in Jesus Christ. His coming has made an enormous difference in the way God’s people should worship in spirit and in truth.

Paul did not teach gentile Christians to keep the Sabbath. Instead, he told them that the Sabbath was not an area in which we should be judged. As he told the Roman church, which contained both Jews and gentiles, “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5).23

Paul did not think it necessary to tell these people that one particular day is sacred or superior. He left it to individual conviction. How could Paul take such an indifferent attitude to the concept of special days? Apparently something significant had happened — the most significant event in history: the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Because of that event, days are no longer a matter for judging behavior.

Paul’s main point is that one Christian should not judge another regarding any supposedly better days: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (verse 4). “Each of us will give an account of himself to God,” Paul writes in verse 12.

But does this mean that we should live in fear of the last judgment, keeping the Sabbath “just in case,” observing new moons “just in case,” and other restrictions “just in case”? If a person does these things reverently, “to the Lord,” they might be acceptable, as long as the person knows that salvation is by grace, not by meticulous obedience. But they practices cannot be made requirements on other Christians. Paul’s conclusion is clear: “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way” (verse 13). For every obstacle we put in front of people, we will be judged. When teaching requirements, we must be cautious.

It is good to be obedient, but we must not think that our obedience earns anything toward salvation (2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5). Paul warned the Galatian Christians strongly that faith in Christ was sufficient for salvation. Faith leads us to walk by the Spirit, and that means a life-style of love, joy and peace, etc. Faith does not mean a superstitious observance of circumcision or old covenant laws “just in case” they are also necessary.

We are called to faith — confidence that the sacrifice of Christ cleanses us from all sin — not to fearful bondage to religious traditions and human rules. Such rules may appear to be religious and they may have a form of godliness, but they do not have the power to transform the heart, which is the focus of Christianity. In fact, rules can become more important to some people than having love for neighbor. The rules can deceive people into thinking that they are right with God merely by keeping the rules. At least that’s what they did with some Pharisees.

The Galatians had been gentiles in pagan religions before they were saved by faith in Christ. But Judaizing heretics were apparently teaching them that, although they had started with Christ, they needed to complete their salvation with circumcision and a commitment to the old covenant (Galatians 5:3). Such a teaching must be cursed and condemned! It makes Christ of no value (verse 2).

The old covenant law was slavery, Paul said (Galatians 4:24-25; 5:1; note also the “we” in 4:3), just as paganism was (Galatians 4:8). The Galatian Christians had gone from one childish slavery (paganism, with its many external rules) to another (the old covenant, with its external rules)!

When the Judaizers taught “days and months and seasons and years” (verse 10), it is likely that they taught the Jewish calendar with its days, lunar months, festival seasons and sabbatical years. Such external requirements were “weak and miserable principles”24 (verse 9), since they can never earn us salvation, nor are they required after we are given salvation. Christians should not teach that such days are required under the new covenant. [Click here for article about Galatians 4.]

How could Paul be so indifferent to something that had been a commandment? Because something more significant than the old covenant has come — something more important than manna has given us life. The old covenant worship days were shadows or silhouettes, just as the sacrifices were, and now the Reality (Christ) has come (Colossians 2:16-17; Hebrews 10:1-2). The law — the entire old covenant — was in force until Christ came (Galatians 3:25; Hebrews 9:10).

The old covenant was an administration appropriate to a carnal nation. The new covenant is administered in a different way. God’s moral law is the same, but it is administered in different ways at different times for different peoples and different purposes.

We must recognize the continuing validity of God’s law — but we must recognize that the New Testament gives us a more complete picture than the Old Testament does. We must interpret old laws from the perspective of the new situation Jesus Christ brought. The spiritual purpose of the Sabbath is still valid, but the spiritual purpose is not in the avoidance of work on a specific day.The spiritual purpose is to point us to Christ. Now that we have come to Christ, the pointer is of such diminished importance that (whether we understand its function or not) Paul can say that it is not a matter on which Christians should be judged.

The Sabbath pointed an unconverted nation to its Creator. It gave them frequent reminders of him, just as the temple and its sacrifices did. But now that the Creator is living in us, we do not need pointers in the same way. Just as we abide by the spiritual purpose of circumcision through repentance and forgiveness — completely ignoring the physical details the old rite demanded — we abide by the spiritual purpose of the Sabbath when we have faith in Christ.

We can see that a little more clearly in Hebrews 4, which we will analyze later, but the conclusion is made necessary simply by Paul’s indifferent attitude toward old covenant days. Something so significant has happened that the weekly Sabbath is no longer a matter on which God’s people are to be judged.

However, the practical aspects of the Sabbath are still practical. We still need time to worship, and we need time devoted to God. If we work without ever resting, we will most likely drift away from God and starve ourselves spiritually.

We must not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, not only for our own benefit but for the benefit of the entire community of faith. “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25). We should come to worship services prepared to encourage others, to give words of praise and thanks to the Lord.

Christians should not use liberty for self-destruction. They should not take their liberty to excess. Most of us recognize that there is great value in setting time aside for worship, time in which we do not allow secular duties to intrude, time for building family cohesion and building the community of faith.

We need to set boundaries for ourselves. This is good for our spiritual growth, and we should not recklessly abandon good customs. But the New Testament does not specify when this ought to be done, nor exactly how much time it must involve. Therefore, we cannot demand that others must do precisely as we do, and thereby judge them. Christ gives liberty not for selfish pleasures, but for service to others (Galatians 5:13). We must be grateful for our freedom and use it to build others up, not to put stumbling blocks in their way.


In summary, all the Sabbatarian arguments are faulty. We cannot prove that the Sabbath existed or was commanded before Moses. We cannot prove that it is valid simply because it is part of the Ten Commandments. We cannot prove that it is important for Christians simply because it was important for ancient Israel. We cannot prove that Jesus commanded it or that Paul commanded it. Instead, we see that Jesus consistently argued for more liberty, and Paul said that we should not judge others regarding worship days.

Of course, there is no New Testament verse that says the Sabbath is now obsolete. Instead, there are verses that say the entire old covenant law is obsolete. The law of Moses is not required. The Sabbath is repeatedly likened to things now obsolete: temple sacrifices, circumcision, showbread, a shadow. It is not a basis for judging one another, and it must not be taught as a necessary addition to Christ. Therefore, many Christians conclude that the Sabbath is not required.

If the Sabbath were a requirement, it would be astonishing that the New Testament never mentions such an important command. It has space for all sorts of other commands, including holy kisses, but no occasion to command the Sabbath. Sweeping statements are made regarding the old covenant law, but never does anyone say, “except the Sabbath.” If the Sabbath is essential, it is astonishing that no one is ever criticized for ignoring it.

Paul dealt with numerous problems of Christian living, and he lists numerous sins that can keep people out of the kingdom of God, but he never mentions the Sabbath. In describing sins of the gentiles (Romans 1), he says nothing about the Sabbath. He says plenty about faith and love, magnifying the real purpose of God’s law, but the Sabbath is not commanded.

Instead, the Sabbath is an indifferent matter. People are free to rest on that day if they do it to the Lord. People are free to use the day in other ways, too. They may work on that day, for Christ has given them that freedom. Let everyone be fully convinced, for whatever is not of faith is sin.

Nor does the New Testament tell us that any other day of the week ought to be a day of rest. Believers are free to meet on the seventh day of the week, or on any other day. Paul preached on every day of the week.


21 Gentile God-fearers would often attend synagogues on the Sabbath, but they did not necessarily observe the day by abstaining from all work. Apparently the rabbis did not expect uncircumcised people to observe the Sabbath.

22 The Sabbath is a foreshadow of salvation in Christ. In this way, the most important doctrine of the new covenant (Christ) is included within the Ten Commandments.

23 If we think that Paul is referring to special fast days, we are reading things into the text. The vegetarianism that Paul addressed was a daily life-style, not a restriction placed only on certain days. When Paul wrote to the Roman church, which contained both Jews and gentiles, and mentioned that some people think certain days are better than others, many readers would conclude that he is referring to Sabbaths in a gentle way.

24 The Greek word for “principles” is stoicheia, which refers to elementary or basic things. Just as the law was a disciplinarian that took young children to school (Galatians 3:24), it contained rules appropriate for immature children. Paul says that “we [including himself as a Jew and his readers as gentiles] were in slavery under the basic principles of the world” (Galatians 4:3).

It was an external approach to religion, having rules about what can be touched or eaten (Colossians 2:20-21). Such regulations appear to be religious, but they do not transform the heart, where real worship ought to be centered.

Author: Michael Morrison


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